The story so far: James Wallis, former head honcho of Hogshead Publishing and a bit of a RPG design celebrity*, runs his Alas Vegas Kickstarter to fund his new indie RPG – his return to game design after a long break. Asking for a humble £3000, he came away with just over £24,000. That’s not a huge budget, but hey, apparently the core text was mostly finished, so the production process would mostly be a matter of waiting for third party stretch goal contributions and the artwork to come in, doing the editing, proofing, and layout, and sorting out the process of printing. All these tasks are the bread and butter of an experienced publisher like Wallis, so there was no reason to expect any great difficulty. And yet…
* That said, his reputation is mostly built on his role in publishing the works of others – WFRP, Nobilis, Dragon Warriors – but he also is reasonably well-known for Once Upon a Time – a game he designed with a group of collaborators – and The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which as I’ve outlined in my review of it is actually kind of a riff on Once Upon a Time‘s design ideas.
Delivering the Goods
2013: High Hopes, Soon To Be Dashed
Here’s where the pain began.
The Alas Vegas project closed its funding period on the 28th February 2013, with an estimated delivery of the hardbacks of June 2013 and £24,061 pledged, blasting the basic £3000 target. A great number of stretch goals had been completed, which meant that a large number of third parties would need to write and submit their contributions; as such, I don’t think anyone reasonably expected the June 2013 date to be met (or at least if they did, they were a bit clueless and hadn’t thought through the implications of all them stretch goals getting hit), but hey, at least the core Alas Vegas material was done, right?
The original estimated date came and went; Wallis next issued an update to his backers on 19th July 2013. Before I get into the specifics of that, I’ll go off on a little tangent: in general, if you have an estimated date for completing something and you know full well you are going to miss it, in my view it’s almost always best to let people know that before the date is missed, not after. If you tell them you are going to miss it before you miss it, then at worst they are no more disappointed than they’d have been if you waited until afterwards, but at best you at least take the edge off the irritation by looking organised and competent and by levelling with them as soon as it becomes apparent that the target date will be missed. To me, it’s really the difference between behaving like a professional and behaving like a schoolkid who wonders whether “the dog ate my homework” will fly for an excuse.
Kickstarter project owners are really bad at this. At first, Wallis was better at it than some, but over time as we shall see he got worse and worse and worse at this – and also generally got worse at backer communication in general, until it hit the point where he more or less ceased talking to his backers.
Anyway, back to that July 2013 update. In this he laid out the current state of affairs: he did not yet have all the material he needed from other contributors, including a final version of the cover art, though he was gracious enough to note that he hadn’t been tight enough on getting their briefs out to them and setting firm deadlines so there’s that.
He also noted that he was dealing with a fat dose of impostor syndrome and perfectionism, and was reworking the core Alas Vegas material – mostly acts 2 and 3 of the 4-act scenario. His explanation of this was that he felt somewhat overwhelmed by the success of the Kickstarter, which (as mentioned) was only meant to be a test run for more ambitious projects, and as such he was worried that the material he had wasn’t really worthy of the £24,000 people had provided him. He unpacked this point further in an e-mail to me in response to an inquiry I made later, which I’ll get into more later in the article. (Wallis gave me permission to quote from the e-mail in question when he sent it.)
The essence, in short, is that although Alas Vegas wasn’t finished, large chunks of it were and the structure was down… to a value of about £3000 of ‘finished’. Alas Vegas, and I don’t say this very loudly these days, was meant to be a throwaway fire-and-forget project to teach me how to use Kickstarter before I launched one of my other projects which I reckon might actually make a serious amount of money. As far as I was concerned it was as good as done, and I was going to get it finished while John did the art, and that would be that. I was not expecting AV to make 800% of its target. So I decided it needed to be more than it was, and then as I started adding and changing things I started getting dissatisfied with the narrative structure and altering that, and then I lost confidence in my work, and then people started dying around me (another one last week) and it all went to hell.
We will see just how far that process of unpicking the tapestry already woven went later, but the thing I want to unpack here is James’ fatal misunderstanding of Kickstarter economics.
See, the way he describes it here, Alas Vegas was done to “a value of about £3000”, but he had £24,000 of Kickstarter contributions, so he needed to make Alas Vegas better. How much better he doesn’t say. The full £24,000? Up to a value of £12,000? A mere brush-up to £5000? In the end, it doesn’t matter, because this approach reveals a comprehensive misunderstanding of the economic basis of his own project.
For one thing, the project already had a stack of stretch goals attached. That, right there, is your extra value. Quick maths problem: if you have a core product you’ve valued at £3000, and you add stretch goals you’ve valued at £21,000, and the total you’ve received is £24,000 then where’s the extra wriggle-room to add additional value on top of that to that core product? Answer: absolutely fucking nowhere.
For another, there’s the simple economic fact that a product is only worth what the market is willing to pay for it; the market paid £24,000, so that’s how much Alas Vegas was worth. Specifically, it’s how much the entire reward payload of Alas Vegas was worth. Sure, the market had collectively given Wallis 800% of what he wanted, but no one backer had paid 800% of what their respective reward tier had been set at.
Now, to be fair impostor syndrome is not a rational thing. I’ve experienced it myself from time to time in my life, it absolutely sucks, I don’t envy James his experience with it in the slightest. James was fully aware of the hit he was taking, as he said later in the same e-mail:
By now AV is a massive loss for me: of the £24,000 I received £22,000 after fees; £7000 has gone to pay the other creatives, printing and shipping is likely to be around £8,000 or possibly more given how much bigger than expected the book is going to be, and £6000 doesn’t pay for a lot of my time these days, not with a family to support.
In short, Wallis had every rational reason to just publish on the basis of the original draft of Alas Vegas, rather than spending time polishing it, and he knew that he had every rational reason to do so – but he didn’t. On the one hand, you could portray that as an admirable commitment to producing the best possible product – except such perfectionism is really out of place in a project which is only meant to be a test balloon. The alternative interpretation is that James was either unwilling or unable to stop digging that hole, and as we shall see that hole got deeper, deeper, ever deeper.
Or perhaps he was just bad at business. After all, £7000 plus £8000 plus £6000 comes to £21,000, not £22,000, and if you’re going to accidentally drop £1000 here and there you’re going to have a hard time turning a profit.
Anyway, to tide backers over until the completion of the project, in that 19th July 2013 project James said he would “bust a gut” to get a special pre-release PDF out to backers by around the time of Gen Con in August; the plan was that this would include the following delicious tasters:
- The current iteration of the Fugue rules.
- The Alas Vegas material.
- Now Already, one of the standalone setting-and-scenario packages that got added as a stretch goal. This one was penned by Gareth Hanrahan, and I’m not really surprised to see it was one of the stretch goals that got finished in a timely fashion, since Hanrahan seems to have a reputation as a solid freelancer who gets his work done to a deadline at an acceptable level.
- An unspecified selection of the additional articles (I suspect largely based on which had a) already been completed and b) already been read through and approved by Wallis).
- A brace of that sweet, sweet John Coulthart artwork.
That sounded good – a substantial chunk of material for backers to get their teeth into and tide them over during the process of Wallis finalising the material. In particular, having a version of the Fugue rules and not one but two setting-and-scenario packages in the bundle meant that backers would be able to use this to run not one but two mini-campaigns with the system – at 4 sessions per campaign that’s 8 sessions of gaming fun, by the end of which the project would have surely progressed substantially further. And even if it hadn’t, 8 sessions of fun is 8 sessions of fun, that’s pretty good value by any measure.
In short, the pre-release PDF was an exceptionally good idea, and would have gone a long way towards keeping the backers satisfied.
Which is why it’s kind of a shame it never happened.
Jump forward to the 14th August of 2013, with a new update, in which Wallis sadly noted that the pre-release sampler would not be ready for Gen Con, and mention that he was continuing to work on the “actual adventure bit” of Alas Vegas. He would still be working on the manuscript by the time he issued his update of the 19th October 2013, in which he shared some exciting news.
A couple of weeks ago I was approached by a publisher about becoming lead developer and writer on… I can’t say what it is, but it’s something very exciting indeed, a project for which I’m perfectly suited. They want to Kickstart it, and it’s one of those games that has the potential to go very big indeed, to make an awful lot of money. And I’ve said yes, but on the understanding that I won’t do any work on it and we won’t even announce it until Alas Vegas is done and released. Likewise Baron Munchausen 3e, that’s on the backburner until this is done, and the two non-fiction books I’m due to do (How To Disorganise An Unconference, and something about paper-prototyping). Alas Vegas is my #1 priority.
In what would become a running theme, this was another commitment that Wallis made which he eventually broke. As we will see later, he would switch focus to writing his new edition of Baron Munchausen at some point, and that edition would become another part of this entangled web of nonsense. Moreover, Wallis and the publisher he’d been talking to would indeed launch that major Kickstarter project prior to James finishing Alas Vegas – but we’ll get to that later in the timeline.
On the 23rd November 2013 Wallis posted a backer-only update, reiterating that he was “refusing to start other writing projects until this is done”. Interestingly, towards the end of this update he idly mentioned, in a “oh hey, I am just dangling this idea out there in the hope that someone bites” sort of a way, that he was thinking that maybe if he switched to writing Baron Munchausen 3rd edition it’d help clear his writer’s block on Alas Vegas – but no, he wasn’t going to do it, he owed his backers that much!
Naturally, a number of backers took the bait and started encouraging him to do exactly that, so in a backer-only update on the 25th November 2013 he conducted a survey, seeking input as to whether he should plough on with Alas Vegas or take a short break to write Baron Munchausen 3rd edition. Having already primed the pump with his previous update, Wallis got the answer he wanted: on the 29th November 2013 he posted another backer-only update to state that, based on the survey results, he felt he had a mandate from backers to set Alas Vegas aside for 2-3 weeks, work on a different project (Baron Munchausen), and come back to Vegas with fresh eyes.
Now, I don’t want to quote the entirety of these backer-only updates – they weren’t intended for public eyes, after all, though I would argue that once you are sending out an update to some 1164 people, any expectation you have that the information will remain private and confidential has kind of gone out of the window. Backer-only updates, in my view, are best kept for a) links to surveys you don’t want random members of the public to have input on or b) links to content which backers have paid for, and spreading such links about is shitty, and I would not do that. Making backer-only updates which solely provide information about the progress of the project, on the other hand, feels to me like you’re doing a shady bit of public relations control – and it’s PR control which can’t possibly be effective unless you have a very small pool of backers.
Nonetheless, whilst I am going to try and avoid making extensive quotes from these posts, I still feel able to outline their contents where this is in the public interest, and in some cases there’ll be stuff in there where I need to quote from them in order to clearly and unambiguously substantiate something, and one of those situations has come up here. So, deep breath: in that 29th November 2013 update, Wallis made a very specific promise to his backers:
As part of that thank-you, I am going to create an exclusive expanded edition of Munchausen 3e available only to Alas Vegas backers, long before the general public get a chance to buy it. And that’s not all; low-level backers will be offered this edition at a serious discount on the cover price, while higher-level backers will get it for free. Under the circumstances it’s the least I can do.
Take note of that promise of a special version of Munchausen to be made available only to Alas Vegas backers: it’s another commitment that Wallis made to his backers which he would later break. As for the fulfilment of the rest of this promise… tune in later.
2014: Paranoia Sets In
6th January 2014. Having taken those weeks off to do Munchausen 3rd Edition, and having been understandably quiet over the Christmas period, Wallis posts another backer-only update to report that his break from Alas Vegas was over and he was now back to the grindstone; Alas Vegas was once more his primary focus and the project he was dedicating most of his time to, and he reckoned that it wouldn’t be unrealistic to set the end of the month as the deadline for him to complete his part of the book.
Naturally, Wallis missed the deadline. On the 13th February 2014 he posted a comprehensive rundown of the progress of the project, as follows:
- His own writing work hadn’t been finished due to illness.
- All the art expected from John Coulthart and two of the art pieces expected from Dennis Detwiller was completed.
- The cover art wasn’t done.
- The content set by Gareth Hanrahan (here and later referred to as Yet Already rather than Now Already), and the articles by Mike Selinker and Robin Laws were done.
- The cover wasn’t finished.
- The “designer’s notes” weren’t finished.
- Contributions by John Tynes, John Kovalic, Allen Varney, Rich Dansky, Ken Hite, Matt Forbeck, Laurent Devernay and Jerome Larre were not yet complete, but in most cases this was because they couldn’t structure and write their Fugue material until they could have sight of the complete Alas Vegas campaign. (Wallis offered no explanation of why they couldn’t see the earlier completed drafts of the campaign to base their work on.)
On 29th April 2014 Wallis returned to posting public updates and reported “if I can hit all my writing slots for the next four weeks then I should be able to finish my work on the game and get it out to external playtesters, and also to the other writers who need to see my completed adventure to finish their parts” – this last largely substantiating the suggestion that the delays relating to the third party contributions were largely down to Wallis himself being late. A shade over 4 weeks passed before Wallis posted another public update, in which he noted that work was progressing on the adventure, it would not be complete before Gen Con, but he promised that “I will do an extended sampler before Gen Con so you can see it exists and get a taster for the content”. This is another promise that would be broken.
At this point I wrote an e-mail to James. Partly it was to express condolences over the behaviour of “mick reddick”, a backer who had been fully refunded already but was still energetically shit-stirring on the project page. (I confess: as you will see later, I’m guilty of posting to the project comments page after being refunded too. But it took an awful lot of nonsense to get me there.) Partly, however, I also wanted to ask a question – a question which, once it occurred to me, had somewhat shaken my confidence in the project, and which I knew would just heighten the unpleasant atmosphere that had been developing on the Kickstarter comments page if I posted it there. I may as well quote the question in its entirety:
See, in the original Kickstarter page, you did pretty undeniably make the statement that “Alas Vegas is plotted, structured, designed and mostly written”. And now down the line we’ve had a whole swathe of updates that have made it clear that massive, massive amounts of plotting, structure, design and writing have had to be done since then.
I don’t want to jump on the accusation bandwagon or anything like that, but you have to admit that from the perspective of someone who isn’t reading over your shoulder it’s hard to reconcile that, particularly with the drip-by-drip nature of Kickstarter updates. First the book was mostly done (aside from the bits from outside contributors), then you needed to massage a few parts of acts 2 and 3, then as the updates kept coming it’s felt at times like the thing is less and less finished the longer you’ve been working on it.
Is it literally just a case of picking at a thread and finding that the whole thing unravelled when you tugged at it? Even so, I still find it hard to reconcile the idea that a game is “mostly written” if so much of it is up for being unpacked and completely redone on review.
I also notified James that I was likely to write up my experience with his Kickstarter for a Kickstopper article, and he gave me permission to quote his reply, which showed up promptly the next day: it’s the e-mail I quoted earlier where he talks about the impostor syndrome striking and the severe loss he was going to take on the project. His response also underlined just how extensive the tinkering had become:
By now I think I’ve written different versions of the end of act two five, maybe six times. Not rewritten it, written it from scratch. The opening, I have three or four different versions of that. Some sections have gone entirely. Others I keep scratching at, like an unpleasant itch.
And so matters progressed. On the 14th July 2014 Wallis posted a public update noting that, at least on paper, he reckoned he ought to be able to get the manuscript to a point where he could hand it over to playtesters by the end of the month, and that in a couple of weeks he’d take a couple of days off to put together the promised preview package; it was in fact a bit longer than a couple of weeks before on the 11th August 2014 he reported that he was taking that day and the next day to work on the preview, and that it would contain the latest version of the Fugue rules and about half the text of the Alas Vegas adventure, “right up to the big reveal at the end of Act 2”.
(Why Wallis wouldn’t also include in this the adventure written by Gareth Hanrahan – allowing people to play a complete campaign, rather than 2 sessions of a 4 session campaign, is a mystery to me. It’s especially a mystery given that he’d previously been willing to stick Hanrahan’s campaign into the preview PDF he’d been planning for Gen Con 2013. I can’t imagine anyone who actually wanted to engage with Fugue the way it was designed to be engaged with – 4 game sessions, with rotating referee – would want to embark on that unless they had the full campaign to hand, because doing two sessions and then, say, having to wait literal years before you could do the next two would utterly suck. Providing Hanrahan’s adventure would at least let people play a full game of Fugue, and thereby generate a bit of welcome positive buzz.)
The preview PDF did not emerge before Gen Con 2014. On the 14th August 2014, Wallis noted that he’d made a serious error in a major edit, didn’t realise until it was too late to undo, and had to revert to a day-old version of the document, and then had to be on the road for two days; completing the preview by Gen Con would therefore be impossible. On the plus side, after that driving time he’d have two weeks of writing time during which he intended to finish the preview and, maybe, the rest of the outstanding material to boot. (The preview eventually came out on the 22nd September 2014.)
On the 18th August 2014, Wallis posted an update which included an outline of the state of the project finances, since questions had been raised as to whether the money for printing and shipping the product was still safe; Wallis reassured backers that it had been ring-fenced and otherwise gave a picture of the project finances broadly consistent with the one he’d given me via e-mail.
On the 20th October 2014, a major announcement was released: the main manuscript of James’ section of the book had been completed, at least to an extent that he could send copies to the writers who’d been waiting to see it before they wrote their own contributions. That said, James did note that he was still going to tweak a couple of bits, and his playtesters’ feedback hadn’t come in yet (the implicit note there being that the feedback might necessitate further changes). Given the text’s tendency to completely disintegrate whenever James poked it, you’d be forgiven for regarding those caveats with a sense of foreboding.
James also mentioned that that Kickstarter project he’d talked about previously was now going to launch. (Yes, the one which he’d said he’d agreed wouldn’t launch until Alas Vegas was written and released.) As it turned out, it was nothing less than the new Mongoose Publishing-issued edition of Paranoia, an edition which having now received and reviewed I am really not that keen on. (Paranoia XP remains, for me, the definitive version.)
As I noted in my review of that, that project also endured major delays, largely arising from James being late delivering his material to Mongoose Publishing. In fact, there was an entire stretch goal product – the adventure collection Ultraviolent – which James had committed to write but which never made it to Mongoose.
I’m going to quote here what Matt Sprange, the head honcho at Mongoose, said about that. Now, bear in mind that whilst I’m not an uncritical fan of Mongoose, I do know enough about their business model to be aware that they depend a lot on the work of freelancers. As a small company (smaller now than they were at the height of their activity), good relations with freelancers are their lifeblood, and I don’t believe that Matt is unaware of this. Should freelancers become reluctant to work with Mongoose, due to Matt badmouthing them, blaming problems on them needlessly, or otherwise treating them like shit, that becomes a major problem for Mongoose.
Bear that in mind and consider the behind-the-scenes frustrations which, by September 2017, led Sprange to write the following announcement, which isn’t even the most intemperate comment he’d made about Wallis over the course of the whole painful saga:
Here at Mongoose HQ, we have all but given up on Ultraviolent. It is hellishly late, every self-imposed deadline Mr Wallis has given us for it has been broken, and now communication has ceased altogether. For the past few months, we have only been able to reach Mr Wallis via another writer (which is a ridiculous situation for grown adults to be in), and the last thing we heard was ‘there are only 3,000 words to go’. That was a couple of months ago.
Now, I don’t put 100% of the blame for how the new Paranoia came out on Wallis; it’s evident that Matt Sprange and the rights owners made a bunch of poor decisions when it came to the design constraints they were going to impose on the project, and it’s equally evident from the design commentary PDFs and podcasts that Wallis and Grant Howitt produced that there were issues arising from the Mongoose end too – see my review for the full lowdown on that.
Nonetheless, I am inclined to believe Sprange when he discusses the frustrations of working with James – because with Alas Vegas he also broke every self-imposed deadline he gave his backers, also made the project hellishly late, and also eventually ceased communication with his backers altogether (though in the case of Alas Vegas, as we’ll see, he re-emerged after a long silence), and treating his publisher the way he treats his backers would at least show consistency on Wallis’ part. The experience Sprange suffered as a publisher and employer is remarkably reminiscent of the experience we suffered as Alas Vegas backers, and Sprange’s characterisation of the whole mess as “a ridiculous situation for grown adults to be in” is as apt when it comes to the Alas Vegas debacle as it was in respect of Paranoia.
Speaking of ridiculous situations for grown adults to find themselves in, the Paranoia announcement was met with a certain amount of annoyance from the backer community; James’ interactions with his backers had become increasingly toxic for a while, and the repeated delays and the apparently endless rewriting process had prompted a number of backers to lose faith in the project (not unreasonably). James undertaking the Paranoia Kickstarter when he’d previously firmly said that Alas Vegas was his top priority brought matters bubbling up to a head and led to a number of grumpy posts on the Kickstarter page; in particular, people noted that there had apparently been game design work ongoing on Paranoia for some months before the announcement of the Kickstarter, which meant that time which could have been spent on Alas Vegas had been dedicated to Paranoia instead.
James did not take this dissent kindly, and issued this astonishing outburst in response in (I think, Kickstarter is sloppy about datestamping old comments) mid-to-late October.
Right, let’s cut to the chase. If you are dissatisfied that I dare to earn a living at my chosen day-job (being a games designer) above and beyond the £8000 that I am paying myself for the year and a half it has taken to write and produce Alas Vegas, then you can have the game by Christmas. I can send it to print by the end of the month and ship it in late November. First draft, un-playtested, with only the completed additional material funded by the stretch goals (so no Ken Hite, no John Kovalic, no Rich Dansky, no Matt Forbeck, no Allen Varney, no John Tynes, &c.), shitty layout and no proofreading. And I would be SO FUCKING THANKFUL to have this BASTARD MONKEY DEMON out of my FUCKING LIFE, I wish I had never started this fucking thing,
If you want it in your hands, say so and you’ll have it.
Someone else died. Another blood-relative, literally the same hour I typed the words ‘The End’ on the manuscript last week, bringing Alas Vegas’s total of really fucking creepy coincidences involving death to three. I am in a vile fucking mood right now, and I want to get on with my life. I made a commitment to you, I explained my position, I explained the budget, I explained the next Kickstarter. But no.
Do you want it now, or do you want it done? It’s a simple question. Answer below. Greater vote by midnight Friday gets their wish.
Note, by the way, that in the few months since James had sent his e-mail to me concerning the budget, when he said that his cut for writing the thing was £6000, he’d given himself a £2000 pay rise. Where did that money come from? The printing budget or the budget to pay third parties for their contributions? In the latter case, who lost out on their money? In the former case, how could James claim, as he had in August, that the money for printing and shipping was ringfenced when he’d shaved a quarter off it to give to himself?
On the 16th November 2014, as the Paranoia Kickstarter funding process continued, James reported that “Alas Vegas is a waiting game right now, waiting for the stretch-goal authors to deliver their pieces”. In a backer-only update on the 27th November 2014 he reported that he was still waiting on those last few pieces, but that the playtesters were reporting back and he was making some changes to the manuscript based on their comments. (Uh-oh! We all know by now how perilous the revision process is…)
On the 27th November 2014, James issued a backer-only update including a truly incredible promise; if I hadn’t seen the update myself, I’d say this was a satirical joke by a disgruntled backer rather than a real commitment. See, James had gotten together with Gareth-Michael Skarka, and had cut a deal where backers of Skarka’s Far West Kickstarter would receive copies of Alas Vegas and Alas Vegas backers would receive copies of Far West.
This was a silly deal for Wallis to agree to; it could only have the effect of annoying backers, to the point where I wonder whether James was trolling here. You see, Far West is a truly legendarily late Kickstarter, even more so than Alas Vegas (which is pretty damn notorious in RPG Kickstarter circles in its own right). As of the time of writing, Far West still hasn’t delivered its core product, and it started well before Alas Vegas happened. Even back in late 2014, Far West had already become one of the major go-to projects people referenced in tabletop RPG circles when discussing Kickstarters which had went badly, badly wrong. Out of all the RPG-related Kickstarter projects I’m aware of which have had a bad reputation, only Ken Whitman’s brace of horribly mismanaged projects and the Robotech RPG Tactics debacle have a reputation even approximately as bad as Far West. This chronicling of missed deadlines well and truly says it all.
Under such circumstances, it’s astonishing that Wallis would want to associate his trainwreck with an even worse trainwreck, when all it could do would be to remind everyone of what a trainwreck Alas Vegas was becoming. Perhaps on some level Wallis felt a certain camaraderie with Skarka; after all, the tabletop RPG is a small and incestuous place where everyone knows each other a little (though due to the proliferation of indie publishing routes that’s changing, and thank goodness for that), and Wallis may have felt a certain empathy for Skarka’s own problems with his backers. (In response to an outpouring of snark from backer Joe Bianco, Wallis retweeted a Skarka tweet reading “Sometimes I really bemoan the quality of my haters. I feel like I deserve a smarter class of sad man-children.”)
Even so, the fact remains that Far West had – and indeed, still has – an even worse reputation than Alas Vegas. I can understand Wallis wanting to provide a little extra value to his backers; I can even understand the same of Skarka. What I can’t understand is how Wallis could become so clueless and out-of-touch as to fail to anticipate how it would look connecting the two Kickstarters in this way; when the news was first announced the general reaction tended to be “Is this a bad joke?”. Ultimately, with this sort of move, what you want to do is increase people’s confidence in your Kickstarter, not decrease it, and in the RPG sphere there are few ways to decrease people’s confidence in a Kickstarter than linking it in their minds with the utter farce of Far West, a project which is so toxic that publishers that Skarka does freelancer work for have to resort to chicanery to obscure his involvement in their projects because otherwise people will shun the products on principle.
Astonishingly, in 2015 it would only get worse.
2015: The Descent Into Silence
Almost all of James’s updates in 2015 were backer-only ones, probably because they all contained bad news and James wanted to avoid egg on his face. As the year progressed and the tone of backer comments on the Kickstarter page got worse, however, the egg nonetheless ended up flying on-target, with snottier backers apparently getting more entertainment from slinging the eggs than trying to be constructive about the situation.
Another reason why James stuck to backer-only updates and kept those thin on the ground was, as he said in a comment posted on the 8th January, was the refund situation:
[…] every time I post a “It’s going well! Everything coming together! Almost all the bits received now!” someone else demands a refund, so I’ve got kind of reluctant to do too much more of that.
Later, James would switch to just not posting anything at all, and that prompted more refund requests – including my own – but we’re most of a year away from that happening.
On the 16th January 2015, James noted that the layout template for the book was done – not a major step, perhaps, but still a useful sign of progress. On the 18th February he gave a more detailed report: not all the outside contributions had been received, and he was about to start a final round of playtesting which would then be followed by a final editing pass.
James also provided an answer to some questions I’d asked in on the comments section. One was about the outside contributions; I wanted to know what the contingency plan was for if a contributor simply failed to deliver on the stretch goal they’d offered to write, and how long he was going to wait before pulling the trigger on that plan. I won’t get into that here because in the end the plan wasn’t needed. The other question was what sort of estimate he’d give for the time taken to produce and ship out the books after the last bits of text were done, assuming that each step of the process took about twice as long as he’d reasonably anticipate it to; James broke down the steps which needed to happen (do the editing, do the layout, do the proofing, get proof copies from Lightning Source, review those, get the printing done, and get the books shipped to the fulfilment companies and sent by them to backers). His final assessment was as follows:
So, I’d say a month from receiving the final text to books in the warehouse; maybe up to six weeks to get them into your hands.
On the 21st March 2015, Wallis posted an update to announce that Alas Vegas was “feature-complete”; a last bit of text was being tweaked by its author, and James was making some final amendments to the core content, and then “all that’s left to do are the rubric and contents page, the list of Kickstarter backers, and the open-source licence for the Fugue mechanic.” James was careful to clarify that the countdown-to-release clock was not yet ticking, but it would start ticking very soon.
20th May 2015 may have felt a bit Groundhog Day for backers, since an update issued that day also made the claim that Alas Vegas was now feature-complete; all the content from outside sources had been received, James just needed to do a bit of editing which he hadn’t been able to do yet due to illness and then it could go to the printers.
On 15th July 2015, James issued an update explaining that laptop problems were delaying his work, and so he hadn’t yet been able to edit the Alas Vegas document and dump it into the layout template. He explained that he’d now adopted a work schedule in which his usual “office hours” were spent working on Paranoia, preparing lectures for students on his game design course, appraising student coursework, and various other projects he couldn’t discuss, and that he was dedicating his evenings and weekends to Alas Vegas. He promised a “fuller, proper update” in a few days, by which he said the editing would be done.
After a while, I became concerned and e-mailed James again, asking if he was safe and well; whilst a span of radio silence from him wasn’t unusual in and of itself, his failure to comment after he said he’d be back in a few days was odd. That e-mail went out on the 3rd September 2015; on the 16th, he replied and mentioned that he’d written another update, but asked if I would be willing to look at it first to give a backer’s-eye opinion before it went out. I agreed to do so on the 17th September, and just over a week later on the 25th he sent me a draft of that update.
I am not going to go into specifics about what was in there. My general advice to James was that it delved too deeply into personal information which those acting in bad faith would just use as rhetorical sticks to beat him with, and was far too light in terms of addressing the actual project itself; I advised that he redress the balance accordingly to go much lighter on the biography and much heavier on the nuts and bolts process of getting the dang job done.
This was in the context of a situation where I believed that the vocal critics of the project fell into two basic demographics: those who had lost faith but whose faith could be regained if they saw substantive, credible evidence of progress (a category I hadn’t yet quite categorised myself in but which I could feel myself beginning to slide into), and those who were acting in such overt bad faith that it wasn’t worth rising to their jibes. (The ever-charming Joe Bianco, for instance, had taken to posting Charlie Brown ASCII art in his comments, because he’d taken to comparing Wallis to Charlie Brown due to the appallingly shitty luck that James was reporting in his updates.)
On the 1st October 2015, James posted the new update. I was glad to see he’d taken some of my advice. Even Joe Bianco, who by this point had become easily the loudest and most notable of James’ overt detractors, was forced to admit that things looked positive (doubtless through gritted teeth). In private, I e-mailed James applauding the revised update, and James thanked me for my feedback on the earlier version.
This was the last productive, constructive interaction James and I would have.
As far as the content of the published version of the update went, they were along these lines:
- Work had been delayed due to health problems of a nature his doctors had been unable to confidently diagnose.
- He had completed the editing of all the game material he hadn’t written himself, the Fugue rules, and the designer’s notes.
- There were a couple of aspects of the main Alas Vegas setting-and-scenario set which he was still working on, because there were “structure-related problems” he still hadn’t worked out how to solve. These amounted to two sections and according to James they wouldn’t require major rewrites – “less than a thousand words each, I estimate” was his guess.
- James promised to provide to the backers the complete text files of the core book prior to commencing layout work. (This promise would be broken.)
- He reiterated that the money for printing and shipping was ringfenced in James’ bank account, and all third party writers and artists had been paid in full.
- He believed that he was up to date on issuing refunds, with one exception due to complications arising from Kickstarter’s system. (If your pledge was paid by a credit card which then expires, it’s no longer possible to send a refund direct through the Kickstarter system to the same credit card account; refunds must be provided via alternate routes such as PayPal.)
- Writing of the novel – now retitled Vegasm – would not commence until Alas Vegas itself was at the printers.
On the 22nd November 2015, Wallis posted his only public update of the year. This would see him releasing the Fugue core rules under a Creative Commons licence, so all and sundry could see them. This was interesting, but not quite enough to actually run a game with – the nature of the system is such that it assumes you have a content set like Alas Vegas or one of the various content sets written by other hands as stretch goals. Without a content set like that to fill in the gaps in Fugue and act as a model, it would be very difficult for someone to use just the Fugue document to play a game.
Now, we know for a fact that James had some finished content sets to hand; he’d even considered putting out Gareth Hanrahan’s Yet Already as part of the 2013 preview package, as documented above. You would think a nice thing for him to do at this stage would be to provide the text of one or more of those content sets to the Kickstarter backers, so that they could actually, you know, play the dang game whilst waiting for Alas Vegas itself to be finished.
I have no idea why James didn’t release Yet Already or one of the other content sets at this point, or for that matter as part of the 2014 preview package, though I do note that the difference between the planned 2013 preview package, this release, and the 2014 preview package was that James planned to include the full Alas Vegas content set in the 2013 preview package. I can only speculate that for some reason James thought it was of crucial importance that people use Fugue first with his own material, rather than with anyone else’s, but why that would be I don’t know. A feeling that Alas Vegas was the best introduction to the system? A nagging sense that Yet Already might actually be better than Alas Vegas? An unexamined assumption that people are here for Rockstar Game Design Auteur James Wallis’ Alas Vegas and all the other Content Sets are of a distant secondary importance?
I haven’t a clue. Either way, the point remains: James had it in him to give his backers the ability to actually play at least one, possibly multiple, Fugue campaigns (and indeed, Yet Already is a bit more open-ended than the other content sets, so you could eat up a whole bunch of time with it if you had the mind to) whilst they were waiting for Alas Vegas to be delivered. He didn’t give his backers that very simple, straightforward courtesy. That’s kind of shitty.
As it stood, working out how the hell you actually run a game of Fugue or develop a content set came down to a challenge of reverse engineering. Ralph Lovegrove, one of the backers, was actually up for the challenge. I actually know Ralph, having had some brief interactions in real life and having played a freeform LARP co-designed by him. I think the two of us have tastes in RPGs which are simultaneously sufficiently close and sufficiently divergent that in any particular gaming context we’re likely to either fiercely agree with each other or furiously disagree, but I respect the extent to which he understands and is able to enunciate his own tastes.
In particular, I give great props to his attempt to spin gold out of the suspiciously straw-like substance James had provided in the Fugue document. In fact, Ralph is more or less the only person out there who has sat down and really published any serious analysis of Fugue; I begin to think he’s thought about it deeper and with more insight than James himself, and I want to highlight his work here in part because I think it goes a long way towards producing something out of the Fugue rules set which far more closely resembles a game I would want to participate in than Alas Vegas itself.
First off, he published a review of the Fugue document as issued in November 2015, in which he clearly diagnoses and describes the significant gaps in it which need to be bridged if you are going to play a game with it. Then he actually wrote an honest-to-goodness supplement for the dang thing, his Fugue Hacking document being his attempt to bridge those gaps, outline best practice for running Fugue games, and provide a toolkit to allow people to write their own content sets (a necessity since, by that point, Alas Vegas still had not come out, and nor had any of the content sets).
By October 2016 he had also outlined some thoughts on the use of player-facing documents in Fugue, in an article I consider well worth reading because it could also help you think about the use of such documents in other games, and was developing Deep Season, a Content Set for use with Fugue inspired by the likes of The Prisoner. I’m not in close enough contact with Ralph these days to know whether he ever finished it; on his blog, though, there’s no sign of any development or discussion occurring after 2016, and it gives every sign that Ralph has moved on to other projects entirely. This is bad for Fugue as a system because it’s the input of folk like Ralph who keep such things active and current. Like many folk, perhaps the intervening delays and/or the final product turned him off.
For you see, folks, after this 22nd November 2015 update, James would ignore his Alas Vegas backers for almost an entire year.
2016: James Ignores His Backers For Almost An Entire Year
Let’s explain what I mean by “ignores his backers” for a moment: for almost an entire year, running from the 22nd November 2015 update to an update posted on 16th November 2016, James did not to my knowledge address his Alas Vegas backers at all. Not via updates, not via Kickstarter comments, not via his social media feeds. If he did address the topic, he did so in places so far removed from the Kickstarter itself that he couldn’t really be said to be addressing the backers when doing so.
If this were accompanied by, say, total social media silence and a suspension of his other projects, it would be cause for concern and sympathy. It was not. James remained active on Twitter, continued to work on other projects, and generally seemed to be busy. He just wasn’t busy on the project he’d previously said was his number one priority, the one he said he’d see finished before he took on another Kickstarter until he decided to break that promise with Paranoia.
Speaking of Paranoia, on the 1st February 2016 Matt Sprange (who, remember, is the head honcho at Mongoose Publishing, who’d hired James to write the new Paranoia edition) was able to report that he’d received James’ drafts for all three books for the starter set, allowing substantive progress to restart on that game.
This was notable for two reasons; the first is that this was over a year since the Paranoia Kickstarter had happened, despite the promises on that project that the design work had already been largely done. See, apparently according to Matt Sprange after the funding period ended, James Wallis decided he wanted to do a major revision to the design, and Sprange in his innocence greenlit that for the sake of making the best possible product. This is highly reminiscent of the way that Alas Vegas was presented as being almost finished when the Kickstarter ran, only for James to get the collywobbles, insist on rewriting the thing, and then spend literal years struggling with the rewrite.
The second notable thing about this is that it means that James was still actively producing game design work, and indeed had cleared a fairly major project off of his to-do list. I allowed myself to hope that James would return his attention to Alas Vegas at this point, but alas the silence continued. On 13th February 2016 – the break in communication having already become the longest break between updates the project had seen so far, I e-mailed James to urge him to provide news and express my concerns – not wanting to do so on the Kickstarter comments page since I wasn’t sure he was even reading it and I didn’t want to stir up the discontent there, which had seen posters who had previously been warmly supportive of James and his delays and the issues behind them becoming increasingly harsh.
James didn’t reply.
Which is odd, given that we’d had reasonably cordial relations to the point where he was letting me give editorial suggestions on his Kickstarter updates 4 months previously. Ignoring an e-mail from a random backer is one thing, but ignoring an e-mail from a backer who’d been energetically supporting you and giving you help behind the scenes seems a bit much. On the 8th March 2016 I reached out directly through the Kickstarter messaging system, in case the e-mail address I had for him was no longer good, and reiterated my concerns, stating that I’d be asking for a refund if no update was forthcoming by the end of the month.
No update happened.
I researched my legal options on how to proceed. On deciding that it would be best from a legal perspective if I gave James another chance, I wrote to him on the 14th April 2016 via the contact addresses I had for him, and said that I was requesting that he either refund me or, at least, fulfil his promise to give the backers a full version of the pre-layout text by the 22nd April 2016, notifying him that I would explore my legal options if he didn’t do either.
He didn’t do either.
The 22nd April 2016 date duly missed, on that day I sent another e-mail to his various contact addresses, as well as a letter via registered mail. This was what’s called in legal parlance a “pre-action letter” – the sort of letter you are encouraged to send by the UK’s Civil Procedure Rules before commencing legal proceedings to give someone a last chance to make good. In this I offered James four ways to avoid me filing my case in court: he could refund me, he could issue the pre-layout text to backers as promised, he could contact me to commence negotiations, or we could go to a mediation service to get our dispute resolved that way. I gave him until the 6th May 2016 to respond, otherwise I would file my claim in county court.
James didn’t take me up on any four of those alternatives.
That being the case, I set about filing my case via the Money Claim Online service from Her Majesty’s Court Service. (It’s lucky that the Queen has judges to delegate this sort of stuff to, don’t you think?) Now, common wisdom is that it isn’t worth doing this sort of thing in a Kickstarter issue because it will cost you more than you get back unless you backed for a large amount of money, but this isn’t always the case.
For one thing, in some cases where you seek a refund of owed monies, you can claim interest rate backdated from the date of the breach you are suing someone over. (I took the end of June 2013 as the moment of breach of contract, since that was the original estimated date of reward delivery), and for in some cases you can also request costs (the official court fees). I went for both. It’s probably still not worth it if you have to pay a lawyer to do this, because their charges for their time will probably be more than that total.
Luckily for me, I’m an attorney.
See, that’s the peril of Kickstarter – you never know who your backers are going to be, or which backer’s going to end up having the skills, resources, and time to seek the recourse legally available to them if, say, you walk away from the project and stop talking to your backers.
Once my claim was submitted, the court served it on Wallis, and set a deadline for the 28th May 2016 for him to make some sort of response; on the 24th he sent the appropriate paperwork admitting the full amount of the claim, along with a cheque. Because I got the interest on top of a refund of my original pledge and the court costs, I made a little profit, so there’s that; for his part, Wallis avoided the worry of either us actually going to court and disputing the case (which would have been pretty awkward) or him just failing to respond at all and the court giving an automatic judgement against him (which would have been terrible for his credit rating).
I’m not happy I had to go this far to get a refund out of Wallis, but let’s put this in context; by the time I actually went to court over this, he’d been out of communication for half a year and showed every sign of simply ignoring Alas Vegas. I’d given him multiple opportunities to discuss the matter, all of which he passed over. And this was after I’d really gone out of my way to help him in September of the previous year. It says a lot that I ended up flipping from being a backstage supporter of Wallis to suing him, but he’d spent six months treating me like a speck of shit not worthy of an acknowledgement, so what else could I do? Giving up and walking away would have felt like a silent endorsement of what he’d done – not just to me, but to other backers who’d also been left waiting on a refund.
At that point, I expected that the story of Alas Vegas was pretty much over – both for me and for everyone else. If Wallis had been telling the truth in his late 2015 updates, he was surely so close to finishing the text that he’d have done so in the intervening six months, and since he’d promised to send out the text before putting it into layout I’d have thought that he would do so as soon as he was in a position to do that in order to help allay backer concerns. Even this late in the day, it didn’t occur to me that he’d simply break his promise and not send out the pre-layout version of the text at all. That was foolish of me – it would not be the first or last time he broke a promise he’d made to his backers.
My assumption was that the six months of silence I and my fellow backers had endured (Joe Bianco, as heckler-in-chief, keeping a careful count on his posts to the Kickstarter comments page) was a sign that James had simply given up and walked away from the project. To give him some credit, he proved me wrong. To give me some credit, in proving me wrong he continued to horribly botch his interactions with his backers. Somehow, even the process of actually finishing the job managed to generate further ill feeling.
The silence broke on the 16th November 2016, in a backers-only update in which he declared that Alas Vegas was done and the PDF should be out by the end of the month. I was astonished to receive the update e-mail, to be honest – I hadn’t bothered to unsubscribe from the Kickstarter updates since, after all, I have no reason to believe that any more updates would issue on the project. No explanation whatsoever was offered as to why the promised release of the pre-layout text had not happened, and no explanation would ever be offered for that particular broken promise.
He did, however, offer an explanation for his long silence, weaksauce though it was:
Almost a year ago I swore a mighty oath that I wouldn’t post another ‘I’m still working on it’ update to Kickstarter until Alas Vegas was finished. Then more people in my life started to die and all my plans went to pieces. I apologise for being out of contact for so long, but you don’t fuck around with mighty oaths.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I can understand how shitty things happening in your life can turn what should be fairly simple errands into Impossible Tasks when you go through a depressive phase. I get it. On the other hand, “you don’t fuck around with mighty oaths” is a rather glib, jokey way of addressing what was a completely and totally unacceptable way for James to treat his backers. Any apology which takes the form “I apologise for (thing), but (other thing)” is really a non-apology, because you’re not really taking responsibility for your failing or acknowledging that your behaviour has lapsed since you’re using (other thing) as an excuse for your failure.
(Moreover, note that this “mighty oath” was about updates, but seems to have extended into being a vow of silence, in which James would fail to engage with backers even when they went directly to him, asked for refunds, and even threatened lawsuits.)
In addition, this disruption seems to have affected James’ work in an awfully selective way. It was specifically Alas Vegas stuff which seemed to be disrupted. For James to say “all my plans went to pieces” truthfully, I think you have to read that as “all my Alas Vegas-related plans went to pieces”, because it’s pretty evident from his activities over the year in question that a bunch of plans actually came to fruition for him. Depression and its tendency to turn things into Impossible Tasks is rarely kind enough to restrict that to only one particular project whilst leaving entirely similar projects untouched, and there is every reason to believe that James simply decided he didn’t want to think about Alas Vegas stuff rather – he was unwilling to engage, not unable.
If you want evidence of this, look to the fact that other game design projects of his were ticking along just fine during the long break. You see, in the intervening time James had not only finished Baron Munchausen 3rd Edition, but had reached a publishing deal with Fantasy Flight Games to release it. This was doubtless good for James – it meant that he wouldn’t have to deal with the headaches of printing and getting the thing into distribution himself, and Fantasy Flight’s reach in terms of distribution and promotion is as long and wide as anyone in the tabletop games market’s reach is.
This news had been out there for a good while by the time James made his return, but his post said nothing about it. That was, to put it mildly, a bit odd. You might remember that way back towards the end of 2013, when James took time off working on Alas Vegas to write 3rd Edition Baron Munchausen, he promised that high-level backers would get it for free and lower-level backers would be able to purchase it at a discounted rate. Furthermore, he said that this offer wouldn’t be for the standard edition of the book – no, this would be for a special, exclusive, Alas Vegas backers-only edition. His commitment here was expressed in terms I’ve quoted above and are really quite unambiguous.
There’d been some speculation among backers as to when and if that offer would actually materialise, so his failure to address it prompted some comment. That included a bad-tempered query from me, because I was really kind of insulted by the glib tone of James’ apology and wanted to hold him to account a little by asking some tough questions, but there were also some current backers who also asked about it. Amazingly, even in the midst of this good news James managed to further annoy the remaining backers by briefly responding to me (to note that I’d been refunded so didn’t really have standing to comment) whilst not responding to the queries from actual backers. As one backer put it:
Arthur may have got a full refund and no longer be a backer. If anything that makes it more of a kick in the teeth that you are responding to his comments and ignoring your backers who have legitimate questions.
To give James some credit, a couple of days later an answer to the Munchausen question issued forth in a new update. James acknowledged here that he’d made his original offer when he’d been planning on publishing the new edition of Baron Munchausen himself, but that Fantasy Flight had stepped in and acquired the rights, and due to the economics of printing a full-colour hardcover version of the book making a special backers-only edition would not be viable.
In other words, James had broken a promise to his backers again, and as with the Paranoia Kickstarter it was at the behest of a publisher. James did not give any consideration here to the option of putting his intended exclusive backer-only material into a separate PDF and making that available to backers, so that the promised exclusive material could at least be delivered in some form even if it wasn’t integrated into the main text of the book. That, of course, would have required James to a) do more writing and b) put a priority on keeping his promises to his backers as closely as he possibly could, as opposed to just doing the minimum necessary to get his backers off his back. Factor a) is obviously a problem given James’ issues with writing things in a timely and efficient fashion; factor b) was clearly out of the question, because it’s clear from James’ behaviour that by this point he regarded his backers as pests to be ignored or placated with as little effort as possible as opposed to patrons who had given him money in order to help him accomplish his creative projects.
Still, whilst meeting the original promise was now not possible (thanks to James’ choice to give the rights to Fantasy Flight), FFG were at least nice enough to let James work out a sort of second-best offer which could vaguely resemble fulfilment of that promise if you squinted a bit and ignored the fact that the promise was very much based on the offer of an exclusive edition of the game. Fantasy Flight weren’t being that nice about it, however. Can you guess which out of these three options Fantasy Flight decided to go with?
- Fantasy Flight arranged to handle sales and postage of the new edition of Baron Munchausen to backers on James’ behalf, allowing backers to get it direct from the publisher with the orders sorted out by those who are paid a full-time wage by Fantasy Flight to do that stuff, with James providing the backer information necessary to accomplish that to Fantasy Flight so they knew who was owed a freebie copy and who was eligible for a discount.
- Fantasy Flight arranged to send out coupons to backers, redeemable at people’s friendly local game stores for a free or discounted copy of Baron Munchausen (as applicable) with the store owners compensated by Fantasy Flight, or redeemable on Fantasy Flight’s web store otherwise.
- Fantasy Flight shipped a bunch of copies of Baron Munchausen to James, with him responsible for him taking money and shipping them out to backers all by himself.
If you picked #3, the option which required the most work for James and kept Fantasy Flight at arms’ length from the entire process, you guessed right. (My suspicion is that James was obligated to buy those books from Fantasy Flight himself, perhaps at a steep discount.)
I can’t speculate as to whether James actually was planning this offer prior to his re-emergence, or whether the backer grumbling had forced him to put in a panicked phone call to Fantasy Flight and get an offer put together. Given the timescale, I suspect that he had actually had this planned out prior to his November 16th update – I wouldn’t expect Fantasy Flight to greenlight such an offer in so short a timescale – but it seems odd that he didn’t just respond to queries on that post with “I’ll announce something about that in a couple of days”.
I should also point out that people had been posting about the Munchausen new edition on the Kickstarter comments – and, presumably, putting in their own private communications with James and with Fantasy Flight – since Fantasy Flight made the announcement, so I can’t rule out the possibility that the offer was made necessary by those earlier posters remembering that the promise existed and asking pointed questions about it.
Either way, the whole sorry mess means that when James conducted his negotiations with Fantasy Flight, one of the following situations must have been true, none of which reflect well on James:
- James entirely forgot about his promises to his backers when negotiating with Fantasy Flight, and then had to work out this deal with them once people reminded him about his promises. This does not speak well either to James’ general level of competence or for his specific desire to make good on his promises to his backers.
- James remembered that he’d made these promises to his backers, but didn’t mention it to Fantasy Flight when negotiating the deal with them. If this was accidental, it once again suggests a certain absence of competence and professionalism on James’ part. If this were deliberate, this would be the most moustache-twirlingly unethical reading of James’ behaviour and I don’t want to believe he was fool enough to try it, but I have to list it as one of the possibilities.
- James remembered that he’d made these promises to his backers, and mentioned them to Fantasy Flight when negotiating the deal, but Fantasy Flight said “OK, that’s cool, but we can’t do the exclusive edition thing”. This means that James was in a position where he had to decide to either break his promise to the backers in return for a very significant publishing deal, or keep his word at the cost of losing out on that deal, and he chose to do the former. Note that this is the kindest possible reading of James’ behaviour, since it assumes that he was entirely competent and entirely honest with Fantasy Flight through the negotiation process, and it once again ends with him throwing his backers under the bus and breaking his word. Now, to be fair, an awful lot of people in their heart of hearts would find that their personal integrity has a price tag, but it’s never appealing to catch someone in the act of selling out their word.
Either way, James clearly didn’t deliver on his original promise; at best, he gave a second-best alternative to the thing he’d actually promised. As I’ve exhaustively substantiated above, this was just one of a strong of commitments James made to his backers which he broke. If it seems I am making a lot of this, you’re damn right I am.
For one thing, people breaking their promises and commitments is one of those things I find very difficult to be generous and understanding about, especially if it is in the context of a recurring pattern of behaviour and doesn’t come with a clear, honest apology. I can accept people doing it very rarely if they’re suitably apologetic, but I find it hard to accept when they do it over and over again and get grumpy and defensive when they are called on it.
For another, this sort of thing doesn’t just affect the projects immediately involved. Kickstarter is a system based on trust; every time someone proves to be unworthy of that trust, it undermines the entire system. There are doubtless many backers out there who’d be more reluctant to back things on Kickstarter than they otherwise would have been due to their negative experiences of this project, and that makes it harder for every other creator on the platform.
We know for a fact that James understands what a promise is – after all, he made that “mighty oath” to himself, and he certainly was able to keep his promise to himself better than the promises he made to his backers. Part of me does think that this may come down to communication issues: James might intend a lot of these things as a mere statement of intent, rather than an actual promise, but he phrases them in such a way that backers understandably believe that they are promises (because that’s the sensible and natural reading of what he’s said). Then backers are upset when James doesn’t do what he said he was going to do, and James gets upset because he doesn’t understand why they’re being so mean when he’s done his best and sort-of done something that is sort-of, but not quite, what he committed to do.
One last note on this point before moving on: James noted that the copies of Munchausen would ship alongside Alas Vegas, to save on shipping. Fine, fair enough – he was actually being rather generous with the shipping on these to begin with and the cost of international shipping had shot up absurdly since the campaign wrapped. This would later become contentious, for reasons I’ll outline in a bit.
On the 3rd December 2016, Wallis posted a backer-only update reporting that PDF copies of Alas Vegas had gone out to those whose reward tiers included them. On the 7th December 2016, he posted another update encouraging people who hadn’t received their download link to get in touch with him so he could sort it out. All in all, you’d think that things were back on an even keel. James was talking about the printing process taking a few weeks, which would be in keeping with the timetable for printing he’d laid out some time ago, and he was back in regular contact with his backers. Surely those waiting on hard copies of the books would not need to endure any more major delays or long silences, right?
2017: Printer’s Devil
Having got the PDF into the hands of his backers and thereby begun the process of repairing relations with them, James sabotaged them again by going quiet. By this point, people were used to it; everyone presumably assumed he’d just sworn another mighty oath to himself (you know, the sort of mighty oath he keeps, not the mighty oaths he makes to his backers which he keeps breaking) and went about their business. The Alas Vegas PDF didn’t exactly generate a groundswell of buzz and excitement. The market moved on; backers on the hook for hard copies of the book played the waiting game.
On 29th March 2017, James put out an update apparently showing an honest-to-goodness proof copy of Alas Vegas, and reported that he’d finally “spoken enough words in the secret language of printers to get them to produce a book that looks almost like I want it to which, if you know anything about printers, you will know is a bloody miracle”.
You don’t need direct experience of printers to know that, of course; if Wallis happens to get onto the subject in any particular piece he writes, odds are he will regale you with a range of anecdotes about errors he’s had to deal with from printers in the past, or at least allude to the selfsame anecdotes. Now, print run problems are not unknown in publishing – whether conventional or on Kickstarter. On the other hand, sometimes print runs seem to happen smoothly and cleanly and the printers more or less get it right, having been given the required instructions by the publishers.
Why does James seem to have uniquely bad luck with printers compared to other publishers, even if he’s just printing a conventional book of the sort which is surely the bread and butter of most printers? Surely – surely – it can’t be that the common factor in all of these different transactions (James Wallis) is the one who is at fault, right? Is it not more likely that every single printer out there is simply not up to the job of rendering James’ genius into physical form?
Surely it isn’t that James, a man who very clearly is quite bad at communication when it comes to his Kickstarter backers, is also quite bad at communication when it comes to printers.
Also in this update, James stuck a bunch of blame on Fantasy Flight for the delays in the Baron Munchausen copies getting shipped – they’d apparently sent them all to a random mail order customers of theirs by mistake, and then been extremely dilatory when it came to arranging to collect them. Clearly infuriating – but why was James airing this dirty laundry when, actually, he didn’t actually need to?
Maybe Fantasy Flight actually did goof to that extent – but James had made it clear that he wasn’t going to ship the Munchausen copies until Alas Vegas was printed, so whilst it may have been disappointing to backers that they hadn’t got their copies of Munchausen yet, in this particular instance James was actually sticking to what he said he was going to do. In short, even if Fantasy Flight hadn’t goofed on the shipping, it still wouldn’t have mattered because James hadn’t got the Alas Vegas printing sorted by that point.
Some may have flashbacks here of when James was talking about how he was still waiting on various third parties to get their material in, when in fact even if they’d got their stuff in on time the game would have still been delayed to a similar extent because James was still rehashing his own material. This displays an ugly tendency of James’ – the way he tries to shift blame onto third parties for delays when, in fact, it’s his own delayed tasks which are holding the entire process up. In this case, James was throwing Fantasy Flight under the bus when there was absolutely no need for him to do so, which is staggeringly unprofessional. I wonder how Fantasy Flight feel about it, assuming they are are even aware that he did it.
So, after 3-approaching-4 months of faff and bother with printers, James seemed to have a proof copy he was happy with. Time to get the print run done and distributed, right?
Another long silence ensued, and James re-emerged over half a year later on the 17th October 2017 in an update whose first line was “On Friday I pulped the hardbacks.”
Now, let me give James some credit: that’s a hell of an opening line. As a writer, he can certainly grab your attention when he puts his mind to it. It puts you in mind of incidents like John Campbell burning all the unshipped Pictures For Lost Children books on that particular doomed Kickstarter. The news was nowhere near that dramatic, but still not great: apparently the printers had again made a major error, and so a do-over was needed.
This update was naturally accompanied by a bunch of James’ grousing about how awful printers are. (“Book printers are ridiculously bad at making books. It’s astonishing. No matter how much detail you put into your instructions to them, they will find a way to do it wrong.”) A lot of the problems he cites do seem to be printer-side issues, like sending information to the wrong person, though other issues would seem to arise from those detailed instructions he insists he does send to the printers (if the spine is too narrow for the width of the book, for instance, is that not a factor of the spine specifications James sent the printers?). There’s also the question of why these issues were only apparent in the main print run but not apparent in the proof copy James posted in his March update, which he was apparently more or less happy with.
Again, it’s possible that James just has the worst luck in the world when it comes to printers, but there’s a point where a run of bad luck gets so bad you kind of have to stop and wonder whether the problem isn’t simple bad luck. In addition, the problems James outlines here constitute issues which would eat up weeks easily, but it would seem a stretch to imagine that the entire seven months had been spent with him ordering a proof, making corrections, ordering another proof, making corrections, and over and over and over again.
Remember, James had previously given us timescales for low long these bits of producing the book would take. His estimates involved 10 days at a maximum time for Lightning Source to produce a proof copy, and a day for him to review it and greenlight. Assuming that day turns into 3 days if he finds errors and needs to list them and request changes, and adding on a couple of days for postage, that’s 15 days per proofing round. In the time between his March update and his October update, he had time to do 13 proofing rounds. If it takes you that wrong to get it right, you are either dealing with the wrong printers or you are the wrong person to deal with the printers.
Finally, at long last, on the 30th November 2017 – four years and change after the original estimated delivery date – James was able to report that the hard copies of Alas Vegas were actually shipping. They hit the RPG market and were, so far as I can tell, received with a resounding “meh”, disappearing amid a flood of better-regarded indie self-published RPGs.
Of course the emergence of Alas Vegas also meant that James could get around to shipping all of those copies of Baron Munchausen he’d sold to his backers… which those who had taken up that offer had now been waiting over a year for. The deal probably didn’t seem so sweet once it hit the point that the game had been out in game shops for literal months before these books were shipped.
That’s not wholly the end of the story; James is still on the hook for the tie-in novel, which he’s now retitled Vegasm (perhaps so that the novel, should it eventually emerge, won’t end up tainted by association with this fucking disaster of a Kickstarter.) There’s two backers who are down for reward tiers only giving them copies of the novel – 1’s down for a softcover, one for a hardcover – who therefore have received sweet fuck all when it comes to the core rewards of their particular tier. I hope they’ve been refunded already because I don’t like the idea of them waiting forlornly for a Vegasm that will never come – or, if it does come, may well arrive in a different decade from when they actually put their money down.
However, now that James has delivered the products that I personally had put down money for (even though I’ve now got my money back), I’m more than happy to leave the story of the slow, agonising delivery process there. Especially now that there’s actual product to review. I’ll get onto that in part 3.