The Winning Agenda interviews Morgan B White, NISEI developer
Hi all! You may remember The Winning Agenda, the premier Netrunner competitive podcast between 2014 and 2018. If you do, welcome back, and if you don’t, welcome! With the death and subsequent revival of Netrunner under a new organisation, NISEI, there’s a lot to discuss. Today, Wilfy interviews Morgan B White, NISEI developer – you may know them as @anzekay on Twitter or Stimslack.
Hi Morgan! Thanks for being with us today. Can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about how long you’ve been playing and how you got into Netrunner?
Hey Wilfy, thanks for arranging this! I’m a late-20s freelance Game Designer and writer living in Perth, Western Australia. I started studying computer science at the start of 2018 as well, so most of what I do currently is study!
I’ve been playing Netrunner since early 2014, if I remember right it was just before Honor & Profit was released. At the first PAX Australia in mid 2013 there was some sort of Netrunner demo happening in the tabletop area, but I didn’t actually try it myself. Rather it was a friend of mine who asked me if I’d heard of it after the con was over, as he’d given it a try and liked it immensely (and even bought the core set on the spot).
I was curious, so after getting home from Melbourne I had a look online and found out that Quintin Smith, of Shut Up and Sit Down, was a big fan (and I in turn was a big fan of SUSD’s work). I listened to the episode of Terminal 7 that Quinns was on, and while most of what they were talking about didn’t make any sense to me I knew I had to get this game.
I ended up buying a copy of the core set and What Lies Ahead, the very first datapack, off an acquaintance who never used it anymore, and we played a game together at the store where the exchange happened. It was, if I remember, hilariously bad and we screwed up every rule imaginable. But it was great. I played a bunch more with some friends and even my Dad, but didn’t manage to get any of the others into the game.
When and where did you first go to a tournament and start exploring the competitive side of the game? Does anything stand out from that time as piquing your interest?
After playing a bunch with the aforementioned folks, I found out another friend of mine, Coan, already had a bunch of Netrunner and was keen to play some games. We hung out a few times and played a bunch, which was great as I hadn’t seen half the cards he had (I fondly remember the first time he pulled out Jinteki: Replicating Perfection) but I still kinda just wanted to play more. Facebook seemed to be the ideal place for discovering a Netrunner community, so that’s where I went. Sure enough there was a little Facebook group for Netrunner in Perth and Western Australia, so I joined that and found out they ran a league event at a game store across town every Monday night.
Usually I’m pretty shy when it comes to going to events or places where I don’t know anyone, so I talked Coan into coming with me. I think there were about 12-16 other people there the first night we want, and I had an absolute blast despite losing most of my games. I went home that evening and ordered every single datapack I didn’t have, along with C&C, and started going every night I could, and I’ve been going to just about every event, casual, semi-competitive or competitive that I possibly can.
How were you feeling when you had heard that FFG was discontinuing the game and NISEI was taking it up as an entirely fan project?
Surprised, mostly, since FFG had just released a revised edition of the core set and the community was picking back up again worldwide after the drop of activity around the Mumbad cycle. But I’m familiar enough with the industry to know that these things happen all the time, and there was little to be done. I intended to keep playing with my local community until I was the only person showing up. With how many others here expressed the same sentiment I imagine I would’ve been playing Netrunner in Perth until I died or move away, haha!
NISEI was something I was only vaguely aware of to begin with. I saw the posts on facebook and some talk in various slacks or discords about it, but I figured until they started doing anything there wasn’t much to look at, and kinda just forgot about the whole thing. It seemed like a noble effort, but I didn’t really want to build up any personal expectations.
What made you want to apply to the NISEI team, and why did you pick a game development role to focus on? I know a lot of people in the community have had experience creating their own Netrunner fan sets, new formats or MWLs, or entirely new games. Had you done any of that in the past?
A friend of mine linked me to the NISEI applications stuff one evening, and I looked at it and wasn’t really sure about throwing my hat into the ring. I’m not an especially confident person when it comes to my own capabilities, and I felt pretty busy with study, looking for contract work, and my own projects at the time. Another dev friend of mine straight up just told me to do it, though, so I thought about it for a few more days and ended up applying within the last 48 hours! I actually applied for Design and Creative (writing specifically) as well as Development.
I wasn’t entirely sure what the Design/Dev role split was about, since that’s not something I’ve encountered in video game development before, but I assumed it was an effort to lower individual department workload on a fan project. Writing because, well, writing is probably my first love, really, and Narrative Design is what I yearn most to do these days. Not too much of that in a competitive card game though, outside of Terminal Directive, I’ll admit!
I’m pretty happy with the Development role, though, and if I’d known then what I know now about the team’s specific duties I likely would’ve just applied for Development alone.
Obviously I have a bit of previous game dev experience, but nothing in terms of physical games (let alone a card game), so all my prior work was digital stuff. I’d done some little random ideas of a new set before, but it was minor, mostly just a flip ID runner and their associated rig and support cards, all based on the idea of making a Caissa 2.0 cycle that was playable and cross-faction!
NISEI has had a very good opportunity to forge their own path in terms of how they want to structure the rules, release structure, formats, and even individual cards themselves. How did that opportunity for drastic change affect your perspective on the task at hand? Do you think you were more aggressive or more conservative in your design and development work because it was a time of such great upheaval?
To some degree I wasn’t worried terribly much about the community upheaval that was going on. I just wanted to test our own limits and capabilities and ensure the first set we released wasn’t riddled with problem cards or boring ideas. I was definitely more conservative when it came to power levels, and I figured that it was much more likely that our efforts would be hurt by releasing a bunch of cards we’d then have to turn around and hit with the MWL, compared to releasing a set of weird and interesting but slightly underpowered cards.
I definitely think a lot of cards have been rated by the community lower in power level than they should have been, but it’s hard to properly contextualise how cards would be received in the real world when all our playtesting was with the second half of Ashes as well! I firmly believe that some cards in Downfall that the community originally panned will be much, much, more playable once Uprising has been released.
Probably the largest complication for Downfall’s development was just sheer logistics. We were putting a lot of stuff together from the ground up, and the Creative team in particular really did a stellar job not only getting art for all 65 cards but also making our new card frames, layouts, and everything else from the ground up. Similarly the Rules team was in the process of overhauling the entire ruleset for the game, another monumental task. Now that we’ve sorted out a lot of that stuff, we’re in a much better position for future sets.
As Downfall was the first set that NISEI released, I think a lot of people were waiting with bated breath to see how NISEI’s first development offering would turn out. What perspective did you personally take coming into Downfall from a development perspective? Were certain cards designed as a reaction to the meta at the time, or was there a more holistic view taken about shaping a format that would be fun in the future?
So, I definitely outlined a bunch of this in the Development article I wrote for Downfall’s spoiler season, which you can find at this link, but there’s some other things that come to mind here. A lot of the set was originally conceived to fit into two distinct areas of play. One area of the set was created to support the new ID of each faction within the Ashes cycle, and another area was created to support IDs that haven’t been frequently used in competitive play, or under-represented strategies in general. Some of the factions had more issues with the latter part than others. In particular, Anarch had a troubled time in both design and dev as we struggled to make cards that were playable but not instantly easy to slot into the existing Anarch powerhouse of archetypes.
To some degree a decent numbers of cards were definitely responses to pre-Downfall meta particulars. Whistleblower and Direct Access were both intended to be alternatives for Employee Strike and Film Critic, their reduced power level allowing for them to keep off the MWL, although I think we might have made Whistleblower a bit too user-unfriendly than I may have liked, in hindsight.
But personally? I really wanted to push out a set that promoted some unusual styles of play or that supported archetypes that have been long dead. I very much wanted it to be a bunch of cards that got the community excited for the future, even if it wasn’t overall a really potent set. Definitely some mistakes happened or some problems slipped through the cracks because of my outlook there, but I don’t regret taking that approach for Downfall. The future sets will be (and are) getting a much less restrained treatment from me, though.
Take us through a bit of the playtesting and refinement process for you – what elements did you use to assess cards and how they would be played, especially from a competitive perspective?
The reality of Development is that it’s not the most glamorous of roles! A lot of game design is about communication and iteration, especially of systems and issues that are very difficult to understand from a player point of view. We have to interact with every other department on the team, to glean information on intentions for various card designs, names, purposes, themes, you name it! Our Playtest team is also under Development’s purview, and we get feedback from them constantly as they test cards. We’re kinda just gathering lots of information and data and then distilling it down to conclusions we can base the next iteration of a card on.
I’d say there’s 4 different elements I focus on for each card.
Design intent: the original conceit and purpose for the card. We try and adhere to that where possible, even when drastically changing a card, but sometimes a card’s original purpose or intent become untenable and we either scrap the card entirely or offer a replacement for its slot in the set.
Theme: the story or character the card is based on. To some degree this doesn’t come up til later in development for some cards, as the Creative team decides just what they want some of the more generic cards to be about. But for the more top-down designs we keep the feelings evoked by a card in mind the whole way through development. There’s actually a card in Uprising that I’ve become exceptionally attached to recently, to the point that I’m part way through writing some short fiction specifically about that card!
Playtest data: the distillation of the test data we get from our playtesters actually trying out the cards. This is probably where the bulk of our information comes from. It’s really easy for us to sit around in Slack and discuss what we think a card should do or how strong it should be, etc, but ultimately past a certain point that effort is irrelevant and wasteful compared to just playing with the cards.
Existing context: this is concerns regarding the current meta, or the meta we’re seeing develop in playtest, or other projections we have for future metas. A really good example of this would be some of the biggest problem cards we’re working on at the moment, cards for a fairly popular playstyle. Trying to figure out strong future definitions for certain sorts of cards is a very valuable and important thing, but it needs to be done with the context of how those cards are likely to be played now, not just in a year’s time, otherwise we risk printing cards that are far too strong, or just really bad or excessively niche.
This is probably the hardest thing to actually focus on, as it’s a fairly dispassionate and nebulous element of the development process, compared to the three previous ones that all involve people who are invested in these cards on both an intellectual and emotional level. Cold logic can be a real buzzkill, I suppose. This is probably the area where I had to be restrained during Downfall’s development, as I was being more conservative with the power level of cards, and so thinking about their role in a purely competitive meta wasn’t as high a priority for me then as it is now for Uprising and future sets.
What’s your favourite Runner and favourite Corp card in Downfall, and why? Personally, my favourite Runner card is Khusyuk because I love making elements of the game matter that don’t normally matter (see my champion card for an example of that) and my favourite Corp card is Daily Quest because it enables a type of play that I like where you do nothing until your opponent eventually gets bored and concedes!
Oh this is a hard one. I love all my children as much as the others! Khusyuk is definitely up there, because it’s such a strange card that demands thought not just in play but also in deckbuilding, but I think Flip Switch might have to be my personal favourite. It’s such a sleek design, even if it does have 3 different functions on it, and it promotes aggressive and faster paced play, which is exactly how I like to play Criminal the most.
Daily Quest is absolutely a card that slipped through my vision a bit (honestly most of the NBN cards did), it may have ended up being slightly stronger than I would’ve liked. My personal favourite is Fully Operational, as it’s a card we really pushed towards promoting the older style of HB, with multiple iced servers for your Campaigns as well as scoring. I don’t think it’s super strong right now, but I am hoping that as the meta shifts over time it’ll come into its full potential. Especially if we print more cards that support that archetype! Trebuchet is a close second, because I really wanted to print an illicit ice that was worth playing. I kinda regret not making all of its numbers be part of a formula to calculate the max range of a trebuchet though…
Thanks for answering my questions Morgan! Congratulations on your successful release, everyone seems to love it. To our readers, thanks so much for tuning in, and please let me know if you’d like to see more Netrunner content!
Wilfy is a non-binary Netrunner enthusiast from Melbourne and the 2017 Netrunner World Champion. They like board games, cute animals, and tournaments. You can find them at @chaosjuggler on Twitter where they mostly retweet Dril.