Interview: James Wallis | ALAS VEGAS

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James Wallis is an award winning games designer who has been described by his contemporaries as the godfather of indie-game design. His credits include Once Upon a Time, Puppetland and Nobilis and his influence can be seen across the breadth of the tabletop gaming industry. His new game, Alas Vegas, is currently being sponsored through crowd-funding.

Starburst: Where do you think the games industry is headed? What does the future hold for gaming geeks?

James Wallis: Tabletop games have been on the rise for the last few years, but Kickstarter and the eBook market has given the RPG end of things a massive boost. Anyone can release their own RPG now: you don’t have to pay printers and warehouses, you just have to have read a book about marketing. One thing a lot of people don’t realise about Kickstarter is that it’s not just about money, it’s also about publicity and market research. Putting a game or a book on Kickstarter is free marketing. And if you don’t reach your funding goal then there probably isn’t a market for your idea in the wider world either. Either that or you were too greedy.

Where are games going? Two words: Minecraft and Proteus. There’s the future, right there. You may not like it, but there’s the future.

Tell us about your Kickstarter project Alas Vegas.

Alas Vegas is a new RPG about bad memories, bad luck and bad blood. It begins with the player-characters dragging themselves out of a shallow grave on the edge of the desert. They have no memory of how they got there, or who they are. It’s midnight and they’re naked. The rest of the game, which plays out over four sessions, is about them exploring a nightmarish alter-Vegas, slowly piecing together their histories using an innovative flashback mechanic, and learning how to find a way out and not get horribly murdered.

It’s Ocean’s Eleven directed by David Lynch.

The mechanics are simple and easy to learn. It doesn’t use dice, instead—because it’s a game set in a casino-city heavy on the occult—it uses a stripped-down version of Blackjack played with Tarot cards. John Coulthart, the artist who won the World Fantasy Award last year, is creating the Tarot cards for it.

We put Alas Vegas on Kickstarter at the end of January, and it hit its funding goal in less than eight hours. We’re going for the stretch now. Lots of very cool things planned.

What inspired Alas Vegas?

I had the idea for the setting about fifteen years ago, while I was managing editor of Bizarre magazine. I was jamming ideas for fiction with the chief sub Cathi Unsworth—now an acclaimed crime novelist—and had the vision of waking up naked, seeing Vegas in the distance and having no idea what was going on. Then life got busy and I didn’t do anything with it until two years ago, until the Game Chef design-competition brought it back, and I suddenly realised that it’d be a better RPG than novel.

You brought the Warhammer Fantasy RolePlay game back from the depths of obscurity. Why did you do that and what do you make of the new edition?

Although I’m very fond of the Warhammer world—I’ve written two novels and several short stories for it—deciding to licence the rights to Warhammer FRP was based mostly on business. It was 1995 and nobody had made a UK-based RPG publishing business work since Games Workshop had shifted over to miniatures-games in the 1980s. I realised that a British company would need to make a big splash in the American market to get enough attention to survive. Hogshead Publishing was the company, Warhammer FRP was that splash, and it worked. Almost every other UK RPG company these days uses the business model I created which is, you know, flattering.

What single work of yours are you the most proud of?

It has to be The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen. I think it’s a terrific game that anyone can learn and play in a couple of minutes, it’s a game-book that’s almost more fun to read than it is to play, and it single-handedly blazed the trail for the entire Story Games movement. Plus it’s an RPG that replaces dice and character sheets with money and fine wine. Your health!

So Baron, tell us a story.

I tell you, since the Baron entered my life I’ve had a few stories to tell. For example I was out at the Spiel convention in Germany last year, the biggest games convention in the world, and this familiar-looking man came up to me. I’m thinking “I know you...”, and he introduced himself as Alexsandr Munchausen, descendent of the Baron via a dalliance with a Russian lady who shall be nameless, and an adventurer in his own right. The family resemblance was extraordinary. Then he asked me for about two hundred years of unpaid royalties on the Baron’s game. Happily we were able to come to an arrangement, we’ve collaborated on an assortment of new settings and rules for The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and we’ll be including them in the third edition of the game later this year.

Is there a particular tie-in franchise that you haven’t been involved in yet that you’d love to write for?

I’ve always wanted to do a Princess Bride RPG, but I noticed that someone’s picked up the rights to that earlier this year so my chance has probably gone.

What is the weirdest thing that has ever happened to you?

An ex-girlfriend bumped into me in JFK Airport in New York and chatted to me for fifteen minutes about my job, my relationship, London, mutual friends, all of that. It wasn’t me. I was in France at the time. That’s not the weirdest thing, but it’s the easiest to tell you about.

If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have one book for company, what would that book be?

A blank one, and a pen.

What other fictional worlds inspire you? What else inspires you (Music, TV, People)?

My favourite tabletop RPG of all time is Empire of the Petal Throne, an incredibly deep and rich fantasy world—it’s the sort of time-consuming game that you have to be young and childless to have the headspace to play, which I’m not any more. Favourite video game is probably Rez, just for the immersion and the perfect blending of gameplay, visuals and audio. That feeds into my love of breakbeat, techno, minimalist composers and weird noise bands—Sir Thomas Beecham said “The English may not like music but they love the sound it makes”, and that’s me. I find it really hard to work without music: I have over 100,000 plays logged on Game designers: Sid Sackson, Sid Meier, Peter Molyneux on his good days.

Simpsons or Futurama?

I interviewed Matt Groening in 1989, on the Fox lot in Los Angeles, six weeks before the first episode of The Simpsons was due to air. They’d just received it from the Korean animators and it was apparently so awful they sent it back to be re-done from scratch. He was very depressed about it and didn’t really want to talk about The Simpsons at all because he knew that as soon as it aired he was going to lose his nice office and his secretary and he’d have to go back to being a struggling cartoonist and rock journalist. So mostly we talked about his comic strip Life in Hell, music and Thomas Pynchon. Then I got back to the UK to discover the magazine I was working for had gone bust. I’ve never been able to sell that interview. It’s never been printed. But it was one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve ever done.

Early Simpsons, obviously.

Sonic or Mario?

In the early ‘90s I wrote four books about Sonic the Hedgehog: two solo gamebooks for Puffin, and then two novels under a pseudonym for Virgin. Virgin wanted four books in four months, so three of us got together—me, Marc Gascoigne who runs Angry Robot these days, and Carl Sargent who has literally disappeared—and Carl and I wrote two each while Marc did the editing. ‘Martin Adams’ was the name we used. Which meant I got to buy a Megadrive as a business expense and play the holy crap out of the first two Sonic games while pretending it was research. Good times.

Sonic paid my rent. So Sonic, obviously.

Truth or Beauty?

Truth is beauty if you’re doing it right.

Vegas or Blackpool?

Vegas freaks me out. The GAMA Trade Show, the annual gathering of the tabletop industry is held there—in fact the top level of the Kickstarter is me flying you to Vegas in mid-March, playing through the whole of Alas Vegas and escorting you around the trade show. But it’s a weird city and almost everything about it unnerves me. Nothing’s real there, it’s all artifice. Even the people. If you want to know the real inspiration for Alas Vegas, there you go. It’s Vegas.

Blackpool, on the other hand, I spent an amazing week at a writers’ retreat there twenty years ago. Charlie Stross was there, Nicola Griffith, Alex Stewart, Andy Lane and many others. We ripped each others’ works to shreds and played a lot of laser tag. It was fantastic—no, wait, that was Margate. So probably Vegas, then.

Alas Vegas can currently be found on Kickstarter, and the campaign ends on the 28th of February, 2013.

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