A Sneak Peek at the Cyberpunk Fantasy World of Shadowrun Online

Shadowrun Online is still in development, but there are big plans to tie the game to tabletop Shadowrun's big summer campaign, Lockdown. The developers let me try an early build of the game, and talked to me about all things cyberpunk.

While Shadowrun Online isn't due for launch until late in 2014, an early version of the game is on Steam and available to Kickstarter backers. It will be a free-to-play game with an optional premium membership. Its style is very similar to the highly successful single-player Shadowrun Returns — it's a turn-based action game in which you view your characters from above, directing them to move through the gritty Blade Runnerish streets taking cover, firing weapons and casting spells. There's a very strong noir detective vibe.

A Sneak Peek at the Cyberpunk Fantasy World of Shadowrun Online

Even the extremely early version I tried was a lot of fun. While major systems like character creation and co-op aren't ready yet, it was dead simple to dive right in and run some of the preliminary missions. You direct your Shadowrunners with mouseclicks, and it's easy to see where they can go with a walk or a sprint (which uses up your whole turn). The cover system is intuitive and effortless to use. There's a decent amount of tactical depth, even with a very limited powerset — you can fire a machine gun in a burst or on full auto, with various drawbacks and benefits for each mode.

Jan Wagner, Creative Director & Thomas Weilguny, Content Director, both from Cliffhanger Productions, explained to me their ambitious plans for connecting Shadowrun Online to canonical events in the Shadowrun campaign world.

io9: To begin, could you tell me about the storyline of Shadowrun Online, and how it will intersect with Lockdown? How will player actions online be tied to the tabletop campaign?

Thomas Weilguny: Lockdown provides the whole background to the Shadowrun: Online game world. Major events that are behind the action in Shadowrun: Online are described in detail in Lockdown and everything that goes on within Shadowrun: Online fits into the Lockdown scenario. There are also some locations and characters that we'll encounter in the game, as well as the backstory concerning the machinations of the corporations behind the elusive cause of the lockdown. Obviously the campaign book will be more open and also has a much wider scope then the Online Game can have, and also different missions. We did not want Lockdown to be a cardboard cut-out version of a computer game – these often end poorly – but a fully-fledged Shadowrun campaign in its own right.

Jan Wagner: With the concept of the online world affecting the tabletop setting and story, our plot plays a prominent role in the tabletop game and is already foreshadowed in current publications. Furthermore, our players will decide the fate of one of the megacorps as a major event, which is going to be demoted from the corporate council…and our players will determine which one it is.

A Sneak Peek at the Cyberpunk Fantasy World of Shadowrun Online

io9: How will Shadowrun Online handle some of the more abstract elements of the Shadowrun universe, like Matrix actions or astral forms?

Thomas Weilguny: There will be the occasional support from the off-site decker, but for most of that we've tried to make hacking part of the encounters. That means that there's combat hacking, some Augmented Reality action, but no pure matrix runs or excursions to the astral plane. The main guiding factor for us is that we do not want player characters in a group to "play their own game" while everyone else waits for them to finish. Matrix runs or extended Astral walks have that tendency to make everyone else go get Pizza, watch TV and come back 2 hours later. In the online game we want everyone in the group to be active at all times.

io9: I liked some of the interactive environments in the early missions, like opening the body drawers in the chop shop. Any plans to expand that system? (I found myself desperately wanting to click on the soda machines in the Stuffer Shack for a quick refreshment).

Jan Wagner: Thanks! Yeah, we're definitely talking about using that more often - right now we are focusing on adding more missions to the campaign but in the end we hope to add a lot more life to each of the missions. Hopefully, this won't just mean clickable stuff, but also newscasts that relate to the ongoing story of Lockdown and so on.

A Sneak Peek at the Cyberpunk Fantasy World of Shadowrun Online

io9: What kind of systems will be in place for players to team up with friends, form guilds, trade gear, and so forth?

Jan Wagner: Co-op will be added to the alpha version soon so that we can start testing. Trading won't make it for launch, but we absolutely want everyone to have the opportunity to team up and play with friends, as well as form a guild (although we won't call them that). Live co-op is at the heart of our experience, so there is a big focus on giving everyone a smooth experience there, including the ability to 'borrow' your friends' characters to take them on a run should your friends be offline. You will be able to control them - minus stealing your friends' equipment and using their consumables - and they will get a reward in return. Guilds will play a major role in the end-game and, in turn, will be able to influence what is happening for everyone else on the server. We also plan to allow guilds to sponsor missions for everyone on the server when they throw their weight behind a specific mega corp – so guilds can really become a major factor in what goes on in our game.

io9: Can you tell me about the Shadowrunner customization system? Which elements of a character can be customized?

Jan Wagner: Character creation and progression, which will be coming in a future update, is completely skill-based and class-free as in the tabletop game. We will use skill-trees for specific skill areas to allow you to easily build archetypes - say you want a Decker, you could specialize in security system hacking or combat hacking and also learn handguns, specializing in tasers, pistols, revolvers etc. Also, skills for us do not just mean "the same, but better." They actually open up new tactical options for combat, which means you will become more versatile as a character.

Thomas Weilguny: The different races (or metatypes) of characters are obviously a vital part of the Shadowrun universe. With the introduction of character creation we would like to release a new race along with each update leading up to launch. You can choose your gender and we have an expanding range of clothes, item slots, and hairstyles so you can customize your character from head to toe.

For a bit more info you can have a look at our dress-up dev diary.

A Sneak Peek at the Cyberpunk Fantasy World of Shadowrun Online

io9: What have you got planned in terms of adding content down the line? New storylines? More gear, options, and systems? What can players expect to see?

Thomas Weilguny: What you see right now is just a prequel to introduce the main game systems and to gather feedback. With those systems in place, adding new missions, storylines, and gear is definitely a priority. We are constantly introducing features both big and small, like the recent addition of alarm systems, to more expansive skill options that allow players to explore new combinations, like the creation of Technomancers.

Jan Wagner: Of course, the biggest feature to come is the main campaign, which will evolve based on the collective actions of players – new missions will be based on the outcomes of certain events or on how a majority of players resolved certain missions, so the future of our world is player-driven to a high degree.