Kickstopper: The Three Stigmata of Ada Lovecraft

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

All Good Crowdfunds Must Come To An End

Kickstarter is a big deal these days. Sooner or later, we’ll all collectively get tired of it and the bubble will burst. For the moment it’s just about sustaining itself, but sooner or later we’ll all get tired of blindly pumping money into whatever projects happen to catch our eye.

When that happens, the Kickstarter projects that thrive will be those with credibility behind them – and what better way to build credibility than to have a previous successful Kickstarter project already under your belt? That’s why I think reviews of completed Kickstarter projects have an unusual importance: not only are they about offering a critique of the product that’s been delivered, but they’re also a chance for the reviewer to give their opinion as to whether it’s worth the risk backing subsequent Kickstarters from the same creators. This is relevant not just because of the large sums that are riding on Kickstarters these days, but also because more and more people are becoming serial Kickstarters. For instance, InXile are two Kickstarters deep in the isometric RPG field, for instance, with their earlier Kickstarter project (Wasteland 2) still not finished, though to be fair we’re still months away from the originally projected Wasteland 2 release date and inXile have given a fairly credible explanation of why they’re timing things the way they are. Conversely, Double Fine – who catalysed the Kickstarter videogame boom with Double Fine Adventure – still haven’t delivered on that one, are looking to go way, way over schedule, and are confessing to some mild budgeting problems, but are pushing ahead with a new Kickstarter for Massive Chalice anyway.

Because I’m arrogant and like to grandstand, I’ve decided that a new series of Ferretbrain articles are the solution to all this. The idea is that Kickstopper is all about reviewing the detritus of Kickstarter projects I and other Ferretbrain contributors participate in: when all the excitement of the funding period is over, when the thrill and frustration of waiting is in the past, when we’ve hit the point where either the products are in people’s hands, the refunds have been distributed, or the project creators have vanished in a puff of acrimony and threatened lawsuits, Kickstoppers are about gathering the detritus of what’s left behind and asking the question “was it worth it”?

A Note On Methodology

There is, of course, major issue with reviewing Kickstarters, which is that I can only review the reward tier I happened to pick. It’s typical these days for Kickstarters to offer rewards ranging from a “thank you” and a pat on the head at the bottom of the scale to platinum-plated collector’s editions of the Kickstarted product, input on the content, and dinner and a blowjob from the project creators at the top end of the scale. I can’t comment on whether or not I find rewards I haven’t actually received to be worth the money I didn’t spend on them, so consequently I’m just going to review the rewards I did get. Those who are after details of project creators’ blowjob technique will have to ask the top-tier backers.

The Campaign

The third Kickstarter I ever backed, and the first to actually deliver the goods, was for Shadowrun Returns. Launched in the immediate wake of the success of Double Fine Adventure, this was an attempt by Harebrained Schemes, helmed by Jordan Weisman, to produce an isometric tactical RPG in the vein of the early Fallout games based in the Shadowrun setting. Shadowrun was originally a tabletop RPG, its first edition emerging in 1989, and there was a time in the early-to-mid 1990s when Shadowrun gave Dungeons & Dragons and the various World of Darkness RPGs (Vampire: the Masquerade, Werewolf: the Apocalypse, etc.) a run for their money in terms of popularity. (How big was Shadowrun? Big enough that FASA actually made a promo video for their press conference at GenCon 1990. A hilarious, amazing promo video.)

Shadowrun had enjoyed a few previous videogame incarnations – two completely different releases on the SNES and Sega Megadrive respectively were both well-received, but a more recent attempt to bring the Shadowrun universe to life as a first-person shooter in 2007 by Microsoft crashed and burned horribly. As original creator of Shadowrun, it was obviously a dream project for Weisman to try to make up for that by producing a new Shadowrun CRPG he could be proud of as the flagship product for Harebrained Schemes, and naturally the name recognition the franchise enjoys made it an ideal candidate for a Kickstarter project, earning $1,836,447 over the course of the campaign and with the budget boosted by additional pre-orders after the close of the Kickstarter.

What Level I Backed At

THE ALL-DIGITAL REWARD BUNDLE: This reward bundle is completely independent of all other reward levels, does not include any previous rewards, and is not added to reward levels above. A Digital Downloadable COPY OF THE GAME, DRM free on PC, Mac, or Linux + one totally sweet, exclusive desktop WALLPAPER for your PC, Mac, or mobile tablet + your character will start the game with a SPECIAL ABILITY only available to backers + a PDF version of the Shadowrun Returns Anthology, an ILLUSTRATED BOOK OF SHORT STORIES written for the game and edited by Jordan Weisman, the creator of Shadowrun + you will also get the IN-GAME DocWagon benefit of a fully-armed emergency ambulance or chopper to save your team of runners when the drek hits the fan + a DRM-free digital version of the GAME SOUNDTRACK. This bundle includes no physical goods and helps with VAT, duty and shipping costs for our international backers.

In addition, because of the runaway success of the Kickstarter campaign Harebrained Schemes are going to produce a bonus DLC campaign for all the backers set in Berlin; I’m not going to cover that in this review, though I’ll probably tack on a comment after I’ve played through it to give my thoughts.

The Delivery Process

By my reckoning, I think Harebrained hit a good balance between keeping the backers informed of what was going on through the development process and keeping up a nice trickle of updates without utterly bombarding our inboxes. Projected delivery for the game was 5 months later than anticipated, but Harebrained did a reasonable job of keeping everyone updated as to why that was and what the new timescale was and made sure the backers knew the finalised release date once it was set.

The only major controversy around the game I noted seemed to be some confusion concerning its DRM-free status. The rights to Shadowrun are, in the aftermath of the disintegration of FASA (the original publishers) and various complex licensing deals, a godawful mess, and it turns out that Microsoft still have some stake in the IP; a consequence of this was that they required that Shadowrun games possessed some form of DRM. A compromise was reached whereby the materials covered by the Kickstarter – the core game plus the Berlin DLC – would be available in a DRM-free form to backers as promised, but subsequent DLC would have some form of DRM – probably Steam. As someone who’s comfortable with Steam* I could care less about this situation, but even if I were an anti-DRM fanatic I think it’d be a bit rich for people to complain to the extent that a few backers have about this (to the point of stroppily demanding refunds) when they’re already getting everything which they actually paid for DRM-free. In short, I think the aftermath of the Kickstarter campaign was well-managed – subsequent Kickstarters should look to this one as a model of how to do it more or less right, including when it comes to owning up to mistakes.

* Of course, it helps that Steam is the sort of DRM system which enhances the experience for legal players rather than gets in their way – for instance, I was able to chat with Dan for most of my playthrough whilst he was also playing the game, so it was fun to compare notes as we went along.

Reviewing the Swag

The Game Itself

The concept and backstory of Shadowrun are gloriously silly: the base assumption is that the Mayan calendar’s 5200-year cycle is intrinsically linked to the ebb and flow of magic. The past 5200 years of human history have been a low-magic era, but the beginning of the new cycle on December 21, 2012 brings about a high-magic era – the Sixth World. The coming of the Sixth World began with the birth around the world of metahumans – at first thought to be normal humans with birth defects, in fact this represented the first new generation of orcs, elves, dwarves and trolls to be born since the time of myth. Then ancient dragons started waking from their slumber, Native Americans and other marginalised cultures suddenly discovered that their traditional shamanic practices had become terrifyingly powerful and used this to full effect, and the old order was rapidly shaken to its core. In the brave new world that emerged, the political map was utterly changed, and the power of governments waned rapidly in the face of terrifyingly powerful megacorporations.

In other words, it’s an enormous kludge to allow a mashup of classic fantasy tropes and 1980s William Gibson-inspired cyberpunk. The niche for player characters here – both in Shadowrun Returns and the tabletop RPG is that of the “Shadowrunner” – a freelance operative who, individually or as part of a team, takes on typically illegal, usually violent, and always intense missions on behalf of megacorporations, governments, power-brokers, dragons – basically, anyone who’s willing to pay.

The genius of Shadowrun as a concept for a tabletop RPG setting is that the concept naturally lends itself to a range of popular play styles. Do you want a “sandbox”-style campaign focused on player agency, where the players pick and choose what missions (or “Shadowruns”) they partake of and the progress of the campaign develops organically from the consequences of those missions? You can easily run that. Do you want a series of high-combat dungeon crawls? Well, what’s a corporate high-rise if not an enormous dungeon looming above the rain-slick streets of whichever cyberpunk metropolis you choose to set your campaign in? Do you want to run a White Wolf-esque storytelling campaign in which you as the Game Master impose a linear plot during which the PCs end up working as the pawns of the hyper-powered NPCs of the setting as part of a beautiful, coherent storyline you’ve devised? Hell, that’s the default style of play!

Harebrained are acutely aware that the unique selling point of tabletop RPGs – a human Game Master allowing players to have their characters attempt literally anything in response to the in-game scenario and to act as a constant source of new content – often don’t translate to computer RPGs, so they decided to buck that trend by taking the Neverwinter Nights route. Although Shadowrun Returns does not offer an option for GMed Runs – indeed, it’s an exclusively single-player game for the time being (though subsequent DLC may change this) – it does come with a toolkit to allow players to design their own missions for other players to download and enjoy. Indeed, Harebrained have said that they consider the premade campaign to be just a story for Shadowrun Returns, not the super-canonical must-be-taken-seriously be-all and end-all of the game, which is both admirably humble and at the same time a clever way to play down people’s expectations for the prepackaged campaign. At the moment, the game is only just out so the community is still getting its act together, but I’m sure there’s already folk beavering away on decidedly ambitious homebrewed campaigns, at least some of which (if the Neverwinter Nights community is anything to go by) could well rival or even outstrip the included campaign (or the promised additional campaigns that Harebrained are working on).

Still, it’s the included single player campaign – Dead Man’s Switch that many will judge the game on, not least because it will no doubt set the tone for many community-produced modules, so that’s what I will cover here. The story opens with the player-generated main character (I chose to play an elven hacker – or “decker” – who I named Ada Lovecraft) down on their luck, a run of ill fortune wiping out their resources and leaving them unsure where their next opportunity for a Shadowrun will come from. Suddenly, you are contacted by a certain Sam Watts – or, rather, a recorded video message from Sam Watts, since it turns out that Sam had a cybernetic “dead man’s switch” and the cessation of his vital signs triggered the delivery of the message. Sam and you were formerly part of a crack Shadowrunning team three years ago, before the aftermath of a run gone sour led to the team splitting up. The video claims that Sam has a sizable amount of money stashed away – money his lawyers will release to the you as and when you apprehend the individuals ultimately responsible for Sam’s death. Taking off for Seattle to commence your investigation, you soon discover that Sam is just the latest victim of the so-called Emerald City Ripper – and as your investigation progresses, you soon discover sinister forces lurking behind the Ripper, forces which suggest that the murders are a mere sideshow in a far larger scheme – a scheme which will come to trouble the minds of the most powerful occult and corporate figures in the city.

In terms of presentation and gameplay, Shadowrun Returns absolutely hits the spot. The graphics are gorgeous, getting across the Bladerunner-with-wizards feel of the setting perfectly, and the soundtrack is likewise absolutely thematically appropriate, so I have to say Harebrained did an excellent job within the Kickstarter budget of implementing the look and feel of the game – if a major studio with a AAA budget decided to produce an isometric RPG in this day and age I don’t think they could have made it look much better. The most notable absence is in voice acting – there isn’t any, though frankly I don’t miss it in this case and since most homebrew adventure designers won’t have access to a high-quality voice cast I think it’s decent of Harebrained not to upstage the homebrewers in this respect.

As far as gameplay goes, the game offers a sufficient variety of different classes that I think the core campaign is decidedly replayable – I suspect playing as a magic-user or a combat specialist would be very different from playing as a hacker, though once you start going on missions in the company of a hand-picked party you get a chance to dabble in most of the other classes. The combat system is a turn-based affair which will be familiar to folk who’ve played games such as the first two Fallouts: on your turn each of the characters in your party has a certain number of action points to spend on performing tasks, and then when you’ve used up all the points you want to spend the enemy take their turn. I quite liked the way the game gives you a small number of action points with which you can do a lot, rather than going the Fallout route where you get a bunch of points but you need to spend several to do anything of substance, since less bean-counting meant combat flowed quickly and smoothly, and the game does a good job of displaying what you can do with your points in a quick and intuitive way. (The cover system is especially nicely implemented.) In addition, you don’t have to use up your party’s action points in order – you can have party member A do something, then switch to party member B to have them do somethings, then switch back to A to spend the rest of their action points, for example – which opens up some nice tactical possibilities.

People have complained that the combat you’re faced with in Dead Man’s Switch is a little too easy, but I think it was just right – it’s never a complete pushover, it forces you to think on your feet and quickly master people’s different capabilities, and some of the later fights find you sorely pressed. (Plus, it should be noted that part of the point of Dead Man’s Switch is to act as an introductory campaign – there’ll doubtless be official DLC campaigns and community-created modules for those that want a tougher challenge.) A more compelling criticism is the lack of any sort of manual save game system – you have to rely on the game itself autosaving your progress, and if you want to replay from a particular point without destroying your subsequent progress you have to create a copy of the autosave. There’s no option to save the game mid-level, and whilst this does ensure a certain level of challenge (you can’t brute-force your way through the game by constantly saving whenever you get lucky and reloading whenever you get unlucky) it is irritating to not be able to cease playing partway through a level and come back later to pick up where you left off.

One particularly nice aspect of the gameplay is how the game manages the Matrix – think cyberspace as imagined in Neuromancer or Lawnmower Man and other stuff that came out before people really had a handle on what the Internet was and how people use it. There’s several neat fights in the game where you can have a decker character jack into cyberspace and roam around fighting security programs and subverting systems to garner advantages for yourself, and in terms of look and feel it really nails that “we don’t understand computers but let’s pretend we do” aesthetic. It works quite nicely alongside meatspace combat – you get several rounds of action in cyberspace for each one in the real world – and to be honest, it’s a rather clear sign that this sort of hacking subgame is a better fit for single player CRPGs than it is in tabletop RPGs. A chronic dilemma in tabletop cyberpunk-themed games is that if you run cyberspace stuff as a fully realised virtual environment you end up having the GM and hacker players playing their own little game off in the corner whilst the non-hackers wait for the VR jaunt to be resolved, but on the other hand if you don’t do that you’re kind of shutting off one of the distinctive and archetypal features of the cyberpunk genre, at which point why bother running a cyberpunk game at all? Here there is no such dilemma, making Shadowrun Returns more successful at this aspect than its source material.

As far as the story goes, anyone expecting a dense sandbox RPG with plenty of scope for freeroaming exploration of Seattle and lots and lots of side quests is going to be disappointed – Dead Man’s Switch is extremely linear, though to be honest I think this makes absolute sense given that it’s an investigative scenario and it would feel jarring for you to spend a large amount of time dealing with irrelevancies when there’s a murderer to catch. It’s also quite short, but not catastrophically so – I completed it in 9 hours, which isn’t much by CRPG standards but felt satisfying anyway given how good the pacing usually is, and of course when additional stories start filtering through the game is almost certainly going to offer plenty more hours of fun. I’m actually more bothered by the fact that the two halves of the story – the hunt for the serial killer and taking down the killer’s backers – don’t really seem to be properly integrated with each other, with only the flimsiest of connections between the two. It feels like a total bullshit plot twist thrown in for the sake of padding out the story and incorporating some of the major metaplot from the setting, which along with the preponderance of Very Powerful NPCs in the latter half of the game does at least succeed in making you feel as though you’re playing in a tabletop RPG campaign GMed by someone who’s taken mid-1990s fashions in gaming to heart, a quality it shares with Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines, though I think Dead Man’s Switch does a better job of not making you wish there really were a real flesh and blood GM sat there before you so you toss dice at them in disapproval.

Whilst it is linear and short, Dead Man’s Switch does do well on the writing front when it comes to dialogue. A particular treat is the Seamstresses Union, a wretched hive of scum and villainy which becomes your home base, since your individual interactions with its residents, along with the little insights you get into their relationships, rapidly makes the place feel like home. On top of that, the writers carefully work in the metaplot and your interactions with Very Powerful NPCs to make it clear that you are playing a pivotal part in said plot and the NPCs in question genuinely respect your abilities, so you aren’t left at the end of the game feeling like someone’s puppet so much as you are someone who’s kicked ass, chewed bubblegum, got paid for it and left with a quip.

In terms of worldbuilding, Shadowrun Returns has gone for the aesthetic of earlier editions of the tabletop game – a world where neon rules and nobody has heard of WiFi. Whilst post-FASA editions of the tabletop RPG have worked towards updating the aesthetic and technology, this has proved a very divisive call – for a lot of people, the silly 80s cyberpunk aesthetic is part of the appeal of Shadowrun in the first place and trying to update the technology and setting and take it all seriously misses the point, and I tend to fall in with that crowd. Apparently Shadowrun Online is set in the 2070s, the era of the post-FASA tabletop editions, whilst Shadowrun Returns is set in the classic 2050s era, so it’s nice to see that the franchise is going to be allowed to develop both eras and aesthetics simultaneously.

That said, the classic-era Shadowrun setting does have some legacy issues surrounding race which are not entirely gone here. Specifically, there’s a Native American resurgence in the setting, which I guess is nice, except it comes about because Native Americans are special and magical and in tune with the spirit world and all that guff, and there’s at least one point where the game tells you this directly. That said, the writers seem to have made at least some effort to make the game inclusive – yes, you spend a lot of the game at a dubious brothel, but I saw scantily clad men dancing there as well as women, and when it comes to actual Shadowrunners and other people whose line of work doesn’t involve sex there’s a decent mix of races and genders represented – I didn’t see anyone going into combat in a bikini, at any rate, which is a big improvement over past incarnations of the setting. In fact, almost all costume options for female characters seem entirely sensible whilst still looking all futuristic and badass.

Naturally, the downside of opening the game up to the community to design campaigns is that there will doubtless be some absolutely tasteless shit floating around there, as well as modules which are just plain incompetent. As far as I am concerned, though, I am glad to own the game and am looking forward to what Harebrained do with the Berlin campaign. Personally, I’m hoping for a lot of Iggy Pop, David Bowie and Lou Reed references. (My major disappointment with Dead Man’s Switch is that they don’t refer to the National Transportation Safety Board as the Aircrash Bureau – I mean, what sort of third-rate cyberpunk passes up a chance for a Gary Numan reference?)

Wallpaper

It’s a picture of some of the regulars at the Seamstresses Union gathered around the bar. Not dazzling, not terrible, not essential.

In-Game Special Ability

Feedback during the Kickstarter suggested that people wanted the special ability to be a very minor thing rather than something that would give backers a major gameplay advantage. HS’s solution is reasonably neat: the ability turns out to be that you are able to see a ghostly figure haunting the bar at the Seamstresses Union. If you converse with the ghost, it turns out to be Jordan Wiseman himself, or rather a dead version of him inhabiting his own fictional universe, and he thanks you for backing him in 2012, regales you with stories about the development of the original Shadowrun tabletop RPG, and gives you a few bonus items.

Short Story Anthology

OK, I knew I was getting it on PDF, but it would have still been nice to get it on an e-reader format because as it stands it’s mildly painful to read the thing on my Kindle Paperwhite. Even a PDF with somewhat more e-reader-friendly formatting (one column of text of a sensible size) would have been better. Moreover, the stories here aren’t of a sufficient quality to make me want to slog through it, either on an e-reader or onscreen. It’s gaming tie-in fiction, you don’t expect enormous quality, and this collection doesn’t even reach Black Library standards of “OK, this is stupid trash, but it’s fun trash”.

DocWagon

Vehicles aren’t really implemented in the game, so having an actual ambulance-tank or attack helicopter show up with healing doesn’t happen. Instead, “DocWagon” tokens work in much the same way as Phoenix Down in Final Fantasy games by letting you revive dead comrades, though here you have to use the item on them within 3 rounds or so after they go down or it’s curtains for them. (Actually, I hope they implement vehicles at some point so that my character can have a car. Where else would I feel safest of all and lock all my doors?)

Soundtrack

The soundtrack is an acceptable bit of cyberpunk pastiche, reminiscent of Vangelis’ work on Blade Runner with a less eclectic range of influences juxtaposed against the electronics. Download of soundtrack has reasonable quality but loses points for not having proper tags – in particular, track numbers are missing, forcing me to feed them in manually to make the soundtrack play in the right order on my iPod. Nothing earth-shaking but hey, it’ll do for background music for SF/cyberpunk RPG sessions.

Higher, Lower, Just Right Or Just Wrong?

There’s four basic ways you can feel about a Kickstarter once the dust is settled. You could be so enthused by what you’ve got that you end up wishing you’d spent more on it. You could be happy with parts of what you received but perhaps feel that you could have been satisfied with a lower reward tier. You might feel that you went for precisely the right reward tier and feel neither buyer’s remorse nor envy for higher-tier backers. Or you might feel that your involvement with the Kickstarter was an enormous mistake and wish you’d never got entangled with the thing. This lends itself to a nice overall rating system for Kickstopper purposes – Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong.

In the case of Shadowrun Returns, I really like the game and anticipate investing many hours in playing through subsequent DLC and player-made campaigns. At the same time, though, I could get that (and the wallpaper) on the cheapest tier for $15. The special ability and free DocWagons are nice, but not so nice I’d shell out money for them, and the short story collection I could do without, so really it comes down to a question of whether I feel that having the soundtrack is worth the extra $35. I mean, it’s a nice soundtrack and I’m glad to have it, but… yeah. So, on balance, if I had a time machine I would tell my past self to go Lower, down to the baseline $15 level, since the game is far and away the star of the show here.

Would Back Again?

The last question to answer is this: would I back another Harebrained Schemes Kickstarter, provided it was for a product I was interested in? It’s a particularly relevant question to ask since they’re about to launch a new Kickstarter for Golem Arcana, an interesting experiment in integrating mobile/tablet apps into tabletop miniatures boardgames. I haven’t looked into Golem Arcana deeply enough to decide whether or not I’m interested in backing it, but for those who are, for what it’s worth I think Harebrained are a safe pair of hands. Yes, there was a mild delay in release, but the product we got was solid and met as many commitments as the technology they had and their legal wriggle room allowed and they did a good job of keeping the backers informed about all the news, good and bad. Yes, some aspects of the rewards were a little disappointing and the DRM thing was an issue which really should have been cleared up before the Kickstarter launched, but I can’t put my hand on my heart and claim I feel that I’ve been scammed, cheated, or let down in any substantial way – I was in it to get the game, I got the game, and the game was the most enjoyable experience I’ve ever had with the Shadowrun universe, so as far as I’m concerned Harebrained accomplished exactly what I paid them to do.

4 thoughts on “Kickstopper: The Three Stigmata of Ada Lovecraft

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  3. Pingback: Kickstopper: Funding the Pit – Refereeing and Reflection

  4. Pingback: Kickstopper: The Gamer Who Would Be King – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

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