Written by Whistler 1st November 2014      

So back in the July of 2013, Hairbrained Schemes’ exploded onto Steam with their digital interpretation of Shadowrun, a role-playing tabletop franchise that is steeped in lore, mythos and cyberpunk glory.

Shadowrun Returns  quickly gained various favourable reviews and was only then smashed by the success of the developers, Harebrained Schemes’ expansion, Dragonfall.

The studio comprised of several industry veterans such as Jordan Weisman and Mitch Gitelman to name but a few and recently I got myself a chance to interview the previously mentioned, Mitch Gitelman himself.

Whistler: So for those that didn't or haven’t yet heard of Harebrained Schemes or Shadowrun Returns, how did you guys come about and create one of the, dare I say it, best RPGs of recent years?

Mitch Gitelman: Wow, thanks for the compliment! We certainly didn’t set out to create the “best” anything. We just loved Shadowrun and wanted to bring a “genuine” version to digital gaming.  

Harebrained Schemes is almost 4 years old now. I was consulting with Bungie on their mobile strategy for Destiny at the same time that Jordan Weisman was planning Crimson Steam Pirates – a mobile game that Bungie wanted to publish. Pete Parsons (Bungie’s COO) figured that with our 20 year history together we’d probably be the right team to deliver it. About halfway through development, we realized that we were meant for each other and Harebrained Schemes was born.

Jordan and I had been talking about Shadowrun for years but the timing was never right and we were busy building our company. When we saw the opportunity that Kickstarter had created for indie developers we started talking about it again. A few weeks later, a publisher we were working with told us how much he wanted to create a Shadowrun game in the same week that Kotaku posted an article about the games they wish would make a comeback and Shadowrun was on the list.

We looked each other in the eye, made the decision to go for it, and never looked back.

Whistler: While I’m sure many of us can take a guess at how you must have felt once your Kickstarter had succeeded but what was it like developing a crowd funded game?

Mitch Gitelman: The entire Kickstarter experience was incredible. I can try to describe it but it was a moment in time that will never be repeated. Kickstarter and Double Fine Adventures disrupted the way that games were being funded and created and we were part of that giddy first wave of excitement. The Kickstarter for Shadowrun Returns was one of the single most exciting things I’ve ever been a part of. The positive energy and outpouring of emotion from the fans was palpable and affected us deeply through development.

All we did was stick our toe in the water, asking for $400,000 to make the modest little game we’d conceived of. BAM! We were fully-funded in 28 hours and loving, supportive demands for stretch goals washed over us like a tidal wave. By the time the campaign had finished, we had $1.8 million dollars and a LOT of work to do.

It was chilling to the bone. Besides the requirement to create a good cRPG from nearly blank hard drives, we had to do it “in a fishbowl” with everyone watching, AND do our best not to destroy the wonderful childhood memories many of our Backers had about their personal Shadowrun experiences.

The emotions were high and the team crunched HARD for 14 months to deliver. Luckily, the Shadowrun Community was incredibly generous and supportive, which buoyed us during the hard times. Backers sent us pizza dinners, breakfast bagels, and lots of positive energy. It is a very different experience to make a game that you KNOW people are waiting for. A lot of times, you only have hope. We did our very best on Shadowrun Returns and – given our funding level, the time we had, the huge task of creating, manufacturing, and shipping Kickstarter rewards while keeping the audience updated and entertained and oh yeah, making the game – I am still extremely proud of our team and of our first story, Dead Man’s Switch.

But we knew we could do better.  So we kept listening to our audience and started making plans for Shadowrun: Dragonfall.

Dragonfall was where we took our storytelling to the next level. The plot was less linear than the first, the characters were more fleshed out, and the narrative provided players lots of dark, dark gray choices that you can only find in Shadowrun. The positive response to Dragonfall, and now to the Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director’s Cut has been phenomenal – in a way, it’s like the Kickstarter all over again.  

Whistler: How did you approach translating what is such a complex player driven table top game with a rich lore and mythos into a video game medium?

Mitch Gitelman: I think there were two sides to it.

Jordan was the creator of Shadowrun and the vision holder for Shadowrun Returns’ gameplay. He worked with Mike Mulvihill (the line editor for the tabletop game’s third edition and a senior designer at Harebrained) to design just about every feature in the game to ensure that the mechanics *felt* like Shadowrun. That’s the design side.

But mechanics don’t bring a game setting to life. Mike McCain (the Art Director on Dead Man’s Switch and Game & Art Director of Dragonfall) and Chris Rogers (Character Lead on Shadowrun and Art Director of Golem Arcana) created the look and feel of the world and the characters. Jordan was also the architect of the Dead Man’s Switch story and wrote the first draft of most of the key scenes. I established the tone of the narrative and dialogue and wrote most of it while working with our Audio Director, Alistair Hirst, and our composers to get “the Shadowrun sound”.  

That’s at the highest level. A lot of talented, passionate people worked very hard together to deliver a “real” Shadowrun experience and I’m very proud to work with them.

Whistler: These days a lot of gamers don’t seem to enjoy text heavy games yet many of us enjoyed the flavour of text in SR, what was it like combining a rich narrative with an engaging world?

Mitch Gitelman: Fun as hell.

I don’t believe a lot of us have a lot of practice using our little gray cells this way anymore and it’s a shame. Lots of games try to be “immersive” by following the tropes the film industry has established. We’re a bit more old school.

But Shadowrun is an RPG born of the tabletop where players absorbed the world background and major characters through the printed word – either in sourcebooks or novels. People who play tabletop RPGs know that theater of the mind can surpass anything that Hollywood or AAA developers can produce.

One of our goals in creating a Shadowrun cRPG was to give players the feeling of being guided by an expert Game Master. The kind many of us were lucky enough to play with in high school and college. They way to do this was to be constantly “in the moment” as we developed the story and dialogue, constantly asking ourselves what we or our friends would do or say if we were sitting around the table playing the scene. In other words, we role-played.

Whistler:  I personally loved the grey moral line our runner’s will tread throughout the course of SR, what was it like giving the player so many moral choices while not resorting to the paragon vs renegade system other RPGs tend to do?

Mitch Gitelman: Hard. And a lot of work.

Dead Man’s Switch was a nice gray but Andrew McIntosh, (Dragonfall’s primary writer) really took it up a notch, creating the deliciously dark, dark gray choices many people have reacted so positively to. Andrew, McCain, and I aren’t big fans of mechanics-based-morality. It makes sense in a Star Wars inspired setting but in a dystopian future like Shadowruns’, I think it makes the world feel cartoony and flat. It also makes it hard to role-play your character because your choices are being visibly judged by the computer program rather than just existing in your head interpreted by the only person who matters - you.

Whistler:  Now I must admit I don’t know much of the Shadowrun universe but was Deadman’s Switch or Dragonfall based on an existing story or were these entries written from scratch?

Mitch Gitelman: Both stories had their genesis in the Shadowrun sourcebooks. In Deadman’s Switch, Jordan attempted to weave a story based upon events in several different novels and sourcebooks as well as the SNES and Sega games. In Dragonfall, which takes place in Berlin, we had only the one Germany sourcebook to go on. We were lucky to work with the good people at Pegasus, who publish Shadowrun in Germany, to help keep us authentic and on track.

Whistler:  I’m sure many of your fans including myself were pleased with the additions and improvements that came along with the Director’s Cut especially to get if for free no less, but how did this Shadowrun Returns standalone come about?

Mitch Gitelman: Again, by listening to our audience. They felt that the story of Dragonfall could stand on its own and wanted even more agency. They wanted to help Glory play her story out and have other personal adventures with the other teammates. They wanted more choices for how to handle their antagonist at the end of the game, including the ability to take his side. And there were lots of suggestions about improving our tactical combat. We love our audience because they’re as passionate about the game and our stories as we are. We figured that these additions and improvements will add up to an even better foundation for telling more Shadowrun stories in the future, if we decide to tell them.

Whistler:  Now you can’t blame a guy for dreaming but I was wondering if with Shadowrun Returns, considering how player driven the table top was, if you guys have ever considered or are considering implementing Co Op into future Shadowrun Returns’ installments?

Mitch Gitelman: Oh, we’ve definitely considered it. Jordan and I talk about it often. I’m not sure how a text heavy game like Shadowrun would play with lots of people all reading at once and at different speeds.

Maybe someday. Not now.

Whistler:  So what does the future hold for us with Harebrained Schemes and by extension Shadowrun, will we see more of the Shadowrun Return games/expansions or are there plans to move onto the next big project?

Mitch Gitelman: The #1 question that Shadowrun fans and our Kickstarter Backers ask us is, “When are you going to tell another story?” and I can tell you that we’re actively exploring that right now. The Shadowrun setting is absolutely *overflowing* with great story ideas and we would love to tell another. Who knows? Maybe there’s another Kickstarter in our future? The best place to keep updated on Shadowrun news is http://harebrained-schemes.com/shadowrun/

Whistler:  Anything you would like to add or say to the readers?

Mitch Gitelman:

To the readers who play our stuff: Thank you for caring about the games that we pour our time, effort, and passion into. All we want to do is entertain people and make an honest living doing it.

To the readers who haven’t played our stuff yet: Harebrained Schemes is a group of people who make games for the love of it and who respect & appreciate their audience.  We know there’s a lot of competition for your gaming time and hope you give Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director’s Cut and Golem Arcana a try.



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