I've been consumed over the past few days with the news that Microsoft's FASA Studio will be releasing a Shadowrun game for the Xbox 360.
Before I get into the details on this latest announcement, I should point out a little of my long history with the game. Unlike many gamers these days, I didn't cut my teeth on TSR's Dungeons and Dragons. Instead, I first bumbled into gaming (literally) when I happened to find a copy of FASA's original Battletech rulebook sitting on top of a Mechwarrior RPG volume, hidden underneath a bush in a public park near Richards Junior High School in Columbus, GA. Being the scrupulous 12 year old that I was, I of course took the books, and thus began my clandestine and illicit gaming career. (To my defense, it was after dark and no one was in the park. The books weren't exactly in mint condition and looked as if they'd managed to survive at least one light sprinkling of rain.)
Anyway, I was hooked. Not just on the idea of massive Battlemechs piloted by elite Mechwarriors (oh, how I loved Robotech back then), but also at the rules that were put into the RPG. Small arms tactics? Leadership? Climbing? Health totals? It was like reading holy scripts, thought long lost and forgotten. I took to the terms and started to write in my own skills and rules as well. I became…a gamemaster.
For years, I ran Mechwarrior campaigns. After I moved to Minnesota, one of my first missions was to find a gaming store within driving distance (well, driving distance for my parents, at least) and I began to learn how to paint the small metal minature battlemechs. My first attempt wasn't that horrible, and a friend of mine still has that miniature to this day (and I was wrong – the paint job IS horrible).
About the time I was graduating high school, I started to branch out into other FASA games, such as Earthdawn and of course, Shadowrun.
Shadowrun was fun. A friend of mine (we'll call him Mike W.) was the Gamemaster. He was a techno producer and DJ on the side, and so our gaming groups tended toward a more imaginative slant. He created a Minneapolis campaign for the year 2050, and it wasn't long before we were running the Shadows of Hennepin avenue megacorps like Honeywell or Alliant Tech. My first beloved character was an ex-corp combat mage, who died in a blaze of glory trying to buy his crew some time to escape a bad run. My second was a dwarven rigger who lived in the back of a Bulldog armored semi. Even then, I was always playing the part of support for the street sams and deckers. I was the unsung hero who got the crew out of danger and back to relative safety.
Fast forward a decade or so, and I'm reading that Microsoft is going to release a Shadowrun game. I'm excited. I'm thinking I might have to pick up a 360. Friends of mine are also excited. We're trying to figure out how we can take those characters from years ago and import them into this updated PC/Xbox version of the game.
Then the details come out. It's a first person shooter. Most classes we're used to aren't there. There are no riggers or deckers because there's no Matrix. That's because they've chosen to place the game in the future of 2020 instead of 2050 when the original Shadowrun was set. They've chosen to conciously throw out the 15+ years of established canonical backstory, and rewrite the entire storyline from scratch.
In other words, it's Shadowrun in name only.
The developers claim they're doing this to make the game more accessible to people who have never heard of Shadowrun. That makes no sense. None at all.
If someone had never heard of Shadowrun, why would they care that it's called Shadowrun? You could make a game that has the same concepts as the game they've made – with cybertechnology, magic, and metahuman races – and still have a killer game, without the nameplate of Shadowrun. However, the problem here is that they've attached that name plate…and with that comes a fanbase with a great deal of expectation. Those players – the ones who have heard of Shadowrun – aren't happy at all with this announcement. At all. In the words of one player: "Congratulations on making the game nobody wanted."
An analogy was raised that the game captures the "essence" of what Shadowrun is. For me, that's nothing more than weak justification for not performing your market research correctly. Know thy audience. If you're trying to build a game for Shadowrun players – a fanatical bunch, to say the least – you'd better make one that at least includes the most fundamental concepts that attracted many players to Shadowrun in the first place, and it wasn't the killer combat system (ugh). It's the shadowruns, stupid.
Shadowrunners are mercenaries, either working for or against the corps – and sometimes both at the same time. It's plans within plans and the storylines frequently use double-cross, double agents, and double speak to great effect. It takes place in the urban jungle, in the "Sprawl", and 'runners were constantly moving through nightclubs and backend streets. To this day, I feel that the Wachowski brothers HAD to play the game at some point, as inspiration for their Matrix universe.
This new Matrix? It's in the jungles…of Santos, Brazil. On the one side, you've got "shadowrunners" who are essentially treasure hunters (ala Lara Croft), trying to find and take control of a magical ziggaraut which is tied to the reawakening of magic in the world (what the?), and on the other side, you're the natives, protecting the ziggaraut (what the?). In short, it's modern cowboys and indians…but with katanas and uzi's.
Honestly, I can't think of which is worse – that the game will flop, and Microsoft will likely blame the failure upon the intellectual property itself, thus effectively ending the Shadowrun franchise on computers for good; or that the game will do well, and thus we'll continue to see more Shadowrun titles that essentially aren't Shadowrun.
If there's anything good that's come from this, it's that those friends I've been speaking to over the past week about this are now considering starting up another Shadowrun campaign. It's time to dust off my old dice bag, and to go pick up a pack of mechanical pencils. Seems I've got a rigger to build.