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Shadowrun Returns brings back one of our most original & cherished game settings as a 2D turn-based RPG for tablets & PC.
Shadowrun Returns brings back one of our most original & cherished game settings as a 2D turn-based RPG for tablets & PC.
36,276 backers pledged $1,836,447 to help bring this project to life.

Jordan's Dev Diary: Power to the People

Posted by Harebrained Schemes LLC (Creator)

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.

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.

(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.

(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. 

(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.

(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. 


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    1. RC on

      Gonna be @ Emerald City Comic Con #ECCC on 3/2/13? Jordan Weisman will be in the Gaming Room Noon-1pm! For a #Shadowrun Returns Sneak Peek! (Events have to happen before they can share them with us, Chummers - don't worry HBS will keep us informed!) ^_^

    2. Med on

      Sounds and looks amazing! I really can't wait until it is done!!

    3. Missing avatar

      Sovem on

      Fantastic update! I'm so excited for this game!

    4. Missing avatar

      Karl Malm on

      Only 1.2 mil and we have to use our brains? CURSES! If only we'd thrown a few more millions at you we could have continued resting on our laurels. And we could have outfitted you all with your own mini-arcologies.

    5. RC on

      Hoi Patrick!

      On the Shadowrun forum, Mitch replied to a similar question. The answer was no, but you should check out the rest of the intel HBS is sharing in the HBS Developer Q&A forum at ^_^

      Ja Mata!


    6. ☆Umbrae Soulsbane☆ on

      Just had a chance to see the screenshots of the toolkit. Looks a lot like the Bioware Aurora Toolkit for NWN1: well with some modern improvements. Can't wait to get my hands on the final product! Great job!

    7. Torment- The Enduring Exile on

      I second Patrick's question as well, as a programmer, can I go directly to the scripts and edit them by hand? Also are we going to see any debug tools? Programmers add bugs. Debuggers remove them.

    8. Missing avatar

      Eric Schwarzkopf

      Thanks for the update, Jordan! Looks like everything is coming along nicely. I'm very happy with the direction you're taking: Create something like a great book which stipulates the imagination instead of a hollywood blockbuster that provides easy fast food for you to consume - the latter is much less satisfying and often it does more harm than good to think while watching a movie...

    9. Missing avatar

      Chris King on

      Wow! I'm very excited by the direction this is taking. The games that have stuck with me for the longest time are the ones that use evocative writing to convey mood and story. I still remember Planescape: Torment much better than games I've played far more recently. It's also a very smart move for nurturing a broad and strong mod/story creation community; just compare the still-vibrant scene for games like Baldur's Gate with the sparse mods for Dragon Age 2.

      I am curious: will Harebrained release any style guides for story creation? I've read the novels and played the games so I have a decent feel for the sound of the dialog, but it would be helpful to see any notes Harebrained has on writing authentic-sounding Shadowrun content. That would help fan creations feel more cohesive with the official campaigns.

    10. Missing avatar

      Patrick on

      "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."
      That's a great benefit of the non-programmer type designers out there, but does this logic get converted to a scripting language in the back-end, and can we edit that directly? Just looking out for us power users beyond what dropdowns let us do :)

    11. Missing avatar

      TheJTrain on

      This is looking absolutely fantastic and I can't wait to see more! This might actually get me trying my own hand at designing an adventure, but regardless, I'm anticipating great things from the SR community!

    12. Phil Jefferson on

      That editor's looking really promising - excited to see what people make with it!

    13. Peter Jacob on

      Interesting. Thank you for the transparency. Knowing a 1.8 mil gross leads to a 1.2 mil actual game budget is both distressing and humbling. Looking forward to it guys. Stuff like this goes a long way towards removing the fog of war between gamers and game development.

    14. Sven Stähs on

      Can't wait to play it :D And I hope you'll start another kickstarter for an Expansion Pack when the basic game is done, there are still some cities left I am sure you can tell great stories about ;)

    15. Missing avatar

      Andris Kovalevskis on

      These "photorealistic" and fully voiced AAA titles do nothing for me. I've been missing text based games. Thanks to S:R and W2 they're coming back. Also, looks like my days of trying to make a Shadowrun game using RPG Maker are over soon! I could not even dream of such a tool as this. I am happy.

    16. Stahlseele on

      This looks more and more like a Fallout-Clone . .
      I still say this should have been done YEARS ago!
      Just take the Engine from Fallout: Tactics, add in Matrix and Magic and change the rest to an Urban environment and it would have been good already . .

    17. Dan Spezzano on

      Has there been any updates on the status of the kick starter rewards like the t-shirt or doc wagon cards etc. I understand the art book and sound track are probably not ready but what about the rest of it?

    18. Brandon Smith on

      I'm thrilled to death to hear you talk about engaging the players imagination and that makes this the most important game of 2013, in my opinion.

      To many development studios are chasing "photo realism" but when you study art history and look at the most famous artists of all time, how many of them were photorealists? Many of them could DO that, if they chose, but it's very early on in an artists career that they realize that capturing the essence of life and the spark of reality takes entirely different skills than photorealism which frequently looks lifeless and dead. It's why Pixar movies look and feel so much more real than, say, Transformers 3.

      Way to go fellows

    19. Missing avatar

      Sergio on

      Sad to hear that you are dropping the keyword system, I think it's a lot more engaging since it requires the player to think for themselves which topics may be appropriate for the situation. Branching trees narrow choice too much, and can make many things too obvious, there's no real need to pay attention anymore.

    20. J.R. Raith on

      Oh man those tools look SO. GOOD. Super flexible without being too obtuse. Just what people like us need. :D I'm so glad I backed this one -- the game's shaping up to be really great and I'm getting really, really excited. :)

    21. Lost-brain -Obsidian Order Dark Goddess on

      Very interesting update. I'm very excited about the dialog's new orientation, I never liked keyword's system.

    22. Patricia on

      Awesome update yet again. Love your guys enthusiasm, where you guys are heading with this & a heartfelt thank you to you all for all the hard work & effort you’re putting into this game. & when the time comes to advertise SR:R, you can certainly count on me doing everything conceivable to spread the news & get the word out there ;)

    23. CosmicMeeting on

      Probably the most interesting and personal developer notes I've read so far from any project. Didn't even play the first game, but this project is shaping up to be the most exiting of all on Kickstarter. Great work and good luck! :)

    24. Julian Bertozzi on

      A great update. Looks fantastic and can not wait to see how it looks in action.

    25. Alexander Dietrich on

      Nice update, that editor looks pretty intuitive!

    26. Darklord on

      Nice! Really great update, soooo will it be out soon? :-D

    27. twincast ~ Mangy WoOS-DOoD Mage

      @Max: Well, the engine (Moai) *is* out there. As far as their toolset goes, might be they could work something out with the Moai guys for commercial products, dunno.

    28. Missing avatar

      Ben W on

      You guys have been my gaming inspiration ever since I was 14, of course I'll dig right into this, and advertise the crap out of it.

    29. Max Ziebell on

      Wow. That feels like a great intersection between the pen&paper, text based old school and imagination enhancing tabletop! Locking forward to it… this engine would be great to build RPG-type games. Ever thought about putting it out there apart of Shadowrun to build complete games?

    30. Laurent Maire on

      Wow. I had pretty reasonable expectations for the narrative possibilities of SR:R, from the creators of the original PnP, but this far exceeds what I was imagining. The depth and flexibility of the tools you're outlining here clearly lay the groundwork for a reactive world and living breathing stories!

      Fantastic update. Thanks Jordan and thank you the HBS team.

    31. apocraphyn on

      Aww yeah, Jake Armitage in the NPC AI screenshot!!

      Man, after having read all the talk about both Shadowrun and Wasteland having complex, branching dialogue paths...I'm feeling incredibly happy with my pledges, as well as the general state of the world :D Hooray!

    32. Federico on

      Thanks for your hard work and passion! We too care much about this game and can't wait to play it!

    33. J.R. Riedel on

      Nice. The tools look promising thus far. I look forward to getting access

    34. Daniel Bryntse on

      You've got some fine looking tools there!
      Almost makes me want to take up modding, but as usual I'll probably just reap the work of others.
      Oh bow!

    35. Micah Figone on

      Super excited for this!

      Did you guys send out the rewards survey yet? Just wanted to make sure that I didn't miss it.

    36. Adam Sherman on

      I don't know what to say...but...Hurray Shadowrun!

    37. peshk on

      If you know the costs of the rewards and all, does that mean we won't be able to up our pledge? I thought it was only a matter of time we could upgrade via paypaö or something like that.
      Please make that possible for those of us who had to pledge low but could upgrade now.

    38. Missing avatar

      Zhivko Yakimov on

      I think the decision to go for an entirely clause-based editor is great. I don't particularly mind scripting, but it does put an entry barrier, limiting the number of potential storytellers. If you remember Age of Empires II: Age of Kings, it had a similar editor in concept, and it still leads the way with thousands of scenarios and chronicles, extending the game's life by years. I think this is a great approach, and I am very enthusiastic to see the final version.

      One idea - not many people are prohably going to use this, but why don't you consider adding the option of voicing dialogue? I mean, it will be nice if you could attach a sound file to each line. It will be a lot of work to put voice over, but there are always enthusiasts who may take the time to do it.

    39. Mark Jenks on

      Wow.. what an update.. Consider the word Spread. :)

    40. Douglas Burton on

      When I first pledged to support this I really didn't have high expectations. I was simply a fan of Shadowrun and was interested in even the simplest form of a computer game for Shadowrun. Now that I've seen what you all have planned and where your going with this, I'm so freaking excited! I truly cannot wait to play the stories you create and look forward to experiencing the awesome stories that I'm sure the community will be putting together.

      You all have made me a believer that this project will be great.

    41. Missing avatar

      AstralWanderer on

      "When you net out all the costs of ... the production cost of our Backer rewards, and the picking, packing, and shipping cost of those rewards..."
      Any chance of a more detailed breakdown of those costs? (e.g. DocWagon cards, USB sticks, books, T-shirts). Aside from pure curiosity on our part, this info could be of help to other Kickstarter projects in deciding how to set up their reward systems.

    42. Missing avatar

      Andrew Crystall on

      In your scenario editor, have you considered adding a (potentially keypress-triggered) view which shows the links between objects? That is, if objects are linked together in logic, you would see a link between them in that view. It's highly, highly useful for tracking logic through a level for debugging!

      (Background - game dev, LOVE visual editors like this, waiting to hear if I can get a PhD related to them, actually)

    43. Pete Yagmin on

      If this game is even simply equal to the SNES version (which I still play) I will love it like my own child!

    44. twincast ~ Mangy WoOS-DOoD Mage

      Well, color me ecstatic. I love every single tidbit in this update. Truly great work, everyone.

    45. Missing avatar

      Erick on

      Thanks for the update!

      As far as the imagination goes, text-heavy games like the former Shadowrun titles and the original Fallout games have been among the most - if not THE most - atmospheric games I've ever played.

    46. Marty Czosnyka on

      Super excited, any word on when the editor will be available? I know I'd personally love to start coding my own runs for when the game hits =p

    47. Nick Garcia on

      Seriously, wow. The editor looks fantastic and I can't wait to get my hands on it and start creating some adventures!

    48. Cipher- Weaver of lost dreams on

      I personally don't mind when Jordan talks (and gets sidetracked in videos. This game is shaping up well, if some of the team are camera shy how about doing it in pod cast form? I first got in to the shadow run setting though the novels. it might be out of scope but I hope there is some spoken dialogue say on the level of buldurs gate just enough to convey the major players in the campaign. if cost is an issue there is a thriving voice over community that do things for nest to nothing (for exp). just throwing it out there.

    49. Missing avatar

      Morley K on

      Fantastic work! Looking great!