Tuesday, June 19, 2018

20th Anniversary of West End’s Demise

Every year as July approaches I get a little glum about the summer of 1998 when West End Games filed for bankruptcy and pulled the rug out from under numerous employees, creative freelance writers and artists, and fans of the company’s groundbreaking Star Wars roleplaying game. “Consider yourselves unemployed,” was how the company’s owner initially broke the news to the puzzled editors, graphic designers, and sales personnel unexpectedly summoned to his office. These annual, bittersweet recollections send me into a spiral of memories from which I can usually extricate myself by focusing on the positive aspects of that time. During my five years at West End I worked on many projects that still make me smile with a proud sense of satisfaction: certainly The Official Star Wars Adventure Journal; Platt’s Starport Guide; the revised and expanded version of the game’s second edition; the Star Wars Introductory Adventure Game (and similar products for the Men in Black and Hercules & Xena game lines); numerous solitaire tutorial adventures (including the standalone book Imperial Double-Cross); and a revision of the roleplaying game’s Star Wars Style Guide that helped authors with all aspects of the submission and writing process (which notably resurfaced a few years ago on the interwebzes as the guide George Lucas supposedly ignored when making the prequels, certainly not its original intention). It was a dream job, despite constant anxiety, vicious office politics, and what I expect are the general idiocies that plague any modern American workplace. But the occasion also gives me an opportunity to reflect on the many good things West End brought into my life and other people’s lives.

I’m a sentimental pack rat. In the desperate year after we were laid off from West End, between sending needy job applications, accepting harried freelance jobs, and waiting for all-too-infrequent paychecks, I culled through boxes of old correspondence and mementos – unheard of in this Internet Age of e-mails, web pages, and PDFs – and organized the more significant materials into a voluminous scrapbook. I recently retrieved this scrapbook from the dusty Vaults of Nostalgia and glanced through its pages, re-discovering some encouraging reminders of my time at West End:

* Badges and programs from numerous conventions, including GenCon and smaller, regional cons where I entertained attendees as a guest and ran numerous game sessions.

* A letter and some photos from a New York Times best-selling Star Wars author thanking me for inviting him to a dinner I hosted at DragonCon in 1995 for Star Wars Adventure Journal authors and artists.

* Numerous Lucasfilm holiday cards, often with playfully appropriate Star Wars artwork.

* A thank-you card from a Bantam Star Wars editor I invited to the dinner I hosted for 50 or so West End Staffers and Journal freelancers, artists, and other contributors in the Hyatt’s revolving restaurant at GenCon 1996.

* Copies of positive magazine reviews of my work at West End, both for the Journal and the Star Wars Introductory Adventure Game. “I’ve paid twice as much for products with half the substance of one Star Wars Adventure Journal” (Pyramid Magazine). “[The Star Wars Introductory Adventure Game] is about as clearly explained an introduction to roleplaying as you could imagine; everything is approached clearly and methodically and, a lot of the time, entertainingly” (Arcane Magazine).

Some of the correspondence helped remind me about my role in giving talented fans a chance to write and illustrate for their favorite galaxy far, far away. [Names have been redacted to protect the innocent...and if they manage to see this blog entry in all the vast, cacophonous clutter of the interwebzes, then I hope in their anonymity they accept my apologies and perhaps smile slightly with fond remembrance.] I’ve previously discussed how some authors responded to the lengthy rejection letters I sent them, replete with detailed critique of their writing (“Upon rejecting my story, you wrote me a three and a half page letter explaining why it was not up to the standards of the Star Wars Adventure Journal. I thank you for that. You see, it would have been just as easy for you to have sent me a form letter, but instead you paid close attention to what needed improving in my story and in my writing in general.”). Here’s another I discovered from 1994 that’s typical of the letters I sometimes received from authors whose work I critiqued and rejected:

I just wanted to write to thank you for the prompt response you gave to my submitted story.... I appreciate the time and effort you took to write a personal response instead of sending the traditional form letter. In retrospect I found myself agreeing with most of your objections. The Adventure Journal is a wonderful periodical, and I hope you are able to continue it long after Mr. Lucas’ next trilogy. Thanks again.

Sometime in 1995 I received the following letter that – reading it all these years later – reminded me how my role in the then-growing Star Wars franchise could have a positive impact on people’s lives:

Dear Peter:
My name is [XXXXX], and I’m [YYYYY]’s fiancee. I just wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done for him. It’s nice to know that because of you, he’s been published both as an author and an artist in something that he truly loves – Star Wars, and that my theories about him are true. I guess I am biased in thinking he’s a genius, but hey, that’s what a fiancee’s for.
By the way, no matter what you think, [YYYYY] did not put me up to this note. I’m proud enough of him and his success that he doesn’t have to be!

And then, of course, there are the regret-filled well-wishes upon hearing news of West End’s demise:

Dear Pete,
I heard the sad news about West End Games. What a shame! So may good things came out of your hard work. I appreciate all the help and constructive criticism you have offered over the years. And I thank you for giving me a chance to be a part of the Star Wars universe. I have met so many wonderful people along the way. It has been an exciting ride.

A freelancer made a card from some wonderfully appropriate Mike Vilardi artwork of a drone taking out a bounty. They were obviously aware – as many others would become – of the incestuous business relationship between West End and its parent shoe company, Bucci Imports. On the cover it read, “Bucci Imports gives WEG employees a pat on the back for a job well done.” On the inside: “At least the REST of us appreciate you!” A longer note was tucked inside the card with a few choice sentiments:

I’m dismayed and terribly saddened by this whole situation. You folks at West End Games have done more to expand, add depth, and watchdog the continuity of the SW universe than anyone, and it’ll be a shame if this is how all your hard work ends. The Journal in particular was my favorite as the only place to find all-new, original short stories that didn’t revolve around the Big Three or brief scenes from the movies. It was also the only way to get backstories on some of my favorite secondary characters introduced in the novels.... You guys did a terrific job; be proud! I and a lot of other people will miss you.

The legacy of West End’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game continues to grow beyond us. What does it say when numerous online groups still play, discuss, and develop material for the game? How have D6 System games evolved and spread since then? Why does the current Star Wars roleplaying game license holder think it’s important to release an anniversary, slipcase edition of the original rulebook and sourcebook? Why do we continue seeing references to setting elements West End created in the Rebels series and even Solo: A Star Wars Story even after the “Expanded Universe” continuity was dismissed? The West End Games I worked for may be 20 years dead, its talented staff scattered to the four winds, but its inspiring legacy continues far beyond what we could have imagined. It bears a moment of remembrance and reflection that we might find some positive inspiration for our lives today.