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From Cyberpsychos to Netrunners, Here is the Story of Mike Pondsmith, the True Mastermind Behind Cyberpunk

From Cyberpsychos to Netrunners, Here is the Story of Mike Pondsmith, the True Mastermind Behind Cyberpunk

We recently discussed how Critical Role’s Vox Machina continues to introduce new audiences to the wonders of tabletop role-playing games and how Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletops are gaining popularity. But Critical Role is only one of the big names in the tabletop gaming industry. Gary Gygax is undoubtedly one of the most prominent names since he actually created Dungeons & Dragons. However, another name that’s often overlooked but equally deserving of recognition is Mike Pondsmith.

Nowadays, Mike Pondsmith is best known as the creator of Cyberpunk, a genre-defining tabletop predecessor of Cyberpunk 2077, a troubled hit RPG game developed by CD Projekt RED, and an inspiration for countless video games, movies, and books. The story of Mike Pondsmith’s rise to fame and the original Cyberpunk‘s evolution into what’s considered one of the best games on the current market is inspiring. It all started with Mike’s love for tabletop gaming.

Pondsmith recalls designing games as a child, but his first experience with pen-and-paper role-playing games happened in college when his friend a copy of the original Dungeons & Dragons. Though he fell in love with the game, not for its fantasy settings but rather for its gameplay mechanics, his interest was spiked when he got Traveller, a 1977 sci-fi TTRPG. However, while the setting of the game drew his interest, Pondsmith wasn’t really satisfied with its mechanics, so he tried to improve the game’s combat system for his own personal use.

While working on the Traveller, Pondsmith also designed Mekton, a mecha game inspired by Mobile Suit Gundam manga, which he had acquired. However, since the manga was written in Japanese, Mekton was only loosely based on its source material. The game’s initial public release was a massive success. Pondsmith realized there was a market gap for more modern, gritty role-playing games set in a cyberpunk world. So, with this idea in mind, he set out to make another role-playing game—Cyberpunk.

Pondsmith drew his inspiration for Cyberpunk from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, (1982) and translated the film’s technological and dark style onto the game, placing the narrative in a cyberpunk setting of the future. The first edition of Cyberpunk was released in 1988; its narrative was placed in 2013, which is why the game is often referred to as Cyberpunk 2013. It became a massive success and one of the most expansive TTRPGs on the market, with three subsequent editions and more than 4,700 pages contained in forty-four sourcebooks.

It was so successful that Wizards of the Coast licensed the game for their collectible card game Netrunner, designed by Richard Garfield, the creator of the legendary Magic: The Gathering. But the success of Cyberpunk 2013 and its creator didn’t stop there. Cyberpunk, whose original narrative takes place within its own fictional timeline, was further expanded by subsequent editions of the game — the last of which takes place in a fictional 2045. As stated above, Cyberpunk‘s influence on its same-name genre was immense.

It was so immense, in fact, that many video gaming companies adapted the game or based their own IPs on Cyberpunk. Pondsmith’s game also caught the attention of CD Projekt RED, who wanted to create a high-budget AAA video game based on his tabletop game. Pondsmith agreed to consult on the project, and CD Projekt RED announced Cyberpunk 2077 in May 2012, with the game’s first trailer coming out in 2013. The trailer caught the attention of gaming-centered media, and soon, everyone was talking about a lady with mantis blades coming out of her arms.

Unfortunately, the active development of the game didn’t start until 2016, and the majority of the gaming public had already forgotten about Cyberpunk 2077, believing that the game was canceled. But it wasn’t. According to people at CD Projekt RED, Pondsmith’s involvement, which was confirmed by the developer at one point, was instrumental in the game’s development. Pondsmith’s input helped the development team create an immersive world that remained true to the original TTRPG while also containing new elements that would appeal to wider gaming audiences.

The resulting game, 2020s Cyberpunk 2077, was an absolute mess. The game’s popularity and rating skyrocketed upon release, but as the days went by, the bugs and other technical issues reared their ugly heads. Soon, many realized that the game was actually nearly unplayable. So much so that people called for refunds, CD Projekt RED had no refund policy implementations, lawsuits were filed, controversies spun, and the game officially became synonymous with botched gaming releases.

But none of this was Mike Pondsmith’s mistake. In fact, the sole responsibility lies with the higher-ups at CD Projekt RED, who vowed to fix the game. And two years and hundreds of gigabytes of patch data later, Cyberpunk 2077 now stands as a groundbreaking achievement in gaming enjoyed by millions. Moreover, despite the mixed reception the game initially received, Pondsmith’s legacy as the mastermind behind the entire Cyberpunk gaming series — both tabletop and video game — cannot be denied.

From Cyberpsychos to Netrunners, Pondsmith’s contributions to the gaming industry shouldn’t be overlooked. He left an indelible mark on gaming, and his legacy will undoubtedly continue to inspire and influence gaming and gamers for years to come.

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