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Mitch Gitelman: «What Harebrained Schemes isn’t lacking is ideas!»

09 Января 2013

Being a very original table-RPG with aesthetically perfect universe, Shadowrun for some reason didn’t succeed in taking hold in modern video games, in spite of well taken place in the industry at the first half of 90s. A relatively small studio Harebrained Schemes, run by the universe's main ideologist Jordan Weisman and industry veterans from FASA Corporation — Mitch Gitelman and Mike Mulvihill, got their approval to try to correct this either injustice or a bitter mistake. An approval of more than 35 thousands of people who chipped in more than $1,8 million (with the initial goal of $400,000) with the help of Kickstarter. Such attention and generosity towards the project and a rich history of Shadowrun universe wouldn't let us just pass this turn-based starategy game by. Harebrained Schemes co-founder Mitch Gitelman talks about  publishers from Microsoft, fragile and authentic worlds of table-RPG, retrograde charm of isometry, development’s undertime and subtlety of wide variety of rules in Shadowrun Returns.

Greetings! Please, introduce yourself to our readers.

Mitch GitelmanI’m Mitch Gitelman, co-founder and Studio Manager of Harebrained Schemes. I’ve been producing and designing games for 20 years. I also acted as publisher when I ran Xbox Live Arcade and its First Party Development studio.

Around $1,8 million with the goal set for $400,000… Did you expect something like this? How did you come up with idea to turn to Kickstarter for funding?

No, we did not expect the reaction we got. It shocked the hell out of us. I was doing a lecture when I found out we’d hit our funding goal in 28 hours. Needless to say, I dismissed class early to rush back to office to film a quick follow up video.

As to how we got the idea for the Kickstarter — our CTO, who I call «Bones», showed us the website while we were finishing Crimson: Steam Pirates last year. He thought the whole idea was really cool and had already backed one or two projects. 

One night in November around 3am, I sat up in bed, grabbed my laptop and wrote a long mail to Jordan describing a Kickstarter campaign for Shadowrun that included a documentary crew following our progress and «working in a fishbowl». It was a pretty «out there» idea at the time, so we decided to let it go.  Then in February, Tim Schafer launched his Kickstarter to an overwhelming response, validating the idea. Around that same time, Shadowrun was listed in a Kotaku.com article about games they wish would make a comeback. The stars had aligned and we started planning our Kickstarter campaign.

As I recall, after you acquired the rights on Shadowrun from Microsoft, you were having troubles with finding publisher for quite a long time because of some limitations on the license. What limitations were those? Aren't they going to interfere with releasing the full potential of the universe in Shadowrun Returns?

Microsoft has no creative or business input on Shadowrun Returns. It is a simple licensing agreement.

Harebrained ScemesWhy Shadowrun: The Awakening ended up cancelled and why did Shadowrun shooter of 2007 failed? Which part of this is Microsoft's responsibility? As far as I know, under the pressure of publisher the universe in both titles was seriously crippled and cut down, losing all of its authenticity. And we recall you defending Shadowrun (2007) from critics with persistence almost worthy that of a Don Quixote. Do you still consider the experience successful and the game underrated?

I can’t comment about Shadowrun: The Awakening as I have no insight into it. But having led the Shadowrun 2007 project, I have plenty of first-hand knowledge of the project’s successes, failures and pressures. That story could fill a book, is wildly complex, and we don’t have space for all of it here.

Although they’re an easy target for many, I will not vilify Microsoft. My bosses made plenty of mistakes but so did I. There’s plenty of blame to go around. But the thing for fans to understand is that the deviation from Shadowrun fiction was not the result of Microsoft’s creative interference. It was a byproduct of a bad situation.  But that’s in the past and I’m working hard to correct it with Shadowrun Returns.

Regarding my reaction to critics of the Xbox title, you need to understand that FASA Studio shed blood, sweat and tears to make the game. We worked incredibly hard under tremendous pressure and very challenging circumstances — again, I won’t go into the details but believe me,  by the time we finished, I was «on tilt» (as they say in poker) and not in the right headspace to be a good spokesman. I was defensive of my team and I didn’t want all our time and effort to be dismissed.

I still believe in the team and the game we made. It has little to do with Shadowrun fiction but I think it’s fun and I’m proud of it.

There is an bonus feature that lets you evacuate your team from the battle in Shadowrun Returns. Isn't it a purchaseable cheat? Do you think it's appropriate to divide the experience for those who paid more and those who parid less?

The Doc Wagon feature is still in development and we haven’t landed on its exact implementation yet. However, we don’t plan to sell a cheat for real money.

How difficult is it to mix urban fantasy and cyberpunk? There's always a risk to overdo it.

We’ll let you know when we’re done!

At first look, Shadowrun Returns follows the canons of its parent: classic races and archetypes, everything is in place. But are you planning to expand or further develop the original universe, add something new? Or do you consider something like this to be blasphemous?

We have no plans to deviate from the original universe in any significant way or add anything new. We don’t consider it blasphemy. We just don’t think it’s what people are looking for from us.  Our mission is to deliver something that feels authentic.

You promised us a wide variety of means to customize your character. How are all the combinations going to impact the game itself? How different will be my playthrough as a Steet Samurai human from Shaman troll, for example? And how can we affect the character customization during the playthrough? Is it going to be a common job switching or plastic surgery, Unexplained Genetic Expression and Human Meta-Human Vampiric Virus or something more interesting?

It’s still a bit early to answer all these questions in detail. Magic and Tech abilities are just coming online now. But I can tell you that you’ll be able to earn and spend Karma to improve your character and gain new skills and abilities. It isn’t a class-based game. We present you with character archetypes as a start but you’ll be able to spend Karma and progress as you wish, limited by elements like Essence.

You were going to tie the stories of previous Shadowrun titles (from Beam Software (1993), Blue Sky (1994) and Group SNE (1995)) in Shadowrun Returns if you get $1,5 million. Working on it? Why would you want to do it, anyway?  Isn't it going to trouble new players unfamiliar with the series? Isn't the storyline going to be confusing for those who didn't get a chance to play previous titles? And can we apprehend it as a standalone project without taking the universe into account? Shadowrun board games aren't really popular in Russia, for example.

Our goal in tying the games together was to make it feel like all the games exist in one dynamic world. Jake will make an appearance, as will Harlequin but you won’t need prior knowledge of their stories to understand our story. It’s more like a Marvel comic where an old character will make an appearance. Fans will know who they are, understand their significance and some of the references they might make to past events but it shouldn’t impede any new players from enjoying what’s going on right now.

And we never said anything about Blue Sky — don’t make more work for us!

Will there be any references to the previous Shadowrun games aside from the main storyline? Have you played any of them before you started working on Shadowrun Returns? Maybe you borrowed some of the ideas from there?

We think that referencing characters, locations and situations from previous games is fun for everyone, ourselves included. We have the original games and systems and often refer to YouTube videos for inspiration too.

The protagonist in Shadowrun Returns, who is he? Where does his journey start? What are his goals at the beginning of the game and the main goal later on?

Because you create your own character in Shadowrun Returns, we don’t have the luxury of telling you who you are like the other games did. Wish we did! It would be much easier to write. Our only device is to that a family member of one of your old friends needs your help and that’s why you’re in Seattle.

Good, bad, evil… What about the morality in the game? If I join one of the malicious corporations will I be able to take over the world with it's help? Or maybe to cast the cyberpunk yoke off of the world by cunningly maneuvering between them? What are the limitls for player to affect the world of Shadowrun Returns?

Morality and limits. That’s two separate topics.

First, it’s important to remember that Shadowrun Returns isn’t a $30m, open-world, AAA game and won’t have big features like the ones you allude to in your question. What we do offer is the ability for people to create their own stories using the editor we’re releasing with the game. So if you want to tell a story that changes the world, you’ll have a tool to do so.

Shadowrun Returns Shadowrun Returns

As to morality, our story, characters, and plot are pretty damn dystopian. Shadowrun isn’t much of a feel-good environment for gaming.

Many of our readers are especiallly interested in Russian Evo Corporation. Will it appear in Shadowrun Returns? Can you tell us about it in details?

Evo does not make an appearance in the Seattle campaign. That’s all we’ll say right now.

After the success of Shadowrun Returns on Kickstarter your friends from Cliffhanger Productions also carried out a successful campaign for funding Shadowrun Online. How close are you interacting with your colleagues on development of these two projects? How are Shadowrun Returns and Shadowrun Online related aside from the same universe of course? Is there an ability to carry your characters and/or equipment from one game to another? And why did you decide to divide the development process like that? Wouldn't it be more convinient to work on both games in one team as with the case of Stoic and their The Banner Saga and Banner Saga Factions?

We didn’t decide to divide development at all. Harebrained Schemes and Cliffhanger Productions are two separate companies working in different countries with different licensing agreements on different code-bases who had similar ideas at roughly the same time. Our projects are completely separate and take place ~20 years apart.

That said, we collaborate on the Shadowrun Universe website, chat in mail and via Skype regularly, and work together when we can. It’s a very positive relationship. You won’t have any functionality move from one game to the other but we’re both dedicated to delivering strong Shadowrun games for slightly different audiences.

Don't take it as flattery, but the visual style of the game is simply astonishing with its isometry. But isn't there going to be too much copy-paste of décor elements in the final version of the game? Or are you planning to sacrifice scale to make every area unique? And please tell us about your artists? What were they working on before joining your team?

Thanks for the kind words about our visual style. I just read that to the art team and got lots of smiles from some very hard-working people.

I’m not worried about copy-paste. We have some very flexibly-design tile sets and lots of props to use to dress up a scene. Take a look at this image of how you can customize an exterior and you’ll get the idea.

Who knows what sort of cool environments people will make when they get a hold of the editor? We fully expect to be surprised and delighted by what the community will come up with!

Oh, and I’d love to tell you about our art team! I’m a big fan of their work. We started out with Mike McCain, the Art Director for Crimson: Steam Pirates and Strikefleet Omega, Chris Rogers, our Character, Animation, and Effects Lead and Hollie Mengert, had recently joined us to do characters and backgrounds for Strikefleet Omega. Because of our Kickstarter funding, we were able to expand our character team to include Fiona Turner and Maury Weiss for modeling and texturing and Steve Rynders for technical art, including character rigging and visual effects. Rounding out the team, we’re blessed with the best bunch of interns you could hope for creating our environments!

You know, I am oftenly surprised by the deadlines developers who receive their funding via Kickstarter usually set for themselves. There is no doubt that they are experienced people and they should know better, but I just can't help but sometimes think that it's all just one of the tricks to lure in potential backers with the near release date, a kind of marketing move. Still there's a risk that we're going to get an unfinished project, not to mention that it's not very pleasing for developers to work in a 24/7  schedule. Your release date is set for January 2013… The time will show, of course, but aren't you a bit ahead of yourselves? Are you going to make it in time? Less than one year seems to be a too little for a project of such scale.

If you keep up with our Q&A videos and Developer Diaries, you’ll see that we announced that we were pushing out to May/June a couple of months ago. Our original release date was based on a game with a much smaller scope! It was top-down rather than isometric, wasn’t a 2D/3D hybrid, and didn’t have all the character archetypes and their related gameplay. It wasn’t marketing, it was just. . . far more humble. When we reached our funding goal in 28 hours, fans clamored for stretch goals and as our funding level rose, so did our aspirations.

Be honest with us, have you already thought of your next project? How about a game in Earthdawn universe in case of Shadowrun Returns success? Or maybe Crimson will set out to conquer other gaming platforms? Considering you already have a proven ground for funding your projects.

We hope to support and grow Shadowrun for a long time after release, but the answer to your question is yes, we have already done a lot of thinking about our next project. What Harebrained Schemes isn’t lacking is ideas!

Thanks a lot for the interview and good luck!

Great to talk with you!

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