Binpress Podcast Episode 26: Jordan Weisman and Mitch Gitelman of Harebrained Schemes
This week we talk with Jordan Weisman and Mitch Gitelman, co-founders of the game studio Harebrained Schemes. Jordan, the creator of Shadowrun, and Mitch discuss how they got their start, how they grew their business, and lessons learned from Kickstarting their games. They also cover why it’s vital to identify what you’re not good at, the importance of finding the right partner and much more.
- Shadowrun: Hong Kong Kickstarter
- Harebrained Schemes: Website, Twitter
- Shadowrun Returns: Steam, Kickstarter, Google Play, App Store
- Shadowrun: Dragonfall — Steam, Google Play, App Store
- Golem Arcana: Website, Kickstarter
- BattleTech Center (video)
Alexis: Before we get to Harebrained Schemes and even FASA, Jordan, why don’t you introduce yourself really quickly?
Jordan: Sure. I’m Jordan Weisman. I’m both embarrassed and proud to say that I’ve been designing games for 35 years now and glad that my last job was as a paperboy. Since then I had to work for a living, so I enjoyed that very much. Do you want the whole –.
Mitch: Brief bio thing?
Jordan: The brief bio, this and then that?
Alexis: Sure, let’s get a bit of an intro for Mitch and then we can dive into the history.
Mitch: Okay. Hi, my name’s Mitch Gitelman and I’m the cofounder and studio manager of Harebrained Schemes. Let’s see – I’ve been making games since about 1993, started in paper and pencil role-playing games, which is where I met Jordan. From there, I moved on to video games where I started working on PlayStation 1 first wave title and did a whole bunch of really horrible games where I ended up working with Jordan on what became Crimson Skies at FASA Interactive. Then I went to Microsoft from there.
Alexis: Alright. So how did this all get started for you, Jordan? How did you leave your job as a paperboy to decide, “You know, I want to make games”?
Jordan: Let’s see – I wasn’t actually a paperboy; “paperboy” is a euphemism. I was a delivery boy for a drug store, actually.
Mitch: Well that’s much better.
Jordan: That drug store had delivery boys. Anyway, I had been a player of old Avalon Hill titles for a long time since I was a kid. I was working at a summer camp up in Wisconsin, got introduced to D&D the year it came out and that’s pretty much it. The life went off the rails right at that point.
Mitch: Or directly magnetized onto the rails.
Jordan: One or the other. So after a short, aborted attempt at college [chuckles] I started FASA in 1980.
Alexis: I got to stop you here because – you were in college. What were you studying?
Jordan: I’m not what one would call a great student. My grades in high school were not exactly exemplary, so I didn’t have a lot of college options and we didn’t have a lot of money at the time. I really loved sailing and saw that the government pays for this academy for the United States Merchant Marine Academy where they teach you to be a merchant officer.
I got the congressional appointment necessary, because in the Midwest no one has ever heard of it, so it wasn’t that hard and went off to King’s Point. My long hair was shaved off, I was brought into the Navy – because you’re technically a naval reserve while you’re there – and went about trying to learn to be a naval officer, which, about a year into it, I was like “I’m not sure that my romantic vision of sea is what the reality is.”
I left, came back to Chicago, went to the U of I Computer School for about a year. I tried to study computers because I’ve been into computers since 12; I started programming PET 8ks.
Mitch: Yes! I love that; that was such a cool-looking machine!
Jordan: It was, and I’d done all these rather elaborate games and stuff in my young teenage years, and then got an Apple II, and then got the tape deck where you could hook it up to your cassette tape and record new programs – that was a big step for it.
But at the time, there was no such thing that you and I call a computer science degree; you had to take hard science, which wasn’t going to work. Anyway, that’s what I was doing before I dropped out to do FASA.
Alexis: So what made you think “These pen and paper RPG games business is something for me” and what gave you the gut feeling, or more plainly, the guts to try it?
Jordan: I guess I should back up because I’ve missed a part of the story that I don’t usually tell. When I was at the academy, they had just finished building this 50 million-dollar bridge simulator, which was, by modern standards, incredibly crude, but by the standards of the day, was incredibly cool. And they never let us students use it, but we got to tour it once. I looked at that thing and said, “That’s the freakin’ future of entertainment.” Right?
I was like, “I’m going to go back and build that,” and then my premise was that I could build that by networking together Apple IIs instead of having to build a 50 million-dollar mainframe.
Of course, there was no such thing as a network, and the only way you can connect Apple IIs was by –.
Mitch: Serial cables.
Jordan: Serial cables directly from the motherboards, which, if you don’t do it right, fries the motherboard.
Mitch: And by the way, this logic extended all the way to the BattleTech Centers in Chicago.
Alexis: I was thinking of that, “Now I’m putting the pieces together and seeing where this grew from.”
Jordan: Oh, yeah. I came back and started to hack it together and wrote up what I thought was a business plan. What did I know? And went around and tried to get funding. The VCs I met with were like, “What’s a computer game? Why would people buy a ticket to play it?” [Chuckles]
Alexis: And “Why am I going to give you the money, of all people, for it?”
Jordan: Yeah, and “Who the fuck are you? You’re a college dropout who has never done anything.” So that’s when I started FASA [chuckling]. I guess I was like, “Alright, I’ll do a pay per game company, get rich overnight, and then go back and fund the original vision of these entertainment centers – because that was the premise from the beginning, it was to build these movie theaters that you went to and bought tickets.
Back in the early days, one of the first major licensed games in the industry was the Star Trek series that I’d licensed from Paramount, and the bridge simulator products that we produced were the direct analog of what I had wanted to build with technology. And so I just brought it all back to the tabletop in the Star Trek game.
Mitch: And by the way, that still stands as a great role-playing supplement. That’s a cool concept for role-playing games.
Jordan: It was fun; I really enjoyed it. Basically, it was a 600-dollar initial capitalization of the company and my partner, Ross Babcock, had $300 because he’s good with money, and I borrowed $300 because I’m not, and that’s how we started FASA.
Alexis: So how did you first spread the word and how does that compare to now when you these giant projects? Some people might think that it’s easier – in some ways it is, but there’s always a lot of work that it goes on when it comes to marketing and this kind of thing.
Jordan: I mean, it’s really, as you said, an entirely different world that we live in. When we started FASA, the way that we spread the word was literally went door to door, selling to the local Chicago area stores, and as part of the sale I would also be asking them where they bought their products from so that I could then reconstruct the distribution chain. There wasn’t this thing called Google where I could just search for game distributors, so I had to build a map of the distribution chain by finding where everybody else bought their stuff and then network your way into it.
Mitch: And we walked five miles to school every day.
Jordan: Uphill, through the snow, in the summer.
Mitch: And we liked it!
Jordan: But the difference is that, if you will – and this is a broader statement – that the more hurdles there are to get to a marketplace, the more inclusive you are once you’re in that marketplace, the more discoverable you are in that marketplace.
When I did do all that work and got our stuff on the shelf, we weren’t competing against the 100,000 games that game out this week because it was hard to get a product to a shelf and the access channels to it were narrow. It was much more difficult to get it to a shelf, and much more discoverable when it was there.
We now faced the opposite problem. You can get stuff into the channel completely frictionless, but you are now in this incredibly noisy environment where discoverability is basically zero. That means that you have really two options. Well, three options, sorry. There’s a boatload of money option where I’m going to buy eyeballs, and if you have a product which has the potential to have a high lifetime value per customer, then that’s a perfectly valid way to go.
People keep wondering why has the mobile industry and other parts of the game industry moved so much to ongoing revenue streams from players; it’s because you have to. It costs so much to get you to the game that a single-time purchase is not a viable economic model. So the boatload of money approach is number one.
Number two is you have a great viral hook inside the game that encourages people to bring their friends in, and then you wait for lightning to strike. That’s a great business plan if you can afford to wait for lightning all the time – because lightning doesn’t strike that often!
Mitch: I’ve seen the math.
Jordan: And then the third strategy, which is really where I’ve always believed in where HBS is focused on, which is, don’t go for everybody. Find a niche of players who are passionate about a subject that you share their passion – so that you can really speak to them on a level that they respect – and then build great product for a niche audience. That niche audience is one you’d know how to reach because they’ve self-selected down to a place where the communication channels to them are identifiable. You know where they live – digitally and physically – and you can reach them because of that.
And then in success, that may be brought in dramatically from the niche you started in, but you have to be able to find that niche and build your beachhead of an audience with that group that shares your passion.
Mitch: And let me add to that. Once you’ve found them and they’ve found you, treat them like kings and queens.
Jordan: Absolutely. I mean, it is so important that the attention you pay to customer service – the more you make them feel like family members is really, really important.
Alexis: Now before we dive into customer service, I guess a question that goes back to the whole isolation that you had without the Internet – and this is tangentially related to that –. You’re developing these games in isolation; how did you know that they’re good? How do you improve what you’re working on? How do you incorporate feedback, and segueing into the future, how do you incorporate feedback into your projects nowadays?
Jordan: Again, it’s wildly different, right? Back in the day, when we’d be developing a tabletop game or even the BattleTech centers, after FASA had become successful – it wasn’t overnight; it was about seven years – it had grown to the point where we could afford to start spending an incredible amount of money on developing actual networks and immersive environments and things like that.
Your access to a broad number of people to test your product, to get good feedback is not very wide. If it’s a tabletop prototype, it’s basically a very local thing. Here, it was custom hardware, it was again, very local, and so you’re moving on a lot of instinct and a little bit of data.
Today, in a lot of game development – Zynga being probably the foremost in this – you’re moving a huge amount of data and very little instinct. The creative process is very, very secondary to the big data, and this is not just in games.
Look at advertising as well. The advertising industry is being completely overrun by big data and you can tell that not only in just a way that they’re operating, but the way that they’re structuring. It used to be creative directors were the ones that would rise to the top and become the head of large advertising agencies; now it’s the analytics that are rising to the top and starting to drive those agencies. And it’s for the same reason – access to that information is enormously powerful.
But it is like with all great power comes the responsibility to use it well, it can’t replace creativity; it can’t replace creative instinct.
Mitch: And judgment.
Jordan: Yeah. Part of what makes any product that moves its own little industry forward is doing things which are not going to test well because they’re challenging people’s assumptions.
Mitch: And they’re outside the norm.
Mitch: Now the other great thing about it is we continue to improve the Shadowrun games, as we have twice now, and we’re about to do it again the third time. We really, really listen to audience feedback, but not direct feedback.
First of all, we read the reviews very carefully and look for common elements between them to help us guide how we’re going to move forward in the future – but that’s just reviews, and reviews aren’t necessarily indicative of what the people actually paying to play the game and the real audience is doing, so we’re on the forums all the time. Not interacting with our audience, but instead observing our audience and how they interact with each other and the things they talk about with each other.
We actually encourage healthy debate and conversation about different aspects of our games so that we can –. If they just talk to us and say, “We want this” – that’s one thing. But when they debate with each other, they show their logic to each other and they’re forced to defend their positions. Once we see that, we can see the reasons behind what they’re looking for so we can attempt to truly satisfy not necessarily by what they’re telling us, but by what they’re indicating. Does that make sense?
Alexis: Yeah, it’s like one of those listening to what they want but giving them what they need instead.
Mitch: Yeah, and also what we can produce.
Alexis: [Chuckles] That too, yeah.
Jordan: One of the things we’re excited about with Golem Arcana, which cycles back to the beginning of the career, it’s back on the tabletop, but it’s back on the tabletop in a way really informed by all the years we’ve been developing digital games.
Mitch: Without a doubt.
Jordan: It’s the first digital game where literally every day we have complete data of every game that was played on tabletops around the world the day before, and we’re able to understand strategies and pieces that were overpowered or underpowered – all the kind of advantages we’ve had to doing digital games and keeping digital games balanced and exciting, but now we’re able to apply that to a tabletop game.
We love having access to that information and it just become an enormous key component of both creating something that’s good and fun and balanced and then also dynamic. With Golem, we’ve just finished a big storyline series where what people played on their kitchen tables decided where the story of that universe went, real-time. Again, nothing new for a computer game, but –.
Alexis: When you meld it with a tabletop game.
Jordan: Pretty damn different for a tabletop, yeah. I think the tools we have accessed for feedback are just so enormous, and really, Kickstarter is where it starts.
Crowdfunding is an immediate feedback on the review of the concept even before the product is created.
Mitch: And a validation tool. You know, what’s great is making that game that you already know people want is a very encouraging way to make games as opposed to keeping it secret and hoping that when you reveal all your work over the last year or so, it doesn’t fall flat on its face.
Alexis: Right. Let’s see –so when FASA was growing –. Let me pause here for a moment. Correct pronunciation, FASA or FASA?
Jordan: It’s either NASA or NASA – I don’t know either. To me, it stands for the Freedonian Aeronautics and Space Administration; I always pronounce it like NASA.
Mitch: Yeah, so did I.
Alexis: Okay. When FASA was growing, what were the first areas you know you had to pay attention to? What did you have to hire for and what did you look for and still look for in candidates, the kind of qualities?
Jordan: One of the first bits of self-recognition is that I realized as the company grew, that I’m really not a good manager [chuckling]. I kind of suck at it.
Mitch: Of humans.
Jordan: Yeah. And also of finances – I was good at designing products that could make money, but that’s different from running a good financial shop. Do you know what I mean?
Something that’s been true for FASA all the way through to Harebrained Schemes here is how we look – we’ll back up. Finishing that thing about identifying my own weaknesses and trying to compensate for those –.
Mitch: That’s so funny, that’s exactly what I did over that 12 years at Microsoft. I always hired people that were a bit of whatever I wasn’t.
Jordan: I think the first thing is being willing to acknowledge or not that you’re not good at something. That’s how I ended up working with my dad, because I realized I needed a good business manager and so I asked him to help me find a good business manager to help run the business side of the business so I could stay focused on the product creation and the marketing of it.
We interviewed a bunch of people and realized that at the size we were, that whoever we’re going to bring in was going to get a fair chunk equity. Having read enough of history, I know that a lot of business managers eventually just take the money and leave for Brazil, and you’re screwed. So I figured if I had my dad in that role, mom would yell at him if he took the money and ran to Brazil. So I asked my dad to join us, and he did, and we worked together for 20 years and it was a fantastic experience and partnership working with him.
Mitch: It’s a very lucky thing.
Jordan: Oh yeah, very special in that regard. So that was the first key hire. I’ll let Mitch take over because he and I are pretty much in the same camp here in what we’ve always done in terms of looking for how we vet people we want to come and join us at the studio.
Mitch: It’s a really, really simple formula. Just like you handcraft a game, we handcraft a studio, so every single person we add to the studio, we have to see these key elements from each one of them.
The first one is absolute – it’s passion. Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, that doesn’t matter. You can see the passion when they talk about their product, or when they talk about their work, and you can see it in the work, so that’s the first thing.
The second thing, we are looking for people that are not “YES” men. We are looking for people who are honest, who say what they think and aren’t afraid to have their minds changed once a superior logic contradicts that.
The next one would be a commitment to quality, because anybody can put out lots and lots of crap games and maybe even make a lot of money, but for us, we believe you’ve only got one spin on this rock and we want to leave behind games that we are proud of and we don’t want to put out anything that we’re not proud of.
The last thing is the people who joined this studio need a healthy respect for their audience. I’ve been at companies where you hear the derision that some game developers have for their audience. I’ve heard people call their audience mouth-breathers.
Mitch: Yeah, it was a long time ago, luckily, but these are the people that first of all pay their salary. We hire people with the same passion for the games that the paid people that are playing the games have passion for, just like Jordan said earlier. They can’t have that; that’s not allowed at all. It might come through in the game somehow and definitely, we’re never going to allow that to appear in our customer service.
Jordan: Yeah, and I think the last two there are particularly key. We’re so overwhelmed by this current Kickstarter because the audience is telling us in very concrete ways that they really appreciate what we’ve built for them; they appreciate the way we’ve treated them, and that’s why I believe they’re supporting us so dramatically.
If you look at the recent history of video games on Kickstarter, it’s really an anomaly, the level at which they’re supporting us and I think it’s because of these ways that they know how much we respect them and we try to really deliver a very high value for money for them.
I think also the other thing that’s key for us is the environment here. One of the phrases I’ve used for a long time is the audience can tell if you were smiling when you made it, and if it’s just a laborious, terrible, torturous product to make, it seeps into the DNA of the product and the audience can feel it. And so we have to keep the environment; it’s just critical for our own psyche as well as for the quality of what we make. We want the environment to be a fun one to work in, and that means we’re very conscious of watching out for egos.
Mitch: Without a doubt.
Jordan: Because this is US, not an individual thing.
Mitch: Yeah, we’re not coming down from the mountains with tablets saying, “This is how to make a game.” When there’s a conflict, the audience wins. What’s best for the product, not whose title says “I win”.
Jordan: Yeah, we have basically no titles. No offices.
Mitch: Yeah, no offices. Not only are there no offices, we’re in 4 foot by 2 foot desks, butted up against each other.
Alexis: That’s one thing I noticed.
Mitch: We breathe each other’s air.
Alexis: [Chuckles] That’s one thing I noticed from the Kickstarter video – at least the first one. “Step into my office” and he took half a step over.
Mitch: Yeah. In that one, that’s when we first started Harebrained Schemes and talking about the new office; that was actually a storage closet that we had rented from a friend.
Jordan: Yeah, got Chris over at Gas Powered Games [chuckles].
Alexis: Wow. Alright, bring us up to speed when FASA started to pick up a whole bunch of steam and when Mitch came onboard.
Jordan: FASA built up and then we started Virtual Entertainment, which launched the BattleTech centers, and then that company got acquired by the Disney Family, and together we built a chain of virtual world centers around the world, and that’s when Mitch joined us.
It was at Virtual World Entertainment, which was – actually, no, sorry. I’ll back up.
Mitch: You wanted me to work at Virtual World Entertainment.
Jordan: Yeah, I tried to hire you at Virtual World Entertainment, but you didn’t come at that point. Then we started a company called FASA Interactive and FASA Interactive then merged with Virtual World, and it was at that point you joined us.
Mitch: Yes. We started working on Corsairs.
Jordan: That’s right. At that point, the company was both running these location-based entertainment centers around the world and producing PC titles, and so Mitch came in and the two of us brainstormed and came up with a game called Corsairs that we were working on, that eventually became –. We were working on it originally for the location-based centers, and then it kind of mothballed, and then I did it as a board game because I just wanted to play in that world, and so I did it as a board game at FASA, the tabletop company. Then Microsoft bought –.
Mitch: There was one more thing. While you were making that board game, I was making Mech Commander I in your design.
Jordan: Yeah, and I was working on that with this one because the board game was at night.
Jordan: Yeah, so then Mitch started on Mech Commander I, and then Microsoft bought that company, and then we all moved out here to Seattle.
Mitch: Sunny Seattle.
Jordan: [Chuckles] And I became creative director for the org, which at that point was about 300 people and Mitch was running the FASA studio within that org.
Mitch: That’s close to accurate.
Jordan: I guess you had a temporary –.
Mitch: There was a temporary –.
Jordan: We pushed him out of the way, but he was there for a while [chuckles].
Mitch: We were sort of the nucleus of what became Microsoft Game Studios, Microsoft Studios, but that’s before there was any concept of a “studio.”
Jordan: That’s right.
Mitch: And so we were absorbed into the borg. It is the best way to put it.
Alexis: Oh no.
Mitch: I could write a book! Anyway, and then we formed FASA Studio, which was run very successfully for quite a while by a guy named David, and I took over for Dave after shipping Mechassault with Day One Studios, which was the launch title for the Xbox Live service.
Alexis: Yeah, and you were involved in Xbox Live Arcade, right?
Mitch: Yeah, I ran Xbox Live Arcade for I think a year or so, and I founded a second studio at Microsoft game studios called – it was an internal team, so it doesn’t matter what it was called, but it was a first party Xbox Live Arcade group. I had six Xbox Live Arcade titles that I was working on there, simultaneously.
Alexis: While being in charge of Xbox Live Arcade, you worked a lot with indie developers, right?
Mitch: Oh yeah, absolutely!
Alexis: Are there any nuggets that you’ve learned that you could share with folks, when you have to cooperate with other devs?
Mitch: Yes. Without a doubt, I can. I would say that before Jordan and I founded Harebrained Schemes, the single biggest learning experience I’ve had in my life was running Xbox Live Arcade and meeting with all these incredibly talented independent developers around the world.
They share a lot of similar DNA, and those qualities that Jordan and I listed for you, what we’re looking for in the people that worked here, he learned that the hard way, the School of Hard Knocks. I learned it over the course of my time at Xbox Live Arcade.
There’s two ways of learning, in my experience. There’s depth, which is how Jordan has done it, and breadth, which is how I learned at that particular year or so, just visiting so many developers and seeing their products and how they work.
In terms of dealing with the publisher and dealing with a behemoth publisher, a lot of the people at the publishers, they often say they understand how games are made and stuff like that. “Oh yeah, you can talk to me. I know how games are made.” But in my experience, many of the people have never actually made games themselves, so they’re not necessarily truthful, and so when you tell them about the hardships you’re having, they’re not looking at it from a game developer’s point of view; they’re only looking at it from a publisher’s point of view and judging.
When you’re looking for a publisher and a publishing producer and that kind of thing, I’d say when you meet with that person, just ask them about their background and google them and find out which titles they actually have credits on. And I don’t mean publishing credits necessarily, I mean development credits.
Although to be fair, I know several great publishing producers that because of the breadth of their experience working with so many developers, they’ve actually garnered the experience they need to give useful feedback and also to represent your company to their corporation successfully.
But that does lead me to another point: you are the best representative for your product, and if you leave it to a producer to represent you successfully inside their giant organization, they don’t necessarily have your best interests in mind or at heart, regardless of what they say. They serve the corporate master, not you, regardless of what they’re telling you.
I also see a disrespect occasionally, back and forth. It’s a tough thing, being a developer and having to deal with sort of a corporate borg and being part of a borg and talking to a developer. I’ve seen corporate people trying to teach indies how to run their companies, “We’re going to come in and we’re going to help you learn how to run your company.”
Of course, they learned it at a large corporation, not at a bootstrapped, feisty street-level.
Alexis: So things can easily go awry.
Mitch: Oh yeah. I think one of the key things is managing communications. When you’re dealing with a publishing organization, it’s best to have one line of communication so you’re only talking to one person there, so that a whole bunch of different people from that publisher aren’t telling different people on your teams different things, right?
Mitch: At the same time, you also want to have an escalation path at your publisher, so although you have that one line of communication to you, you want a line of communication to that person’s boss, too. Otherwise, that one person represents –.
Alexis: The whole company.
Mitch: Exactly, and you have to be able to have a different line of communication.
Alexis: Before we get too far away from the BattleTech centers –.
Mitch: Oh, yes! Let’s go back there; that’s awesome.
Alexis: I find this fascinating. A bit of a background with my experience with them, which isn’t too in depth. I played one at DisneyQuest ages ago, and I didn’t know until I was doing research that you were all responsible for them. I was fascinated by those things. Why did they fizzle out? Why didn’t they take over the world as you had hoped?
Jordan: Now why didn’t they take over the world, Jordan? What’s wrong?
Alexis: Please, because I really would like them to.
Mitch: Yeah, I would too, pal.
Jordan: I guess in some respect, we could say they did take over the world in the same way that the Apollo programmers has taken over the world. What was spawned by them –.
Mitch: Is greater than them.
Jordan: Yeah, is pretty much every game we play now, right? I mean, if you look at the billions of dollars in e-sports that are being done right now, those are all direct line descendants of the e-sports we started back in 1987 where we actually had our first world championship that was televised on a cable channel – I can’t remember which one – a cable channel back in ’92. We had people from every continent there participating in a live, photographed e-sport.
I think they themselves – location-based entertainment is a challenging model. It’s enormously immersive, which is the part I always loved about it – it pulls together the power of computer simulation and all the kinds of play patterns and the ability to be physically in the same space.
Jordan: The social dynamics, which is why we love tabletop still, that face-to-face socialization is so powerful. So it definitely merges all those together in a great way, but it’s a tough economic environment because retail space is expensive and the speed at which consumer hardware – if you look at the power curve, the consumer game hardware has gone through in the last 20 years and think about how often you’d have to update the centers for them to stay ahead of what’s available at home, it becomes a very punishing cycle as well.
I think also part of it was we were a little ahead of the curve, a mistake I’d made several times where –.
Mitch: You’re just too freaking visionary.
Jordan: Well, a comedian who delivers the punchline too fast is no better than a comedian that delivers the punchline too late [chuckling].
Mitch: That’s great.
Jordan: And so I think one of the challenges we had with software development was that we had to advertise all that software development across only the centers we own, because the home business didn’t exist, and we couldn’t advertise that same software development across everybody playing home as well.
I mean, it’s a space I’d love to find a way to return to one day because I think it’s so dynamic, but it’s a tough, economic one.
Alexis: Do you see maybe VR fitting into that kind of space as a stopgap?
Jordan: Well, I think VR is something that we’ve been playing with, like you mentioned DisneyQuest. We did a lot of work on DisneyQuest. Joe DiNunzio, who ran DisneyQuest, who created DisneyQuest, is our partner here at Harebrained Schemes, with Mitch and I. Joe and I go back long, long ways, and so we did a ton of work with him on the original DisneyQuest, which was the first broad exposure of VR, a long time ago.
We’ve certainly been playing in these arenas for a long time, and VR is enormously powerful from an immersion standpoint, but almost inherently antisocial, right?
Jordan: I mean, you literally are escaping into your own bubble, so it shows that challenge. I’d be very interested to see how home VR ferrets – does this time out. I mean, the technology is so much farther ahead than it was the last time we tried to bring VR to the home. That’s a great enabler, but some of the challenges that VR has always faced still exist, and they’re tough to get around.
I don’t think it’s a replacement for LBE, but I think it’s a great tool for immersion into a world. It’s unparalleled.
Alexis: Now before we move from the Microsoft days to the Harebrained Schemes days, Mitch, thank you for the FPS – the Shadowrun FPS.
Mitch: Oh, thanks! That’s a rare thing to hear.
Alexis: Yeah, as the executive producer on it. Okay, I’ll come clean. I haven’t played the tabletop Shadowrun yet, but the FPS, I loved that thing because of the variety of the different classes – I’ll stop or I’ll keep gushing because it was something that had an amount of variety that the other first person shooters did not have.
Mitch: I really appreciate you, hearing it. Honestly, I do agree. I think the team that made that game did a fantastic job. There were definitely problems with the way we approached the world background, and of course the marketing of it, also the price of it. But the gameplay I’m still incredibly proud of, and I know there are still people today that are playing that thing very aggressively in a competitive team nature and I’m still proud of that.
Jordan: I think he’s justifiably proud of it and also you could see again the downstream impact of it. I mean, the gameplay that was pioneered there has become major elements of the franchises of both Halo and Destiny because those are the same guys, right?
Mitch: Yeah, it’s the same games.
Jordan: Mitch trained on those projects.
Alexis: That, I did not know.
Mitch: It’s an incestuous business, and you can say the word “trained” but my God, these people are talented.
Jordan: Yeah, “trained” is the wrong word – “led” is the right word.
Mitch: Led is more accurate, yeah.
Alexis: So Harebrained Schemes was born out of the idea to bring – used Kickstarter to bring Shadowrun back, right?
Jordan: Let’s see – after I left, just finishing up the chain, I left Microsoft earlier than Mitch did. I was there just about four years.
Mitch: “Come, I’m going to do WizKids. Come, make this company with me.” “No, no, no.”
Jordan: Yeah, I tried recruit him to WizKids.
Mitch: Yeah, that’s a major mistake on my part.
Jordan: Left and did WizKids and then sold that to Tops, and then did 42 Entertainment with all the ARGs, then did this big VC-backed company called Smith & Tinker. Smith & Tinker’s goal was to bring the video game dynamics to the tabletop, which sounds familiar – what we just did with our Golem Arcana. It was an early attempt to do that, and it relied on proprietary hardware because at the time, there wasn’t a handheld platform that could do everything we needed.
That changed, of course, as the price points on mobile smart devices dropped, and that’s what incented the creation of, first with Harebrained Schemes and Go Go Kiddo, because I just had my ass kicked by realization that dedicated piece of hardware was no longer going to exist or be needed to exist because of these –.
Mitch: Smart devices.
Jordan: Yes, the supercomputers we carry in our pockets now. I wanted to get onto those platforms and learn and start to think about what we could do with them and so that’s where Harebrained came from.
We had actually, by the time we shipped as Harebrained, we’d shipped two entertainment titles and a couple of educational titles before we did the Kickstarter for Shadowrun, for Shadowrun Returns.
Alexis: I was going to say I missed that Kickstarter campaign.
Jordan: The first two titles we did – one was called Crimson: Steam Pirates and we published that with Bungie. That was a benchmarked title for Apple that year.
Mitch: And one of Metacritic’s best of the yea, best for the record.
Jordan: And then we did a game called Strikefleet Omega, which was one of Google’s Game of the Year for that year. It was a small team; we were only eight people at the time, but we had started to learn our chops on mobile platform, and then that’s when we did the Kickstarter for Shadowrun Returns.
Alexis: And so that wound up with you having 36, 276 backers, $1.8 million and you originally had a $400,000 goal. That is blowing your goal out of the water. And you’re currently doing the same thing with Shadowrun: Hong Kong.
Mitch: Oh yeah, that’s right, yeah.
Alexis: [Chuckles] That thing, yeah.
Jordan: I mean, I think they’re two very different campaigns. The first one, Kickstarter was very fresh and new. We had seen the success of Double Fine and I figured, “Wow, if there’s an older, overweight game designer who can do it, I’m an older, overweight game designer – maybe I can do it too!”
Mitch: Such a “me too.”
Jordan: Actually, the truth was I was very unconvinced, and Mitch had been talking – both of us had been backing this stuff on Kickstarter and we thought it was incredibly cool. Mitch had said to me, “Hey, we could use this to fund a game” and I was like – I just didn’t think it would work because the platform at the time was so focused on individual artists and very small-scale projects. There wasn’t anything being done by teams and companies.
Then Double Fine came out and just proved me wrong and I sheepishly went to Mitch and said, “Well, I guess you’re right. Let’s go do that!”
Mitch: Actually that same week, Kotaku came out with an article saying, “What are the top ten games you want to return?” and Shadowrun was near the top of that list. I used that as evidence with Jordan. And we were talking to a publisher again that same week. He’s like, “When are you guys going to make a Shadowrun game? We want to publish that.” I was like, “Alright, that’s it. The writing’s on the wall, let’s go.”
Jordan: Yeah, so we went out with what we – a project in the scale of the other mobile games that we had been doing.
Mitch: We had a very small-scale game in mind at first.
Jordan: Yeah, totally different from what Shadowrun Returns became due to the overwhelming outpouring of the audience. It was really an incredibly emotional experience for an old cadre like me because not only they were giving us their money, but they were really sharing their childhood memories and the passion they had and what role this game played in their lives. That was just really, really powerful and also made it the highest anxiety game I’ve ever made [chuckles].
Alexis: Because everybody was watching?
Mitch: There has never been bore attention ever.
Jordan: Oh my God. Because they had really shown us how important it was to them, I knew we were messing with their childhoods and the expectations were very high, and so it was both this incredibly emotional rollercoaster all the way through, just the excitement and the terror of it.
Mitch: That word “terror” is not chosen lightly.
Jordan: And I think we just really, really worked hard to try to meet those expectations, and I think we did meet them with Shadowrun Returns, and then I think we dramatically exceeded them with Dragonfall and Dragonfall Director’s Cut. I think that’s why we’re seeing the response this time. It’s not nostalgia at this point; I think it’s them saying, “Hey, you guys are a known quantity –.”
Alexis: Yes please, can we have more?
Jordan: “Can we have more?” Yeah, I really think that’s what it is. That, in its own way, is enormously gratifying for the team as a whole. Before it was just like we were drafting something I did 25 years ago. Now we’re flying on something that the entire team here made.
Mitch: Yeah, I totally agree.
Alexis: And at this very moment you are sitting at nearly half a million dollars with your new goal.
Mitch: Could you give us the exact number please, because I might have to put out a Kickstarter update during this podcast.
Mitch: We got a little time.
Jordan: Yeah, we got a little time.
Alexis: So what were some of the lessons that you’ve learned that might help other people if they’re considering a Kickstarter of their own?
Mitch: First get a 25-year-old property that’s beloved the world over.
Alexis: [Chuckles] That easy?
Jordan: Yeah, that’s right, that’s the key to success.
Mitch: It’s like one of Steve Martin’s old jokes – How do you get a million dollars tax free? Okay first, get a million dollars [chuckles].
Jordan: Yeah, we are being facetious but it is also true. There is no question that established emotional to what you’re doing is enormous and powerful. When we did our Kickstarter for Golem Arcana last year which was just over 500k is well that was a very different animal, because this was a brand new property with no emotional attachment to the audience. It was a product which challenged the way you play games, made you rethink that and decide to take a leap with us into a new way to play a game.
Mitch: New IP, new technology, no problem. Give us 500 grand.
Jordan: It was much tougher.
Alexis: It was pretty cool.
Jordan: Oh, yeah. It was a knife fight down at the end. It was a much tougher proposition, and that’s more typical to what you’re going to face, for other people starting Kickstarters. In that context if you don’t have the advantage of being really old –.
Mitch: That’s now an advantage.
Jordan: [Chuckles] Exactly.
Mitch: When we get old it’s becomes an advantage, before that it’s not.
Jordan: The huge amount of it is preparation. Really, really know what you want to make, research what you’re going to make, prototype what you’re going to make so that you know the inside and out and can really speak with authority about what it’s going to take to make it so that you don’t put yourself in the unenviable position of having succeeded in raising a bunch of money, and not being able to deliver what you promised on. Well the first Kickstarter was conceived on the air in like a week.
Mitch: We went really fast.
Jordan: You could get away with that then.
Mitch: And we’re idiots.
Jordan: Yeah, but nowadays its months of preparation to really to do well. One to do that research, and two to prep your market. Before Golem Arcana came out we spent months on the road at conventions, demo trading this to thousands of people. We went to game stores demo trading them we had to build awareness and preparation so that by the time we did launch the Kickstarter there was an audience there waiting for it to start and get that ball rolling.
Mitch: and we saw that at the day one of our Golem Arcana Kickstarter week, we had a hundred thousand dollars the first day, because of that preparation.
Jordan: And I think that’s the key thing, it used to be that people “Oh I’ll use Kickstarter as marketing.” No, you have to market the Kickstarter and prep that beforehand because now those that first day is critical. You have to really come out of the chute hot and so you got to prep the market before that.
Mitch: You also have to be prepared during the Kickstarter to respond to questions, comments, queries. You got to be there to communicate and you got to plan out what’s going to happen throughout the 20-30 plus days of your Kickstarter to keep people energized, keep people magnetized to your page and keep it rolling.
Jordan: Yeah, then you want to watch out what we call the three horsemen of the apocalypse of Kickstarter – picking, packing and shipping.
Mitch: They were also the Marx Brothers’ younger brother who has never made it to vaudeville.
Jordan: So, Picking, Packing, Shipping and Zeppo. Those things are always woefully underestimated by people.
Mitch: Even us.
Jordan: Yeah, even people who have shipping physical products for a lot of years, it’s still easy to mess that up and it’s a very expensive proposition if you do. So you really got to research that.
Back to what we were talking about before in terms of identifying an audience, know that niche and be able to market to them successfully. And what Mitch said that communication is critical, when people are backing you they’re not just buying something.
Mitch: This isn’t Amazon.
Jordan: They want to become part of the process and that level of communication starts during the campaign but that does not end at the end of those 30 days. It is all the way through the process, of creation, of shipping and after it’s in the market. We just sent out our last Kickstarter update for Shadow Run Returns.
Mitch: Last week.
Jordan: Last week, and that game shipped almost three years ago.
Mitch: June 2013.
Jordan: Yeah, so two years ago. It’s a long engagement and that’s part of why they’re here, that’s part of why they’re part of this risky preposition – of giving money, before this thing they want exists. So you have to budget internally for the time that communication is going to take which is another place that people often don’t account for.
Alexis: We’re coming up on an hour here and I want to let you guys get back to the Kickstarter and watching the ticker ever so closely but a rush of few more questions in here. You mentioned customer service a few times. Any lessons that might help others when it comes to customer service with their own products, whether they’d be the physical table top games or the video games?
Jordan: Well there’s a wide variety of how people treat customer service. I know companies who treat it by not having any phone number, email address or any way that you could reach them to ask for customer service.
Mitch: Because it’s less expensive.
Jordan: Dramatically less expensive, no question about it. And any of the companies that I’ve been involved in and here at Harebrained we really take the opposite perspective on that. We have great people like Robin, and Liz and Brian who just work tirelessly to respond to players both with when they have an issue that needs resolution whether it’s a piece missing in a physical game or a bug that they have identified or even when they’re writing to say “Hey, I really loved this level.”
We think it’s a good long-term investment and I think that this current Kickstarter is a reflection of that. That we, I think they appreciate it, the audience, you as a consumer. It’s like what your mother always told you, “Don’t treat people in any way differently than you want to be treated.”
Mitch: Yeah, absolutely. The hardest part of running a Kickstarter for us as human beings is because of the deluge of communication we get from our audience whether it’s on info@kickstarter, and shadow@ – what are we? harebrained-schemes.com, or our email address or the forums or the comments or whatever, we can’t maintain our own standards of responding to every single person who contacts us within 24 hours. That’s the hardship for us, its maintaining that level of customer service. We have to do the best we can and we actually hate that.
Alexis: [Chuckles] Alright. So the last two questions here that I ask everybody on the podcast – what’s one mistake you’d rather not repeat?
Mitch: Jesus. We’re talking old guys now.
Jordan: We’re only limited to one?
Alexis: Well, if you want to spend more time on the podcast, by all means.
Mitch: No, I’ve got mine, I’ve got mine. You’ve got plenty more to choose from. The one personal thing that comes to mind right away, and it happened a lot when I was younger and it’s actually become a part of my family’s mantra – they’re the Gitelman rules. There are four Gitelman rules.
But when I was younger and when actually when Jordan and I were working together I did not ask for help when I needed it. I did not realize I needed help outside my team, outside of myself and I figured I will solve my own problems, I’ll pull myself up and my bootstraps, and I was an idiot for doing that. Gitelman rule number three states use your resources; that could be your parents, that could be the Internet, that could be whatever. But don’t ever be afraid to use your resources and ask for help.
Alexis: I think might need to adapt that myself [chuckles].
Jordan: I’ve actually done a whole talk of the litany of the mistakes I’ve made and there are many, many of them but I’ll close with just one which is – I’ll put this in the positive – choose your partners carefully.
Mitch: Oh yeah.
Jordan: One of the things that make Harebrained Scheme a joy is working with Mitch and Joe. In other circumstances I’ve chosen poorly and it’s like a bad marriage. It’s very hard to have a high performing bad marriage. And you are going to spend as much time with these partners or more than you do with your spouse so it’s really a critical decision to do. I think it’s one of the keys to the fact that we’ve been able to work together and grow from eight to fifty people now and actually still keep it light and fun and creative and productive.
Mitch: Yeah, nobody likes it when mom and dad are fighting.
Alexis: Just talking to you two, you can really tell the camaraderie and how well you two get along and it’s nice to see that.
Mitch: End Scene. Oh there you are!
Alexis: But honestly. Let’s see, the last question here – for programming, what’s your text editor of choice? I mean this might have to be reaching way back.
Mitch: For programming, I don’t know shit about programming. Jordan, your turn [chuckles].
Jordan: It’s been a lot of years since I’ve been programming. Actually I’ve been doing database programming now for us for a little while for the fun of it. I think my last professional programming gig was on an Apple II so that was a long time ago.
Mitch: I think when we were doing Crimson: Steam Pirates we were using Notebook ++ to do Lua script.
Jordan: One of the dirty secrets here at Harebrained Schemes and one of the things dramatically different from when we started businesses so long ago right is that it used to be, we had to have everything. and now we virtualize everything. Yeah, everything’s in the cloud and so we leverage cloud-based stuff for collaboration and creating quick and dirty contact management systems. We’ve hacked together all sorts of just off the shelf things to run the back ends of our games, without having to develop expensive back end stuff. And so those just all hacked together, publicly available.
Mitch: Yeah, and that goes back to rule number three – use your resources.
Jordan: Yeah. Actually, I’ve done a lot of level design in Excel spreadsheets because we used a lot of Excel-like spreadsheets for doing our level designs. So that’s the closest I got to a programming language for a while.
Alexis: So folks would like to back Shadowrun: Hong Kong. I keep wanting to use extra ‘o’s in Hong Kong the where the ‘u’ should be in Shadowrun, where should they go?
Karen Blondell, PR for Harebrained Schemes: The URL.
Alexis: [Chuckles] that works, it’s too long. I was hoping I’d get the company’s website.
Mitch: Go to kickstarter.com and type in Shadowrun: Hong Kong.
Alexis: If we like to follow you two on Twitter where canwe do that?
Mitch: @webeharebrained – W-E-B-E-H-A-R-E-B-R-A-I-N-E-D.
Alexis: Well Mitch, Jordan, thank you very much I really appreciate you taking out the time out of your schedule to come on the show.
Jordan: Entire pleasure. Thank you, thank you for a lively conversation.
Alexis: And for the listeners, we’ll catch you next week. And that gentlemen is a wrap.
Author: Alexis Santos