Jordan Weisman on Game Design

This week we’re traveling into the future with the legendary designer of Shadowrun and Battletech: Jordan Weisman.

I’ve looked up to Jordan Weisman for years. He is a revolutionary storyteller, game designer, and entrepreneur. He created legendary titles like Shadowrun and Battletech, worlds that have resonated with fans for over 30 years. He launched his first company, FASA, at twenty years old. He created one of the first Virtual Reality Simulation games with Battletech, and he went on to develop the revolutionary Mageknight and Heroclix games. Jordan continues to be on the cutting edge of the tabletop and video game industry, continually pushing the boundaries of what is possible in technology, design, and business. Today, I have the pleasure of interviewing this game design legend. 

Check out this episode and the previous ones here.

Some insights from the podcast:

“Anything in the creative arts: if you don’t love it. If you’re not passionate about it. Then don’t bother. You can’t go into something in the creative arts because you think it’s going to make money. Odds are, it’s not.” (6:50) 

Success in the game industry requires hard work and a desire to make people happy. This is a lesson that should be at the forefront of a game designer’s mind, because at the end of the day if people aren’t having a great time, what was the point of the game?  

A game designer also has to be capable of cycling through iterations of a game, refining it until they have something with a tight core mechanic, that’s also fun to play. This can be a tedious and necessary process that will test your passion for game design. Make it out the other end, and it’s a good sign that game design is something you should pursue.

“For Shadowrun, which was a classic tabletop RPG, the process was all about story first, then working with a group of great guys to then build mechanics within that story.” (20:14)

Jordan is the developer of Shadowrun, one of the most well-know roleplaying games in the world, and arguably the best cyberpunk setting ever created. The big question for Jordan is, “How does story overlay with mechanics?” 

In this section, Jordan discusses being inspired by the Cyberpunk books out when he was working on the game, and how he was challenged by Mike Pondsmith’s game called “Cyberpunk.” Jordan needed to find a fresh angle for his Shadowrun world within the Cyberpunk genre. To do this, he focused on the essence of the cyberpunk genre, which he describes as “the dehumanization of humanity” and creates conflict with nature which is trying to claw its way back through magic. We also delve into the difference between a player’s expectations for RPG mechanics during the development of Shadowrun versus what a modern audience is looking for in regards to a game system. If you love Shadowrun, you’re going to want to listen to this part of the episode.

“If a version of the story already happened, then the kind of human, geopolitical, and social forces that made it happen feel real because they were.” (30:00)

When writing stories and developing games it’s important to keep adding to your mental library of information. Reading books, playing games, and taking in information to help you build a foundation for your project is a necessity. By absorbing information from the world around you, and grounding your story in reality, you can avoid the pitfall of putting a player in a world that is too alien for them to find footing. Jordan speaks about doing research and grounding your stories in something that the players know, so you can take them somewhere they’ve never been once they’re comfortable.

“Being an entrepreneur is being stupid enough to throw yourself off a cliff on the premise you’ll invent wings before you hit the ground.” (41:31)

In a fantastic entrepreneurial story, Jordan talks about dropping out of college to solder together a bunch of computers to develop a proto-virtual reality game. With his prototype made, he traveled around pitching it to investors. After failing over and over, he decided to take his ideas and turn them into pen and paper games, which led to the development of his first game company: FASA. It’s a story full of lessons from a relentless entrepreneur.

“Fear of failure is the greatest inhibitor to personal satisfaction and innovation.” (59:04)

Here we dig more into what it takes to be an entrepreneur, to fail over and over again, and to use the lessons from those failures to keep moving forward. We speak about the role of friends, family and loved ones on your entrepreneurial path. This section is hugely motivational, worth a listen if you’re anyone pursuing an entrepreneurial life.

“We all decided that if the Kickstarter didn’t reach 500 we were going to cancel the project.” (1:10:30)

Jordan and I discuss how to choose the funding amount you’ll need for a Kickstarter, which for him was a combination of the minimum needed to make the game, plus the maximum they think they could get larger investors to contribute, with the hope of overshooting their goal during the Kickstarter, and foregoing the need the larger investors. In this particular story, the don’t follow the rule the company set before launching the Kickstarter. Jordan considers it a mistake that there are many lessons to be learned from, lessons that he shares here.

“At the end of the day VR, I think will be a smaller market, because it is about cutting yourself off from the real world, and historically that’s not where breakthrough technologies come from. Breakthrough technologies, if we look at all the ones that have changed our landscape in the last 40 years, they are things that enhance or augment or make more efficient our actual world.” (1:20:00)

Jordan has been at the forefront of VR since before it existed. So, I asked him about what he thinks about it now that it’s more popular and accessible. It’s a fascinating look at the future, by someone who’s spent most of his life thinking about what’s coming next.

I hope you enjoy listening to this episode as much as I enjoyed recording it.

Feel free to comment below with any lessons you picked up that I didn’t post here – there are so many it’s hard to keep track!  I’d also love to hear what kinds of questions you’d ask our guests and what designers you’d like me to have on the show. Until next time!

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