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Interviews: James Wallis

You know James Wallis as the Director of Hogshead Publishing, the company behind Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Nobilis, and the popular New Style RPGs. Plus, he's the really tall guy you saw at GenCon. Today Hogshead Publishing announced its emminent closure. Why? James took a few minutes to talk with Allan Sugarbaker and explain what led to the decision.

Can you tell us what the big news about Hogshead Publishing is?

We're leaving the hobby-games business. Simple as that. Hogshead Publishing may continue to exist as a company – I've not made a final decision on that – but it will no longer publish hobby-games.

That means, effective immediately, we're not publishing Warhammer FRP, SLA Industries or Nobilis any more. Nobilis has found a great new home at Guardians of Order, and WFRP and SLA are both back with the companies that created them. Rights to the New Style games have been returned to their creators.

What factors led to the decision to stop?

Boredom. Imminent burn-out. Creative frustration. Worries about the state of the market, and its future in the medium and long term. A desire to actually make some money.

Hogshead was set up to publish games that I designed; I was supposed to be the company's creative powerhouse. I had no idea that running a small business is so incredibly time-consuming and will-draining.

I mean, I'd go into the office fired up with enthusiasm for writing a chunk of Project X, and then find that I had to spend the morning running invoices and paying bills, the afternoon responding to emails, the evening doing tax and PAYE stuff, VAT, planning convention appearances, stock control, accounts, logistics... It's boring. It's very, very boring, and I've been doing it for eight years now. I have a list of project as long as my arm that I really want to create, or finish, and I don't have the time.

It wears you down. Many, many things about working in gaming wear you down. Fandom is a weird environment, populated by barely functional beings for whom gaming is their entire existence, and if a company takes over an existing game and doesn't publish stuff _exactly_ as the fans expect, you become their enemy for life. I'm thinking of one person in particular, who has posted reviews to RPG.net that contain deceptive factual errors about the products he's reviewing – claiming one book was a third of its true length, for example. And he only ever reviews Hogshead products. You get a review like that, it's like a punch in the face. "I hate your company so much I am prepared to lie about your books to make you look bad." Great. I'm not going to miss that.

Were sales numbers part of the decision?

Yes, but not the usual way. Hogshead is not bankrupt, far from it. But the overall trend is down, not just for us but for a lot of mid-tier companies. d20 has changed the marketplace in a lot of ways: because there were so many new products coming out, retails and distributors have stopped paying attention to back-list product: all the emphasis is on new books. It used to be that a new sourcebook would have decent sales figures for at least a year; now most of them are dead pulp after three or four months. And it's not just us: I've spoken to many companies who are reporting really soft reorders, and sales way down.

Hogshead could have completely revised its business model, moving to a system of pumping out new product every month or so, rushing stuff through the creative process to meet print deadlines. But the company was set up to create high-quality, innovative products, and that's the way we work. What's the point of making six proof-check passes on a game like Nobilis if the marketplace is going to chew it up and shit it out by Christmas? More importantly, how can you make a profit on that?

Have any arrangements been made to continue supporting Hogshead's product lines?

Nobilis has gone to Guardians of Order. That's the big one. The core creative team is still together, and all the announced supplements are in development. I'm still part of the team, albeit only as art-director, because that's something I really enjoy. I'm treating it as a hobby.

The original plan was to sell the company, along with the rights to its games. Games Workshop initially seemed amenable to this, we'd got a buyer lined up and everything. Then GW changed its mind and said the rights to Warhammer FRP weren't transferable. That put the kibosh on that, so really the only choice left was to close it down. A shame, but there you go.

All the foreign-language editions of Hogshead's games will not be affected. That's WFRP in French, Italian and Spanish, Nobilis in French, Violence in Spanish, and Baron Munchausen in Italian, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, German and – shortly – French.

Do you personally intend to stay involved in the industry at all, or have you done everything you wanted to do at this point?

I'm pretty close to burning out, you know? Eight years wears you down, particularly with all the other hells I've gone through in that time. I need to take a break. After that, I may dabble.

On the other hand I've been doing some freelance journalism recently, and that's reminded me that I can earn roughly ten times what I could in gaming for an equivalent amount of effort and words, and I will be working with professionals who are likely to edit my work properly, print it when they say they will, and pay on time.

Basically, if any company in the games industry is prepared to pay me a reasonable amount – 'reasonable' by the standards of the real world – then I'll happily design and write games for them. Otherwise I can't let it be any more than a hobby.

Having said that, I've been approached by a new American company that has an incredibly exciting idea for a wholly new type of interactive game, a completely new genre of gaming, and I think they've got the skills to make it work as a marketable property. I can't say anything more because I'm NDAed to the throat, but... man. It's very cool. I'm not sure if it's the philosopher's stone of games, but it's the closest thing I've seen to it.

Hogshead Publishing has been blazing trails into new roleplaying territory for a while now, particularly with De Profundis, Nobilis, and the New Style line. Any thoughts on who will take up the cause after Hogshead?

The small press, as usual: people who have a vision and don't mind losing money on it. Don't look to the big companies to do anything ground-breaking.

How do you feel about the industry response to Nobilis, as compared to the gaming public's response?

There was an industry response?

I've had a few people in the biz tell me they thought Nobilis was great, and that they liked the presentation and the fact we dared to do something different, something that looked and read like a game for grown-ups. I've had a slightly higher number of retailers complain that the book is too large to fit on their purpose-built racks, because everyone knows it is against the laws of nature and God to produce an RPG larger than 8.5"x11".

The French industry did give Nobilis the Grog D'Or award for the best new RPG of the last twelve months. That was nice. But I'm already on record as saying that I know Nobilis's chances of winning an Origins Award next year – any Origins Award – are precisely zero. It's not what the English-speaking industry is interested in.

I'm proud as hell of Nobilis. I think it's the best thing Hogshead did; I think it has the potential to be the standard-bearer for a new generation of RPGs. But with the market in its current state, the chances of that new generation happening are low.

Will anything become of announced New Style projects like Youdunnit?

Possibly. Give me a while to have a holiday and get my head back on track. I have been talking to a publisher I respect about it. And since Youdunnit is in my opinion the best thing I've ever designed, by a long way, I'm loath to let it drop.

Now that Realms of Sorcery has been released, don't you feel it's irresponsible to leave the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay community without a big, mythic book that they have to wait around for? Wouldn't it be more appropriate to pull a title out of thin air and announce it just before folding? :-)

What, you mean the promised Realms of Divine Magic, the revised Chaos books, the Elf sourcebook and the rewrite of the final volume of the Enemy Within campaign that we've been talking about for a while? You want something bigger than those?

Hmmm... never mind, then. :-)

If you are indeed leaving the games industry, what's some juicy gossip that you could never divulge if you were staying? And if you aren't leaving the games industry, can you make some up?

I am still trying to find any evidence to back up the story I've heard about the sales director of [major but failed CCG company], who was caught at LAX with a briefcase full of cocaine, which he was smuggling into the country with the intention of selling it and using the money to prop up his business.

Beyond that, I'm afraid that libel is still libel even after you've left an industry, and since I have no way of proving these stories of sin, depravity and mind-blithering incompetence, I'm staying mum.

What was your submission to the D&D Fantasy Setting Search, and if you didn't have one, what should it have been?

I didn't have one. I jotted down some ideas but they didn't gel. I wanted to do something that involved exploring a new world, but I quickly realised that the ideas I was having would mean rewriting D&D so that each participant was equally GM and player, and player-characters weren't attached to particular players, stuff like that, and I didn't think that would go down too well.

Do you think the adventure gaming industry tends to burn out talented writers simply because of how it functions? John Tynes has expressed similar sentiments to what you've said here.

I think there's a case to be made for that, but I'm not sure I'm an example of it. In my case, I found I was writing less and less because the demands of the company were sucking my time. On the other hand, if you're going to make a living as a writer in the games industry, you either have to pick and choose your employers very carefully, or you have to be amazingly prolific. I mean, a good per-word rate in the games business is 4-5 cents a word. When I trained as a journalist, they told us not to get out of bed for less than 20 cents a word, because it simply wasn't worth your time. And that was more than ten years ago.

But the games industry doesn't value its writers. Many companies still refuse to give them cover-credit, so the fans regard the trademarks as more important than the authors, and the good ones can't demand more money. I don't think you'll see people burning out any more than they already have (though that's a fair list of names), but you will see more authors getting better offers from other fields that are going to pay them what they're worth. Ditto editors.

There are a few companies out there, I have to say, who do a terrific job with their writers, nurturing them, offering them decent rates and cover-credits, and dealing with them as if they're grown-ups. In particular I have to give a shout-out to the company that gave me my first big break in the industry, whose royalty cheques still come in when they're due – royalty cheques! in the games industry! on time! and don't bounce! – and which started not only me but also Erick Wujcik who published the first diceless RPG, and C J Carella who is doing amazing things these days. It's Palladium, and they deserve a lot more respect than they get.

If you could force one thing to happen to the industry, what would it be?

I'd like it to move. I'd like a bunch of creative people to open the first box of their new RPG as it comes back from the printer, pick one up and have a Road of Damascus moment – "Oh my god, this is no more than D&D with a different dice mechanic! The narrative system is the same, the game-structure is identical, even the chapter-order's the same. Jesus Christ, I've redesigned D&D! I'm spending my life doing nothing more than reworking a design that's almost thirty years old! I have to do something NEW!"

An industry that stands still is a dead industry. I have a feeling that the RPG business is a zombie stumbling through the world, not realising that bits are dropping off it. I thought D&D3e was a step in the right direction but I'm not seeing it pulling new players into the fold, or even old players back into the fold. All I'm seeing is a way of making existing players spend more money each month, and that can't last.

Miniatures is moving forward, finding ways to make itself accessible to new markets, keeping itself fresh and exciting – the Cliky stuff, GW's Lord of the Rings stuff, and so on. CCGs are mass-market. The European schools of design have revitalised the American market for board-games. But today's RPGs are your father's RPGs in different t-shirts.

I threw some ideas at the market, and I was happy to see a couple of designers took them on board. It's been fun, I've learned a lot, and I don't regret any of it. But now I'm bored, and I'm going to do something else.

[Update: After determining the final fate of some game products in early December 2002, Hogshead was eventually sold to industry newcomer Mark Ricketts in February 2003, putting a new head on Hogshead Publishing. In 2007, James Wallis founded Magnum Opus Press, which has since published updated versions of Dragon Warriors and The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen]

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