Ian Livinginstone is best known for creating Games Workshop in the mid-Seventies with partner Steve Jackson. The pair then found success with the choose youur own adventure books Fighting Fantasy, before Ian moved into the games industry. Here he tells us about the success of the Fighting Fantasy line and his eventual move to videogames.
Your videogame career effectively began with a concept for a book called Magic Quest. How did this come about?
Steve Jackson and I got into role-playing games in the mid-Seventies when we started Games Workshop, and got hold of our first copy of Dungeons & Dragons.
We were captivated with D&D, which was the first fantasy role-playing game. Our imaginations ran wild and we became obsessive players. But we were also aware that D&D required a huge commitment in time and effort in order to enjoy it to the full – you needed a dungeon master, a group of four or five players to make it fun, and a time commitment each session of at least four or five hours if any progress was to be made.
We thought about ways that we could widen the appeal of role-playing without dumbing it down. The big ‘Eureka!’ moment came when we thought we should apply a simple role-playing system to a book. So we tinkered around with mechanics we thought would work in book format, and that evolved over time from this concept which was labelled ‘Magic Quest’, to the series now known as Fighting Fantasy.
How did you secure Penguin as the publisher for Magic Quest?
With Games Workshop, we used to organise these Games Day events, and at the 1980 Games Day, Geraldine Cooke, who was Penguin’s commissioning puzzle book editor, had a stand at the event to promote a book they’d recently published called Playing Politics.
Geraldine was bowled over by the enthusiasm of people playing D&D and other fantasy role-playing games at Games Day, so she asked, “Could you write a book about the role-playing hobby?” Steve and I thought about it, and we decided that well, if we’re writing a book about the hobby, why couldn’t we write a book that effectively is the hobby?
Over time this concept became your first book, The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain.
Yes, we continued to kick the project around for the best part of a year, but in the meantime Steve sent a copy of Magic Quest over to George Allen & Unwin, who were the publishers of Lord Of The Rings. Steve suggested to them that the books could be Gandalf adventures, but we got a very polite rejection letter.
That letter was actually a blessing in disguise. If we had gone with Allen & Unwin, we would not have owned the intellectual property of gamebooks based on Tolkien’s works. Eventually we got word back from Penguin saying, “Yes, let’s go ahead with your book”, so we started writing it. Magic Quest became Fighting Fantasy and our first book we called The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain, released just a year later in 1982. Fighting Fantasy belonged to us, and still does I’m very pleased to say.
Ian poses with John Peake and Steve Jackson.
Were you surprised at the success of The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain when it finally launched?
Given the marketing that Penguin’s children label Puffin gave to it, yes! Clearly there was no internet back in those days, no viral marketing, as it were. But there was word of mouth, and nothing was better than that.
So when Puffin launched the book, they didn’t do any marketing whatsoever, although we did write a couple of articles about it in White Dwarf, and used the Games Workshop fan base to tell people about The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain.
At first there were hardly any sales at all, but in a matter of a few weeks, pockets of enthusiasm were established for Warlock as schools discovered it. And pupils in one school told their friends about it in other schools. All of a sudden The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain was a playground craze.
How much of a practical impact did this have on the series?
It became a craze in the playground, and this craze then spread nationwide. Puffin finally figured out that they had a hit title on their hands, requiring them to order reprints, but they still weren’t convinced Fighting Fantasy wasn’t just going to be a five-minute wonder. I think they did about ten reprints in two months.
Every time they reprinted the book it was a very small print run, until finally they said, ‘I think we’ve got something here.’ Puffin then asked us to write two more books, and Steve and I obliged, deciding to write each of them separately so we could keep up with the demand. So then Steve wrote Citadel Of Chaos and I wrote Forest Of Doom.
The 50th Fighting Fantasy book, Return To Firetop Mountain, was released in 1992 and was billed as the final book in the Fighting Fantasy series. Why did you decide that Return To Firetop Mountain would be the last?
We actually didn’t decide ourselves. It was Penguin that decided it would be the last book. They decided that sales were beginning to tail off because people were now playing videogames. Fighting Fantasy had been around for ten years, and maybe it was time to call it a day. But thanks to our fantastic fans who kept on buying them in the face of this huge threat, Penguin continued to commission more books, until it finally ended in 1995.
The original Games Workshop. Now they are all over the UK.
Did Penguin’s order of ten more books surprise you, given, as you say, the rising popularity of videogames as entertainment?
Yes to a point. But they knew Fighting Fantasy still had a lot of fans. For me personally it was incredibly gratifying to know that Fighting Fantasy had struck a chord with so many people for such a long period of time. And when I meet people today in their late 30s or 40s and they ask, “Are you the Ian Livingstone who used to write those fantasy books with the green spine?” and I reply that I am, they’re like, “Oh, I used to love those as a kid,” and they get very excited, full of nostalgia. It’s brilliant to see a rise in the popularity of Fighting Fantasy again, a re-emergence of the genre of solo gamebooks. I think this is absolutely fantastic.
The Fighting Fantasy series garnered global notoriety until it ended in 1995. At what point did you decide you wanted to get into videogames as well?
Well, we stocked videogames in Games Workshop stores, before the decision was taken to sell only products that were based on Games Workshop-owned IP. We also licensed some of our Fighting Fantasy books as text adventures, published on the Commodore 64 and Spectrum.
Back in the day I had been the proud owner of an 8k Commodore PET, and then I went on to get an Amiga, so I was a keen player of computer games, and when Deathtrap Dungeon came out in 1984 it was a hugely successful book in the children’s market.
At the time a popular kid’s book would sell between 5,000-10,000 copies a year, but Deathtrap Dungeon sold over 400,000 copies in its first year of publication. This was noticed by the two co-founders of Domark Mark Strachan and Dominic Wheatley, who contacted me to ask if I would consider designing their first game, which was to be a text adventure with basic graphics called Eureka!
Eureka! was quite a fresh concept in that it was a text adventure linked to a whopping cash prize.
Mark and Dominic were two ex-advertising agency executives who I think had seen Kit Williams’ book Masquerade. Inspired by it, they thought about a launch product that involved offering a prize. So they decided to offer a £25,000 prize to the first person who solved Eureka! I agreed to take on the project and set about designing the concept and storyline. Mark and Dominic decided it would be programmed in Budapest for secrecy. At the time of the Cold War, that was an interesting choice. We went over to Budapest several times to meet the developers. It was a great adventure. Some of the clues to win were in the rules booklet, and some of them were actually in the game itself. The net result was that you would end up with a phone number which would give you access to an answering machine in a solicitor’s office. The first person to leave a message would win £25,000. I remember handing over the cheque on national television.
Over the next few years you were kept fairly busy with Domark, Games Workshop and Fighting Fantasy, so when did you decide to shift your attention entirely onto videogames?
Eureka! got me involved with computer games on the design side. I was invited to invest in Domark, and I did because I thought it would be a great opportunity to move my content into the world of technology.
This was 1984 and at the time I was still running Games Workshop and writing Fighting Fantasy with Steve, so I didn’t get involved in an operational way until after selling Games Workshop in 1991. After Domark published Eureka!, the company specialised in producing a range of licensed products such as F1, Trivial Pursuit, James Bond, Prince of Persia and its own ground-breaking Championship Manager, which was designed by the great football-mad Collyer brothers.
I joined the board of Domark in 1992 at a difficult time of transition when the 16-bit market was going into decline. But we survived that crisis and in 1995 Domark became one of the four companies that merged to create a new British publisher and developer: Eidos.
The original Fighting Fantasy adventure was re-released for its 25th anniversary.
You’ve also seen a lot of your Fighting Fantasy books adapted as text adventures. Were you interested in action-oriented adaptations as well?
In terms of someone taking one of our books and making it into, say, a platform game, we wouldn’t have allowed that unless it was a brilliantly innovative game that captured the essence of Fighting Fantasy.
Adding graphics, animation, sound, speech, et cetera, would add a lot to the experience. But if you wanted to play a Fighting Fantasy text adventure, then you might as well buy the book, because back then it was hard to carry around a computer in your pocket, as old computers weren’t exactly pocket-sized iPhones [laughs]. Today, I would really like to see a stunning visual action-adventure adaptation of a Fighting Fantasy book for the iPad or next-gen consoles.
Perhaps the most prolific Fighting Fantasy adaptation was the Eidos-developed Deathtrap Dungeon on PlayStation. Despite selling well, the game received a mixed critical reaction. What’s your take on the end product?
To put it mildly, that was an interesting experiment. The development team was young and inexperienced, and they ended up having to drop the RPG element of the Deathtrap Dungeon book and turn the game into a purely action game, which was a great shame for many reasons. Despite their best efforts, the game engine wasn’t great and neither were the graphics or the gameplay.
The team cut its teeth on Deathtrap which, in hindsight, I shouldn’t have allowed them to do. But nevertheless, it showed the strength of the IP as it sold a lot of copies. So again, I have to say thank you to the fans for buying the game, and I’m sorry it wasn’t as good as it should have been.