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Kickstarter and Game Development: Highlighting Games Coming to Linux Part 4

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By now, most people following this series will be well aware of what Kickstarter is, and what it could potentially mean for Linux and the gaming community as a whole. Project Eternity, Wasteland 2 and Folk Tale are all great examples of high quality projects using the Unity 3D engine and have taken to crowd funding their games. Today, I talked with Executive Producer Jan Wagner who has perhaps one of the most challenging assignments. Not in terms of technology, but rather Jan has chosen to attempt to translate a Pen and Paper RPG into the digital realm. As you can imagine this is no easy task. Shadowrun Online must balance digital game play ease, while at the same time maintaining the spirit of the Pen and Paper experience. How does Jan describe SRO? Continue reading to find out!

SRO Background

Steve: For those who don’t know, what is Shadowrun online?

Jan: Shadowrun Online is a cross-platform tactical turn based RPG set in the world of Shadowrun – one of the most successful pen and paper RPGs of all time. Set in a dystopian near-future, a world where cyberpunk meets magic and mega corporations have become independent states. Imagine the magic and creatures of Lord of the Rings crashing at full speed into a dystopian cyberpunk future in the vein of Blade Runner! In the 2070s of our world, dragons are running mega corporations, Amerindian braves battle it out with Ork street gangs over turf, elf hackers glide through the all-encompassing matrix and cybered up street samurai face toxic spirits in the rubble of ruined streets.

Steve: Can you describe the evolution of SRO? How did Shadowrun evolve from an pen and paper to an MMO?

Jan: Well, any MMO in some way has roots in pen and paper RPGs. And Shadowrun is a very unique setting and having evolved over 20 years as an RPG brings in a wealth of possibilities and background any MMO would dream of. When we were looking for a setting to place a tactical RPG in – and we wanted a setting with guns, so tactical doesn’t just mean running into the next target and clobbering it- Shadowrun was ideal. It has all the trappings of modern day games with an extra layer of magic, RPG and sheer awesomeness. Plus, I always wanted to play a Troll with a big-ass gun. SRO isn’t a typical MMO, it is more like one of the old PC RPGs such as Fallout or Baldur’s gate but playable with or against your friends as well as in single-player, so in some ways it is closer to a pen and paper session, which you enjoy with your friends, not on your own.

SRO Technology implementations

Steve: What technologies will SRO be distributed via?

Jan: We haven’t finalized that yet, but we plan to cast our nets as wide as we can- Steam is definitely a goal, direct download and browser are also a given. Remember we also want tablet versions and OUYA, so this is another possible distribution channel as well. The game can be played across any device we support – and any channel that allows us to do so is interesting to us. We don’t want to go with exclusive and restricted distribution platforms, as this would go against what we envision.

Steve: Why a browser based game as opposed to standalone clients? What will be the client side requirements?

Jan: For us, browser has become just another way of accessing the game, same as client or tablet. Of course they all have specific requirements, but really why should I as a customer be limited in accessing my game by a device? The good thing about turn based and online is: We don’t need the latest graphic card or an 8 core machine to run the game. We will have a 3D isometric style game, which doesn’t require high-end graphics to be fun. The same goes for turn-based games, frames per second (fps) is much less of an issue here. A lot of the computing power also is moved to the server in online games, so we don’t need a client. NOT needing a client means fewer access barriers to players – not everyone is willing to create an account with steam for example, download game for 20 minutes etc. – browser means: Click on this link and 10 seconds later you can start your game. The minimum specs for the hardware aren’t final yet, but we have an internal saying that goes: “It should run on a 5 year old laptop”

Steve: What is involved with web browsers and Unity?

Jan: Well, Unity has a webplayer we employ and that needs to be installed (if it isn’t part of the browser already, as with Chrome) – for better or worse that means if Unity has issues with that browser, so do we.

Steve: Why Kickstarter? Why now?
Jan: We wanted to be earlier, but it wouldn’t have made sense with Jordan’s Shadowrun Returns project also going on Kickstarter as we did not want the projects to compete. A lot of people may have wanted to pledge for both, so we waited for a while to give them a chance to fill up their purses again.

Why Kickstarter? As with most of the projects: Because we couldn’t do it the way we wanted and we didn’t find a publisher for our concept. Not because it was bad, but because everyone is either betting on mainstream titles with shallow gameplay or gigantic client games with double to triple digit millions. We wanted to make a game for mature gamers, people who prefer tactical challenges to button mashing or the endless no-challenge reward streams of some social games. I have nothing against either, but there are enough of those out already, so we wanted to be different.

Steve: What are some of the key values Kickstarter backers have expressed?

Jan: Our Kickstarter project was dominated by dedicated Shadowrun fans, so for them being true to the setting and the rules is paramount. They also wanted a good story and not the usual free to play crappy gameplay. That all fits well with what we aspired to. A lot of them were afraid of free to play which is why we added the campaign model, allowing you to play the game as long as you like and only pay for additional content. Other than that backers have been very supportive, encouraging us to follow our creative vision.

Steve: With the Kickstarter funding will you expect to break even at launch?

Jan: No, after paying fees for Kickstarter and Amazon, setting aside money for physical swag and taxes, we have to invest a considerable amount of money into the game. So we really need it to get more popular and sell after launch, especially since we want to continue to support it with releases about every two weeks, which also costs money every month.

Steve: How long can people support SRO via paypal?

Jan: We have decided to keep it open until end of this year – there is a break off point for the production of physical goods, so we need to time it. So if you contribute now, you will be on the safe side!

Steve: Can you explain what the ‘campaign server’ is versus the ‘free to play’ server?

Jan: The campaign server is basically the guild wars 1 model – buy the game once and play for as long as you like for free. NO monthly fees, no additional cost required. If you want new content/campaigns you only pay for those. That means all the items you would usually pay premium currency for are available for in-game cash (Nuyen), that you earn from playing. We may have some vanity or seasonal items which are offered in addition for real cash and we may also offer experience boosters or similar convenience items (for people who have less time) but nothing that would change gameplay balance or would be required to play. For us, this really means paying for content as opposed to equipment, while micro-payment customers pay for equipment and get free content. As a campaign model means paying in advance for a game you may not like after all, there is a considerable amount of trust involved from the user, which is rewarded by them having access to cool stuff without paying extra. On the other hand, if you want to entice your friends to play with you, it may be hard to get them to shell out fifty bucks for a game, so Campaign players can switch over to the f2p servers and enjoy a session with their friends – and f2p users can ‘upgrade’ to campaign servers – both within certain limits.

We may actually even have both models run on the same server and just restrict use of certain items in PvP etc. As essentially other than items, the characters aren’t going to be different.

Steve: Do you ever plan on implementing monthly fees?

Jan: Not currently, no. I don’t like subscriptions as they tend to cost me even when I don’t play and to me that feels like taking money from people without giving them something in return.

Steve: Why have both models?

Jan: As mentioned, to us free to play is a question of ease of access. If I have to think about buying the game it already puts up a huge barrier to me playing it. But some people want to make that leap of faith if they can be sure to not be subjected to any grind or power-buying later on. They in turn do not trust the free to play model, so F2P becomes the access barrier in their case. We don’t intend to have Asian MMO style power buying, so to us it doesn’t matter which way people are leaning.

Game play

Steve: How do you plan on implementing the role of a game master? How are characters able to tell that their actions are actually shaping the online world? How much focus is there on cause and effect?

Jan: Quite frankly I don’t think a game master can be replaced. Nothing can really simulate a tabletop session with its flexibility and creativeness. We don’t even want to pretend to do that. However, a video game allows other factors to be more prominent: tactical thinking, placement on a map, visuals of the environment etc. Also, you have the unique opportunity to have thousands of people interact directly or indirectly, step outside your small world that is a role-playing group. We want to emphasize this with multiplayer and faction gameplay, where it takes the concerted effort of a number of players to have effects on the world. And by making these effects part of the future plot development. Which megacorporation is going down? How are today’s company stocks affected by a massive amount of players taking missions against a certain mega etc. So you kind of create a collective tale of the whole community as opposed to a specific group.

Steve: Will SRO have any voice acting?

Jan: Not too much – a) it means a lot of data, which is an issue for non-client or tablet versions and b) it means localization is much more expensive and content takes longer to create. It helps the atmosphere of course, but as RPGs tend to be quite wordy it would probably play havoc with our budget.

Steve: How do player interaction take place on a ‘run’? Say setting out with a few friends on a run.

Jan: Well first of all you would prepare for the run together- checking equipment, making sure you have the right mix of skills etc. Then during the run you share info on screen, so you can see what happens to the other players (and since we have a multi-layered world view, other people will really see the world quite differently with regards to what information they can get from the game), Of course you can chat and turn based being naturally slightly slower than action games, you can plan out your tactics or decide who gets to chat with the informant during legwork.

Steve: Since SRO is turn based, will there be waiting while players finish their turn?

Jan:  Yes, simultaneous turns are very confusing and prone to frustration. But we have a simple yet efficient clock system. You have a limited time per turn (so no upsetting others by going to the washroom amidst combat) but you also get a reward for finishing quickly, so there is a positive motivation to do so. We have done that in jagged Alliance Online PvP and it is quite efficient. It actually is a bit of an adrenaline rush trying to be fast yet not forget proper planning.

Steve: Are there parallels between SRO and Eve Online? 

Jan: Yes and no. Eve has about 100 Million times more budget than we do and has a persistent world but requires a lot of dedication from players and is very hardcore and a bit dry with the dominance of economy in play. In a way we may be a lite version of Eve. A less open world, less complicated, less time consuming, less sci-fi, more colorful, more personal, easier to play. But we certainly recognize the special place a mature game like EVE has in the heart of gamers. Our goals are more modest and we have to make do with much less with regards to budget. Also, while I love the idea of EVE, I would never have the time to play it properly and then it becomes quite frustrating for players. With SRO, we want you to be able to play as much or as little as you want and still have fun.

Steve: How is player progression handled? Will they be trained (like Eve) or will they be merit based (i.e. xp)?

Jan: Merit based. In RPGs trained skills always lead to strange player behavior (Remember all the players in Elder Scrolls game always jumping while adventuring) and also they tend to reinforce combat skills over less often used ones. We don’t want to give away kill XP, but reward solving a mission in whichever way the player chooses. That also affords more freedom to people who prefer supporting roles and it makes the “this is my kill” gameplay obsolete.

Steve: If it is level based, what will the maximum player level be at launch?

Jan: We won’t have levels per se. Skills will have a ceiling and some skills will depend on others, but basically your “power” is determined by skills, equipment etc., so all of them factor in. It will become progressively more difficult to get the maximum level in each skill, but we want people to grow more into the horizontal – so you don’t just get better in your main skill, but you get more options in branching out. So your character’s range of abilities grows as opposed to just your damage from your fireball.

Steve: Open forum, is there anything you would like people to know about the game, your company or your vision?

Jan: Well, as a small company we always have to remind people there is a limit to what we can do. I think we are very dedicated to bringing out a great game, but with regards to sheer budget range, we cannot do everything at launch. We have found a lot of people react quickly to buzzwords like free to play and damn us into hell for doing that. I would encourage everyone to talk to us before condemning a game they haven’t even seen. We have great community and answer questions in the forum personally whenever we can. So drop by and let us know your thoughts!

Shadowrun Online is still accepting Paypal backers. They have successfully reached their funding goal and have been hard at work on the game for several months. Updates and news on SRO and their sister project Shadowrun can be found on the official website. We have seen several projects so far that have sought crowd funding in order to produce their games. Every one of them are using the Unity 3D engine in order to provide cross platform support. In the next article, we will delve into Unity 3D and explore the enabling force behind Linux support.

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