Fishing in a Cyber Pond – Part 1

Fishing in a Cyber Pond – Part 1

July 12, 2018 Off By Chase

Microsoft ended its E3 2018 media showcase with static, darkness, and faux DOS prompts. A netrunner’s machinations ‘leaked’ the trailer for Cyberpunk 2077, CD Projekt Red’s sci-fi follow-up to their award-winning open world RPG, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The pulsing music, dystopian cityscapes, and violent tableaus assaulted the senses of thousands in attendance and thousands more watching online with visions of a churning cauldron of cybernetic chaos. Before the first gameplay footage had been shown to anyone outside of CDPR, Cyberpunk became the game of the show.

As the trailer ended, Mike Pondsmith was ready to promote the latest version of his thirty-year opus.

But how did we get here?

Mike Pondsmith is a veteran roleplaying game designer and founder of the tabletop games publisher, R. Talsorian Games. Working as a graphic designer in the early video games industry, Pondsmith was dissatisfied by the limits of the technology available and preferred the freedom granted by traditional pen and paper. He went on to write Mekton, a mecha game influenced by Mobile Suit Gundam. (Supposedly, Pondsmith imported Gundam manga and, unable to read Japanese, recreated the setting from the artwork.) Its success led to the founding of RTG in 1985, which went on to release Teenagers from Outer Space, one of the first anime-based games that didn’t focus on mecha, and a second edition of Mekton.

In 1988, Pondsmith drew on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and similar sci-fi subgenre sources to create the aptly-named Cyberpunk: The Roleplaying Game of the Dark Future, a film noir, high body count RPG focusing on cybernetics, heavy weapons, and futuristic style over substance. Cyberpunk, specifically the second edition, Cyberpunk 2020, became RTG’s most popular and expansive product line. It spawned 44 sourcebooks, two spinoffs including a crossover with Paranoia, and boasted an estimated 5 million players. Wizards of the Coast licensed the property for Netrunner, a collectible card game by Magic: The Gathering creator Richard Garfield, which used characters and locations from Cyberpunk, as well as Pondsmith’s likeness for a card-based cameo. The Fantasy Flight Games’ revival, Android: Netrunner, became a modern success for the limited card game format.

Despite this, R. Talsorian Games was not immune to the downturn in the tabletop market caused by the CCG boom started by Magic, which had claimed the life of Dungeons & Dragons publisher TSR. Pondsmith suspended RTG’s major product lines in 1998 and announced the company would become a part-time venture. Mike went to Microsoft Game Studios to produce games for their Xbox console, and his wife Lisa kept Mekton Z (the game’s third edition) and Cyberpunk 2020 in print at RTG while the company produced and supported licensed anime RPGs of Bubblegum Crisis, Armored Trooper VOTOMS, and Dragon Ball Z.

Still, Pondsmith wanted to update Cyberpunk with new ideas from the genre at large as well as disparate elements of the zeitgeist of the new millennium. Work began on Cyberpunk 203X shortly after Dragon Ball Z was finished, but numerous setbacks – including the September 11, 2001 attacks – stretched development over five years. The final product, Cyberpunk v3.0, made the tail end of 2005 and its updated setting, streamlined mechanics, and photo-edited artwork garnered mixed reviews. A few supplements were produced, but this edition did not live up to the success of its predecessor. Pondsmith became an instructor at DigiPen and, for a time, tabletop design remained a side gig.

Next week, I’ll dive into what came after. From side gig and commercial afterthought before the Great Recession, to this year’s triumphant E3 reveal.