Successful Field Test: NISEI’s Strengths
In June 2018, Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) announced the end of Android: Netrunner, their cyberpunk card game. Though I had only been playing for a year and a half, and was decidedly a casual “kitchen-table” player, I was devastated. Netrunner was, and remains to this day, my favorite board game, a unique asymmetric game of cat-and-mouse that drips with theme. I wasn’t alone. Netrunner had an active and passionate fan community which was left reeling by the sudden end of the game. On October 22nd, 2018, FFG pulled the plug, and Android: Netrunner was officially no longer supported.
The Netrunner community’s response, however, was nothing short of miraculous. Only a week after the announcement, a new fan project began to organize. They chose the name NISEI, referring both to characters from the original game and the Japanese word for “second generation”. By August 8th, a mere month after Fantasy Flight announced the impending end of official support, NISEI had selected a leadership board. Their mission: “keep the game alive and thriving” through tournament support, rules updates, banlists, and even new cards.
In just a few days, on March 18th, 2019, NISEI will release their first set of new cards, called Downfall, and to say I’m excited would be an understatement. To receive any new cards for my favorite game after its official end is a treat. The quality of NISEI’s new cards goes beyond what I would ever expect from a fan project; not only do they tantalize me with new gameplay possibilities, they also exhibit gorgeous new artwork and graphic design elements. With Downfall, NISEI didn’t just make a good fan set — they made a good set, period.
It’s safe to say that designing, testing, and releasing a set of 65 new playable cards, plus creating new card templates and graphical assets to be used in future designs to come, was NISEI’s most massive undertaking yet. I expect it was the organization’s primary focus during the last seven months. Upon Downfall’s release, NISEI will have proven themselves: the future of our beloved game is definitively in their capable hands.
As NISEI is poised to transform from a fledgling fan project to the authoritative stewards of the game’s future, I wanted to offer an outsider’s view on their successes and challenges. I’m not part of NISEI, so I’m not writing with an insider’s perspective. Rather, I’m a fan on the outside who has a background in web communications and experience editing, and who takes a weird joy in polishing things far beyond expectations. I’m going to share my thoughts in a series of posts, starting today with their successes and then moving on to two major areas of improvement, finally ending with my recommendations. My hope is that this will be useful to NISEI as they move forward, as well as to other fan projects in the future.
…and if you think I haven’t written a much more detailed report in my Google Docs, you definitely don’t know me. 😜
As I see it, NISEI’s task up to this point was to establish themselves. If they were to successfully take the reins for the future of the game, they needed to cultivate credit within the community. After all, in the absence of official organized support, it’s the Wild West. Immediately following the FFG announcement, in fact, there were whisperings of multiple competing fan projects. Hell, even today, even I could start churning out my own cards to expand Netrunner — there’s nothing to stop me! In a lovely bit of sociology that I’m sure would delight my college professors, NISEI could only operate as an authority if the community saw them as an authority.
NISEI excelled at this. One of their very first efforts as an organization was to create tournament prize kits. The community was used to waiting for new cards, so NISEI had some leeway before releasing their first set, but tournament support was a critical component for keeping interest in the game alive. To this end, NISEI also introduced new formats, or ways to play the game, and codified the game’s previously patchwork rules into a single comprehensive rules document. Finally, NISEI took responsibility for NetrunnerDB, a fan resource housing user-created decklists and a reference entry for every card ever made for Android: Netrunner. Each of these steps demonstrated that NISEI was invested in the future of the game and built their credit with the community.
During the early months of NISEI’s existence, another way they built credit was through high-quality graphic design and branding. A fan project can certainly survive with a shoddy logo, or even without one at all, but for NISEI to establish themselves as more than any old fan project, an iconic logo was called for. In October 2018, they announced the winner of their logo design contest, a design by Kevin Tame which immediately became part of their branding across the internet:
With community credit building, on November 16, 2018, NISEI announced their first “release”: System Core 2019. This was an update to the core set, the collection of cards deemed fundamental to the game and the entry point for new players. System Core 2019 contained no NISEI original cards, however, so instead of printing a physical product, NISEI simply provided a list of cards from previous FFG products to define the set. While this was admittedly slightly clunky, it was a clever workaround to copyright issues. It also further cemented NISEI’s authority. Although I haven’t played it, feedback for System Core 2019 has been largely positive.
Finally, in February 2019, NISEI announced the release of their first printed product, Downfall, kicking off a month-long spoiler season. After a week of teasers on their own blog, NISEI distributed previews of Downfall cards to ten different community content creators, helping drum up excitement for the set while also building an audience for these partners.
Adding to the excitement was the fact that NISEI’s art and graphics team had done an unbelievable job with the new cards. Though the game was officially over, Fantasy Flight still owned everything you’d see on a Netrunner card. This meant that to make new cards, NISEI had to not only commission new artwork, but redesign the card frames and symbols used on cards, all from the ground up. They could have settled for “good enough”, but instead, they swung for the fences. The result was graphic design assets that, in my opinion, look even better than FFG’s.
Downfall’s announcement also laid out a structure and pace for NISEI’s future set releases. NISEI teased the sequel to Downfall, a second set called “Uprising,” slated to be released in Q2 of this year. As if that weren’t enough, they also announced that they intended to release a new set every quarter, and even hinted at other releases outside of this pattern.
I think it’s safe to say that now, in March 2019, with NISEI’s first set only days away from print, the organization has safely established themselves. Their dedication to tournament support, integration with community resources like NetrunnerDB, and commitment to professional-grade production has paid off. NISEI is the face of Netrunner’s future.
- Early focus on building credit with community
- Tournament support to keep players active
- Integration with recognized community resources like NetrunnerDB and jinteki.net
- Creation and maintenance of Comprehensive Rules
- Expansion of gameplay formats
- Updates to banned and restricted lists (and clear communication about these updates)
- Extended vision for product releases
- Extremely high quality graphic design and artwork
- Thoroughly playtested game design that innovated without upending convention
But it’s not all happy beetles farting rainbows, is it? NISEI still has room for improvement, and in the next posts in this series, I’ll highlight where I think they’re missing the mark.
I’m exuberant about what NISEI has achieved. Their passionate work has made me proud to be a Netrunner fan, and it feels like Christmas morning every time I think that thanks to their efforts, Netrunner — a game now twice cancelled — has a vibrant future. I hope everyone in the NISEI team is proud of their accomplishments, and I can’t wait to see what they do next.