Android: Netrunner is the update of Richard Garfield and Wizards of the Coast’s (WotC) cult classic Netrunner (Garfield, 1996). Like its collectible card game (CCG) predecessor, Android: Netrunner is an asymmetrical, dystopian cyberpunk card game in which one player acts as a “Runner,” attempting to hack another player’s (the “Corporation’s”) servers, to steal agendas before the corporation can advance them. Redesigned primarily by Lukas Litzinger and released by Fantasy Flight Games in 2012, Android: Netrunner has become popular among game developers, designers, academics, and critics,1 and is the current centerpiece of an expanding new intellectual property (IP).2
I look at the game not just as a competitive environment or a set of mechanical interactions, but as an evolving IP. I examine the impact of its production/release model, the evolution of the game’s mechanics, and the development of the game’s narrative/theme. Though analyzing games involves deconstructing multiple vectors of analysis,3 rarely has the evolution of a game series’ narrative world been explored in board and card game formats. Ironically, as stated by the original Netrunner’s creator, Richard Garfield, some believe that “games are not the best format in which to get people to like a new IP — something else had to get you to like Battlestar Galactica before you bought the boardgame. Books, movies, and television are all much better, probably because they are better at telling stories, and stories are what make people love IPs.”4 This piece offers a useful counterpoint: I argue the development of this IP and its paratexts5 reveals ways that narrative worlds have been effectively developed in conjunction with an evolving set of game mechanics.
A “Living Card Game”
Android: Netrunner is considered a “Living Card Game” (LCG), distinguished from collectible card games on account of its ongoing, updated release schedule organized into cycles of expansions and “datapacks.” Such a distinction proves interesting in several respects. Unlike the original Netrunner’s (and many other CCGs’) randomized booster packs, cards are released in non-randomized packs. For instance, if one wants the pack with the powerful card “Faust” in it, one simply needs to go out and buy the datapack The Underway rather than buy many randomized booster packs or explore a secondary card market.
At first blush, this seems a potentially more equitable position for the player — one does not need to purchase nearly as many randomized packs in order to find the key cards they need to play. Additionally, there is a lack of a secondary card market, unlike the well-established market for collectible card games such as Magic: the Gathering. With the release of a sizable 252-card core set and regular, consistent datapacks organized in thematic “cycles” (see Figure 1, below), Android: Netrunner provides players with consistent but periodic releases that have deprecated some forms of play dependent upon randomness and the contingencies of booster pack draws.6
This periodic-but-consistent release of cards has created a system in which any player can enter into deckbuilding with the very same resources as any other who has purchased the same number and kind of datapacks.7 Participating in the game at the most competitive levels requires players to consistently purchase the latest cards, as well as ancillary expenses: card sleeves, participation fees for tournaments, etc. These costs quickly become barriers to entry for new players, as well as impediments for lapsed players who are interested in rejoining the game. To take an analogy from digital games, it’s as if players who decide to take a several-month break from World of Warcraft would be expected to pay the subscription fees for each of their months away from the game when they rejoined. While an intertwining of the game’s release model and its mechanical evolution speaks to the ways that Android: Netrunner requires a different sort of engagement from its dedicated players than in similar games, and than in the earlier version of Netrunner, the regular release of cards is not solely a mechanical evolution, and has parallels in the development of a narrative world for the game. Theorycrafting8 players are, potentially, guided in their practice of mechanical optimization through engagement with the IP’s expanding storyworld.
The Android Universe
Android: Netrunner‘s mechanics, while still largely the same as the original Garfield/WotC game, have been altered to fit Fantasy Flight’s LCG model and to capitalize on thematic changes that place it within a pre-existing “Android universe” promoted by Fantasy Flight across multiple games, novels, and novellas. Whereas the original game had only two roles — Runner and Corporation — Android: Netrunner features multiple factions within each of these two roles, and multiple “identities” (with special abilities unique to each identity) within each faction. The original game relied upon the aforementioned random booster packs to provide a degree of depth and complexity, as well as ensure consistent income for WotC. This loose narrative world of the “Android universe” provides both Fantasy Flight opportunities for transmedia9 exploration while inspiring mechanical constraints that further develop tensions in the game’s narrative space.
For example, the “Custom Biotics” Haas-Bioroid Corporation identity disallows any corporation cards from Jinteki, a competing Corporation, and the severely limited influence of 1 for the Runner “The Professor,” reflects a Shaper Runner who, in the game’s narrative world, is an academic who has been discredited due to corporate retribution. Card mechanics are directly inspired by narrative effects, and the implementation of both frequently intertwines the two. As the game’s world expands into multiple gaming properties, we can see thematic elements driving mechanical design. For instance, in the recent Android: Mainframe board game, developed by Damon Stone from mechanics originally designed by Jordi Gené and Gregorio Morales, Fantasy Flight has repurposed art from Android: Netrunner, taking underplayed, mechanically “weak” cards (such as “Leviathan,” see Figure 2 below) and revivified them into useful, interesting drivers of gameplay in a narratively-identical but mechanically-distant game space.
Though loose and occasionally maligned concepts such as “ludonarrative dissonance”10, or the ludic disconnect between game mechanics and game content, often come into play in making sense of narrative-based digital games, such discussions are unusual with these forms of tabletop games. Moreover, they are relatively unexplored across multiple games, as Fantasy Flight’s expanding Android universe demonstrates. The synchronicities and disconnects between theme and mechanic in Android: Netrunner provide an unusually strong impetus for the player to investigate the game further and to dive into the most tedious of CCG/LCG tasks. As tactical advantage in the game is often reliant upon knowing what the range of an opponent’s potential cards are, as well as what the likely cards are to arise with a certain style of play, perhaps the evolving narrative of Android: Netrunner serves a pedagogical role: To draw the player into the necessary task of learning the range of cards more effectively than other CCGs that do not feature a novel, developing theme.
Although players of other LCGs can rely upon their understanding of narrative worlds drawn from literary source material11 or filmic source material,12 Android: Netrunner and the Android universe reflect a new IP, and thus a developing set of works in progress. Some of the pleasure of Android: Netrunner is in watching the relationships and characters change across generations of cards. One dives into the “upgrading” story world of the Android universe with each new datapack or expansion, as well as witnessing dissonances between new novels, novellas, and games. This can involve identifying how loose story threads cut across multiple card sets (e.g., Haas-Bioroid’s Director Haas and the apparent tension with her layabout son, Thomas) or multiple games in the Android universe (e.g., “Gabriel Santiago,” a Criminal identity in Android: Netrunner and a character in Donald Vaccarino’s Infiltration, or “Caprice Nisei,” a Jinteki Upgrade card in Android: Netrunner and a playable character in Android).
Most recently, we have seen the development of the first datapack cycle entirely designed under Damon Stone’s direction, which features even more interplay between Android: Netrunner and the evolving Android IP. The current Flashpoint cycle of Android: Netrunner datapacks details the narrative fallout from a moment players can play through in Android: Mainframe (a hack of a key financial institution). As a consequence of the actions in this stand-alone game, the Android Universe’s Corporations are sent into chaos, which is shown through each Flashpoint cycle datapack, and is leading to the overt conflict found in the next stand-alone game, New Angeles, due out by the end of 2016.”
As characters pique fan interests, new novellas have been commissioned addressing these characters’ backstories, such as the upcoming Monster Slayer novella by Daniel Clark, addressing character Reina Roja’s backstory, and narrative evolution has found its way into the design of card cycles themselves (e.g., the Mumbad Cycle’s storyline involving an election cycle in a future Indian Union). Many questions about connections between characters, spaces, and embedded storylines remain intriguingly unanswered: Whose picture is the runner Exile wistfully considering on the “Motivation” card? Is Thomas Haas actually ‘Director Haas’s Pet Project’ and thus a bioroid? What is the “virtual” runner Apex, anyway? The changes in theme supported by the LCG model imbues Android: Netrunner in ways that the original Netrunner did not have, and also provides inquisitive players a theme with appealing gaps that give them further reason to familiarize one’s self with the litany of cards, and to begin to associate card actions with the game’s evolving narrative world. The LCG model, in this case at least, promotes continued purchasing of cards not solely for tactical advantage, but potentially to encourage player engagement with the game on a narrative level that might also reap rewards on better understanding the game’s mechanical systems.13
Datapacks and Narrative
The LCG model promotes narrative development in ways perhaps unique to this form of game. The cyberpunk theme of the Android narrative universe has changed over several games14 as well as through a number of novels and novellas set in the Android universe, such as William H. Keith’s Android: Free Fall or Mel Odom’s “The Identity Trilogy.” And, as Android: Netrunner’s release schedule drives the further release of cards, we have seen the recent release of a large and detailed sourcebook, The Worlds of Android, edited by Katrina Ostrander, which explicitly elaborates the Android transmedia project’s world and history (see Figure 3, below).
The LCG model permits Fantasy Flight to stagger the description of the world, as well as significant events within it. The most recent three completed datapack ‘cycles,’ the Lunar Cycle, the SanSan Cycle, and the Mumbad Cycle) have all been focused on specific locales in the world of Android: The space elevator known as the “Beanstalk” and the path to the Lunar colony, the megalopolis of “SanSan” (San Francisco to San Diego) that covers a chunk of the West coast of North America, and “Mumbad,” the megalopolis extending from present-day Mumbai to Ahmedabad, in India. Unlike the current larger, deluxe expansions, the game’s creators have taken the opportunity to use the staggered release of datapacks as a means of exploring different parts of the game’s narrative world.
With the Mumbad Cycle specifically, the designers have been intent on helping a story evolve through the release of datapacks. With a storyline spread over the cycle involving a contested Indian Union election, we have seen character dynamics play out over the release of cards. For instance, in Figure 4 below, we see three cards organized chronologically — “Jesminder Sareen,” a “Runner” (playable character within the game, released in the first pack), her sister “Akshara Sareen” (a political leader, and “resource” for a player to rely on, released in the third pack), and “The Price of Freedom” (an event, released in the final pack of the cycle). The interaction of these cards presents the player with both the staggered release of options (the mid-cycle release of Akshara mirroring her rise to prominence in Indian politics), as well as a moral quandary (“The Price of Freedom”’s mechanical implications and card art implying Jesminder’s sacrifice of her own sister to achieve her anti-Corporate goals).
The development of the Sareen family drama is a peculiar-but-interesting moment in the evolution of the game. Previous story overtures have been synonymous with theme and location in the game — while, say, Nasir Meidan’s travels to the Lunar colonies to uncover the mythical “Source protocols” was a featured story in the flavor text that accompanied datapacks in the Lunar Cycle, the Sareen case appears to be different. In the Mumbad Cycle, Fantasy Flight has staggered narrative elements through the datapacks, using temporal ordering of the release of packs to further a specific storyline. It would make little sense to release either “Akshara Sareen” or “Jesminder Sareen” after “The Price of Freedom,” with the Event card capturing a potentially-tragic moment in the lives of the characters. As the current cycle, Flashpoint, develops, we see similar play between mechanics and narrative evolving — the aftermath of a serious financial hack has seen datapacks bounce between cards that provide powerful new strategies to the Corp followed by datapacks that provide powerful new Runner counterstrategies. The mechanical changes are couched in a conflict that maps directly onto the IP’s ongoing story development.
The sense of “story” here is admittedly thin and largely limited to card art and the “flavor text” seen at the bottom of some cards. But while datapacks have been seen primarily as collections of cards to change one’s play, recent design developments illustrate the ways that their sequential release is used to further a storyline. As datapacks in Android: Netrunner were initially presented as an alternative to the randomized boosters of collectible card games, their thematic focus has been sidelined in favor of mechanical innovations (e.g., the Lunar Cycle’s inclusion of “currents”). As Fantasy Flight refines its LCG model, it also provides the opportunity for researchers and designers to better consider temporality in the release of gaming products (and transmedia products released in parallel, such as Android: Mainframe and the upcoming game New Angeles).
Android: Netrunner is a rich and evolving updated version of a nearly two-decade old analog card game that has developed a number of interesting innovations in how its release model has affected both the mechanical development of the game, as well as its evolution as a transmedia property. In particular, Elias, Garfield, and Gutschera’s statement on the design of gaming intellectual properties seems to be directly challenged by the continued evolution and development of the Android universe. Android: Netrunner and the Android universe provoke us to consider the ways that narrative interplays with mechanical and commercial concerns over multiple intellectual properties.
I also suggest that LCGs such as this should also serve as an impetus for new community-level questions about analog game studies: How do we understand the interrelations of games as sets of mechanics and evolving storyworlds? How do we understand how game models such as the LCG provide new and interesting approaches to the development of narrative in analog games? Through this cursory analysis, I have hoped to raise the possibility that deeper investigations of game release models (as well as their interactions with larger transmedia enterprises) may provide insights on how nascent fandoms are created through mechanics and business strategies.
Featured Image “i’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe” by TORLEY on Flickr
Sean C. Duncan, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Learning Sciences at Indiana University. His work addresses learning as it is embedded within authentic play spaces, both digital and analog. With Elisabeth Gee, he was the co-editor of Learning in Video Game Affinity Spaces (published by Peter Lang in 2012). He placed a middling 67th in the Android: Netrunner North American Championships in 2016, and fantasizes about someday becoming a Shaper G-Mod.