The deck-building card game genre is an interesting one. Designers have to make sure that players have a motivation to keep playing. This can be done in many ways. Some players get hooked because of anticipation—waiting for that next expansion which will make their game “better.” Others enjoy the idea of collecting. However, I submit that one of the most effective ways of designing a lasting experience for players (and one of the most underestimated) is creating an engaging narrative and fictive aspect. Android: Netrunner is a prime example of using this design attribute effectively. Through various elements that comprise a narrative or fictive world as a whole, players feel a stronger connection to the game. Instead of functioning as simply mechanics, these elements bring players into a special world. I would like to focus on four aspects of Netrunner, which immerse players in a unique world. They are 1) Language, 2) Aesthetic/Art, 3) Economy, and 4) Balance. By using effective design within these four categories, Netrunner accomplishes one of its goals—immersing the player in a dangerous world of hackers and shady corporations.
One of the first things I noticed as I aimed to learn this game (besides the sheer density/difficulty) was the language. As I read through the rules booklet and later played my first game, I immediately felt connected to this world of cyber crime and advanced technology. Why? The specific language printed on the pages of this booklet and the cards gave me no choice but to jump into a world I hadn’t been to before. Sure, this terminology is sometimes used in everyday life (remote servers, hacking, etc.). But the fact that this game lets you live it through gameplay makes these words come to life. For example, take a term like the “runner.” When I read about this side of the game and the roles entailed, I immediately felt excited. What could runner mean? Adventure? Crime? Close calls? All of the above? Simple terms like this create excitement for the player, or at least engagement. When I played as the corporation, I felt empowered by the terms used to describe my tools. “Ice” now meant a specific defense system I could use to protect my vital information contained in my servers. “Research and Development” now meant a pool of untapped resources I could use to crush my nemesis, rather than a simple deck of cards. Heck, even my trash pile got me engaged in the world with a name like “Archives.” The designers could have chosen different language—language that would not accurately describe this cyber-punk world of desperation. But by using these specific words, they conditioned players to think as if they were actually hackers or technologically advanced corporations. The words on the cards have more effect on the minds of players than one might realize or acknowledge.
So if words have this kind of effect, is there anything else that seemingly subtle that could also have a similar level of influence on players? I argue that in games like Netrunner, the artwork and overall visual aesthetic plays a vital role in pulling the player into these fictive worlds. When a player picks up a card that depicts a certain action, the artwork on that card should immediately capture the vision of what that action might do. This can be interpreted in different ways, however. Rather than showing exactly what an action might look like, many cards in Netrunner give the player a visual idea to work with. I noticed that when I drew the card “Crypsis,” I felt a sense of power and authority from that card. This is effective design, because the player can go off of visual cues to get an idea of what cards might be good for, or how good the card actually is. Even the parts of the game that may seem insignificant can be influential. For example, the backs of the cards are either red or blue, but they have a design and aesthetic that suggests an extremely technological atmosphere. This art helps players become a part of the fictional world. The art gets in a player’s mind.
In addition to textual and artistic mediums of communication, there are various gameplay aspects which help the player capture a vision of the Netrunner world. One of these is the implementation of an economy within the game. Some games are all about monetary gain. Netrunner isn’t about the money. Or is it? Although the goal of the game is to gain “agenda” cards as both the runner and the corporation, money plays a vital role to get to that point. One aspect about the economy of Netrunner that surprised me when I played is the fact that the gameplay encourages frugality. If players are heavy spenders, they suffer immediately, and they feel that effect for multiple turns sometimes. Through this aspect of the game, players learn that they must be cautious with how their money is spent within the cyber-punk world. Money is used to purchase and use important offensive and defensive tools, but players have to wisely choose how and when they spend money.
Players are constantly eyeballing each other’s resources to try and anticipate where to attack and where to defend. In addition to a monetary level of competition, there are other elements of balance within this game that contribute to its fictive world. At first glance, these balance issues may seem like just that—issues, or unfair elements of the game. However, when one looks deeper at these imbalances in gameplay, further immersion into this fictional world is apparent. The biggest example to me is the corporation. When a person thinks of a corporation in today’s world, they might think of power, influence, competition, etc. This becomes apparent in Netrunner through the gameplay. The corporation always gets to go first in any given game. This indicates that the power lies in the hands of that particular organization, and the runner has to work around it. The runner, on the other hand, is fairly fragile if players are not careful or do not foresee what could happen. In addition to playing second in the game, runners can be “flat-lined” when corporations (through various means) eliminate the cards in their hand. This imbalance of power vs. fragility makes for exciting gameplay, especially when the runner can turn fragility into power. But in addition to engaging gameplay, this aspect of the game helps players put themselves in the world. They feel more connected to the conflicts being portrayed within the game, and thus more motivated to succeed.
As I think about the various games I’ve played, both similar and different than Netrunner, I consider how these elements might illuminate other fictive worlds. Some games do not succeed at doing this, to be clear. Others may do it better than Netrunner. I think the point of this discussion is that effective game design can be more than gameplay and mechanics. It can point players in a direction that gets them connected to the game (and potentially a culture), which increases the longevity of a game and makes it more fun to play generally. Netrunner uses specific language, carefully styled art and aesthetics, and economical and balance aspects to enrich its gameplay and invite players to jump into a different world. There are also many other games that hopefully use this pattern, suggesting there is much more to discover about how games support their fictive worlds and contexts through good design.