Interview: Jordan Weisman talks Shadowrun, BattleTech, and what keeps him going

No dragon dealings required to enjoy this.
Visionary designers have been building universes and complex rulesets long before computer RPGs rose to prominence, offering quality escapism to thousands of fans. Jordan Weisman, now the CEO of Harebrained Schemes, was at the forefront of it all and his imagination helped shape the Shadowrun and BattleTech universes, among others. Over three decades later, he's still fighting the good fight, this time concentrating his efforts on the digital arena, where his games have migrated.
The recent Shadowrun trilogy arguably stands as the most acclaimed video game iteration of that universe, earning the affection of its Kickstarter backers and many new fans who appreciated the strong narrative and compelling mechanics on offer. As Harebrained Schemes have already transitioned into BattleTech positions, we caught Jordan Weisman for a quick chat about his RPG background and the challenges of bringing his brainchildren into the digital world.
Oh, and if you're looking for a more detailed look at the upcoming BattleTech video game, don't forget to check out Jordan's recent interview with Gamasutra.

Shadowrun isn't the only cyberpunk setting out there, but it is one of the most beloved. So what do you think defines Shadowrun and makes it stand out?

JW: I think it was that Shadowrun mixed the cyberpunk meta-theme of the de-humanization of humanity and the destruction of nature with the optimism of nature reasserting itself via the return of magic and all the flora and fauna that comes with it. Where as cyberpunk can become a monochrome of gray Shadowrun became a universe of vivid contrasts with everything from mage wage-slaves to troll biker gangs.

What were your main inspirations and goals when designing the setting back in 1989?

JW: I was really into the cyberpunk books of the era and starting working on a cyberbook RPG, but Mike Pondsmith beat me to it with the publication of his Cyberpunk game so I knew I needed to look for a twist. After some months I was reading about the Mayan long count calendar and their mythology of a new world every 5,200 years and all of sudden it came to me that maybe the Mayans understood that magic ebbed and flowed from the Earth and that it was going to return, just in time to create a very different cyberpunk environment :)

When transferring this complex universe from pen & paper to videogame format, what were the greatest challenges you had to deal with? Did the adopted medium help you take Shadowrun further?

"Since there is nothing more powerful than a great gamemaster at the table with you, I don't think that the video game allows us to take things "further" but it does allow us to make the game experience more accessible and visual."
JW: Tabletop Shadowrun is based upon buckets of dice, not a core mechanic that transfers well to video games. So we worked out all the math and then presented the chance of success to players as a much more accessible percentage. Since there is nothing more powerful than a great gamemaster at the table with you, I don't think that the video game allows us to take things "further" but it does allow us to make the game experience more accessible and visual. The reason we included the level editor was so that everyone who wanted to could tell their stories in addition to ours.

Do you feel like you're done with Shadowrun after that trilogy blitz or can we hope to get another entry in the foreseeable future? If so, how would you like to see the series evolve?

JW: You never know what the future holds, but for the moment we are totally heads down on finishing BattleTech.

Public feedback is a force to be reckoned with these days - especially for crowdfunded projects like the ones you've been involved with. What role does it play in your development process?

"It used to be that you created games in the equivalent of secret bunkers so no one knew what you were working on [..] Now it's more like developing games in a glass house. "
JW: Our experience with our backers and our fans has been incredibly positive, but you're right that there is an impact. It used to be that you created games in the equivalent of secret bunkers so no one knew what you were working on and you had no idea if people liked what you were working on. Now it's more like developing games in a glass house, we are in constant communication with our backers and fans and get immediate reactions from them which helps us guide development.

After Shadowrun, you now get to work on your other beloved brainchild, BattleTech. If you had to pick two important similarities and two main differences between these games, what would they be?

JW: Well besides the giant stompy robot things :) Shadowrun is a story driven RPG with tactical combat where as BattleTech is a tactical combat game with story and RPG elements.

Between tabletop, pen & paper, and video games, you've been in the field for almost 40 years now! Any crazy stories to share? What's the thing that keeps you going?

JW: Ok I am old, but not quite that old :) I have had the enormous pleasure of professionally making tabletop and video games for 37 years now. There are too many crazy stories to share and if I did so I wouldn't have time to make the games. What keeps me going? The same thing that started me out all those years ago: I love telling stories in which the players are the heroes and heroines, and I love working with diverse collections of people to make those games and universes come to life.
All three Shadowrun games are up to -80% in our RPG-oriented Weekly Sale.
BattleTech is scheduled for release later this year.