Catalyst Game Labs
Shadowrun line developer on learning from past mistakes, regaining the trust of players
“I’m the only person I can rely on in the world, but I’m probably good enough anyway, because I’ve got a big enough gun.” That’s the defining philosophy of what makes a proper story in the Shadowrun tabletop RPG, current line developer for Catalyst Game Labs Jason Hardy told me. “And a gun could be a lot of things. It could be the spell I’m ready to cast, the augmentation, whatever I’ve got.”
The Shadowrun tabletop RPG has existed for nearly a quarter of a century now, and has survived numerous mishandlings, sales, and splits. Hardy is working to make sure the game doesn’t lose its place in the tabletop world, and with the recent Kickstarter success of Shadowrun Returns and Shaodwrun Online, it’s test time.
The Shadowrun property is well-traveled; it started in the hands of Jordan Weisman, who created not only the setting, but founded the original holders of the IP, the FASA Corporation. FASA shut its doors in 2001, and the tabletop version of Shadowrun moved to WizKids, a small company formed by ex-FASA employees. WizKids held the license for two years before it was acquired by Topps, who still own most of the rights. Microsoft holds the rights to electronic game versions of the property.
Catalyst Game Labs publishes new Shadowrun tabletop RPG content by licensing from Topps, and is seen as the caretakers of the franchise. In 2010, a self-proclaimed former freelancer on Shadowrun going by the name “FrankTrollman” posted on Dumpshock that CGL was mishandling funds, and freelancers simply weren’t being paid. Trollman claimed that more than half a million dollars were missing.
His post was followed by Robert Derie, another freelancer, who wrote, “Before anyone calls bullshit on Frank for this, I would like to confirm that what he has stated is absolutely in line with the rumors I have heard from CGL employees. I don’t want to name names on this, but my understanding of the situation is that it is that bad.”
CGL issued a press release less than 24 hours later, which admitted business funds had been “co-mingled” with personal accounts, as well as the departure of several employees. CGL said they as a company were “embarrassed” by the oversight.
Despite the doom-calling of Trollman and the like, the publisher maintained a hold on the rights to Shadowrun. The damage had already been done, though; Catalyst was on the defensive now, and mistakes in the future would only further damage the community’s faith in CGL’s ability to handle the property responsibly.
Plugging back in
Hardy has been following Shadowrun around like he was attached to the cyberpunk hip. He was a freelance contributor to WizKids before he was brought on as a Catalyst Game Labs employee. In 2009, he graduated from within CGL to Shadowrun line developer, a position he admits isn’t without its troubles.
I asked Jason how he balances what he hears from the community with what he sees in the universe and what he reads from his freelancers. “It’s hard. Part of it is, I don’t want to impose my writing style too much on the writers working for me. I have certain ways I like to write, but the writers also have their own elements they bring to it, and I don’t want to force them to sound like me. I think when we’re doing it right, it’s fun to read and moves quickly,” he said.
The recent success on Kickstarter of Shadowrun Returns and Shadowrun Online have been a boon, Hardy told the Penny Arcade Report. The resurgent interest and focus makes each respective Shadowrun team buckle down and focus on creating better content.
“This is different than almost any other time I can remember being involved with Shadowrun. Certainly different than anything since I’ve become developer. Just to see all these different elements coming together is really exciting. The way both Kickstarters went, they were very different beasts and they succeeded in different ways, but to see the communities rally around them was really good to see,” Hardy said.
CGL would do well to supervise with an eye focused on quality. If this is the time when people are paying attention, now is not the time for spelling errors, formatting mistakes, or canonical paradoxes. It’s a tricky line to walk, and there will be mistakes, but Hardy says he’s trying his best to turn every problem into a blessing.
Shadowsprinting for the finish
When I asked Hardy how he handles complications and problems, he said most of the time it’s a matter of not just learning from mistakes, but making mistakes work in your favor. In one adventure’s case, one misprint turned into an entire story within the Shadowrun meta-plot.
“We have in the books what’s called Shadowtalk, where the characters in the Shadowrun universe comment on the material in the books,” Hardy told me. “It’s always signed so you know who was typing in that particular comment. There was one book where a signature got left blank. It should’ve had a name on it but didn’t.”
“In talking with the writers, we decided to, rather than ignore that as a mistake, continue to have comments pop up that weren’t signed, and we developed that into a storyline of somehow an anonymous poster had broken into Jackpoint, which is the fictional network where all the material is posted, and that became its own plotline which came into what we called Twilight Horizon.”
“So to take this mistake and fold it into something that became an actual story in the world… I like having that ability and the flexibility of saying, ‘Okay, we might wish this didn’t happen, but now that it did, how can we spin it out in story terms? What can we do to make it interesting to us?’”
Weisman has lent his hand in steering Shadowrun as well. The huge success of Shadowrun Returns on Kickstarter got him back as a collaborating force on the tabletop RPG, and Weisman told the Penny Arcade Report he supports the upcoming direction of the franchise. “I was able to sit down with their current line developer and was able to vet where it’s going, with what they’ve published subsequently and what’s in the pipeline to be published later,” he told the Penny Arcade Report.
Hardy is working hard to live up to a lot of expectations from readers and his bosses at CGL. If the creator of Shadowrun has given his blessing, he must be doing something right. Now to prove it to fans.