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Q&A: Learning from Shadowrun Returns' Kickstarter success

Shadowrun Returns was the highest-pressure game of Jordan Weisman's long career. Here's how he was able to pull it off successfully, and how you might be able to do the same.

Kris Graft, Contributor

July 29, 2013

8 Min Read

If you’re not familiar with the name Jordan Weisman, you’re likely familiar with his work. Weisman is co-creator of game franchises such as BattleTech, Heroclix and Shadowrun. A serial entrepreneur with a love for designing games of both the digital and pen-and-paper variety, Weisman has founded companies including FASA Interactive, WizKids, 42 Entertainment, Smith & Tinker, Harebrained Schemes and others. On July 25, Weisman and Harebrained Schemes launched Shadowrun Returns, a Kickstarter RPG that launched as a $400,000 campaign, but ended up at $1.8 million. Weisman said over email that this was the highest-pressure game project of his entire career. But working directly with fans has also made it rewarding.

The Kickstarter campaign hit its $400,000 goal in its first day, then hit $1.8 million in the end. How did you spend that extra money, and how did your studio reconfigure and adjust to accommodate that extra funding? If a campaign gets excess funding, how should a game developer handle that?

Jordan K. Weisman: It was an amazing and very emotional experience during the Kickstarter campaign as the fans opened not only their wallets, but their hearts, writing really touching emails and posts about how the various versions of the game had impacted their lives. As the backer funding climbed, so did our expectations, and the audience’s expectations for the title. So while the scale of the topline funding went up by almost a factor of five, the expectations went up even higher. I mention “topline” in regards to the money raised, because what most backers -- and many crowdfunded studios -- don’t really think about is the difference between the money raised and the resulting development budget. In our case the deductions were: Kickstarter and Amazon's share, Microsoft’s royalty, the production cost of all the physical rewards (books, t-shirts, boxes, dog tags, etc.), and the cost of picking, packing and shipping all those rewards. When you add all that up it represents over 35 percent of the money raised. At the time of the Kickstarter campaign, the total studio headcount was only 10 people, which would have been fine for the much more modest Shadowrun game that the $400,000 represented, but nowhere near what the team needed to execute the expanded vision. Over the last year we have grown the studio to a total of 35 people, including full-time employees, interns and contractors. Building a team is alchemy. You may convince yourself it’s a science, but it’s really magic. And having to scale a team to over three times its original size while under a very tight timeline and budget was a real high wire act which I would not recommend doing if you can avoid it. Mitch [Gitelman] and I have been running studios for decades and so we should have known better then to attempt it -- but with the quality and dedication of our team members and some luck we pulled it off.

It was a little over a year between the end of the campaign and your launch. That seems...quite efficient, despite a minor delay. What's your advice to independent studios who are working towards a deadline for a crowdfunded game?

JKW: In the scale of video game development, our budget was very small and we felt that while our backers were amazing, their patience would not be infinite, so for both reasons we knew we needed to move quickly. We embraced a very agile development methodology which really worked due to the extremely collaborative nature of our studio. We had some pretty solid, larger design goals established, things like capturing the essence of the pen-and-paper mechanics, player character creation with a high diversity of character archetypes, team based tactical combat, and most importantly powerful [user-generated content tools. But the thousands of decisions needed to realize those goals were mostly worked out in real time over short sprints and with high iteration to allow us to attempt something, and then quickly rev it until it worked the way we wanted it to. This process means that scope is constantly changing, most often downward, but not always, as the team constantly identifies things that were not considered previously, or that need to be reconceived. The biggest example of that is how we approached the Matrix. We felt that we did not have the budget to “do the Matrix right,” so had early on decided on an abstract mini-game to represent the Matrix and we communicated this to our backers. But after several attempts at that abstract mini-game had failed we finally bit the bullet and implemented a real Matrix experience.

What do you feel were the key components to your campaign's success?

JKW: For the best chance of large scale success in crowdfunding: First design a time machine, travel back in time to create a game that becomes very popular, then return the present and have the fans of the original fund a new version. In other words it is the one case in the industry where being old is a benefit. Of course, that only applies to the multi-million dollar category, and even then there are some examples to the contrary. In addition to, -- or in lieu of -- being old, I think that the key elements of a successful crowdfunding campaign are: 1) Present a clear and compelling vision for what you want to create. This is likely going to require investment on your part in order to be able to show people what you are talking about -- both how it looks and how it plays/works. 2) Establish your team’s credibility for executing the vision. Beyond your previous credits and experience, it’s important that the potential backers get to know you and your team -- after all that is who they are betting to deliver. 3) Do your project planning so you know what is going to cost to execute that vision. 4) Do your homework so you know the costs of production and picking, packing and shipping for the rewards you intend to offer. 5) Promote your project in target communities before you launch the crowdfunding campaign. 6) Over-communicate to your audience. 7) Say thank you personally to as many backers as you can.

What are some of the biggest mistakes you see crowdfunders make?

JKW: The three biggest mistakes I see crowdfunders make are: 1) A presentation that doesn’t clearly communicate the vision and/or doesn’t give the audience a connection to them as people. 2) They don’t know enough about how much it cost them to develop their game. Recently I have seen potential backers not backing projects because they didn’t think that the project was asking for enough money to really do what they said they were going to do and this undercut the backers’ belief in the team’s credibility. And if the team was unlucky enough to get the money they asked for then they and their backers are really screwed -- unless the team can find the additional funds needed to finish the game. 3) They didn’t do their homework on the costs of producing or fulfilling their rewards and thus end up with a lot less money for producing their game.

What's next for Shadowrun Returns, and how will this direct relationship with your audience play into that? In other words, Kickstarter opened the discussion with your audience, how will you continue that discussion?

JKW: The direct involvement with our backers and fans has been wonderful -- and made Shadowrun Returns the highest pressure game I have ever worked on. When you are working with an investor’s money or a publisher’s money, there is always pressure to produce a great game, but you know that your game is part of a portfolio and that the investor or publisher knows that most of the portfolio will either not ship at all or not do well and that will be made up for the part of the portfolio that does a extremely well. A crowdfunding backer is not playing a portfolio -- they are backing your game because you’ve inspired about that game. They are betting on you and only you to not let them down -- and you have to take that responsibility very seriously. There is no such thing as free money and this is true of crowdfunding as well. Beyond all the costs discussed above there is the very real cost of maintaining a dynamic and positive relationship with your backers throughout your development and after the release of your game. This relationship is worth investing in because you get great feedback about the decisions you are making during development, not just after ship as the case is normally – and because they can provide much needed morale boosts as you slave away making your game for them. As for what’s next for Shadowrun Returns, the majority of the team is working on the Berlin campaign, which was a stretch goal of the original Kickstarter campaign, as well as the Linux port and some localizations. We have also announced a new Kickstarter campaign that will launch in September for a new game called Golem Arcana. This new game is a tabletop board game that uses a stylus we invented to allow a mobile app to directly interface with the game’s board and figures. Being that I come from tabletop games having founded FASA and Wizkids, I’m really excited about Golem Arcana and to see how the crowdfunding audience responds to funding the creation of not only a new game universe, but a whole new way to play games. Golem Arcana is a bit of a left-turn after Shadowrun Returns, but after all we did call the company Harebrained Schemes.

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