It’s been more than 20 years since a half-dozen friends and I played through an entire first-edition Shadowrun adventure in one awesome overnight session. And while the cyberpunk-meets-magic-and-fantasy role-playing game created by Jordan Weisman back in 1989 has evolved through several pencil-and-paper editions and video game adaptations in the years since, that night was the only time I set imaginary foot in the Shadowrun universe.
I’m looking forward to going back in 2013 when Weisman and his team of game designers at Harebrained Schemes LLC expect to launch Shadowrun Returns.
Funded through an insanely successful Kickstarter campaign – the team met its initial $400,000 funding goal in 28 hours – Shadowrun Returns will bring the old familiar deckers, ork mercenaries and street samurai back to life in a “graphically rich 2D turn-based single player game with deep story interaction, meaningful character development, and highly-contextual tactical combat.” (There are a couple days left to get in on backing the project, which has met subsequent funding goals of $1 million and $1.5 million and expanded its original parameters to include PC, Mac and Linux platform compatibility, among other developments.)
In a telephone interview with GeekDad, Weisman talked about the appeal Shadowrun seems to hold over gamers of so many stripes, his previous efforts to revisit the world, his hopes for Shadowrun Returns, and about gaming with his three sons.
Creating and enriching universes seems to be second nature to Weisman, from co-founding the role-playing publisher FASA Corporation to developing the MechWarrior PC games to founding WizKids, which produced Mage Knight and Heroclix. He also developed “The Beast” alternate reality game tie-in to A.I.
So what it is it that gives Shadowrun such staying power?
From physical augmentation of the human body to ceding chunks of societal control to megacorporations, Weisman said, “The slide into the dystopian future of a cyberpunk scenario as envisioned by many authors and in films like Blade Runner feels very plausible. And that’s kind of scary stuff. What’s interesting about Shadowrun is that it contrasts that with the inclusion of nature kind of putting up one last fight, if you will, through the introduction of magic. I think it’s the juxatpostiont between the dystopian future and the kind of hopes and ideals of magic and fantasy slamming against each other in really interesting ways.”
(I know that mix is a big part of what hooked me, from the original rulebook’s Larry Elmore cover featuring an Elven decker and a mage with a pump-action shotgun to the street proverb on page six. Say it with me, Shadowrun fans: “Watch your back. Shoot straight. Conserve ammo. And never, ever, cut a deal with a dragon.”)
Weisman began plotting his return to the world of Shadowrun a few years ago, eager to play in his own sandbox again.
“We went to Microsoft and tried to buy back the property. I wasn’t successful, but I did get a license,” he said. “So I started thinking about a very large-scale implementation of Shadowrun. And I pitched that to a number of publishers and was not successful. When we formed Harebrained Schemes, we had some conversations about smaller scale versions of it, but there were still no takers. I had pretty much lost hope of being able to do the kind of role-playing game I wanted to do.”
When Weisman was finally persuaded to take a serious look at funding Shadowrun Returns via Kickstarter, he admits that he “just didn’t think that kind of idea would work.”
And then that 400-grand-in-28-hours thing happened.
“It was very overwhelming,” Weisman said. “Enormously, emotionally overwhelming, and not just the money, but as I said in the videos, it was people’s stories that they were posting, and they were really touching. This (game) was 23 years ago, and to see how much of it is left in people’s hearts and minds – to see that kind of response made an old man feel pretty good.”
As the funding continued to come in, Weisman and his team made an effort to respond to backers’ concerns and questions and suggestions.
“One of the things I love about doing games in today’s world as opposed to doing games 30 years ago is that you do get feedback,” he said. “We’re deluged with information. It’s really engaging and powerful. That said, I’m not a believer in design by giant committee, but the general direction on things like we have been getting is very valuable.”
Describing the goals for the game itself, Weisman said “the legwork, the exploration, and the interaction with the world is going to be a key component. And then when combat does happen, we wanted it to go to turn-based so you could really have the tactical options that are offered to all the different characters in Shadowrun.”
Weisman is also enthusiastic about the cross-generational appeal of Shadowrun Returns, relating notes from fans who’ve said they’re looking forward to sharing with their kids this game from their own youth.
Laughing, Weisman recalled gaming with his own sons, Zach, Nate, and Lucas. “One of the things I learned early on is that whatever your dad does isn’t cool,” he said. “All my friends’ games were cool, but mine weren’t, so we’d play Warhammer and whatever other games they were into. The only times they played my games was in the booths at conventions when we were demoing them for other people.
“But now that they’ve gotten older, and they’ve started working on games with me … that has a joy all its own.”