'Netrunner' Is an Expensive Hobby, But There's a Free, Unofficial Version Online
A freelance software developer from Belgium got a cease and desist from Netrunner's creator, but his site is still up.
Image: Matthew Braga/VICE
Consider a name like Jinteki—"human" in Japanese. Certainly corporate, it doesn't exactly inspire warmth. That's because like NBN and Haas-Bioroid, Jinteki is a fictional megacorp that rules the cyberpunk hellscape of the hit "living card game" Android: Netrunner. But there's a more corporeal Jinteki out there too, called Jinteki.net. It's quietly changing the way that people play Netrunner, and in the process riling up opposition from Fantasy Flight Games, Netrunner's original creator.
When asked about the name, Minh Tran, the developer behind the Jinteki.com, just laughs it off.
"Well, Jinteki.com was already taken," he told me.
I discovered Jinteki shortly after my first encounter with Netrunner, a two-player asymmetric card game that pits a powerful megacorporation against a versatile hacker. One of the co-workers at my new job had introduced me to the game, and despite my lack of interest in physical card games I almost immediately fell in love with its combination of mind games and resource management.
Still, enthusiasm can only make up for so much, and my friend beat me, badly. I was looking for strategies and prefab decks to get the upper hand when I stumbled upon Jinketi.net. It seemed too good to be true, almost like a form of benign piracy; a site where I could play my new hobby with anybody I wanted for free. I immediately introduced the game to my best internet friend, a person I game with almost every weekend. The connection was instantaneous. Soon we were playing half a dozen or more times a week, and I still hadn't paid a dime.
When Tran first started developing Jinteki, newcomers like me and my friends weren't part of his plan. "I started it to challenge myself," he told me. He had read about Lisp, a challenging programming language, and was hoping to sharpen his skills. "I wanted a place where people like me—people who take the game really seriously—could practice a lot."
But as the inexperienced began to flood in, asking the veterans to show them the ropes, Tran began to rethink the scope of what Jinteki could be. Pouring untold nights and weekends into its development, last year he finally managed to hit a major milestone: automatic handling of every card in the game by the system itself. Plenty of sites have offered the chance to play a physical game online, but one that actually has the rules of the game hard-coded in so that you know you're playing correctly is another thing entirely. As the site grows, Tran's ambitions grow loftier. "I'm hoping now that we can add more games to it, make it something like the Steam of tabletop games," he said. Stranger things have happened, but to me that sounds like a bit like trying to shoot the moon with a potato cannon.
But growth begets attention, and not always of the type Tran wants. Last year, both Jinteki and the card database that supplies images to it received cease and desist letters from Fantasy Flight's lawyers demanding that the two sites shut down. So far, the site is still up and Fantasy Flight has yet to follow-up on that initial letter. Fantasy Flight also declined to be interviewed for this article.
"When you look all Wizards of the Coast did to promote Magic: The Gathering... free cards, tournaments, sponsored events... just to get new players," Tran said. "And here, they get it for free. I'm just so surprised they want to shut it down."
As my obsession with Netrunner continues to develop, it becomes more and more demanding. My friend regularly blindsides me with vicious cards and strategies; I find myself prowling through wikis and forums on my lunch break, trying to learn how to counter them. But even as my obsession deepens, I still find myself hesitating to purchase even the $40 Core Set—the starting point for any budding Netrunner player. Not that it would do me much good, as constructing the half-dozen or so decks I've built on Jinteki would require me to buy nearly half the cards available for the game.
Indeed, even considering the game's quality, the buy-in on Netrunner can be considerable, numbering in the hundreds of dollars—another pursuit unattainable for those without significant disposable income.
As one might expect in our ever-connected world, the conflict between physical games and the fan-coded virtual versions of them extends far beyond the skirmish between Jinteki.net and Fantasy Flight. But it's not always a problem. Indeed, many of the companies behind these games realized the potential market a mobile or computer-based version would garner and developed official versions of their most popular games, from Dominion to Magic: The Gathering.
Perhaps most famously, the mega-hit Cards Against Humanity operates under a Creative Common license, allowing users to print out their own set of the core cards for free or even develop their own variant of the rules. Max Temkin, one of Cards Against Humanity's designers, downplayed any commercial considerations. "Our main priority was to share the game with people and make them laugh; everything else is secondary," he told me.
Tran isn't quite sure why Fantasy Flight hasn't taken this route yet, but in his estimation, the complexity that so attracts the droves of players cuts against such an approach. "Games like Dominion have a stable rule-set...they're relatively easy to code. Something like Netrunner, where any card can change everything, takes a lot of work."
Tran doesn't have the resources that Fantasy Flight has, but he believes he could solve this problem by himself. "Jinteki is my baby," he said. "I worked very hard on it, many nights and weekends. If we could form a partnership, we could use a subscription model and make them a lot of money. But I'm not a salesman...I'm just a guy sitting in front of my computer."
One of the four board game shops where I live is littered with packs and accessories for every card game I've ever heard of, and quite a few that I haven't. At the top of the heap lies a ream of Netrunner expansions; names like "DATA AND DESTINY" and "CHROME CITY" catch my eye, each promising a brave new set of cards that will totally change my perspective of the game I've come to so appreciate.
Clearly, a lot of work went into the portraits on these cards, the flavor text, and the brilliant rules and balancing that has enticed me to play hundreds of matches of Netrunner already. But I don't buy the $40 Core Set. After all, I can play Netrunner online for free. And to sway customers like me, maybe Fantasy Flight needs to think past its analog origins and develop a solution that works for both the legion of artists and designers who created the game and the fans who fuel its fire.