Fans have a very odd relationship with the source of their fandoms. That was on view this week when The Walt Disney Company and the Sony Corporation, two multi-billion-dollar enterprises, couldn’t come to an agreement and tried to mobilize their separate fandoms. Watching people act like their favorite in the fight is some beggar-child just trying to make ends meet while the other is the ‘evil mega-corporation’ that is the bane of everything good has been funny, to say the least. Even here in this small corner of the Internet, I have had more than a little pushback whenever I suggest groups involves business managers, have some sort of organizational structure, and a written agreement on what work each team member will do. Yet, understanding corporate structure and how that function interacts with the creative side of art and entertainment can help cut through ignorance and find truth: especially when the situation spirals far outside of the control of those directly involved.
As you may have already figured out, I’ll be talking about the MegaTokyo Visual Novel Kickstarter today. This is a subject that is far more heated than the previous Kickstarter we discussed, Lovely Little Thieves. I want to make clear before we even start that my goal with this story is not to justify accusations or make claims that I cannot prove. My goal here is to discuss the campaign, what went wrong, the likelihood of if we’ll ever see a release date and if there is enough evidence to question Fred Gallagher and his company on their handling of the entire business. With all of that said, let’s begin.
In 2013, the webcomic business was in the middle of serious change. Some of the more influential titles of that period had wrapped up and their creators had moved on to other ventures. Others had found ways to commercialize their work on their own while companies that had hoped to capitalize on the boom years was either on life support (Tokyopop) or grew beyond the medium (Seven Seas). From a business standpoint, that growth and decline of webcomics as a medium and a business echoes English Visual Novels and I’ll have to discuss that one day. For now, these changes times would inspire a big gamble with MegaTokyo. The webcomic has existed for nineteen years as of this month: making it one of the more enduring brands of its era. But a change was necessary at that point to reach new fans and revitalize its core business.
Prima facie evidence (and y’all don’t know how long I have waited to use that here in context) for a MegaTokyo visual novel was strong when the campaign first launched. There was a clear outline on what the Kickstarter would be by telling the established storyline from multiple perspectives. Three parts were initially planned with the first part focusing on Piro and Largo. One game, two different branching storylines. That is reasonable and extremely manageable for a first effort.
However, nothing is ever quite that simple, is it?
The MegaTokyo Visual Novel’s initial fundraising goal was $20,000. It ended up with just shy of $300,000. As of the time of this article’s publication, it is still the most successful Kickstarter campaign for an English Visual Novel. That single campaign funded all three parts of the visual novel plus five more main characters and mini routes for six side characters. In making the announcement about the side character stretch goals, Gallagher noted that these characters’ routes would be about the size of a short story while the main character routes would be about the length of a light novel. For those outside of the loop on current anime source material, a light novel averages fifty thousand words. A short story’s length can vary, but the cap is somewhere around seven thousand, five hundred words.
Really, I could probably end this story right here. If you are a regular reader of this site, you’ve already figured out how this project went off the rails just from the background information. But, let’s be clear and let your boy get on the record here: this project will never be finished. Ever. Yes, I risk whatever credibility I have with that definitive statement, but I stand by it. Not because I believe the campaign was based on fraud. Fred Gallagher could have been completely sincere and wanted to deliver this project to his supporters and fans. But it’s impossible. Literally impossible.
Let’s take a step back here and remove the romantic elements from visual novel development, shall we? It is very, very easy to play a Japanese VN and even an English one, slam your drink of choice down on the table and scream to the Heavens, ‘I can do that!’ A visual novel with multiple routes and endings usually employs a team of writers for each route in the Japanese market. In the Western market, only a handful of developers regularly publishes titles with multiple storylines. And even then, team or no team, it takes years to complete. While this is far from scientific, from my observation the minimal development window for just the writing is two years for a team of writers and five years for an individual writer. And that if that is their sole project at the time and they don’t have any other endeavors.
These are the practical reasons why so many visual novels seem to be romance and have teenage characters. It’s the most straightforward way to write multiple storylines as all the characters will usually be in the same place at the same time with similar interests. Moreover these projects only had one point-of-view to worry about. It’s straight-forward story-telling I know. However, in practical game design, a single character means you only have to worry about a single choice tree. Regardless of the choices taken, they still connect to the main character so you can keep the story centered.
And that’s just the writing end of it. The tropes and conventions of high school romances also takes weight off the artists involved in a project like that. Think about the art assets for a visual novel set in high school: school backgrounds, the main uniform design and color scheme and possibly a secondary outfit and backgrounds for a date outside of school grounds. Even Event CGs become simpler because while an artist can (and should) get creative with romantic scenes, most of them will take place on school grounds which gives the artist exactly what they need to make it work.
Meanwhile, the MegaTokyo Visual Novel promised multiple paths and endings for each point-of-view character. Even with varying word lengths, it doesn’t change the fact that there are thirteen point-of-view characters in this project with Part 1 doing the heavy lifting by introducing all seven members of the main cast as point-of-view characters. Seven POV characters with multiple routes and endings and the original ETA of Part 1 was less than a year later? No. That’s just not possible.
No one thought of this at the time, and I include myself in that number. The minute Gallagher put forward other POV characters red flags should have flown everywhere. And frankly it took me watching teams and developers I like breaking down from the stress of projects of similar scale to understand just how taxing developing this type of visual novel is. And I’m talking about developers with two or three projects under their belt. This was to be the first visual novel developed by Gallagher and his company. It was impossible from the start and instead of cheering at the donation ticker hitting six figures, the media (again, including myself) should have tried to get him to pull back. Although, I get the feeling it would have been a similar result to the Execution of Eddard Stark….although that makes Gallagher Joffrey Baratheon in this scenario.
Back on topic.
The last few years of production have been a mess on both sides of the fence. On Gallagher’s part, information about the development of Part 1 was placed on a subsite of the main MegaTokyo website. Those updates were usually handled by someone with the penname ‘Paarfi’. In 2014, the realization of what exactly had happened seem to hit the group and Paarfi made an update in May of that year with this paragraph,
Part of the problem is that the Megatokyo webcomic is really a one-man operation. Fred does it all, especially since he bought out Rodney. He’s not used to working with a team, and he’s used to having the total control that comes with doing it yourself. So while he has a team for the visual novel, he’s still been trying to do too much of it himself — the planning, the writing, the artwork, and all the coding in ren’py. It’s the approach he’s comfortable with, but it’s not working fast enough for the visual novel.
After this post, the updates on the visual novel subsite started to feature more general company updates on MegaTokyo, merchandise and other projects. These updates would continue semi-regularly until July 2017. In 2018, Gallagher himself discussed it on the main MegaTokyo website:
I have been thinking that the VN i’ve been trying to make is not what people REALLY want from this game, (specifically, this ‘slow animation’ thing with artwork resources that needed to be drawn and produced for each and every scene that was causing what has felt like a re-draw of the entire comic). I’ve been working on re-focusing things to take a more simple and reasonable approach using art resources i’ve already produced as much as possible and focus on what I think people really want to experience – the alternate storylines and an expansion of the Megatokyo stories of their favorite characters. This is, actually, what my original plan was but I got caught up in the idea of making something more elaborate which in the end here has caused most of the problems and delays in the production of this game.
The last public comment on the development of the visual novel came in the forums from Paarfi in July of this year. I’ve included the links to all of these posts as they do go into personal business involving Gallagher that I’m not getting into. However, in reading the post, this part in particular caught my attention,
When Fred did the kickstarter he had no idea that these kinds of life problems were ahead, nor that the vn work itself would prove to be so much more difficult and time-consuming than he had thought. I’ve seen comments on the kickstarter page about people reporting Fred so he’ll never be able to do another kickstarter again. I understand, but that just shows how little people some people understand Fred and his situation. He is embarrassed, panicked, frazzled, depressed, and in almost complete despair over how things have gone. There is no way he would ever do another kickstarter, and if he could go back in time and undo this one, I’m sure he would.
Similarly, I understand the people asking for refunds on the kickstarter pledges. The vn has been (at least thus far) a significant failure. But as someone who knows Fred and sees how he is struggling, I wish they wouldn’t do that. It just makes things worse. You can fairly ding Fred for incompetence or poor planning, no doubt. But the kickstarter comments calling this a scam are wrong. Sometimes things just fail, inspite of our best intentions.
This was in response to continued accusations and requests for refunds from the visual novel’s backers. They are, understandably, upset. While Gallagher’s associates are publicly calling the project a ‘significant failure’, no one is offering any detailed information or a remedy for those who are upset with the VN development progress. As I’ve said, I don’t think this will be done based on the logistical realities. But, if Gallagher still intends to make this game, then it’s high time to admit a few things to the public. And at the top of that list, there has to be an admission on all sides what MegaTokyo actually is.
This will be an official Megatokyo project and I will be doing much of the writing and art production for the game myself.
In doing my research, this line from the Kickstarter page struck me the hardest. Partially because of the second clause implication that, as stated earlier, we in the media should have caught. Primarily, though, because of the first clause. You see, legally speaking, MegaTokyo isn’t owned by Fred Gallagher. Fred Gallagher owns and operates the company that owns MegaTokyo; that company being Fredart Studios, LLC. That company not only owns the trademarks associated with MegaTokyo, but also are responsible for all of the various projects based on the MegaTokyo comic and other artistic projects Gallagher has done. To date, that includes the MegaTokyo digital comic, the printed editions from a few years ago by Dark Horse and Kodansha, the omnibus editions, and the recent digital book series. The merchandise sold for MegaTokyo is also operated through a corporation: Megagear Inc.
MegaTokyo isn’t a hobby by some geek for his fellow geeks. MegaTokyo is a corporation with ongoing interests in comics, books and other media. The visual novel was going to be the next extension of that business and, on the surface, appeared to be set as a profitable one. However, in the end, even if it is a total failure, Fred Gallagher isn’t personally responsible for it. Not because of what is going on in his personal life, but rather because Fredart Studios has the final responsibility for making this project happen as the owner of MegaTokyo. As he said himself, ‘this is a MegaTokyo project’.
Welcome to the land of corporate law, kids. This is why I keep beating the drum of organization and contracts.
There are intangibles there that I just don’t know. In this scenario, if the money from the Kickstarter didn’t go to a corporate account and, instead, went to a personal account controlled by Gallagher, then things change. For now, here’s what we know. Because of its own blind ambition, the MegaTokyo Visual Novel is a bust. The money for the Kickstarter is, most likely, not all gone but instead was used by Fredart Studios to pay for contracts for the team and a salary for Gallagher as the holder of the copyrights and as the primary worker for the project. Essentially the company would have had to write him a contract paying him for his work. I’m aware that sounds absolutely insane, however if that’s how it went done and there is documentation for all of it, the worst case scenario for Gallagher would be a lawsuit or government complaint filed against his company. That complaint wouldn’t be for fraud or, unless proven otherwise, misappropriation. Rather, it would be for gross incompetence. And, as a wise man once said, it isn’t a crime to be an idiot (unfortunately).
That said, it’s high time for Gallagher to take responsibility, even if he is legally protected. A full accounting for the Kickstarter backers of what happened over the last six years, plus an explanation of what has happened to their money since is the bare minimum of transparency at this point. While I do know that the Gallaghers have had to take up other jobs due to life situations and Fred Gallagher in particular has started a Patreon for the comic specifically, he is still an active presence and the MegaTokyo comic is still running. The visual novel supporters deserve answers and they deserve to hear, from Gallagher himself, that he has accepted the reality of the situation this visual novel is now in. Until then, like Lovely Little Thieves, the fairest thing to do is to write this one off as a loss. JP3: OUT.