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Breaking the ICE with Shadowrun creator Jordan Weisman

by Alice O'Connor, Apr 23, 2012 1:15pm PDT

"Cyberpunk, at its core, is all about the dehumanisation of humanity," Shadowrun creator Jordan Weisman tells. "Both on the micro scale, where we start putting tons of gear and electronics in our bodies because what nature gave us isn't good enough anymore, and on the macro scale, with the disassembly of governments, and their replacement by mega-corporations that owe nothing to their citizens."

Our chat about the hugely successful Shadowrun Returns Kickstarter campaign has gotten a bit carried away. After discussing fan-funding the cyberpunk RPG adaptation and its unexpected pressures, modding, MechWarrior, and multiplayer, I gaze out my window at the London skyline, sadly lacking in glowing neon and towering blocks, and wonder why 1980s visions of a future which will never happen still draw such adoration today.

When I spoke to Weisman, the Shadowrun Returns Kickstarter had drawn $863,403 in pledges, more than doubling its $400k target. It's now coming up on a whopping $1.4 million.

Jordan Weisman

"It's been overwhelming, really, emotionally overwhelming," he says. "You toil away with your team in little crowded spaces, making stuff for years, and it's rare that you really get to see what kind of impact that's had on people. ... It's also truly frightening. Not their outpouring of passion and experience and about the game, but the pressure it gives us to not let them down. It's quite extraordinary. I didn't quite anticipate that additional level of pressure."

"You always feel pressure when you make a game," he explains, even if you're putting a lot of you're own money into it as Weisman and his wife have with Harebrained Schemes, but that's different. "If you lose it, it's 'Well I bet on myself and I lost.' But this is a different animal. I think it's not only whose money, but also the emotional component that comes with it. It almost feels like being elected President four years ago: there's no way you can win." HBS will do its best, he says, "But it's a big challenge and we're both excited and scared of it."

Double Fine's smash hit Kickstarter for a new adventure game sparked an explosion in developers looking to reach their fans directly. From Wasteland 2 to Leisure Suit Larry, old franchises and genres long-overlooked by publishers are being brought back by those who love them, followed by a second wave of new, original games from smaller, lesser-known teams.

While Weisman doesn't see it as "a titanic shift in the industry yet," noting that the combined budgets of Double Fine Adventure, Wasteland 2 and Shadowrun Returns "don't amount to a hill of beans" compared to a AAA console game's $40 million budget, he's excited about the possibilities. In particular, he highlights the success of The Banner Saga, a turn-based tactical RPG from a couple of BioWare Austin veterans.

"That to me is really encouraging, those are very talented guys, they've been in the industry a number of years, but they're not big names with giant track records. They invested the sweat equity to be able to present a very beautiful vision and people have responded very strongly, and I think that's really encouraging."

Fans take on "an additional risk" in Kickstarter projects, he says, because "game development is a path that is not universally successful. As studios have to respect that risk and do everything in our power to minimise it so that we make sure we deliver, to the best of our abilities, the game that the fans are looking for.

"I think it'll be interesting to see how fans respond when one does go bad."

$45 is the mean amount pledged to Shadowrun Returns, Weisman reveals, "which is not a giant risk but it's one less game you're going to buy this year because you bet on this game coming out. It has impact on people." If you've chipped in $10,000, as at least three people have to Shadowrun Returns, "that'll hurt a lot."

He also points out that these Kickstarters are merely pre-sales for one single game, and "if the games don't reach a larger audience than the people we've pre-sold to, then they don't become self-sustaining."

A shadowrun heats up

So Shadowrun, then. Along with all your cyberpunk favourites--hackers with keyboards strapped to their backs, megacorporations above the law, crime, filth, vice, mirrorshades, and razors springing forth from fingertips--the pen & paper RPG first released in 1989 has a magical twist. In 2011, so the story goes, magic returned to the world. Elven and dwarven babies are born to surprised parents (with orks, trolls, gnomes, vampires, and other fantasy fare to come), dragons re-emerge, and people find themselves developing magical abilities.

This, Weisman says, was to provide an "interesting counterpoint" to the aforementioned cyberpunk dehumanisation of humanity, "something that is all about humanity and nature." The more Shadowrun spellcasters technologically augment their bodies, the less in touch they are with their magic. "It became this shining edge to the dystopian cloud of cyberpunk, that maybe through the perseverance of nature, as personified by magic, there was a way back from this hell that we had created."

Shadowrun Returns is set in the universe's 2050s, during the era of the P&P RPG's Second Edition, where the tech is still pleasantly low-tech and chunky. "As an inadvertent prognosticator of the future, I'm pretty proud of the number of things we got right, but missed a couple of big ones, like the concept of being wireless", Weisman said.

While some technology is anachronistic and I'm beginning to think I'll never get my hand razor augmentations, there's a lasting appeal to the images and ideas of cyberpunk. And though we're not jacking into the Matrix, we're still managing to become estranged from ourselves through technology, creating idealised avatars as we share ourselves in online communities and social networks, I say.

"They're not more human, they're a surrogate," Weisman responds. "They're a way of creating tiny, at the moment very stupid, android versions of ourselves to interact with... To an extent, it's 'I don't have time to talk to you, so talk to my avatar instead, and I'll get back to you.'"

"I think it's interesting that for many years in the 90s it was like 'What's the killer app for the Internet?' The killer app for the Internet is real life. The Internet is there to help you have a better real life, not to replace real life."

Having indulged my cyberpunk dreams, we return to the nitty gritty of Shadowrun Returns. As in the pen & paper game, you'll get to be a shadowrunner, engaging in acts of sabotage, murder, and other messy business for corporations or governments who'd rather keep their hands clean.

It'll follow an "anthology" format, with several authors writing related chapters of an over-arching story. While Weisman makes clear it won't be a sandbox game, he says there will be room for a little branching.

"Admittedly this is a space we're still charting out, but I do believe that a good RPG at its core has to be a branching structure. You have to be able to give the player the ability to explore, both physically as well as emotionally, different directions that they might take."

Harebrained Schemes hopes to offer multiplayer, perhaps "a PvP mode for deathmatch arena play, or cooperative RPG play." It won't be in at launch, but the engine is being built to "to allow us to expand in that direction," he explained. "We got very excited and I mentioned it in a video and then we sat down and realised in the time frame and realistic budget, even that we were starting to see the fans might extend us to, it would stretch us too thin to commit to that for launch."

What is confirmed is an editor. While it is purely an editor, not a full mod kit, Weisman believes it'll give users "quite significant" powers to tell their own Shadowrun stories. You won't be able to import your own assets, but can repurpose the stock art to your own ends.

The game will be in 2D, but Harebrained Schemes is still working on an art style to evoke its "retro history" without scaring away new players. "We want to make sure that we capture that essence without being dated," Weisman said. "That's a fun challenge, but also one that we know will take several iterations to get right."

Hackers, or 'deckers' to use the lingo, won't dive into the full virtual reality of the Matrix during missions, but will they add their unique technical perspective to the situation, an idea very important to Shadowrun. "I wanted to get across that we do all view the world through the prisms of our own experiences and our own skills," Weisman explained. Taken to the extreme, "To a carpenter, the world is just a series of things to figure out how to solve with a hammer."

"Can we really present those worldviews in a way that the player gets to add up all of those into one cohesive piece and make different decisions, both tactical and emotional, based upon the information that they've gathered through all these different worldviews?"

If all the talk of decking, orks, dragons, elves, hand razors, and the Matrix is a bit overwhelming, fear not. Deep data archives are coming in a new Shadowrun website covering the RPG, Shadowrun Returns, and the turn-based Shadowrun Online from Cliffhanger, but you won't need to study up to follow the game. "We don't want to stop the game for a huge long exposition on how a wendigo became a wendigo," Weisman said. It's an ork (or hobgoblin, ogre, oni or satyr) infected with the Human-Metahuman Vampiric Virus, if you didn't know.

"If you know what a wendigo is, you'll have an extra layer of knowledge about that character. If not, then it's a scary fucking thing you should deal with now. You'll deal with it more on a surface level but we want to make a game that rewards deep fans' knowledge but doesn't require a player to have that level of knowledge to have fun in the game."

This isn't the first time Weisman has worked on video games based upon properties from FASA Corporation, which he co-founded. His last company, Smith & Tinker, licensed the game rights to Shadowrun, MechWarrior and Crimson Skies, which were owned by Microsoft since it bought FASA. His first try, MechWarrior, didn't go nearly as smoothly as Shadowrun Returns.

"I put together a design doc on it, and an approach to the property and the market and how I wanted to handle it. We were not successful in raising the funds that we needed to do the game from publishers, primarily due to the platform restrictions of the license. It didn't allow it to be on any platform except for Xbox, PC and mobile. To do the big-scale game, publishers felt they needed to be on a minimum of two platforms."

After this failure, though, developer Piranha Games rallied and came back with the free-to-play MechWarrior Online, which is due to launch at the end of this summer. "It's very true to the original Mech games of the 90s, but brought up to enormous fidelity," Weisman said, having last played it a month ago. "I was really impressed by what they've done, and am really looking forward to it."

Mechs are also stars of MechWarrior Tactics, a turn-based affair closer to the BattleTech tabletop wargame MechWarrior is based upon. "It's the most true version of the original boardgame I designed 30 years ago I've ever seen," he said. "That was exciting to see, and I hope finds a new audience. Underneath the skin there is every rule of that original game."

Weisman also teased that he's hoping to do something with that third FASA property, the dieselpunk air-pirate game Crimson Skies.

"I'm in discussions with them about that. I'm hoping that we can bring that back to life as well. That era and that story are one of my favourite that we came up with and I'd love to be able to go back and tell stories in that world as well. But I don't want to bite off more than we can chew right now. First comes Shadowrun and we want to make that great, and then we'll figure out where to go after that."

After all my blather, does Weisman have one golden anecdote, one shining moment, he could share to concisely explain the wonders and complexities of Shadowrun to newcomers? Of course not. Instead, he offers two of the ideas that became touchstones when designing the pen & paper RPG. The first is elven biker gangs, pushing the "inhumanly gorgeous" image of the James Dean-type biker to truly inhuman levels. "And the long-lived nature of them could be fun, because that 'easy rider' thing takes on a whole new meaning when you can do it for a couple hundred of years."

The other was his response to the fantasy trope of wizards being unable to use swords: "Fuck it, give 'em an Uzi."

You still have five days to pitch in with the Shadowrun Returns Kickstarter. Pledging at least $15 will get you a copy when the game's finished.





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