Harebrained Schemes

Shadowrun creator Jordan Weisman wants players to be authors with Shadowrun Returns

Shadowrun creator Jordan Weisman wants players to be authors with Shadowrun Returns

Shadowrun is what happens when you mix Blade Runner with Lord of the Rings: it's a cyberpunk neo-noir universe that explores concepts of trans-humanism, an individual's soul interfacing with technology, and the dawn of a new age. Shadowrun also adds elves, orcs and dragons to the mix. As the original tabletop RPG nears its 25th anniversary, two video game adaptations are preparing to launch thanks to successful Kickstarter campaigns. This week, we'll be looking at three Shadowrun properties: Shadowrun Online, Shadowrun Returns, and the original Shadowrun tabletop RPG. Today we look at Shadowrun Returns. The year 2012 is surrounded by premonitions and prophecy. Will the sun explode? Will nuclear war destroy us all? Will the magnetic reversal of the poles crumble mountains? Will the Rapture wash over the planet? Jordan Weisman says none of the above. In the fictional world of Shadowrun, which he created 24 years ago, 2012 marks the beginning of “the Sixth World.” This is an era in which magic returns to Earth, awakening dragons, as well as elvish, ork, troll, and dwarven genetics. Now, in the actual year 2012, Weisman is coming back to the franchise he helped spawn with Shadowrun Returns. As in Weisman's universe, there's a kind of magic coming back here, though it's not other-worldly; these are real-life fans coming out of the woodwork to dedicate time, money, and stories to Weisman and his team at Harebrained Schemes.

The pressure of success

Shadowrun Returns is the single-player counterpart to Shadowrun Online, and conceptually the two are quite similar. Both feature archetypes from the Shadowrun tabletop game, both are turn-based, both are presented in an isometric view with 3D character models. Weisman's Kickstarter project started at a relatively meager budget: $400,000. Weisman says that with Kickstarter and PayPal donations combined, the budget for the game has exceed five times the original estimate. That's partly why the two have such similar features; the original concept for Shadowrun Returns evolved from a top-down perspective to an isometric one, from 2D models to 3D ones, from one city to two, and so on. It sounds encouraging from the outside, and many of these changes are from fan feedback, but Weisman says the increased funding brings an increase in pressure. “One of the things we're wrestling with is that funding went up 500%, but expectations probably went up several thousand percent. In reality, this is still a very small project in the scale of video games,” Weisman said. “Our goal is to meet or exceed as many of those goals as we can, but we live in fear of it constantly.” One of those goals, the ability for players to author their own content, was especially important to Weisman. “Back in the day when it was just pen and paper, you'd meet people at conventions and they would tell you their stories and their games. Now that we have this wonderful 'Interwebs,' you know, being able to read everyone's campaigns and the games they've played, the fiction they've created, the fanfics, the fan art, that kind of stuff is just so cool.”

The end of one world is the creation of another

Weisman wants Shadowrun Returns to be the vessel upon which the fans can build and share their stories. Although the use of the content creation tools will be limited to PC and Macs, authored content will be accessible on any of the game's other platforms, like iOS and Android tablets. Weisman stressed that the creation tools shouldn't be thought of as a modding engine. “The way that we've designed our system, it's kind of like LEGO blocks,” Weisman told the Penny Arcade Report. “You can build an enormous number of things with the tilesets we're putting out. So people can build their own buildings and their own streets and their own interiors; a huge variety of different things.” “Characters kind of form the backbone of the game, so you'll be able to design the stats of the characters and the look of the characters, be able to write the dialogue for the characters, as well as being able to place characters into the environments created and dictate how they behave. Our goal is to do all that without any kind of scripting language, so we keep it very open. Because, you know, scripting is sometimes very difficult for people. There's a lot of syntax, things like that. So this is going to be kind of… you'll have an enormous amount of power, but through drop-down menus.” Weisman said it was surprising for him to see content creation taking place 22 years after he left the license. He wasn't sure many people still cared. “To see the fans, not only the financial outpouring, but the stories that they sent in during the Kickstarter of how they played the paper game, or the SEGA game, or the Super Nintendo game, or the novels, or whatever it may be, and say how it impacted their lives, those were really overwhelming. For an old guy like me, it was really emotional,” he said. Weisman's approach has been more collaborative than it has any right to be. Suggestions from the community have sparked graphical overhauls, mechanics discussions, and the game's creation suite has always been a must-have feature. Weisman told the Penny Arcade Report it wasn't even an option; it had to be done. The game's music will be produced by the same team that created the soundtrack for the original Genesis and SNES titles, another accommodation made at the behest of the fans. “We tracked down and reached the composers for each of those games and said 'Would you like to work with us on this new one?' Both were excited to do so,” Weisman said. “That was totally in response to the audience telling us how much they love that music and how important that was to them.” Even those who've funded the project have found a cozy, permanent place in the universe. Weisman and author Malik Toms co-created an episodic tale, titled “Nothing but Fluff and Smoke,” which featured several backers and personalities that had made themselves known via the Shadowrun Returns Kickstarter page. Shadowrun Returns is a great example of letting players play with the world, instead of simply in it. Weisman is inviting everyone to take part in bringing Shadowrun back, and it looks like the community is up to the task.