How did Android: Netrunner become the game of game designers? And could this tabletop sensation ever be realised in videogame form?
How did tabletop title Android: Netrunner become the darling of videogame designers?
esigned by Magic: The Gathering’s Richard Garfield and considered to be one of his greatest designs, Netrunner was, until late 2012, a largely forgotten collectible card game. Re-released by Fantasy Flight Games – the publisher of well-received board and card games such as X-Wing Miniatures Game and A Game Of Thrones – as Android: Netrunner, the game has since picked up legions of fans, among them videogame designers and game academics. At the 2015 Android: Netrunner World Championships – part of Fantasy Flight Games’ five-day Organized Play World Championships at the company’s own Game Center in an industrial park in Roseville, Minnesota – we watch over 250 players from across the world compete, and try to identify what makes Netrunner the modern game designer’s game.
Constructed asymmetrically, Netrunner sees players take turns playing both a corporation and a runner. As a corporation, they create servers, protect them with ice, and attempt to advance agendas in order to win the game. As the runner, players install programs (such as icebreakers), hardware and resources, and make runs on the corporation’s servers in an attempt to break in and steal the agendas and, in turn, win. At first glance, the game seems deeply complex – a perception not helped by a terrible manual – and it can be arcane at high-level play. But in reality it has an impressively simple set of rules that centre the game on players’ ability to perform their plans efficiently and deal with not only bluffing but the information hidden on the board (cards in servers are installed face down, and can be traps or ice that runners can or can’t deal with).
“One of the things that’s really elegant in Richard’s original design is the concept of limited action,” Netrunner’s lead designer, Damon Stone, explains. “By restricting what the player can do, it actually offers creativity to the player. They need to find a way to accomplish what they want by forcing their will upon the game.”
Quintin Smith, of board and videogame shows Shut Up & Sit Down and Cool Ghosts, considers Netrunner the only game to have taken over his life. “Netrunner is nothing if not a sequence of interesting decisions,” he says, echoing Civizilation designer Sid Meier’s famous definition of a game. “And the decisions are interesting not only because you’re doing calculations of risk and reward, but also because you’re trying to read the other person. It’s simultaneously an interesting mathematical puzzle and a braggadocious game of poker. In a game of
Hearthstone it’s rare that you’ll get the feeling that you truly bested someone, or that you won by being clever or sneaky. Netrunner has that in spades.”
Mark Of The Ninja designer Nels Anderson is among those attending the World Championships. Between making videogames for Campo Santos – currently Firewatch – he plays Netrunner and records a podcast, Terminal7, about the game alongside Jesse Turner of Slick Entertainment. Anderson sees the success of Netrunner in three components. “The
asymmetry makes the game a lot more interesting. At least half the time you’re solving a different set of problems so, as the corporation, you’re considering what you’d do as a runner, and vice versa,” he says.
“Then there’s the hidden information. It’s not just what cards each player has in their hands, it’s what cards are on the table. Is that card a trap? Is it something I need to get now? Or is it something you’re giving me now because you’ll put me in a bad position later on so you can do what you want?
“Thirdly, the theming is really strong. Magic: The Gathering never hooked me and, it’s a small quibble, but there you’re pitting a flock of birds with three damage against a pikeman with one damage. It’s a hodgepodge of images and numbers that may or may not have anything to do with each other.”
Stone agrees that the theming is of huge importance to Netrunner’s success. “We try to make things in the game realistic in terms of being based in technologies scientists are working on or concepts from computing that are in development,” he says.
“My favourite cards meld theme and mechanics well. I’m a big fan of the card Scorched Earth [capable of ending the game by killing the runner]. Here’s a way of doing massive amounts of damage to the runner by simply blowing up the building they’re in, because that’s the kind of thing a cyberpunk corporation would do. And even if it doesn’t kill the runner, they have to spend turns recovering, because they’ve been hurt.”
Anderson views this as one of the key lessons that designers are taking away from Netrunner. “Even the smallest thing in a game, if you have to make it more thematic or less thematic, always make it more thematic,” he says, pulling the reference points closer to videogaming. “It’s one of the reasons FromSoftware’s games are so good. Mechanically, yes, they’re incredible, but the world and edifice they fit around those mechanics are all in theme.
“There are so many lessons across the board, but player expression is another huge part. There’s the whole game you play at the table and the entire game you play beforehand, where you consider what decks you want to play – what do you as a player find interesting? How can you express the way you like to solve problems?”
As a Living Card Game, Netrunner survives via monthly data pack releases, each of which consists of 20 new cards. Like Magic: The Gathering, the game has several factions (four corporations, three runner factions), and players build their own corporation and runner decks from the available card pool.
Via this release schedule, Stone and his design team try to ensure that there’s a flow to Netrunner’s deck metagame. “We frequently create multiple cards together, and they’ll be released a couple of packs or sometimes entire cycles [each set of six data packs makes up a cycle] apart,” he explains. “There are times when we release answers to things that we haven’t introduced yet. We have a really great set of playtesters, and we use their feedback to help design cards. If we notice that one deck is really strong
“THERE ARE SO MANY LESSONS ACROSS THE BOARD, BUT PLAYER EXPRESSION IS AN OTHER HUGE PART ”
“I DON’T KNOW ANYONE WHO PLAYS ANDROID: NETRUNNER WHO CAN STOMACH PLAYING HEARTHSTONE ”
based on certain cards, we’ll ensure there’s either a viable answer in that or the next pack, or we explore if the answer exists already.”
The team at Fantasy Flight are also using Netrunner to push cyberpunk fictions in interesting directions. Characters within the game are largely mixed race and of varying genders and sexuality, and the next cycle of cards, the Mumbad Cycle, is to be set entirely in India, following the story of the campaign for clones to gain citizenship. Told across the release of each data pack, it’s akin to the release of DLC for a story-based game, but with the unique challenge of also always having to offer a ‘pick-upand-play’ experience for players who either choose to dip in and out of data pack purchases or who simply don’t have an interest in the game’s story told through theme.
With the intense amount of playtesting required and difficulty of making changes – there’s no easy way to patch a flaw outside of banning or errata – Anderson admits that a major lesson of Netrunner for him is that he’d “never want to design a competitive card game. It’s clear how much work is required and how important the community is.”
Indeed, Netrunner relies heavily on its community across the world, the diversity of which is on show at the World Championships. While lacking in gender balance – an issue that the team at Fantasy Flight is aware of – the game attracts a wide racial and regional diversity, with strong communities as far afield as Scandinavia, the Philippines and China. A 12-strong contingent of players from the UK are also in attendance, one member revealing in casual conversation that the group had drilled 78 games of Netrunner on the transatlantic flight alone.
Within videogame circles, the most celebrated meta (the term for a local Netrunner community) has to be NYU Game Center’s Local Meta, which boasts designers such as Doug Wilson ( Johann Sebastian
Joust) among its members. The meta invited Netrunner’s previous lead designer, Lukas Litzsinger, to give a talk at the center’s annual PRACTICE: Game Design In Detail conference in 2014.
The popularity of Netrunner in the scene has also led to several videogame-minded derivatives. Michael Brough ( 868-Hack) has released an Android: Netrunner demake, Cybergallop, as freeware, while Zach Gage ( SpellTower) has written on Medium about the “hyper-local meta” – a quick-and-dirty design for players overwhelmed by Fantasy Flight’s frequent pack releases.
And yet, although aware of Netrunner’s popularity with game designers, Fantasy Flight has been slow to capitalise on this or move Netrunner into the videogame space, something Smith puts down to the difficulty of creating truly engaging bluffing in the digital space. “Videogames don’t have a particularly rich history with bluffing,” he notes. “It’s not something AI is particularly good at, and it’s not something that’s particularly fun when you can’t see your opponent. Even if I’m terrible at poker, I’d rather play it in person because I can feel like I’m reading my opponent. If I call your bluff after looking in your eyes, that’s a tremendously satisfying experience I can’t get online.”
Despite that, the incredible success of Activision Blizzard’s Hearthstone, currently raking in higher revenues than World Of Warcraft, makes Smith frustrated about the lack of a digital Netrunner. “I don’t know anyone who plays Android: Netrunner who can stomach playing Hearthstone,” he says. “We have here a beautiful game that captures the imagination of so many people without a digital component, and I can’t wait to see those two things meet in the middle.”
However, Fantasy Flight is beginning to dip its toes in the water in a rather roundabout fashion, announcing shortly before the World Championships that Legacy Games (an unremarkable developer of TV tie-ins for phone platforms) is releasing a mobile RPG based on Netrunner and written by 80 Days scribe Meg Jayanth. It’s a strange decision – the title will use none of Netrunner’s design, instead largely relying on the game’s setting – and one that seems like an own goal given that a universally lauded design exists on the table, and online card games have become a billion-dollar business.
These factors don’t appear to be an issue for Fantasy Flight Games, whose focus remains on the tabletop version. (Stock shortages of key Netrunner data packs make it clear that just maintaining the game at its present level of popularity is challenge enough.) The company is also ambivalent about the tools that have sprung up to try to engender an online Netrunner community. OCTGN is a generic tabletop simulator with a large community despite being incredibly complex to use, and newcomer jinteki.net offers a web interface and automation that’s been widely praised. Neither are considered good introductions to Netrunner – in fact, most players consider it a bad idea to attempt to learn the game online – but they do offer proof that it can work in the digital space.
“It’s not impossible for Netrunner to be a success as a videogame,” Smith concludes. “I certainly never thought online poker would take off in the way it did. I think it’s possible for videogames to offer the design space where bluffing is possible – games like Ubisoft’s RUSE did it very well, though it was sadly overlooked – and I think Netrunner could be the one to do it.”
Netrunner lead designer Damon Stone, who previously worked on Fantasy Flight’s hugely successful A Game Of Thrones
Two players from Toronto’s meta compete. Its strongest player, Dien Tran, finished ninth
The base Netrunner box delivers lots of bits and pieces – brain damage tokens, virus counters, credits and more
Netrunner’s megalopolis of New Angeles is home to the Beanstalk, a space elevator that rises up into low orbit