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Jordan Weisman looks to the past for Shadowrun's return

For Jordan Weisman, returning Shadowrun to its roots is crucial for his upcoming fan-funded revival, but as our world has changed in the last 20 years, his challenge is to adapt the series' grimy vision of the near-future.

Eric Caoili, Blogger

April 20, 2012

7 Min Read

Veteran game designers have had notable success funding their new game projects in recent months, thanks to Kickstarter. Tim Schafer began the trend after raising $3.3 million on the crowdfunding platform for a new adventure title, and since then it's been difficult to keep track of all the seasoned developers finding success on Kickstarter. So it's hard to believe FASA/Microsoft veteran Jordan Weisman, the father of beloved series like MechWarrior and Shadowrun, when he tells us he was genuinely surprised that his Kickstarter campaign for a Shadowrun revival picked up the $400,000 it was looking for in a single day. "I'm a pessimist by nature," he explains to Gamasutra. "You hope your work has had impact on people. You hope that people continue to have fond feelings and appreciate the stuff you've done. But you don't really know. How relevant is it? I teach at University of Washington, and none of those kids have ever heard of any of the games I've ever made." The lack of interest from any companies to fund a new game for the cyberpunk series -- which has remained dormant since Microsoft's divisive 2007 first-person shooter -- added to Weisman's doubts: "Over the last five years, I've talked to publishers about Shadowrun a bunch, and we just couldn't get off the ground for it. "We kind of had the same response. Individuals at the company would be like, 'Oh, yeah. I'm such a big fan of that.' But then they'd talk to the marketing company who would be like, 'Well, the Q Score [marketing measurement of popularity and appeal for a property] is like zero, so forget it.' Or the platform restrictions, or whatever it might be. So, if it wasn't for Kickstarter, this thing would not exist." With $1.2 million in pledges and eight more days left to raise money on Kickstarter, Weisman and his Seattle studio Harebrained Schemes (Crimson: Steam Pirates) will soon begin development on Shadowrun Returns, a PC and tablet turn-based single-player game that promises a return to the series' focus on story interaction and character development. Returning to Shadowrun's 16-bit classics Nearly 20 years have passed since Shadowrun's video games last delivered on those core values with Beam Software's SNES RPG and BlueSky Software's Sega Genesis release, both cult classics and completely different titles (while Group SNE released a Sega CD game that never released outside Japan, an unofficial fan translation is underway). Roaming around the open world of Shadowrun for Genesis Those games dropped users into a dark, urban dystopia that was unlike anything else on consoles at the time, filled with shamans, hackers, megacorporations, vampires, cybernetically enhanced street samurai, and all sorts of guns for hire. Though they were limited adaptations of the pen-and-paper RPG Weisman helped create in 1989, the games captivated players nonetheless thanks to clever writing and their ability to capture the franchise's grimy setting. The news of a Shadowrun revival that revisits the series' roots is especially exciting for fans of those old titles, as neither of the games have seen a re-release for modern consoles. But that's not due to a lack of trying on Weisman's part; he points out that rights transfers and the closures of those games' developers have made re-releasing them difficult. "It's a matter of tracking them down," he says. "We've actually been trying to track down the [Data East / Beam Sotware] SNES title because we would love to be able to in some way offer that to the fans. We'll see where that goes, but I certainly don't want to make any promises about it because we need to find out who owns it at this point. "But we're working on it. I think it is just, so far, lost in that change of title. And then there will be finding ways of being able to adapt it. So, there's some hurdles there, which I think is why it hasn't happened so far. We're trying to see if we can figure that out. But again, it's complete pie in the sky." For now, Harebrained Schemes promises to deliver a special Shadowrun Returns mission that ties together the stories of the SNES and Genesis games, provided that the Kickstarter campaign eventually reaches more than $1.5 million in pledges. Modernizing Shadowrun's vision of the future This new project is meant to be more than just a return for the series; it's a return to the ideas that the last Shadowrun game abandoned. Weisman feels that the Xbox 360 and Windows title, which was developed as an online-only first-person shooter instead of a single-player RPG, took way too many liberties with the story and mythology of the universe. Weisman's goal with Shadowrun Returns is to capture the essence of the old video games, which managed to communicate the property's setting despite their graphical and audio limitations. At the same time, he wants to infuse into the project what the industry has learned about game design during the last 20 years, while also adapting the game to how our world has changed. A promise from Shadowrun (SNES) that's gone unfulfilled for 19 years "Going back and thinking about how we treat the world, to maintain its edge but yet stay true to the original vision from years ago, is going to be a fun challenge," he says. "The interesting part about getting really old is that you can look back at the stuff you wrote as science fiction and realize that it's come to pass." He adds, "I mean, the whole concept of creating the game for an Android tablet in addition to PC and Mac is to realize is that back when I [wrote the Shadowrun pen and paper game], these devices were science fiction, right? They were so much science fiction, that even my science fiction didn't include them. I wasn't projecting that far. "Do we leave the anachronisms in there? There isn't any WiFi in the original setting; everything had to be physically jacked in.... We have a lot of situations like that. I mean, we projected part of the edge that Shadowrun had in the beginning is really how people are getting tattoos and piercings. That was going to be so out there. Well, that's so not out there. That's today, now." Shadowrun's other return In addition to the PC and tablet game, another developer, German firm Cliffhanger Productions (Jagged Alliance Online), is working on its own game after licensing the property with Shadowrun Online. It's a free-to-play browser game that Weisman says will focus on multiplayer player-versus-player and scenario-based maps. "They're approaching the game and the universe in a slightly different way," he notes. Weisman adds that while Shadowrun Online is a bigger budget title due to its online multiplayer infrastructure, Harebrained will focus its smaller resources on Shadowrun Returns story, and helping players tell their own stories with a level editor. "We're spending our money in different places, and I think it will result in a different game," Weisman adds. "I think you'll have a Venn diagram of players who overlap a lot, and there are going to be players who prefer one style of the universe versus another." He's also working with Cliffhanger to see if they can connect their projects' storylines and potentially their assets. Cliffhanger's Shadowrun Online, releasing with an open beta in early 2013 Addressing worries that one return for Shadowrun will dilute the impact of the other, Weisman says, "I think the products we're offering are different enough that we're not concerned about that. And there's also going to be several months between the release of our games as well. I don't think we'll see a lot of marketing confusion about it." Cyberpunk vs World War II Even though the franchise has shipped four video games, released several editions of its pen-and-paper game's core rulebooks, and published dozens of novels, Weisman hasn't yet grown tired of the series yet, and still feels compelled to revisit the world to tell new stories. "I'm patting myself on the back, but it's a great venue to tell stories in," says the developer. "Because of the diversity of the characters, and the world itself is a character. It holds up kind of moral complexities. ... I think from a gameplay standpoint, the diversity of play pattern is so large. "It's unlike, let's say, World War II or some setting where you've got a relatively narrow bandwidth with how different your characters behave, how differently they see the world. In Shadowrun, you kind of have this conflict of four realities all laid on top of each other. That's really powerful from a game standpoint and a story standpoint. That's what keeps drawing me back."

About the Author(s)

Eric Caoili


Eric Caoili currently serves as a news editor for Gamasutra, and has helmed numerous other UBM Techweb Game Network sites all now long-dead, including GameSetWatch. He is also co-editor for beloved handheld gaming blog Tiny Cartridge, and has contributed to Joystiq, Winamp, GamePro, and 4 Color Rebellion.

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