Jordan Weisman and Mitch Gitelman have been making games for a long time. But in a rapidly changing landscape, the co-founders of Kirkland, Wash.-based Harebrained Schemes have emerged as premiere players in another evolving facet of the industry: Crowdfunding.
The darlings of Kickstarter have launched four successful campaigns, raising more than $7.3 million since their 60-person independent studio got off the ground five years ago.
The latest effort is for the next phase of the historic BattleTech franchise, as a PC version of the game is due in 2017. A Kickstarter gunning for $250,000 raised that amount in one hour last fall, and the campaign eventually pulled in $2,785,537 from 41,733 backers.
Weisman, 56, the original BattleTech creator and CEO of Harebrained, and Gitelman, 51, the studio head, offered a hands-on preview to GeekWire this week, days before bringing the game to the PAX West game convention, which starts today in Seattle. We discussed the duo’s shared past, BattleTech, and what’s behind Harebrained’s philosophy when it comes to interacting with its diehard audience.
“If you look at the gaming business, this is a historic time, really,” Gitelman said, spelling out the range of studios producing content, from the super bigs to the tiny indies. “For people who play games, for the audience, there’s no better time to be a gamer. Ever. In history.”
That history is extensive for the two, who first hooked up in the mid-90s at FASA Interactive Technologies, before the PC game company was purchased by Microsoft in 1999. Weisman and Gitelman became part of the core of what grew into Microsoft Game Studios and what eventually became Xbox.
“Mitch, being infinitely more patient, lasted many more years at Microsoft than I did,” said Weisman, a veteran game developer (MechWarrior, Shadownrun) with a long list of his own companies under his belt. Weisman was out in just under four years.
Gitelman lasted 12 years at Microsoft.
“I didn’t have the entrepreneurial spirit at the time,” Gitelman said. “I had the ‘D&D’ spirit, which was, ‘They have levels at Microsoft? Job levels with numbers? Yes!’ I just kept trying to move up those levels. I thought that was cool. But I was wrong. Entrepreneurship is cool.”
Gitelman said he’s been off the Microsoft “island” for five years, but “still has a little bit of a tan line.”
Away from the resources of a multi-billion dollar company, Weisman lauds the fact that the playing field — the tools to make games and the audience to play them — has become so accessible. And now, with its demonstrated Kickstarter successes, access to capital has also radically changed.
“With the advent of crowdfunding, these are people who are not interested in what the potential return of a title is, they’re interested in the title getting made because they desperately want it,” Weisman said. “This is a game that they want to play and they’re willing to take some risk to pay for it months and months before it exists.”
It’s been a big factor in the development and growth of Harebrained, and, according to Weisman, is what’s fueling a huge amount of content that’s coming out.
“Because even for the indies, at all scales, the audience is able to activate product development at a rate like never before,” Weisman said. “It’s both an enormous advantage and creates a hyper-competitive environment to get attention.”
The company prides itself on its Kickstarter success because it says that its loyal fans know that Harebrained will deliver on what it promises. Before BattleTech, there were campaigns for Shadowrun Returns ($1.8 million), Golem Arcana ($518,000), and Shadowrun: Hong Kong ($1.2 million).
Weisman said he and Gitelman can attribute their accountability to coming out of the tabletop gaming business, where knowing the customer was vital and interacting with the community — at conventions or by actually writing a letter — was integral to building success. He said the two took that approach with them as they transitioned to digital.
“It’s absolutely part of the DNA of this studio,” Gitelman said. “Service, alone, is a huge part of it. We take care of people, we exceed their expectations. With our Kickstarter backers, our service to them is probably unparalleled.”
With BattleTech, the company has been holding live-streamed Q&As every month. There are also forums where the development team interacts, speculates and joins in the fun.
“We consider ourselves part of our own community,” Gitelman said. “So we interact that way.”
It’s not design by committee, but Weisman said they are always engaged and listening and taking things away that become important in development. They’re also fully prepared to share when things don’t go well and what they’re doing instead.
“It’s a development process. There’s gonna be successes and there’s gonna be failures,” Weisman said. “Features we thought were going to be incredibly exciting turn out to suck and other stuff that we hadn’t recognized turns out to be incredibly fun. Part of the way that we treat our community is we don’t hide any of that from them.”
That mentality is also fueling ongoing tweaks to another new game, Necropolis: A Diabolical Dungeon Delve, which released to mixed reviews on the PC gaming platform Steam on July 12. In a post about the game, Gitelman laid out extensively what they had learned from player responses and critic reviews and what they were doing to address all of it.
Instead of just buying a game when it’s finished, Weisman said the Harebrained audience wants to “see how the sausage is made.”
It’s all part of a greater energy and strategy that Weisman said fans just aren’t getting from other media companies — whether that’s video games, or movies or whatever — and that’s respect.
“The history of ‘BattleTech,’ the fictional history, is hundreds and hundreds of years in a timeline,” Gitelman said. “And we treat that as if it’s actual history. Which is how our audience treats it. These events happened.”
Weisman said the properties get really rich as a huge amount of content is put out over decades. The 33-year-old “BattleTech” universe contains almost 200 novels, a dozen video games, a comic book series and an animated TV show.
“We try to treat each of them with respect, because the audience has invested themselves in different things,” Weisman said. “It’s the old ‘Han shoots first’ thing. It’s so easy as a creator to fall into the trap of, well, ‘I made it, I can do what I want with it!’ But the original piece of work, if it was lucky enough to have had such significant emotional components for your audience, that’s a landmark in their life.”
Time to play
With no emotional investment in BattleTech, having never played it in any form previously, I laid my hands on the game for the first time with Weisman and Gitelman seated on either side of me.
It’s an interesting way to play a video game, to have two masters of the genre walking you through the tactical maneuvers of giant robots and saying, “Yeah, you should go ahead and fire at that.” Ironically, it’s not unlike playing Xbox games nowadays with my 9-year-old son. “Dad, you’re gonna get killed.”
BattleTech, now set in 3025, is layered with interface information regarding the Mechs you control, including weapon types, firing range, movement options and so on. For a half an hour or so, I moved four Mechs toward a mission objective and watched, in the turn-based game, as enemy forces fired back at me.
The video below, from the guys playing the game at GenCon in Indianapolis just a couple weeks ago, illustrates what they’re calling the “Super-Pre-Alpha” version of what the game looks like. There’s still a lot of work to do.
After somehow managing to complete my first objective in BattleTech, I dropped four enemy Mechs — and the jaws of Weisman and Gitelman.
“Nicely done,” Weisman said. “You got ’em all and all four of your guys lived. That’s better than many of the people at the convention did.”
“And me,” Gitelman added.
I then moved on to the very different world of “Necropolis,” a non-crowdfunded 3D action offering that is in the roguelike subgenre. It’s a new design and new intellectual property that was created by senior team leaders in house at the studio.
The goal is to control a nameless character and get him to the bottom of a bizarre pyramid and escape without dying. Problem is, when you die, you start over. The minimalist artwork and creepy characters are nothing like what I interacted with in BattleTech.
“We call the company Harebrained Schemes for a reason, because we just do whatever the hell we want,” Gitelman said.