On June 8, 2018, Fantasy Flight Games announced “the end of Android: Netrunner The Card Game.”1 After six years of consistent support for the product and for the Netrunner competitive community, the announcement came as a surprise to many. According to the announcement, “starting on October 22nd, 2018, Fantasy Flight Games will no longer offer for sale any Android: Netrunner The Card Game products, including Android: Netrunner playmats and card sleeves.”2 As noted in one sentence in the release, the licensing for the game from Wizards of the Coast and R. Talsorian Games was coming to an end, signaling the official end of the game. To accommodate the late-October end, the final Android: Netrunner World Championships would be held two months earlier than its previous dates, in early September. Further, even as the game was scheduled to end, the game’s final official deluxe expansion, including sixty new cards, was scheduled to be released.
Though questions, anger, and theories ran amok on fan forums, the game’s subreddit, Facebook groups, and Slack channels, an end of Android: Netrunner was signaled definitively by its publisher, even while private discussions began in the game’s community on ways to continue the game in some form. With a robust competitive and casual playing community, these same online communities mourned the announcement, commenting on the profound sense of loss many players felt. For instance, prominent Android: Netrunner podcaster and game developer Nels Anderson commented on the thread announcing the end of the game on Reddit’s /r/netrunner subreddit with simply “So long and thanks for all the runs =(”.3 In light of the responses to FFG’s announcement of the end of Android Netrunner, this article seeks to understand what it means for a “living card game” (LCG) to… die, in a fashion.
As a game built in the “cybernoir” Android universe, Android: Netrunner features a wide diversity of playable character identities in terms of race, sexuality, gender, and fictional forms of transhuman and artificial intelligences (from “cyborgs” to genetically manipulated G-mods to “bioroids” and clones). Both within and around the game, the Android: Netrunner community has been one that has supported diversity in ways that can be seen as a breath of fresh air in comparison to other analog and digital gaming communities. Public Facebook groups such as “Netrunner Mental Health Clinic” and “Women of Netrunner” signaled spaces for historically marginalized players and allies to discuss their experiences both in and outside the game, making it unique compared to many other competitive gaming communities4. Perhaps as a consequence of this overt diversity and attention to representation, the community took the “end” of Android: Netrunner quite hard.
Considering these events, we explore what parts of a game and its existing transmedia world wither and which opportunities arise when the reins of control are placed in the hands of the Android: Netrunner fan community. Though we focus on a particular game in this particular moment, we explore this case to understand how analog gaming communities shift and adapt in light of games going out of print more broadly. Scholarly explorations of what happens when online virtual communities end can illustrate the communal organizing and grieving that occurs as a result.5 However, as analog games inherently encourage interactions in non-virtual environments, the acceptance of and push back on FFG’s statement reveal varied understandings of creation, control, and ownership of a game. Looking in detail at this one “death” of Android: Netrunner helps to reveal how fandom and consumption interrelate in analog games.
There are several different ways that Android: Netrunner can be defined. First, it is an asymmetrical, constructed deck, two-player card game. In the game, one player takes on the role of morally dubious corporations seeking to advance agendas for profit and for power while another player acts as a savvy computer hacker trying to expose these agendas without getting caught. In this basic game, two players adhere to substantially different rules systems in order to accomplish opposing goals. These original mechanics were first seen in the initial version of the game, first designed by Richard Garfield and published by Wizards of the Coast in 1996 as a collectible card game (CCG), which was later significantly revised (mechanically and thematically) by Lukas Litzsinger for Fantasy Flight Games in 2012.
At the same time, Android: Netrunner is also clearly an unfolding transmedia narrative that focuses on the characters at the heart of the game’s core conflict. After its reboot, Fantasy Flight placed the Android: Netrunner experience within their titular “Android universe” — a narrative and gaming setting that’s been defined across other board games, novels, novellas, and,soon,a role-playing game setting for their new, proprietary Genesys role-playing system. The art, flavor text, and evolving mechanics within Android: Netrunner help convey a story of illicit conflict and resistance in a cybernoir setting. Though the gameplay still looked very similar to Garfield’s original design, this was a game decidedly placed in and experienced as part of the Android universe; over its six years of production, Android: Netrunner became the anchor for the entire line of Android games, including standalone games such as Infiltration, Android: Mainframe, and New Angeles.
Helping evolve the narrative and “upgrade” the game mechanics,6 the living card game model meant a regular expansion of the card pool and of the unfolding narrative within the Android world. As explained in Android: Netrunner’s rulebook, the game “evolves over time with regularly released expansions. Each expansion offers players additional cards that add variety, new customization options, and rich themes to the game. Unlike most collectible card games, all LCG expansions have a fixed distribution — there is no randomization to their contents.”7 This regular release of cards developed both the mechanics of Android: Netrunner, but also the Android universe in general, as new cards could provide views of new locales (a futuristic India megalopolis or a divided and corporatized Mars Colony), new characters (from the smuggler Kati Jones to ChiLo legislator Liz Talking Thunder), and new story tensions (the political impact of a major cyber-heist in the Flashpoint Cycle to the contentious development of a new space elevator in Africa through the Kitara Cycle).
Finally, for many players, Android: Netrunner was an expansive community of competitive players, fan-based production, and interaction. An evolving “metagame”89 meant that the game lived and breathed based on the interactions, discussions, and responses to popular deck archetypes, play styles, and rules conventions. Importantly, the shifts in how the game was played and evolving cultural practices related to Android: Netrunner were both community-driven as well as guided through official events and rules clarifications from FFG. As a notable example, the introduction of the “Most Wanted List” first used the game’s influence mechanic to make cards more difficult to include in decks, and was later revised to outright ban and restrict particular cards from competitive play.
As a two-player card game, a regularly expanding system of rules and mechanics, an ongoing contribution to a transmedia universe, and a foundation for an organized community of players, Android: Netrunner continues to be a game that means different things to different audiences simultaneously. In considering these varied definitions of this game, we explore below how FFG’s announcement of the game reverberates across each component; if Android: Netrunner was a “dying living card game,” which parts of it must be interred and which remain?
Who Decides If a Game Dies?
Within weeks of FFG’s announcement of the end of Android: Netrunner, several notable podcasts related to Android: Netrunner including The Winning Agenda10 and Terminal 711 announced that they would be concluding their regular releases. For them and for many individuals in online communities, FFG’s announcement was a clear, official ending to a game that had been regularly supported by one, clear publisher. One reason why this announcement felt so definitive for so many was the way this instantiation of the game was so deeply intertwined in multiple layers of meaning owned by different entities.
As noted above, Android: Netrunner existed through agreements between different companies: Wizards of the Coast (WOTC) holds the license to the mechanics and name of Netrunner, a game first published in 1996 and created by Richard Garfield (building off of their license of R. Talsorian Games’ Cyberpunk 2020, where the term derived). However, the FFG reboot of the game included substantial additions and rules changes to the game.12 Further, the game and all of its art assets placed it within the FFG-owned Android universe. While FFG’s Netrunner license has ended, they still maintain — and are expanding— the Android universe; in early 2019 for example, FFG released Shadow of the Beanstalk–an Android universe sourcebook for their Genesys tabletop role-playing system.13 In this way, even if WOTC or another publisher were to reboot Netrunner for a third time, the revised rules, organized player community, and familiar characters at the heart of the game would no longer be available; a new Netrunner could never be the same. As a two-player, asymmetric card game, this version of the game lived in a particular time period and will no longer be commercially available for individuals to consume. Too, the “living” rules and card designs created, updated, and sold by FFG will no longer be updated by FFG and released through their established retail venues (game stores). Perhaps, then, these are aspects of Android: Netrunner that have died.
However, this is only one part of the meaning of Android: Netrunner. To understand this moment as an end of Android: Netrunner is to understand a game primarily as a product for consumption. Further, it is an understanding that a “game” is something that is made and sold to players; the corporate authority of FFG is what guides the understanding of a game’s death from this perspective. As Paul explains, “‘[g]amer’ is a term that focuses on consumption, and part of thinking critically about how games work requires reassessing the baseline assumptions frequently made about games and those who play them.”14 As we consider the ways that Android: Netrunner may have “died” for some significant subset of players of Android: Netrunner, we have to consider the potential commitment of that subset of players to Android: Netrunner as a purchasable, commercial product. If Paul’s description accurately characterizes some Android: Netrunner players, then the end of this kind of consumptive practice is also the end of the game for some players.
However, there are many ways that Netrunner, Android, and Android: Netrunner persist despite FFG’s announcement. As previously mentioned, the Android universe — including many of the characters, locations, and corporations within Android: Netrunner — persist in other, in-print games, the Genesys tabletop role-playing game setting, and through novels. The transmedia narrative of Android does not end with the loss of the Netrunner license. Similarly, as pieces of cardboard, the many copies of Android: Netrunner (as well as the unofficial online versions of the game) remain fully functional and in use. Yes, for players who are committed to the purchase of a physical, constructed deck game from established game distribution venues (local game stores), the game will become scarcer for new players to acquire. However, the announcement of the death of Android: Netrunner does nothing to decay the copies of the game still in the drawers and sitting on the shelves of gamers all over the world.
A week after FFG announced the end of Android: Netrunner, a post on Stimhack — the premier Android: Netrunner fan site and forum — heralded the launch of the “Nextrunner International Support & Expansion Initiative” (or NISEI).15 The group intentionally appropriated a Japanese name for “second generation” which also had significant in-universe meaning for Android and Android: Netrunner players, as it refers to a series of psychic clones that had permeated the game’s lore since the beginning (e.g. on cards such as Caprice Nisei, Nisei Mk II, and Akiko Nisei). In its announcement, NISEI stated: “If you think Netrunner is a dead game, though, you’re making a grave mistake,” and the NISEI organization expressed an intent to build new structures for supporting and extending Android: Netrunner after the game’s FFG-license ended.16 In the months since a preliminary post imagined “non-FFG, means of supporting the player-base and creating content: Rules updates, ban list updates, tournaments, prizes, and more,” NISEI built up an organizational structure that is fan-driven, fan-funded, and has involved over fifty volunteer positions at the time of this writing.17 18 While Android: Netrunner as a product that was sold and distributed led to the announcement of the game’s end once the financial relationship between Wizards of the Coast and FFG ended, NISEI represents a provocative reframing of what games can be and how they might “live on.” As fans playing with a game that exists beyond the mechanisms of traditional commercial availability, a fan-driven form of Android: Netrunner can be re-imagined as both “free” but still tangentially tethered to the designs, narratives, and systems developed by FFG and Wizards of the Coast. This playful limbo leads to uncertainty: Will faithful players still run the nets with a non-commercial product? How will new players find, learn, and participate in the systems of play? How will the transmedia narratives developed by NISEI build on and diverge from the Android universe still very much being expanded by FFG? These questions fundamentally move away from a distribution model that assumes a game “dies” when people can’t buy it, and yet it also points toward the agency of players to imagine new futures for games. Though some aspects related to Android: Netrunner may have died, NISEI suggests that the death of games is certainly not only tied to the companies that manufacture them, albeit in bootleg and uncertain forms.
Concluding the online commentary for FFG’s Magnum Opus event and final, official Netrunner World Championship, Bad Publicity and The Winning Agenda podcaster Hollis Eacho reflected on the meaning of Android: Netrunner for the community that came together both online and in physical spaces for this culminating event: “It’s been an absolute pleasure to have you all here with us and who knows what the future holds. But no matter what, keep running those nets.”19 With wistful comments in the final games’ Twitch chat, atop tears being wiped away by spectators behind him, Eacho’s comments felt like a kind of finality to the official world of Android: Netrunner. The final Android: Netrunner World Championship was a celebration of the life of a card game that brought together players from across the globe.
And yet, seated within the playspace of the FFG headquarters, while Eacho’s commentary was the final one for the FFG game, it was ironically enough delivered through a fan-organized and fan-funded commentary stream. While it was the final broadcast of Android: Netrunner at the Fantasy Flight Center, original plans did not call for a stream at all (perhaps as a result of limited interest/focus from FFG, or because of widespread criticism of previous years’ commentary from FFG designers who did not have significant expertise in Android: Netrunner). This stream, organized by Ben Torrell (aka dodgepong) and paid for by him and fans of the game points to an ongoing life beyond the officially announced death of the LCG. While a consumerist framing of gaming announces 2018 to be the end of Android: Netrunner, its fan-driven community celebrated an “end” of the game, all the while developing new plans for its future.
From making an entrance in the CCG craze of the mid-90s to its current fan-driven uncertainties, Android: Netrunner pushes on how we understand the “life cycle” and tensions between stakeholders in games. In a previous analysis of the mechanics and themes of Android: Netrunner, Duncan (2016) asked, “How do we understand the interrelations of games as sets of mechanics and evolving storyworlds?”20 With the announcement of one version of the game’s “death,” we expand on this question and seek a further exploration of how mechanics and storyworlds become engrained, untethered, ambiguous, and expanded as a game lives beyond the lifespan of corporate distribution.
Antero Garcia is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University where he studies how technology and gaming shape both youth and adult learning, literacy practices, and civic identities. Prior to completing his Ph.D., Antero was an English teacher at a public high school in South Central Los Angeles. His most recent research studies explore learning and literacies in tabletop roleplaying games Dungeons & Dragons. Based on his research focused on equitable teaching and learning opportunities for urban youth through the use of participatory media and gameplay, Antero co-designed the Critical Design and Gaming School–a public high school in South Central Los Angeles. Antero’s most recent books are Good Reception: Teens, Teachers, and Mobile Media in a Los Angeles High School, Doing Youth Participatory Action Research: Transforming Inquiry with Researchers, Educators, and Students (with Nicole Mirra and Ernest Morrell), and Pose, Wobble, Flow: A Culturally Proactive Approach to Literacy Instruction (with Cindy O’Donnell-Allen). Antero received his Ph.D. in the Urban Schooling division of the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Sean C. Duncan is an Assistant Professor, General Faculty in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. His research focuses on participation in digital and analog gaming spaces, with an emphasis on learning, literacy, and the development of critical conversations around games. He studies play with games and within extant gaming communities as complex sites of criticality, fandom, and design, currently focusing on the tensions between fan communities in analog, tabletop card games. With Elisabeth Gee, he was the co-editor of Learning in Video Game Affinity Spaces (published by Peter Lang in 2012). He has played Android: Netrunner in competitive and casual environments since 2013, and really, really misses Noise.