Over the last three days, I’ve examined the work of Project NISEI, the fan-run program to keep Android: Netrunner alive after its official cancellation. In the first post in this series, I shared a brief history of Netrunner and NISEI and highlighted the strengths NISEI has exhibited in their first seven months. In the second post, I switched to my critic’s glasses and pointed out areas for improvement in NISEI’s handling of their first spoiler season. Yesterday, I went further, criticizing what I believed were NISEI’s substantial weaknesses in their web communications, both on their website and social media. Today, I want to cap off the series with recommendations for ways NISEI could address the challenges I identified.

Before I do, however, I want to address the issue of scale and resources. Throughout this series, I have made multiple comparisons between NISEI, a fan-run non-profit project staffed by volunteers… and Magic: the Gathering, the most successful card game of all time. The difference in scope is not at all lost on me.

The Netrunner cards "D4V1D" (David) and "Colossus"
Hey NISEI, make a “G0L14TH” card so I can illustrate this better.

What NISEI has accomplished so far on a shoestring budget is nothing short of amazing. Their graphic design is just as good as, if not better than, the cards produced by Fantasy Flight Games, and the cards they have added to the game with their first release, Downfall, appear carefully balanced yet offer intriguing new possibilities for play. Their release notes for Downfall demonstrate remarkable thoroughness and dedication to making the game’s rules robust and intuitive.

NISEI could only pull off this level of professionalism thanks to thousands of hours contributed by writers, artists, designers, rules managers, playtesters, and everyone else on their team. NISEI is a labor of love, and I recognize that on some level, it’s audacious to compare them to the biggest name in the game.

By pointing to Magic, I don’t mean to suggest that NISEI needs a full roster of writers producing daily content. Neither do I mean they need to have an expensive website built from scratch. Honestly, for examples of coordinated online communication, I could also point to the websites of FFG, Hearthstone, White Wizard Games, or the tiny wineries in the rural Washington town where I once lived. I could even point to my own personal website, which has sat dormant for years on end and is so devoid of traffic that Google Analytics apologizes when I log in. A basic communications strategy and ground-level SEO practices aren’t only the purview of megacorps, it’s just that megacorps know how to use them. We can too. My suggestions for NISEI are within reach for ordinary runners like you and me.

So with that said, let’s start with a recap.

Spoiler Season Challenges

NISEI’s first spoiler season, while successful at building hype, demonstrated a consistent failure of messaging. Announcements were made in unfocused, multi-purpose blog posts, which obscured important details. Crucial information, such as when and how the set would be released, was mentioned only in a single blog post that was never referred to again. This lack of detail on the official website created confusion for readers and increased the workload on NISEI staff, who had to repeatedly provide clarification in comments.

NISEI’s website lacked a central page for information about the set, instead providing information in scattered blog posts that quickly got swallowed by the archives. These blog posts, while brimming with enthusiasm, rarely anticipated reader questions or interest about the spoiled cards, again creating downstream communication burdens as NISEI representatives provided information on social media that was absent in the posts.

As a whole, NISEI’s first spoiler season indicated significant challenges with using the official website as a reliable, authoritative source for information, and viewing NISEI content through the eyes of the intended audience.

Web and Social Challenges

NISEI’s website is functional, clean, and responsive; however, it lacks authority and utility as the center of their online presence. The landing page fails to convey what NISEI is and offers nearly no context for new players. The website has no organizational structure to speak of, lacking categories, tags, and a search function. Information best suited for static pages, such as information about sets like System Core 2019 or Downfall, is instead buried in blog posts, which, combined with the lack of organization, means it can only be found by hunting through the archives. This is made more difficult by NISEI’s arcane and overloaded post titles, which are challenging to make sense of and present an amateurish impression due to their cluttered verbiage, reliance upon inside jokes, and overuse of ellipses, exclamation points, and caps lock.

Although some amount of variance in voice from author to author is expected and even desirable, NISEI appears to lack a consistent style guide for their online communications. Conventions are inconsistent, decreasing the sense of a cohesive online identity. NISEI articles vary wildly in the polish they are given: where one article will use headers and formatting to craft a pleasant reading experience, another will lack any formatting at all and end abruptly with no conclusion.

NISEI’s articles are not prepared for social media sharing. They lack defined summaries and featured images, so the contents of link previews are auto-generated, unpredictable, and uninformative. On their official social media channels, NISEI occasionally makes missteps that show an unfamiliarity with platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

Taken together, NISEI’s web challenges speak to a lack of effective editorial oversight, little to no consideration of audience experience, and an indifferent approach to social media as part of communication and branding.

What can NISEI do to fix this?

Spoiler Season Recommendations

Excitement for a set begins building as soon as a set is announced, even before the spoiler season officially kicks off. NISEI can help their product announcements stand out by making them in single-purpose announcement articles on their blog. These posts should have clear titles containing the name of the product and little else, such as “Announcing Uprising” or “The Ashes Cycle: Announcing NISEI’s Next Sets”.

Mockup of a Facebook link preview. The title reads, "Announcing Encrypted Agenda," and the subtitle is "A new set of 65 cards by NISEI".
For example.

Inside an announcement post, NISEI writers should clearly provide key information about the release, including its name, size, release date, release method, tournament legality, and the dates of spoiler season. Select pieces of additional content from the product, such as its expansion symbol, a snippet of worldbuilding, the set’s key art, and/or one particularly exciting card image, can be included in this announcement to add excitement and tease what’s to come. It may help NISEI to proofread this from the perspective of their intended audience, perhaps even enlisting one or two community members as preview readers to provide this viewpoint.

This post will serve as the official first announcement of the product, but barring corrections, it will not be updated or revised after it’s published. That’s the realm of a static product page. When the announcement is published, NISEI should simultaneously launch a static page on their website for the product details, containing key product information like release date, key art, set symbol, number of cards, design and playtester credits, and so on, similar to the contents of the initial announcement. This product page should contain a passage of creative prose establishing the premise of the set–many of us were hooked by Android: Netrunner’s creative worldbuilding, so including a high concept on a product page is a great way to establish its identity. The page should also link to the tag for NISEI articles about the product and include, perhaps as a sub-page, a gallery of card images for all cards spoiled so far, updated daily during spoiler season.

Unlike the announcement post, the static page will be continually updated as more information is released. This page will be the centralized home of all information about the product, so any reader who wants to learn more can start not with a jumbled wall of articles, but an authoritative, clear resource page.

Spoilers on the NISEI Blog

When spoiler season officially starts, NISEI should post a standalone blog post with the schedule for the weeks to come. All NISEI articles during spoiler season should use the name of the product being spoiled, and any post that has to do with the product should be tagged with the product’s name. Articles that spoil new cards should be written to anticipate readers’ interest and confusion, providing context and explanations so that NISEI doesn’t have to give endless clarifications in the comments.

When relevant, NISEI spoiler articles should link to one another, helping readers find related information. Most importantly, though, every article during spoiler season should contain release details: how and when readers can acquire the product being spoiled. This could take the form of a standard footer message applied to every spoiler post and linking to the product page:

Encrypted Agenda will be available January 26, 20xx, as a print-it-yourself PDF and physical cards from our print-on-demand partners.

Community Partner Spoilers

Partnering with community content creators to share spoilers is an excellent practice that should continue with slight modifications. When cards are provided to community partners to preview, NISEI should also provide clarifications for anticipated points of interest or confusion, so that creators can provide the same kind of clarity NISEI would on their own site. As part of the spoiler partnership agreement, NISEI should also request that community partners who share spoilers also share release details. Again, this can be as simple as one sentence describing when and how the product will be available. The goal is to respect the autonomy of NISEI’s community partners while also ensuring consistent messaging and decreasing confusion.

Naturally, the audience-generating potential for community partners of exclusive spoilers drops off significantly once the spoilers are no longer exclusive. NISEI’s end of the preview arrangement, driving audience members to community partners, would be weakened by my suggestion of a comprehensive card image gallery on NISEI’s site. This may be somewhat mitigated by a clearly publicized community spoiler policy, such as granting community partners two full business days before their previews are added to the gallery, and adding referral links to the card gallery beneath such cards.

Together, these steps would allow NISEI to build excitement for their new products, minimize readers’ confusion or frustration, and decrease the demand on NISEI representatives for repetitive downstream communication.

Web Communications Recommendations

NISEI’s website needs an overhaul, starting with the landing page. NISEI.net should direct to a landing page designed for multiple audiences. An eye-catching slideshow at the top can contain pithy explanations of NISEI’s purpose, announcements of recent news, and other top-priority content. It should have punchy calls to action, like “Learn more” and “Get it now”, to direct readers to resources.

The full feed of NISEI’s blog should not be contained on the landing page; rather, the landing page should only preview three to five recent posts. Instead, the blog should be a separate section of the website. This allows the landing page to be useful to returning players without alienating new players who lack the context or investment to appreciate them.

If these changes alone (plus small tweaks to colors and background) were made, NISEI’s landing page could look something like this:

  • Mockup of a NISEI landing page, featuring a header that reads "We are the next generation of your favorite cyberpunk card game."
  • Mockup of a NISEI landing page, with a header that reads "DOWNFALL is out now! The Beanstalk has fallen. What will rise from the ashes?"

Isn’t that an improvement?

With the infinitely scrolling blog feed removed, there’s new free space on the NISEI landing page. Readers interested in the blog or product details–enfranchised players, most likely–will have clicked those links in the top half of this page, so the audience who scrolls down further is likely new players. I recommend taking a page from Hearthstone and using this space below the blog preview for more content aimed at new players. This could be a brief overview of the game, links to learning resources, and/or information about how to start playing.

Beyond the landing page, NISEI should use more static pages for foundational content like product details, banlists, and rules references. Each NISEI product should have its own static page, including the previously released System Core 2019 and Downfall, so that readers never have to wade through blog posts to unearth basic information. These static pages should be listed in the navigation bar, in clearly organized submenus if need be. NISEI should also immediately implement a search function so that readers don’t have to hunt blindly for information in a sea of blog posts.

Rehabilitating NISEI’s Blog

On the blog, which I again recommend moving to its own section of the site, blog posts should have single purposes. A post recapping community spoilers should not also be a post containing new spoilers and a discussion of those new cards’ design; that is the content of two separate articles and should be presented as such. Every blog post should be tagged and categorized, with tags representing the content of the post (like “Downfall” or “card design”) and categories classifying the post by series (like “15 Minutes” or “Announcements”). Every article should also be given a short synopsis in the editor, which can be shown in search results and social media to provide clarifying context. The blog page should also present post previews in an ordered list rather than the zig-zagging arrangement they currently have.

Illustration of three purple tags, which read "Downfall", "development", and "playtesting".
Tagging articles by subject would help organization immenseley.

NISEI’s article titles should strive for clarity above all, and yes, this will almost certainly mean retiring the convention of using card names in titles. Good titles are written for the reader’s benefit. Inside jokes are indulgences for the writer. Kill your darlings, baby.

Miscellaneous Website Improvements

There are also a handful of website improvements that don’t quite fit anywhere else, but are nevertheless important. The NISEI website should contain links to NISEI’s social media channels, including an embedded Twitter feed. Links to resources like NetrunnerDB and jinteki.net should also be emphasized. In order to improve accessibility for players who use screen readers or other visual assistive devices, every image should be given descriptive alt text. Conversely, alt text should never be used as commentary; that is the function of the title attribute. In general, NISEI could improve their articles by following HTML best practices, including using semantic HTML, structuring articles with headers when appropriate (and not using header tags to denote large text), and using existing HTML conventions like horizontal rules instead of plaintext workarounds like strings of asterisks.

Several things would make articles more readable on the NISEI blog: decreasing contrast between foreground text and background color, increasing default text size by a couple points, and decreasing the width of article text to approximately 100 characters per line.

Appointing an Editor

Asking a whole team of volunteer creators, who are already working hard to produce content and engage with the community in their limited time, to implement HTML best practices and follow a unified style guide would be a big ask. Therefore, in order to prevent inconsistency and provide a unified professional impression without further burdening their existing team, NISEI may wish to appoint a digital communications editor. This person could be responsible for overseeing NISEI’s online messaging, including the blog, website at large, and social media. They could make revisions to authors’ blog posts for copy-editing, stylistic consistency, professionalism, and polish, hopefully catching sentences like this one…

There’s no plans for any scoops tomorrow, so you’ve 48 hours to start brewing up new runner decks – these are on NRDB right now – before you find out which Corp cards are gonna come in and wreck your plans because on Wednesday we show all of those off and then you will have no more scoops until Uprising Spoiler Season starts.

NISEI, SpecWork (Downfall Spoilers – Part 10 – ALL RUNNER CARDS!)

…before they’re published. They could also take responsibility for preparing content for social media by writing titles and descriptions and selecting featured images, so authors don’t have to. A digital communications editor would help keep NISEI’s messaging professional, consistent, and useful to its audience, which itself would relieve pressure on other NISEI staff members.

Wrapping Up

Here’s the awesome news: NISEI knows most of this.

Something important happened after I published yesterday’s article: NISEI released Downfall, and with it, a static Downfall product page. It contains:

  • Creative worldbuilding text to set the stage
  • A vibrant “key image”
  • Product description (in multiple languages, no less)
  • Release date
  • Details on how to purchase, including links
  • Link to the set on NetrunnerDB
  • Link to the release notes (which are themselves a gem)
  • Link to related articles

While I’d love to take the credit for inspiring NISEI to whip up a useful product page… it seems far more likely to me that this was already in the pipes. This means NISEI has noticed on their own many of the things I just spent four days pointing out. That’s encouraging.

As I’ve shared these articles over the last few days, members of NISEI have been extraordinarily gracious in taking my criticism. Typically, they have politely thanked me for highlighting issues, then humbly noted that they were already aware of most of them. In response to yesterday’s post, for instance, NISEI member “Shanodin” commented:

I’m for sure not gonna disagree with any of this stuff, but I want to reassure you that we _know_ about all these problems. We’ve been working our butts off getting Downfall released, and the website was just put together in a less than ideal way to start with, because it was a preference of the original lead web developer, then they left and we had to muddle along because the rest of the team weren’t so up to speed with that system. We have high hopes for our website.

Shanodin on Medium

NISEI has a plan. They were perhaps a little short-staffed at first, and faced immense organizational pressure from the demands of getting established and producing a brand new product, but they don’t seem content resting on their laurels. NISEI wants to grow and improve. That makes me very confident about the future of the game I love. I hope it does for you too.

Where does that leave me? Well, admittedly, it means I spent thousands of words to be… mostly redundant, as far as raising things to NISEI’s attention goes. Oops. Maybe I was a hair presumptuous.

But as I’ve shared this on social media, I’ve seen a lot of conversation from readers. People chimed in to add examples of areas for NISEI’s improvement, sure, but they also highlighted strengths I overlooked and offered competing opinions to my own–almost always with a tone of support. I tried hard as I wrote this series to make it clear that I criticize aspirationally, and the response from the Netrunner community shows that fans of NISEI understand and share that desire. We all want NISEI to grow and succeed, while also recognizing the very real accomplishments they’ve already made.

I guess if I’m to wring some sort of cheesy conclusion out of this series, it’s this: Don’t be afraid to dream big for the things you love. In only seven months, a scrappy group of fans banded together with the mission to keep their beloved game alive and thriving after official support ended, and they did it. NISEI has never been satisfied with “good enough.” My criticisms, too, come from this restless belief that NISEI can be exceptional. The fact that we all believe this gives me such hope for the future of this game and the people who love it.

Love deeply, dream big, and offer your efforts to those you care about. That’s how you keep a community thriving.

Also, branding’s important and stuff.

initiate jack_Out.exe -> Are you sure? y/n -> y

Image Credits

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