Shadowrun Returns

Jordan’s Dev Diary: Power to the People

Robin HBS - 23.02.2013 2:41PM

I figured you’d seen enough of me in our update videos for awhile (maybe a lifetime) so I asked other members of Harebrained Schemes’ collection of supremely talented oddballs to write the first several developer diaries, but they kicked the ball back to me for this one.

“Pressure? What pressure?”

“Pressure? What pressure?”

Of all the games I’ve developed in my 33 year career, Shadowrun Returns is the biggest thrill. As in thrill ride. As in rollercoaster. As in completely-balls-to-the-wall-adrenaline-charged-scare-the-shit-out-of-you-and-make-you-love-life experience. Thanks for making it all happen!

When we launched our Kickstarter campaign, we had a modest game in mind (as our minimum funding level indicated) but your immediate and overwhelming financial support enabled us to expand our vision (and your enthusiastic expectations demanded that we do so). Those elevated expectations continue to this day, as illustrated by Shadowrun Returns’ inclusion in five “Most Anticipated Games of 2013” lists. It is both a great honor and weighty responsibility for our little game to be listed next to AAA games with 20 to 30 times our development budget!

When you net out all the costs of Kickstarter, Amazon/PayPal, Microsoft (for the license), the production cost of our Backer rewards, and the picking, packing, and shipping cost of those rewards, we have just under $1.2 million to actually spend on making the game – which is amazing compared to our modest initial plans but nothing compared to today’s 100-million-dollar RPG behemoths – but that’s ok because we have two secret weapons!

The first of these powerful weapons is what I call “The Infinite Resolution Rendering Engine” an incredible piece of biotechnology developed over millions of years, capable of presenting the audience such vivid imagery so real they can smell and even taste it. Yes you guessed it, it’s the gray stuff between your ears and the imagination it is capable of. We can’t afford to put everything in our imaginations onto the screen, so instead we decided to put it into your imagination via “theater of the mind”. By combining beautiful environments and characters with cleverly-integrated text, we hope to inspire you to “see” and “hear” things that we could never afford to put on your screen or out of your speakers.

Shadowrun Returns integrates text into gameplay in four ways:

  • Chapter and Scene Introductions set the context and emotional landscape for the scene you are about to play
  • In-world GM pop-ups describe the sights, sounds, and smells that your character is experiencing at this moment. For those of you who are unfamiliar with tabletop role-playing, GM stands for “Game Master” – the person charged with setting the stage and refereeing the action.
  • In-world character speech bubbles provide short quips from your characters and our NPCs, providing insights into their actions. Of course, sometimes, they’re just for entertainment.
  • Our conversation window allows you to have in-depth branching conversations with characters in the world, as well as GM narration that helps bring those characters to life. (Although we can’t animate the single tear traveling down the street urchin’s face, we can type it!)

These theater of the mind tools can be used in really inventive ways. Trevor King-Yost, one of our designers, put together a wonderful little sample game which combined an old school movement puzzle and classic text adventure using a combination of character movement, word balloons, and the conversation window. The team broke into spontaneous applause when they saw it.

Our second secret weapon is . . . YOU. Shadowrun started as a tabletop RPG in which we provided players an interesting world and rules for creating characters and stories within that world. Of course we loved to tell our own stories in that world and published lots of source materials, adventures, and novels in it but the key driver of Shadowrun’s success over the last 24 years is the creativity of its Game Masters and their players. It was a primary mission for me to extend that creative outlet to the digital world. Thus a cornerstone of Shadowrun Returns, from inception, has been to release our content development tools so that you could tell your own stories.

When we started our Kickstarter campaign, we envisioned a true top down game (like we had in Crimson: Steam Pirates) because that’s what we could afford with the budget we posted on Kickstarter. But it was clear from the first day that this was not what you were hoping for – you wanted more depth and immersion. So we decided that an isometric view was necessary to deliver what a top-down view couldn’t provide.

While I’m happy with that decision, the art and engineering involved in constructing a rich isometric world is expensive! It’s definitely added development challenges over the course of the project but we’re really proud of what we’ve managed to accomplish in our isometric game world.

Over the last eight months, we have invested a great deal of time and money into creating an editor powerful enough for us to tell the stories we want and (hopefully) accessible enough for you to wield its power and tell your stories too.

Let me take you through some of what the game editor does so you get a better sense of what you can do with it.

Building Environments

To achieve the highly-detailed and yet “painterly” look we wanted for Shadowrun Returns, we chose to combine 2D isometric environmental art with 3D polygonal characters. A key benefit of this approach is that level design becomes much simpler and does not require a 3D design tool. Both interior and exterior environments are assembled using a large set of graphic building blocks which can be combined in an infinite number of ways to create an incredible variety of both gameplay spaces and visual appeal. Beyond walls, doors, and furniture, GMs use the game editor to place character spawn locations, NPC travel paths, trigger regions, interactable objects, and scene lighting.

GM’s can use the editor to create highly-detailed interior and exterior environments and place spawn points, lights, NPC paths, and trigger regions.

GM’s can use the editor to create highly-detailed interior and exterior environments and place spawn points, lights, NPC paths, and trigger regions.

(Click to Enlarge Image)

Non-Player Character AI

When you place an NPC into the world, you select which character template you want to start from and then have the ability to customize everything about it – from its attributes and skills to its weapons, spells, equipment, and outfit. One of the key choices in this process is your selection of the character’s’ AI profile, which determines how the NPC will behave in combat. The AI system inspects an NPC’s attributes, skills, and equipment and uses them in conjunction with the chosen AI profile to decide which action to take. It brings a smile to my face everytime I see an NPC Mage throw a fireball at my characters because I had them bunched too close, making them a tempting target.

GM’s can customize the stats, gear, and AI profiles of NPC or player-controlled characters they add to each scene.

GM’s can customize the stats, gear, and AI profiles of NPC or player-controlled characters they add to each scene.

(Click to Enlarge Image)

Scene Logic

The true power of our game editor is its event driven trigger system. A trigger is an action that only happens if all its conditions are met – in other words, classic IF/THEN logic. In many game editors, this kind of logic is created with a scripting language but I wanted to avoid that because many of us storytellers are not programmers (and don’t want to become one). So our logic is created by using context-sensitive dropdown menus that auto-populate with the characters, regions and objects the GM adds to the scene. After adding them to the scene, they can be referred to in the conditions and actions of the triggers. You still have to carefully think through the logic of what you want to happen and it requires iteration to get things to work exactly how you imagine. But at least you never have to worry about syntax errors! Through triggers, GMs can cause almost anything to happen in a scene. GMs can choreograph the movement of NPCs, change their AI behaviors, change the environment, and branch the gameplay based upon the player’s actions.

GM’s can create elaborate gameplay logic using the auto-populating dropdown-menu trigger editor.

GM’s can create elaborate gameplay logic using the auto-populating dropdown-menu trigger editor.

(Click to Enlarge Image)


Character conversations are your primary way to express the depth of your story, so it was important to get it right for GMs to author and for players to consume. We started with a keyword-based system derived from the SNES game but after mocking this up and playing with it I found that clicking on a single word made me feel like I was not participating in the conversation. I felt more like I was performing an inquisition. One word at a time. It was like, “Sim-chip! Talk!”

Shadowrun has a “voice” to it, a staccato rhythm of conversation inspired by writers like Raymond Chandler and William Gibson, and that just didn’t come across by clicking a word. So we pivoted to a more traditional branching conversation tree in which players select from sentences that capture not just the facts but also the flavor of the conversation. One of the cool things this approach also allowed us to do was to integrate our triggers into conversations. That means the branches of a conversation can open or close based upon character attributes, skills, what the player did in a recent combat, what they did in a previous scene – almost anything really. Similarly, conversation choices can fire triggers that have enormous impact on the plot and gameplay.

Lastly, conversations are not just for characters. GMs can use the conversation system to make lots of things interactive. For instance, entering pass codes for doors or computers, buying a pack of cigarettes from a vending machine, or searching through objects on a desk can all be done with the conversation engine and a little imagination.

GM’s can create conversations which branch based upon scene data. Conversations have access to our trigger system and can impact gameplay in a large variety of ways.

GM’s can create conversations which branch based upon scene data. Conversations have access to our trigger system and can impact gameplay in a large variety of ways.

(Click to Enlarge Image)
With our game editor in place, the creation of our Seattle campaign is underway. We’re all psyched about the story we’re telling and, like most perfectionists, we’ll always want more time to tweak and polish it. But for me, the stories we tell aren’t what’s most important.

The real value of Shadowrun Returns is in the stories you’ll be able to tell. As a collective you’ll be able to apply a vast amount of creativity, ingenuity, development time, and community collaboration to your Shadowrun stories, and I’m sure you’ll come up with things in your stories and gameplay that we didn’t even dream possible. And I, for one, can’t wait to play it!

In closing, let me take a moment to be a proud poppa and say a heartfelt, huge thank you to the team at Harebrained Schemes who embarked on this journey with me and for their incredibly hard work, commitment to quality, and awesome ego-less collaboration. You make long the work days a pleasure!

Keep tuned as we have some real exciting stuff coming in the next couple of weeks. . .

All the best, Jordan

PS: Our third secret weapon is . . . YOU! AGAIN!

As I’ve said before, we put every dollar you gave us, and many more of our own, into creating Shadowrun Returns which means that we don’t have a marketing budget to reach what we hope are a lot more people who might like the game. So we are really counting on you to help spread the word when we get closer to launch – more on that later.