Ian Livingstone is one of those precious few people who has formed a career out of a hobby he enjoys. Enjoy is possibly an understatement; passionate might more accurately describe Ian Livingstone’s opinion about gaming. For Ian, it is not just the playing of games that he finds so enjoyable, but the appeal of puzzle solving and lateral thinking as well.
Ian Livingstone is perhaps best known for co-creating, with Steve Jackson, the single-player role-playing game-books Fighting Fantasy. Together they wrote the groundbreaking Warlock of Firetop Mountain, the success of which witnessed such unprecedented demand that they were forced to write subsequent Fighting Fantasy novels independently. This actually worked out quite well, as Steve Jackson was happiest exploring the world of Titan that they created in the first Fighting Fantasy novel, whilst Ian Livingstone was keen to explore other genres, and push the envelope of what was possible with the Fighting Fantasy system. Ian Livingstone’s work with Fighting Fantasy includes Forest of Doom, City of Thieves, Freeway Fighter and Armies of Death.
The success of Fighting Fantasy lay in it being unique whilst remaining eminently accessible. For many, Fighting Fantasy was their first experience of gaming and interactive entertainment. This spark in the Fighting Fantasy player’s imagination would often find them seeking new and similar gaming experiences.
At its height, when Fighting Fantasy books held the top three places in the best sellers lists, Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson appeared on Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, where they were asked by John Craven when they were going write a “proper book”. Fighting Fantasy also became viewed by some religious groups as the work of the devil. One concerned mother called her local radio station to claim she had found her son levitating whilst reading Fighting Fantasy (which did the sales of the game books no end of good, as for £1.50 you could perhaps learn to fly).
However, what some people forget is that Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson formed Games Workshop. Unable to afford both an office as well as somewhere to live, Ian and Steve chose to forego somewhere to live. Instead, they lived in a camper-van for three months, joining a squash club so they could use the facilities to clean themselves up in the morning (a consequence of which is that Ian became really good at squash).
Ian later joined the software house Domark, which became Eidos, before being acquired by Square Enix. With Eidos, he is possibly most famous for the hugely popular Tomb Raider franchise. In recognition of his contributions to the interactive entertainment industry, Ian Livingstone was honoured with an OBE in 2006.
As part of Sheffield’s “Off The Shelf” writing festival, Ian Livingstone agreed to give a talk at the Showroom Cinema about his career in interactive entertainment, and about how he and Steve Jackson created the Fighting Fantasy game books.
Go to Part 1
Part 1: In the beginning.
OneMetalHow did you first meet Steve Jackson?
Ian I met Steve at Altrincham Grammar School, and we used to enjoy playing games even back then. After school, we went our separate ways, but we met up again in London in the early seventies. There were actually three of us from Altrincham Grammar School staying in this flat together. So, typical of being in London and penniless, what do you do? You stay in and play games. So we used to play board war games, Diplomacy, the Avalon Hill games, and a game called Warlord. The inventor of Warlord actually lives in Sheffield, and he has just reissued the game after many years of it being out of print. In fact I just met him, as he is coming to the talk tonight, and I bought two copies of the new edition; one for me, and one for Steve Jackson. So it is kind of ironic as it has gone a full circle.
We thought, wouldn’t it be great to turn our passion for playing games into a business for making them? So, we formed our own games company, which we called Games Workshop, and we published a newsletter called Owl and Weasel, which reached out to everyone at the time. One of the recipients of that newsletter was Gary Gygax (although we hadn’t sent it to him directly) and he wrote to us and said “I like your newsletter. Here is this new game I have just invented, what do you think?”. The game was Dungeons and Dragons, still in its first edition, and was a largely unintelligible set of rulebooks, but it opened up a whole world of imagination for us. It was the very first role-playing game, set in a mediaeval world, which was really appealing to science-fiction and fantasy readers, and Steve and I thought that this was the best thing that had ever happened to us in games. However John Peake hated the idea, as he preferred more traditional games. So John left, and we embarked upon building Games Workshop around fantasy games. This was in the mid-1975, where we released an issue of Owl and Weasel dedicated to Dungeons and Dragons, and that was how we got started.
OneMetal At what point did you decide to produce your own games?
Ian We had huge growth in the early years of Games Workshop, as we had ordered some copies of Dungeons and Dragons, and on the back of that we got an exclusive three-year distribution agreement with Europe. We thought we were off to the races, as we were young entrepreneurs, naively making it up as we went along, and making lots of mistakes. At the end of the three-year period, TSR wanted to merge with Games Workshop, but we were traditionally dogged British guys, who were independent and didn’t want to merge with TSR, so we turned down that opportunity. We realised though that we needed something to replace Dungeons and Dragons, and that is how Warhammer came about. If you want to be successful, you have to create and retain ownership of your own intellectual property.
Something I will be talking about today is this: whilst starting out work for other people as work-for-hire so you can learn the business and make mistakes at someone else’s expense, but as soon as you can, you need to create your own content because you can only be of real value and feel proud of what you are doing if you are doing your own thing. It is that much more satisfying and rewarding when you know somebody has bought something that you have created.
OneMetal You made a business out of your hobby, but would you describe yourself as a game designer or entrepreneur?
Ian First and foremost, games are my passion, as much as my hobby. I would describe myself as a creative entrepreneur – as I enjoy the creative content side of the business far more than I enjoy the business side of it. I had to learn the business side of it out of necessity, and all creative entrepreneurs must do that. We in the UK often forget the business and just want to make stuff, but if you want to be successful, you need to learn about the money side.
To read about Fighting Fantasy go to Part 2
To ask about his official recognition go to Part 3
Part 2: Fighting Fantasy
OneMetal One of the things you co-created with Steve Jackson was Fantasy Fighting; how did you approach the structuring?
IanIt is a lot like pencil and paper programming, as it were. You start off with a story in your head, with a mission and an objective, and you have your four hundred numbers that you are going to allocate as you go along. So you are creating a flow chart on the fly, as it were. It is never pre-determined, as you start off at number one, which branches two ways, so you allocate seventy-seven and two hundred and twelve. So you keep a record of that, and then decide where seventy-seven is going to go and cross off two more numbers. As you go forward, you suddenly realise that you need an object to overcome, or get through part of the adventure, so you decide on a sword or a key, and add it to earlier references. So you add a box to a room earlier on, and in that box will be a key which will allow you to open the door. In many respects it is an absolute nightmare – so many stories at once, as branching narratives with a game-system attached makes it even more complicated that writing a typical choose-your-own-adventure style novel. Our Fighting Fantasy was the first with a game-system attached, which made it different and stand-out, which probably led to its success, as it empowered readers to read and play at the same time through our adventure game-books, rather than just reading. It was for many, their first interactive gaming experience, in which the reader became the hero.
OneMetal I remember being given City of Thieves whilst on holiday, and was blown away by it.
Ian That is one of my favourites with a great Ian McKay cover, which I have at home. The art was always quite important because Penguin, who were our publishers, typically wanted to commission the covers themselves. But we had been running Games Workshop then for seven years, and we knew the power of threatening fantasy hardcore artwork had on readers. We wanted to throw that challenge to the readers, so we spent a lot of time arguing with Penguin, because they wanted to put on some nice little fluffy creatures wandering through the meadows and sitting on toadstools, and we wanted to a big gruesome creature threatening to bite the reader’s face off! Thankfully, we won that argument, so we were allowed to commission the covers. One of my favourites is Ian McKay, who did Death Trap Dungeon, City of Theives, Isle of the Lizard King, and Forest of Doom.
OneMetal Has the advent of eBooks had an influence on Fighting Fantasy gamebooks?
Ian There is a Kindle version of Warlock of Firetop Mountain, but it is only out in America because Amazon will not unlock active content in Europe. I think this is because it accesses the central processor, so they would probably be obliged to invest in customer support, and I do not think they want to do this outside of the US just yet.
OneMetal Is this something you would like to explore in the future?
Ian It would be quite nice, but it will be available on the Kindle Fire quite soon. We are in fact just launching Blood of the Zombies on iOS and Android. Tinman Games have done a great job not just in importing the book over, but also in using the functionality of the iPhone, making it a much more relevant experience to the platform. So there are lots of unlocks as well as discoveries, and there is even a cheat-mode I put in, because I recognised that 99.99% of the book’s readers originally probably cheated with the “five-finger bookmark”. Which is fine by me of course, so in the App we allow you to peep around the corner and go back if you want. Plus there is lots of little unlocks and little Easter-eggs, such as artwork in there that you do not find in the book. I also wrote eighty gruesome death endings, so you can enjoy various ways of dying.
Blood of the Zombies was never written as a financial proposition, as it really was to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Fighting Fantasy. I knew the readers were likely to be forty year-olds rather than ten year-olds, having a nostalgic remembrance. I really enjoyed writing it, and using social media to tell people about it and to decide on the title, whether it should be Blood of the Zombies or Escape from Zombie Castle, so they went with this one. I also asked if anybody wanted to be a zombie in this, so I had eight people in there randomly, plus a couple of celebrities such as Charlie Higson (who wrote The Enemy series of books) and Tom Watson MP, who headed up the Leveson Inquiry, and who is also a big fan of Fighting Fantasy! It has been a lot of fun, and I’ve really enjoyed it.
OneMetal How long did Blood of the Zombies take to write?
Ian Fighting Fantasy used to take three months, but this has taken two years. Blood of the Zombies was written by just grabbing bits of time as and when, because I am doing so many other things. Not just making games, but also promoting the industry, and working with the government on skills and tax credits.
To read about Ian’s official recognition go to Part 3
To read about the future of gaming go to Part 4
Part 3: Recognition
OneMetal You have recently been awarded an OBE, and have written a report for the government on the UK games industry.
Ian That’s right, the Next Gen report. I was talking to the Culture Minister Ed Vaizey, explaining that there weren’t enough computer programmers for our industry, so he asked me and Alex Hope to write a review about that. We found that the problem wasn’t at university, but at school. ICT education was largely learning office skills – like Word, Power Point and Excel – so we were teaching our children how to use an application, but not how to create one. We are effectively teaching them to read, but not to write. So our number one recommendation was to have computer science included in the national curriculum as an essential discipline. It has been taken on board, and Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Education) announced earlier this year that the new curriculum for ICT is being drawn up now, and schools are allowed to subscribe to the ICT Computer Science curriculum today. So they will be reapplying the curriculum with Computer Science at its core. That could be transformation for the country; if we can get people creating technology, rather than just using.
OneMetal What do you think of the Raspberry Pi?
Ian The Raspberry Pi is a fantastic initiative, rather like the BBC Micro in the eighties when children and adults were programming back then. All of that was lost over time as computers and networks were locked down. So now here is another affordable computer, and for £22 you’ve got the functionality of 256MB, with a Linux operating system, that plays video like an Iphone 4, and will have embedded software in the next iteration, so rather than seeing a blank screen they will be able to boot up some software and start programming. This is fantastic news, and another recommendation for giving one to every child in the country.
To read about Fighting Fantasy go to Part 2
To read about the future, go to Part 4.
Part 4: The Future
OneMetal Is fantasy becoming more mainstream?
Ian I think it has always been popular, from fairy-tales back in the middle-ages to Tolkien last century. The more recent success of Lord of the Rings at the cinema, as well as more contemporary fantasy like Harry Potty shows that people still like the idea of fantasy worlds, magic and mythical creatures. It is very exciting.
OneMetal What is your favourite game?
Ian That is like asking who my favourite child was! [laughs] It depends a lot on how much time I have, whether I want a big or a small game, so I have quite a few games that I like a lot. One of them is Warlords, a classic war-game. I have over a thousand games at home to choose from, and I have been running a games night every two weeks since 1986, where I keep a record of all the games played. Steve Jackson is in it, along with a couple of other guys, and it is a kind of tongue-in-cheek gentleman’s club, as it were. But we do have some favourites like Puerto Rico and Alhambra, as well as some of the old Games Workshop games.
OneMetal What do you foresee for the future, both personally and for the industry?
Ian I think the games industry in the UK is destined for great things. We are moving from box product to an online service; with new content and new studios, where small studios can reach a global audience with high speed broadband. So a second golden age of gaming is upon us. There are fantastic opportunities through the App store and game portals for content to reach a global audience on a huge scale, which wasn’t possible during the console era. Back then, you needed to be part of a long supply chain, with huge investments, working on dedicated consoles. Now there are opportunities for people to express themselves with original content, to try – and fail – then do it again and again, so hopefully there’ll be more Angry Birds coming out of the UK as well as other parts of the world.
OneMetal And personally?
Ian I am never going to give up making games. Gaming is my life, as I do not see the difference between work and leisure in the games industry – it is all one and the same for me. Whether I am involved in making or playing games, I will be very happy.
OneMetal Ian Livingstone, thank you.