As I write this, Shadowrun Online has a little under three days to go before its Kickstarter-based funding drive ends, and it’s not looking good for Cliffhanger Productions. They’re about two thirds of the way to their goal; although the pledges have really ramped up in the last week, it may not be enough to get across the line.
Shadowrun Online is, of course, based on the popular and long-lived pen-and-paper RPG Shadowrun, which has had a complicated history. First developed by Jordan Weisman at FASA Corporation (and one of FASA’s two big successes, along with Battletech), Shadowrun was licensed to Fantasy Productions when FASA closed its doors. FanPro lost the license to Catalyst Game Labs a few years later, who hold it now. Mind you, the electronic rights (that is, video games) were first spun off along with all the other FASA intellectual properties to FASA Interactive, which was then sold to Microsoft, who then produced the much-hated Shadowrun FPS. In the wake of that, Microsoft closed FASA Interactive and licensed the electronic rights to Smith and Tinker, a new company established by Jordan Weisman. (I feel I should intone “the circle is now complete”, Darth Vader-style, at this point.)
Now, I have a long-standing love affair with Shadowrun; it was the first game I wrote for professionally, back in its Third Edition era, and I’ve been playing it since University. It’s by far my favourite RPG. So seeing the Kickstarter struggling is sad, for me.
Unfortunately, it’s got a few points counting against it.
First of all, a high-profile Kickstarter for a Shadowrun video game exploded across Shadowrun fandom just a few months ago. That was back in April for Shadowrun Returns, a single-player 2D turn-based RPG from Jordan Weisman’s new company, and it did amazingly well. Over 36,000 backers, and they made over four times their funding goal – they asked for $400,000 and got $1.8 million. By comparison, Shadowrun Online has 3,800 backers and has scored (so far) about $330,000 of its $500,000 goal. It’s hard not to suspect that Shadowrun Returns has already leached out a lot of the money and enthusiasm for Shadowrun video games. (Certainly the Shadowrun fans I know are talking about SRO a lot less than they promoted Shadowrun Returns.)
Then there’s the simple fact that MMO gamers – although it feels like we’re everywhere, thanks to WoW’s phenomenal success – are only a fraction of the gaming market. There are a lot of gamers out there who don’t particularly like MMOs, and don’t want to play them. Most MMO players enjoy single-player games as well; the reverse is often not true.
Next there’s the confusion over Shadowrun Online’s subscription model. Originally the Kickstarter launched as a full free-to-play game, which of course necessitates reliance on microtransactions for funding. There was plenty of unhappiness around this, and Cliffhanger’s people put their heads together and came up with an alternative: they’d also offer a “Campaign” model, where you buy the game up-front and then pay nothing for gameplay, Guild Wars style. So as not to invalidate the pre-Campaign model pledges, they’ll be offering different servers for different game types. It’s actually fairly straightforward, and kudos to Cliffhanger for being responsive to their fans, but I suspect the sudden change created unnecessary confusion, which puts people off committing their cash.
And then there’s the setting differences. Shadowrun Online is set in the game’s “present”, in the 2070s; Shadowrun Returns is set in 2050, the setting of the earliest editions of the pen-and-paper game. That’s a huge nostalgia trip right there for long-time fans, and there’s a lot of nostalgia in the Shadowrun fanbase. The current edition of Shadowrun, 4th Edition, shook up the world and changed the playing field when it was released. 1 Although 4th Edition has done very well commercially, and was critically acclaimed, there’s a significant proportion of the fanbase who’d love an opportunity to run around in the 2050s again, and SRO just doesn’t cater to that the way Shadowrun Returns did.
Whether it’s one of these factors, or more likely a mixture of all of them, it looks like this is more of a handicap than SRO can overcome. And that’s a great shame; although I have my doubts about how well Shadowrun would fit a themepark MMO model, I’d love the chance to be proved wrong.
- For a sense of the magnitude of these changes, think of the Shattering in WoW’s recent Cataclysm expansion ↩