The lights are on
While Kickstarter has been around for a while now, many of the video game projects successfully funded through the website have yet to see the light of day. Not so the work of Harebrained Schemes, the team that recently released Shadowrun Returns on PC, and more recently iOS, to largely positive reviews and feedback.
We asked executive producer Mitch Gitelman about the game, its inspirations, and his response to critics of certain game features. Check out his answers below, and if you’re interested in what Harebrained Schemes is up to now, don’t miss the chance to contribute to their current Kickstarter, Golem Arcana – a surprising amalgam of digital and tabletop miniature gaming set in a rich new fantasy universe.
The Shadowrun universe has always drawn on a number of inspirations across science fiction and fantasy; were there any particular sources of inspirations for the Dead Man’s Switch campaign?
Without a doubt. We definitely took inspiration from the tone of Raymond Chandler, the writer of The Big Sleep and the themes and art direction of film noir classics such as The Maltese Falcon. As the architect of the story, Jordan dove deep into Shadowrun fiction and found inspiration in several older books such as Nigel Findley’s novel Lone Wolf.
Although several people contributed to the story and dialogue, especially our Art Director, Mike McCain, I was personally inspired by a YouTube video created by one of our Kickstarter Backers. It really helped me focus my writing.
Shadowrun Returns seems to draw strongly on the combat model seen in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. What appealed about that system? In what ways do you feel that Shadowrun Returns is different from XCOM’s approach to battles?
Our original idea was to base our tactical combat on the original 1994 XCOM because we believed that our players would want that level of tactical control. As we started playing it, we found the pace to be slower than we were comfortable with, and with the additions of features like rigging and spirit summoning, it felt a bit “finicky”. That’s why we needed to embrace the newer, more streamlined approach.
Mechanically, Shadowrun Returns is very similar to XCOM: Enemy Unknown until you get to the special abilities of the character archetypes and the ability to start with an archetype and grow your character any way you want. In addition, we added a complex story and conversations with interesting characters.
If you had another several months of development time before release, what features would the team have focused on to develop and/or improve?
On the engineering side, without a doubt, our save game system. From a content perspective, we would have liked to see more optional shadowruns. There’s always more you want to tweak but those are the two big-ticket items.
Some have criticized the game’s approach to tutorials and teaching new features to the player. Is it a challenge to balance in-game tutorials against the desire to keep players involved and moving forward in the story?
It is a challenge. There are excellent games out there that blend their tutorials with their narrative seamlessly. There are others where you feel that you need to wade through the b.s. justification for going a step at a time. Shadowrun Returns has been praised for its writing and for getting its tone right. The combination of time, budget, and our focus on getting the tone and story right caused us to prioritize tutorials this way. Plus, the game has a very old school sensibility about it and our tutorials are no exception.
Harebrained Schemes is a relatively small independent developer, but RPGs are traditionally very large and complicated games to develop; are there particular corners you have to cut to succeed in the endeavor?
Again, I’d prefer to say focus scope rather than cut corners. Although our Kickstarter was very successful, we still ended up with a very small budget for an RPG when you take away Kickstarter’s cut, Amazon’s cut, Microsoft’s cut, the Backer rewards, and shipping costs. Many game projects suffer from bloated budgets or major schedule slips – and as you can see, Kickstarter game projects are no exception. We felt very accountable to our Backers and although we put in some of our money and extended the schedule to account for our Kickstarter Stretch Goals, we knew we had to be ruthless in scoping our feature set.
We knew we needed to focus hard on the most important elements – being true to Shadowrun, telling a good story, fun tactical combat, and allowing you to create and grow your character. Many computer RPGs contain features like loot drops, but the essence of Shadowrun isn’t about that. It’s about playing your character and uncovering a dangerous mystery. So when it came time to hone our feature set, decision-making was relatively easy. Except for our save game system. That was a tough one.
What response do you have to players who feel that the campaign is overly linear for an RPG?
I refer to your earlier question. Harebrained Schemes is a small studio working with a small budget and made a good looking RPG with a classless character creation system, fun combat, and a decent story in about a year and priced it at only $20. The games we’re being compared to often have 10-100 times the budget and team size and sell for as much as $60.
But my most important response is that we invested enormous time, budget, and effort to create an editor that allows people to unlock their creativity and create their own stories which players can download from Steam at no extra charge.
I am very, very proud of the team and our accomplishment.
Shadowrun Returns harkens back in its style to the CRPGs of the 90s. What is appealing about this style of game that you might not get from many modern games?
Once upon a time, people were patient enough to read and allow their imaginations to be part of the experience. Many modern games make me feel like a passive consumer, sitting through cut scenes and letting the entertainment wash over me. Although the voice acting in modern games is excellent, I want to imagine what the character I’m talking to sounds like. And I don’t want to hear my character’s voice, either. I want him to speak my dialogue choice the way I imagine him speaking it.
What are your hopes for how Shadowrun Returns will continue to grow in the coming months? What plans does the team at Harebrained Schemes have to add to the game, whether in the form of gameplay patches or new content?
We just released the iPad and Android tablet versions, and we’re supporting them and the PC and OSX versions of the game. The beta of our Linux version of the game is imminent. And our next update is almost complete. Beyond bug fixes, we’ve added some new features to the editor that our community of game masters should really like.
Most importantly, we’re working on our next story of roughly the same scope as Dead Man’s Switch, which takes place in Berlin. We’re very excited about it. Here are our main goals for the Berlin campaign:
• A more flexible main story arc – choose which runs to complete first, and which factions to complete objectives for
• More depth to the NPC runner characters
• New weapons, outfits, portraits, music, and enemies – including more magical creatures
• Improved Physical Adept gameplay – along with additions for some of the other existing archetypes
• A European city with a very different look, “vibe”, and cast of characters
• A story that highlights the compelling themes of the Shadowrun: Germany sourcebook
Shadowrun has a long history as a fictional universe, and a couple of you have had an equally long history in being a part of developing that fiction. What makes Shadowrun a world you still like returning to after so many years?
For me, it’s about the depth and breadth of the setting, coupled with its roots in the real world. I like adventuring in Seattle rather than "insert fantasy city here". It grounds me and makes my actions feel like they have gravity. I like that Shadowrun addresses real-world issues like poverty, bigotry, unregulated corporate power within a sci-fi/fantasy environment. Many characters in Shadowrun are based on popular tropes but with an ironic modern spin and real depth.
I’ve said this before but I love this example: In the tabletop game, I created a Jewish dwarf decker who was ostracized by his family and thrown out of the house. His family wasn’t upset that he was a dwarf or was “Awakened”. Their problem was that he had installed cybertech into his body a – they saw that as an affront against God. Now, he was living on the streets making money hacking security systems to whoever would pay or shelter him. You only find that in Shadowrun.
What have you heard from the Shadowrun community since release? Any particular things they’re demanding to see next?
Of course! Several members of the team interact with our community on a daily basis. We love them. Most are very helpful, constructive, and supportive and do their best to understand the challenges of game development. It’s a pleasure to deliver entertainment and tools for them. As for demands, they want better save game functionality, they want Linux, they want updates to the editor and they want Berlin. We intend on delivering it all.
Email the author Matt Miller, or follow on Game Informer.