Interview: Jordan Weisman Of Harebrained Schemes (Shadowrun Returns)

Interview: Jordan Weisman Of Harebrained Schemes (Shadowrun Returns)

Shadowrun has been around since its inception back in 1989. A fantasy world set in a dystopian, cyberpunk future where humans, orcs, elves, trolls, dwarves, and many other sub-species co-exist. Cybernetics, magic, mega-corporations, and cyber-crimes are all part of the norm, setting a perfect playground in which many have spent countless hours immersed in the hundreds, upon hundreds of various media for more than two decades.

The man responsible for bringing this imagined world to life is Jordan Weisman, an American game designer, author, and entrepreneur who looks set to bring the Shadowrun to the forefront yet again. Along with his talented team at Harebrained Schemes, the studio was able to amass a record amount of funding through Kickstarter to produce Shadowrun Returns, a sequel twenty years in the making.

Jordan was gracious enough to set aside some time out of his busy work schedule to chat with us about the Shadowrun franchise; the evolution of the brand over the many years, his feelings on Kickstarter, and its after-effect, as well as what fans can expect in Shadowrun Returns. He’s very open and candid when talking about what is very much his livelihood, so take a moment and plunge into the world of Jordan Weisman and Shadowrun.

Hangie: The first thing I wanted to touch on was the Shadowrun franchise as a whole. I know it’s taken a few years to get it up and running for the sequel (Shadowrun Returns). For people that don’t know what Shadowrun is, are you able to give us a bit of a background on it?

Jordan: Sure, so Shadowrun was originally created as a pen and paper role-playing game twenty-three years ago which I published at FASA, a company I started in 1980. It was a unique kind of mix of fantasy and cyber-punk that used the concept of the Mayan calendar and the projected “end of the world” as the rationale for how magic ebbs flows from the Earth, which is what I projected the fifty-two-year long cycle to be about. It came out as a pen and paper RPG and at this point, almost one hundred novels, hundred of game supplements, action figures, and many, many things later.

Along the line soon after release; because it became popular very quickly in the RPG circles, there were SNES and Sega Genesis computer RPGs that were done under a license which members of my team helped work on, and; and those were critically very well received, and then it laid dormant for a while.

When I started FASA Interactive, we started working on a Shadowrun game that never really saw the light of day. When Microsoft acquired the company, that project got put on hold and then years later Microsoft did; what started out to be a big RPG with a lot of first-person shooter components, and ended up just a first-person shooter, and that brings us up to today.

Hangie: Touching on the SNES version of Shadowrun. That for me is probably the defining Shadowrun experience in terms of putting together a video game component that’s cyber-punk, very RPG, but very different for its time.

Now you worked with Beam (Software) and Data East to get that game out there and even though at the time it didn’t sell as well as you’d imagine, over the last say, twenty years; it’s been one of those games that’s kind of stuck around and people of my generation still remember fondly of this rare gem that sits in the Super Nintendo archives. Did you ever imagine it that would be sticking around, even twenty years on?

Jordan: Well you know when you make games; I guess it’s true when you make any kind of entertainment or art, you never really know what the lasting impact is going to be. You hope it touches people and inspires them in creative ways but you don’t ever really know. We had a great time working on the game. The Beam guys, were based there in Melbourne (Australia) and I enjoyed going there and meeting with them; and working with them. They were really good guys, they really knew their business. Together, we reach some really cool ideas and I think they were a little ahead of their time and certainly as you said, very favorably looked back upon, so yeah… it’s a high bar that we’re attempting to hit with this (Shadowrun Returns) all these years later; to take the same kind of inspiration and update it to modern capabilities of PC and tablets, and do that on what is a pretty small budget.

Hangie: With Shadowrun on SNES, it had a very unique dialogue-driven type of narrative where you collected keywords that progressed the story along. How did that idea come about? I mean, at the time there wasn’t really that type of idea behind RPGs.

Jordan: It’s true, that was really innovative and unfortunately my memory isn’t good enough to remember where the idea originated. It was very unique and it’s something we want to build on now. I think one of the great parts about it was that it made you feel very involved in the conversations. The downside was; that as you got very late into the game, if you were a completionist, you felt you had to click on every keyword to hear, just in case they might know something about it which can get kind of tedious towards the end. We’re trying to address that and take the keyword system concept one step further allowing you to interact with it in a more unique way. But as you say, it was very innovative and hopefully something we can build upon.

Hangie: About the Shadowrun game that came out on Xbox (360), the Microsoft release that was a first-person shooter. When I first heard about it, I was really excited.

You know, a Shadowrun title coming out after so many years, and then, when it turned out to be a first-person shooter, it was a bit of a letdown. Was that the same type of feeling you had, or were you kind of, “at least it’s still a Shadowrun title”?

Jordan: Well, I left Microsoft many years earlier and so was not involved in the decision-making of it. The sad part to me was, that there was a lot of really solid game design work in there, some very innovative takes on a first-person shooter, it just isn’t really Shadowrun material. If you divorced it from Shadowrun itself, I think it has a lot of really interesting and unique gameplay.

Part of what happened was when the project first started, it was intended to be a big story-driven RPG with a dynamic kind of first-person shooter afterward, so I’ve been told. But then that whole front part got cut and all that was left was the shooter. The authors on the game kind of didn’t pay enough attention to the Shadowrun canon, to make it feel connected to you know, Shadowrun which is kind of a shame. I think if they put that game out underneath its own name (different name) as opposed to Shadowrun, it would have been very well received.

Hangie: When you were considering a sequel for Shadowrun, I know you pushed for a top-down isometric design. When that wasn’t taking any shape or form, and knowing that the publishers weren’t so keen on a top-down kind of game, were you thinking about other areas? Not first-person shooting, but not from that original Shadowrun design.

Jordan: Not for the game we wanted to make. (For) one, if we were funded by a publisher, it was going to be a smaller scale project and two, for the kind of very story-centric game we wanted to create, that top-down… initially it was a straight top-down; and then we shifted to an isometric that gave us the ability and intimacy into the world and kept the production budgets at a scale that was feasible for us.

Hangie: This relates more to the special edition of Shadowrun Returns that you announced on Kickstarter. The USB dog tag idea, I thought that was kind of an interesting concept having the game in that kind of design and packaged in that way. Is this something that the team came up with, or was this something between you and Mitch (Gitelman)?

Jordan: Umm.. actually it came about during the Kickstarter campaign when fans were looking for something more physical for the delivery of the game and we wanted to do something more unique so I started trolling around and found a manufacturer who could make those for us and I thought, “that would be very Shadowrun-NY and very different”, so that was what we went with. The response to it was really wonderful.

Hangie: I had a read around about people’s opinions on the Kickstarter (campaign). You get a lot of fans like myself who read Kickstarter but don’t necessarily back a lot of Kickstarter projects. There were a lot of people who, when they heard about Shadowrun Returns; it was the one project that they backed. Knowing you have such a huge fan base, umm… how come it took twenty years?

Jordan: *laughs* Well it’s interesting because the Kickstarter thing was emotionally overwhelming for me because I tend to live in my own little bubble making games and I’ve been doing it now for almost thirty-three years, and you don’t really realize the impact that you have like we were talking about on the SNES. You kind of make things and you go on and make the next thing and you don’t realize sometimes the impact that it has on people.

Kickstarter was the first kind of venue that allowed us to talk to the fans directly in the sense of, “can you help us make this?” I mean, obviously, I’ve been going to conventions for a very long time and you’d meet fans there but in small numbers. It’s very different here in this forum where all of a sudden there are forty-thousand fans, and they are all talking about their experiences of Shadowrun and putting out a lot of financial support and a lot of emotional support, and it was quite overwhelming.

Hangie: One of the aspects that fans talk about constantly in terms of Shadowrun itself, the one thing which a lot of people just love about the game was the music, the SNES version; the Sega version. Umm.. getting Marshall Parker (SNES composer) and Sam Powell (Sega composer) involved. What was that like? How did that happen?

Jordan: Well that again, I think is one of the things we liked about this process; was the fans were able to express some of the things that had the biggest impact on them and the music was clearly one of them. So, you know hearing that; we turned around and said, “Well, let’s see if we can find those guys!” and we tracked them down and both of them were excited to work on the new version, so it all came together very quickly, but it was a direct response to the fan’s passion about the music.

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