Chris’ Dev Diary – Characters

Hey everybody!

Chris Rogers here; I head up the character art team here at HBS and with launch right around the corner I get to pull back the curtain a bit and show you some of the character customization options in Shadowrun Returns.

At the start of development, we knew we had to capture that independent and rebellious Shadowrunner spirit. From the hard-boiled, coolant-for-blood samurai, to the wild-child decker putting the punk back into cyberpunk, to the young shaman with an old soul in the newly Awakened world, Shadowrun is full of unique, memorable characters that simply don’t exist anywhere else. In order to bring those characters to life we decided to embrace that individuality and specificity, creating each piece of character art with a strong viewpoint and identity in order to give you the tools you need to create your own unique denizen of the Sixth World. If you’re reading this dev diary you probably know the basics: in Shadowrun Returns you can choose to play as a male or female human, elf, dwarf, ork, or troll. The two visual elements that really define your character in the game are a painted portrait and a 3D in-game model. The portrait captures the inner life, detail, and subtlety of the character while the model distills all that down to one instant and bold impression in the game.


I’m a big believer in the alchemy of art, that the right elements can combine and reinforce each other, suddenly creating something new. And character creation in Shadowrun Returns involves some serious alchemy between your character’s portrait and your model. Continuing our “best of both worlds” approach of melding 2D and 3D we have leveraged the strengths of both elements to help you create your character. Its not a one-to-one… we have a limited number of 3D assets to match with the much more diverse portraits, but the results tend to feel very natural even when the portrait and the 3D model aren’t a perfect match . The subtlety of the painted portrait communicates attitude and expression. In the isometric world, where you need to be able to take in the entire tactical situation at a glance, the 3D model synthesizes all that personality down into a simplified silhouette that you can instantly “read”.

Character Portraits: Up Close and Personal


It is in the portrait that you will see a lot of detail and psychological depth in your character. As of this writing, there are nearly 200 player portrait options in Shadowrun Returns. When our portrait artist, David Nash, started painting we put a special emphasis on the inner life of each character. To give you some idea of what I mean by that, here are some early portrait notes I pulled from an old e-mail, “Male elf, the handsome grifter. He’s the double-crosser, the guy who is always one step ahead of his enemies with a trick and a quick one-liner. He can move easily from the highest society to lowest gangs and seems to know everyone… He will shake your hand and promise you an honest deal even as he is stealing the watch off your wrist.” And one more example, “Human female, the brutal survivor, she was orphaned at a young age and has survived on the streets by making the hard decisions that others would flinch from. There is nothing -nothing- soft about her.”

Dave then took those notes and created a portrait laden with all that subtext, investing the portrait with an inner life that continues to inform play throughout the game, as you can see in the examples below.


That psychological diversity compliments all the physical diversity in your portrait options. In addition to covering the basics of the ten possible gender and metahuman combinations, the portraits cover a wide range of ethnic backgrounds and etiquettes. Animator and character artist Hollie Mengert has curated the portrait set, putting some final touches on each and adding a number of variants- including cool piercings, arcane tattoos, painful scars, and cutting-edge cybereyes (though your portrait’s cybereyes are cosmetic and not tied to gameplay). Many of those variants are meant to support more magic focused or tech-centric characters, and some are simply opportunities Hollie saw to add something cool to the game and give you one more option that might spark your imagination.


The In-Game Model: Your Runner in Action

Complementing your portrait is the in-game model, which has to succeed in a completely different way. In the game environment details can get lost, or, worse, make the character look muddy and hard to understand visually. In Shadowrun Returns your character will have access to over 30 different gear sets (we’re still putting the final touches on the last few so we don’t have a final number yet), and we have designed each to immediately communicate an idea about your character in the isometric environment. Mike did a great job in Update 48 explaining how we get our (pretty small) characters to pop visually in the game environment. Check it out if you are interested! Here I want to talk about how those gear sets influence the look and feel of your character during legwork and combat.


At the beginning of the development process we were thinking of gear sets as exactly that: sets of gear that a character might wear. We realized pretty quickly, however, that that wasn’t quite the right way to think about it. Given the zoomed-out isometric camera the gear sets weren’t something a character might wear, the gear sets were characters. I reworked some of the concepts, looking for that big visual punch. We found that once we started concentrating on distilling the clothes and gear down to the very essence of an idea, that defiant Shadowrun individuality really started to show up in game. It became pretty clear that we were on the right track when we started spontaneously referring to each set with nicknames like “Street Monk” or “Slick Mage” and everyone understood each other. All those names are just our internal shorthand; the gearsets aren’t tied to your archetype and you will be able outfit your character as you see fit from the in-game vendors.

In-house we have been calling that instant impression of the character the “iso read”. There’s that one dominant area of each character that captures your imagination and communicates a bold idea simply, but the execution is anything but simple: too much detail and your character collapses into a pile of chattering pixels, too little detail and your character looks like a little tiny doll in a diorama. Maury Weiss and Fiona Turner have done an amazing job balancing the level of detail, value, and color in order to make sure that your character stays grounded in the reality of the game.


In the example above you can see how a gear set moves from concept to model – note how some details become emphasized or subdued in order to get the character to read in game. The idea behind the concept was to update the wandering fighting monk from Asian cinema. Here he still has his prayer beads and incense scars, and he’s swapped out his robes for some updated fighting leathers with a little flair. The cuffs are the primary read, with the most detail, followed by the prayer beads. Other details fade into the overall read – there’s a lot to see there, but it’s subdued in service of the whole. Once the concept is approved the 3D team begins work, keeping a careful eye on maintaining detail while avoiding chatter. Notice, for example, the number of prayer beads were reduced and scaled up. The final texture is painted based on the design rules mentioned in Mike’s update (such as using darker color values lower on the character, leading to brighter colors on the chest, shoulders, and arms). The final result is that in the game you have a character that still communicates attitude and function even when they occupy only a very small amount screen space.

Finally, for you samurai out there: a number of those gear sets are sleeveless so you can show off your cyberarm – once you save up enough nuyen to get one done, that is.

Putting it all Together: Alchemy


And this is the result when you combine the portrait and model on the character creation screen. Once you choose a gender and metatype, you will be able to select a portrait. We have assigned each portrait a corresponding skin color, hairstyle, beard, hair color, and (where applicable) set of horns so as you scroll through the portraits your model will update to match your selection. But let’s say you want a little more control over the look of your character… no problem! you can unlock the model and the portrait and toggle through a variable (say hair color or style) for the model by hand. In addition to working up lots of cool visual effects for the game, technical artist Steven Rynders has collaborated with AJ Bolden on the engineering side in order to make sure the system handles all the different elements.

Before I sign off I want to mention how exciting it is, once you’ve made your own character, to hire three more runners, each with their own identity (like the samurai, decker, and shaman I mentioned at the start of the post). During those runs your “character” is really the entire party. A few weeks ago we asked you, the Backers, to help us with some names and descriptions of Shadowrunners, adding one more layer of depth to your group of runners. It’s a blast right now to sneak into a tenement with runners like Daytona, Macabre, and Jack Nine, trailing drones and ready to call in spirits at the first sign of trouble.


So that’s a quick look at the visual aspects of your character, and we haven’t even touched on the more design-oriented aspects of character customization like karma spends and implants. Ultimately, of course, your character won’t come alive until the game releases, when you’re out there on the rainy streets of Seattle 2054 – asking questions that powerful people don’t want asked, hiring runners, bribing, cajoling, and, of course, fighting your way to the answers.

Until then we are here furiously tuning things and polishing everything up in anticipation of launch!



PS: If you’re going to be at Gencon, be sure to sign up for our events. Mitch and Jordan will be doing a panel discussion, we’re offering two hands-on Editor workshops and a Hack-a-thon. Hope to see you there!

Shadowrun Returns: What’s Next?
Shadowrun Returns: Advanced Game Mastering Tricks and Tips
Shadowrun Returns: Game Mastering – Editor 101
Shadowrun Returns: GM Hack-a-Thon

31 Responses to “Chris’ Dev Diary – Characters”

  1. Rabitepoo
    May 24, 2013 at 4:45 pm #

    The character creation screen looks so sharp! You guys have knocked it out of the park with the character and environmental art! I can’t wait to get my hands on this game!

  2. Emeraude
    May 24, 2013 at 5:11 pm #

    a) Looking lovely. Congrats to the team for an outstanding job (get yourself some well deserved coffee – by which I mean actual coffee, not soycaf).

    b) What is that exclamation mark among the archetypes in the character creation screens ?!* Why must you toy with my paranoia so !

    *: No need to tell me it’s the freeform creation. Let it simmer.

  3. Drodak
    May 24, 2013 at 6:00 pm #

    Release can’t get here soon enough, lookin WHIZ!

  4. Speaking Beast
    May 24, 2013 at 7:05 pm #

    Awesome – loving the updates! Can’t believe Launch is right around the corner – wooohooo!!

  5. Apokalips
    May 24, 2013 at 7:53 pm #


    can’t wait to get it!! :)

  6. Scarecrow71
    May 24, 2013 at 8:14 pm #

    I cannot wait until this drops! That art is just stunning!

  7. Jenuviel
    May 24, 2013 at 9:55 pm #

    Your team at Harebrained is setting a really high bar for other Kickstarter projects. These updates are always thoughtfully composed, interesting to read, and so full of passion and humor that I’m instantly glad I pledged. You guys are awesome!

  8. Ragingtroll
    May 24, 2013 at 10:21 pm #

    Finally someone has to decided to take up a project for a great game concept. I have played the Sega Genesis version for a long time and kept hoping that someday a new and more complicated concept would be turned into an even better game. I will definitely be purchasing a copy and hope that I am as satisfied as I think I am going to be….. (fingers crossed)

  9. Ramius
    May 24, 2013 at 11:48 pm #

    Looking great, can’t wait for the final product.

    Is there any chanceof you releasing a (sub) set of portraits to use as forum-avatars? With or without a Shadowrun Returns logo 😀

  10. Pete
    May 25, 2013 at 1:23 am #

    Looking awsome! I am looking forward to get it.

    What about the editor that was told to be release before the game? When actually does this go out. A lot of people want to take part on the level design an see it work later in the game.

    Best wishes from Germany,

    • Michael Chandra
      May 25, 2013 at 5:19 am #

      The backers that get early access will get early access as soon as the editor is ready for it. I’d give it a bit more time. You can check the forums for more intel.

  11. Blain E.
    May 25, 2013 at 1:53 am #

    Oh man.. I think I need a cigarette now.. 😉

  12. vampyren
    May 25, 2013 at 2:51 am #

    Looks great but when do we get the game 😀

  13. Farnball
    May 25, 2013 at 3:24 am #

    I’m looking forward to the release and to many expansions after that. Hope you guys get an ever better footing in the game industry after that. Take care, you have made your backers proud!

  14. Madcat
    May 26, 2013 at 5:32 am #

    Sooo relieved in the progression the character artwork has made. After the green orcs and jagged teeth incidents…..well I can now say I’m firmly in the pro-art design corner. Looks fantastic guys n gals. Back to drumming my fingers on the desk in eager anticipation…

  15. dakk0n
    May 26, 2013 at 5:21 pm #

    I used to play Shadowrun on SNES and was waiting for a sequel/remake/reboot for years!! (note: i dont like the shadowrun fps). Now, I already pre-ordered this game, can’t wait!

  16. Ginsu23
    May 28, 2013 at 4:40 am #

    This, looks, AWESOME!!! I am looking forward to this with baited breath. Steam says the game launches in June. I am really hoping for June 1st, but that probably won’t happen. I want to say I really like the mage concept since a hooded long-coat was what I had on my mage character for years in the pen and paper game. But I think the hood is a little too big. I was hoping for more of a hooded-sweatshirt type look, one that conforms to the head a bit more. Still looks great, though. Hopefully there will be other hood styles to satisfy me.

  17. Ginsu23
    May 28, 2013 at 4:43 am #

    Am I the only one that usually buys two or three games a month but is planning to forsake them all as soon as this one comes out? In the meantime, back to Dragon Age.

  18. King Nitro
    May 29, 2013 at 11:38 am #

    Holy crap, it’s the 29th, not telling us the release date cruel and unusual punishment guys.

  19. Charlamanga
    May 29, 2013 at 10:29 pm #

    I heart this, I heart this good. As always you guys are hitting everything dead on. I don’t pity you gentlemen for the big push to get everything hammered out for release. Thanks for keeping us posted with quality updates.

  20. Michael Chandra
    May 30, 2013 at 3:45 am #

    @King Nitro: I’m pretty sure that if they knew a definite release date, they’d tell it to us at once.

  21. Ginsu23
    May 30, 2013 at 11:43 pm #

    When the game does come out, how will we know if we already pre-ordered it? will we get an email? I think they said already, but I must have forgotten. Does any1 know?

  22. Benable
    May 31, 2013 at 1:03 pm #

    I want to play this game so bad! Looks amazing!

  23. Michael Chandra
    May 31, 2013 at 3:32 pm #

    Early Access Editor is out.

  24. Joblo
    June 1, 2013 at 5:48 am #

    How about a cross dresser character? I’m sure in the future there will be many ore open

  25. treknor
    June 1, 2013 at 6:19 am #

    I never ever do this before ….. BUT DAMN IT release it please *____*

  26. June 6, 2013 at 7:25 am #

    Complementing your portrait is the in-game model, which has to succeed in a completely different way. In the game environment details can get lost, or, worse, make the character look muddy and hard to understand visually. In Shadowrun Returns your character will have access to over 30 different gear sets (we’re still putting the final touches on the last few so we don’t have a final number yet), and we have designed each to immediately communicate an idea about your character in the isometric environment. Mike did a great job in Update 48 explaining how we get our (pretty small) characters to pop visually in the game environment. Check it out if you are interested! Here I want to talk about how those gear sets influence the look and feel of your character during legwork and combat.

  27. kelevra
    June 6, 2013 at 10:13 am #

    Man, I am just chomping at the bit to get this game. Is there any further narrowing of the release date?

  28. revan
    June 9, 2013 at 2:03 am #

    Sitting pretty in my Steam library. Just waiting for that install button to pop up…eagerly. Great job guys! You’ve made me interested in Shadowrun, since I’ve never played pen&paper or that Genesis game everyone is referring to. But I have a feeling that I am about to become a huge fan of the setting.

    Just one question, besides the release date – that one I won’t even ask – is Berlin DLC included with Steam pre-order?

  29. Dave
    June 9, 2013 at 9:17 am #

    @revan, As I understand it, the Berlin DLC is not included with the Steam pre-order… It is included to all Kickstarter backers and anyone who pre-ordered the Collector’s Edition (the one with the USB dogtags) directly from HBS’s site.

  30. Ronn0k
    June 12, 2013 at 12:42 pm #

    I’ve already pre-purchased through steam. Been waiting for a good new REAL rpg since Baldur’s Gate 2. Anyway, character customization looks fantastic! The art style really works and is present across the whole game which is surprisingly rare these days.

    Screw it, I’ll just say I love you guys and leave it at that.