Two of gaming’s most influential figures celebrate Fighting Fantasy and their involvement in everything from Warhammer to Tomb Raider.
If you’ve ever played a tabletop or video game or in the last 40 years then you’ve almost certainly come across the work of Ian Livingstone and/or Steve Jackson. However, you might not necessarily have realised it, since even though Livingstone is a knight of the realm neither of them are anywhere near as famous as they should be.
The interview below is ostensibly to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Fighting Fantasy game books, with both Livingstone and Jackson releasing a new book each to celebrate, but that’s only one iconic franchise amongst many that they’ve been involved with.
Not only were the pair the first to import Dungeons & Dungeons to Europe, but they also founded Warhammer creator Games Workshop and oversaw the whole of the Fighting Fantasy franchise. They’ve had an enormous influence on the analogue gaming world but also video games as well, with key roles at Tomb Raider publisher Eidos and Fable creator Lionhead Studios.
The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was the first Fighting Fantasy book to be published, in August 1982, and 40 years and 20 million sales later, Livingstone is returning to the series with the new book Shadow of the Giants, and Jackson with Secrets of Salamonis.
For those unfamiliar with the books, they are interactive adventures where you choose the direction of the story by picking different options and turning to the indicated section of the book to see what happens next. On top of that though the books have their own role-playing system, with stats and dice rolls to determine your success in combat.
Both new books will be released on September 1 for £6.99 each and if you want to meet the authors themselves, they’ll be at Fighting Fantasy Fest 4 on Saturday, September 3, which is due to take place at The University of West London, Ealing.
GC: It must be extremely gratifying to find, at this stage in your careers, that almost everything you’ve ever been involved with is currently experiencing an upsurge in popularity. Not just Fighting Fantasy, but Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer, and video games in general.
IL: Extremely gratifying. I guess it’s partly down to the fact that those who enjoyed our content and games and books in the 80s have now got their own children and are kind of passing the baton in many ways, but at the same time there’s been a revival in analogue entertainment globally. We’ve seen the rise of popularity in physical books and vinyl… So I think there’s been a bit of a physical resurgence and our particular realm of fantasy has never gone away, I don’t think. It’s moved from analogue to digital and back again, and now they coexist together quite happily.
So video games continue to rise – a $200 billion year industry – at the same time Game Workshop continues to grow. It’s now worth £3 billion on the London Stock Exchange. Fighting Fantasy has had a huge resurgence, I’m delighted to say, hence the 40th anniversary and Steve and I writing new books. I think people just enjoy playing and analogue shouldn’t dominate digital and digital will never dominate. They happily coexist, I believe.
SJ: One thing that’s happened a lot – it’s been quite evident over the years – is from 1975, when we started off, there was very little going down in the way of games as hobbies. Wargaming, maybe, but chess, bridge, that kind of thing was all there really was. And I like to think that we were instrumental in moving things on. Of course, the big mover was Dungeons & Dragons, which will probably crop up a few times in this interview. That really was a groundbreaker.
GC: I don’t know whether to begin or end with this question but looking at your list of achievements, and the enormous impact you’ve had on the UK and worldwide gaming market, do you feel that sometimes your personal contributions are underappreciated? Personally, I feel you should be a lot more famous than you are, up there with Miyamoto and the industry’s most celebrated.
IL: I mean, that’s possibly true, but I think it’s also true of the whole games industry in general.
GC: Yes, definitely.
IL: You might know Miyamoto but you ask any member of the general public to name anybody in the games industry, they will struggle to do it. ‘Cause what we lack is celebrity. So there’s film stars, rock stars, television stars, stars of theatre, and that celebrity casts names and people into the general public’s mind’s eye. And the games industry just never has that. Our celebrities have usually been virtual, whether it’s Lara Craft or Zagor the warlock of Firetop Mountain [laughs]; the products of our creativity but not the people behind it.
GC: Does that bother you? I’m sure you don’t want to appear arrogant but as you imply the games industry needs figureheads and I wonder whether it’s the lack of them that meant it was a longer road to mainstream acceptance than many imagined.
IL: It’s partially that and I think people have never appreciated the value of games, the power of play, effectively as a learning tool. I always say that games are a contextual hub for learning. For Fighting Fantasy game books there was an eight page warning guide published by the Evangelical Alliance saying that ’cause you’re interacting with ghouls and demons you’re bound to get possessed by the devil.
A worried housewife phoned into the local radio station, saying that having read one of our books her child levitated. The local vicar threated to chain himself to the gates of Penguin until they were banned. There were petitions…
IL: And yet at the same time, teachers and parents were beginning to understand that they were actually raising literacy levels, because having choice was very empowering and there was critical thinking involved, and creative writing, and it encouraged a lot of children to want to do more on the creative side. Rather than just consume our books they wanted to create their own books, then move into the creative industries, move into the games industry.
So I think Fighting Fantasy has an awful lot of positive impact on not just the games world but on creativity and creative industries in general. And if you think about video games and park your prejudice against one or two titles that children shouldn’t be playing anyway, look what happens. You can’t get through a game without problem solving. You learn intuitively, you’re not punished for making a mistake.
Games like Minecraft, digital Lego, building these marvellous, 3D architectural world, sharing them with their friends; a child can learn in context that by applying the heat of a furnace to silica sand they can create glass. So it’s learning by doing, albeit digital, and they won’t forget that.
And games like, say, Roller Coaster Tycoon, it’s effectively a management simulation, understanding the physics of building the rides, the staffing levels required to run them, and the pricing policy to make it an effective theme park. These are all life skills, in a kind of multidisciplinary way, which are never ever talked about because those who’ve never played a game tend to criticise them.
Play has always been seen as trivial, yet when we arrive in this world we learn through play. That’s a bit of my hobby horse, that the power of play is ignored.
GC: No, definitely. I think if they’re going to be positive about games they’ll sort of begrudgingly say that someone has to learn programming to make video games, but that’s about it. But, as you say, there’s also the social element, the pleasure and benefit of communicating and interacting with others as you play, which I think is something people are rediscovering with board games in particular.
IL: Well, that was the appeal of Fighting Fantasy game books. Books are usually a linear, passive experience yet our books were the first to be, effectively, empowering children to make choice. So it was a branching narrative with a game system attached and that choice is very powerful. And so you’re moving from passive experience to interactive experience and that also had a huge impact on their imaginations, ‘cause of the vivid and detailed illustrations we had in the books.
And so they opened a whole new world of, ‘I can do this! This is my adventure. This is a personal experience, albeit it’s in a book.’ And they would always talk about their experiences in the first person. And so that agency was very powerful, at the time, when reading a book.
SJ: The thing about Fighting Fantasy that was so groundbreaking is that it was halfway in-between the really simple adventure game books, which had no game system or anything, and Dungeons & Dragons, which you needed a degree to be able to understand the rules, to start off with. So Fighting Fantasy came in-between, and just seems to have been pitched at the right level. I mean, we didn’t know at the time, that it was gonna work that well, we were just writing our own adventures.
GC: What was the original pitch? Because I think the concept of game books already existed, as you say in a simplified form, but it sounds like you were very influenced by Dungeons & Dragons?
IL: Well, we hadn’t actually seen anybody else’s branching narrative books at all. They were only in America then. But we’d been playing D&D for the last seven years and we used to run games days at Games Workshop, and we invited other companies to have a stand there – one of which was Penguin Books. Geraldine Cooke, who was the editor at Penguin Books, was fascinated by three or four thousand people avidly playing D&D and she asked Steve and I whether we’d be interested in writing a book about the hobby and we suggested that rather than writing a book about the hobby why don’t we write a book that allows you to experience the hobby? And she said, great idea!
And so we suddenly burdened ourselves with our own challenge. So we thought, wouldn’t it be great to have a stripped down version of D&D, with the book replacing the dungeon master and giving simple choices. But make sure we had a little game system in there to have the dice role to make the challenges to the reader.
And that was a concept originally called the Magic Quest, but it took Penguin over a year to actually say yes to it. And that’s down to Geraldine Cooke’s determination, because the management laughed so hard they apparently banged their head on the table at the idea of an interactive book.
GC: [laughs] So if we go back to the mid-seventies, how did you two start out? I understand from Wikipedia you were originally making board games but what did that mean back then? Was that just chess and Go and so on? Was there a board game scene back then, as we’d recognise it now?
IL: Well, there was the traditional family games put out by Waddingtons, like Monopoly, Cluedo, Buccaneer, Formula 1 and the like but they were still kind of luck oriented. But there were also some American wargames published by Avalon Hill and SPI – Simulations Publications, Inc. – which we’d heard about. And you were able to get copies… where did we get them from, Steve? Is it General Trading Company in London you used to import them?
SJ: Yeah, but I bought a whole load. I went on a holiday for a few months in the States, after I graduated, and came across places… Avalon Hill games, which are now considered the original board wargame maker. I sent the whole load of them back to the UK and about three months later they finally arrived and Ian and I were just besotted with these games, even though we probably didn’t finish some of them. Baseball Strategy was a good one, we played a lot of that, and the rest were mainly wargames. That’s how it started off with us.
IJ: There was a game called Diplomacy in the sixties which was very instrumental in building the strategy game market. It was a game of negotiation, a power politics game where you did deals with people and then backstab them and set up alliances. There was a big postal game scene around Diplomacy in the late sixties and early seventies.
SJ: Actually, that was very significant, wasn’t it? Because you were doing some artwork for Don Turnbull who produced a Diplomacy fanzine, and you were doing artwork for the covers and when Don Turnbull gave up on doing it he sent round a list of all the subscribers to his magazine. And one of the people that was on the subscription list was Gary Gygax [the creator of Dungeons & Dragons]. And that’s a whole another story!
GC: So I’m gathering that Dungeons & Dragons was the big eureka moment for you both?
IL: It was for us. There were three of us, three school friends, Steve, myself, and John Peake. We’d come down from the North and were sharing a flat in Shepherd’s Bush in the early seventies, ’73 onwards. And we had pretty boring jobs and stayed in and played board games a lot of the time and always talked about wouldn’t it be great to make our hobby into a business. And Steve was also writing articles for Games & Puzzles magazine at the time. He managed to secure that kind of dream job on the side.
And that kind of emboldened us, so we put out a newsletter called Owl and Weasel… this was in February 1975. At the same time we were making small… John was a civil engineer but he was also a craftsman, so he was hand-making Go boards, backgammon boards, warri boards, and we’d sell them to a few…
SJ: In his flat!
IL: Yeah, in our flat. And we’d sell them and do a bit of admin. And slowly we built up the circulation of Owl and Weasel and people would be looking for Games Workshop. ‘Cause we called the company Games Workshop because of John’s… his room was really just a pile of sawdust and wood chipping!
SJ: John wanted a girlfriend as well and he wasn’t really going to attract many girlfriends if his flat is covered in sawdust. [laughs]
IL: So we sent out Owl and Weasel, as Steve said, to everybody we knew in games, using Don Turnbull’s mailing list. I think we sent out 50 copies free to everybody we could think of. And one of them found its way onto the desk of Gary Gygax who wrote to us and said, ‘Love your little magazine. Here’s a game I’ve just invented, what do you think?’ And that was Dungeons & Dragons.
And Steve and I immediately became obsessed with it. I mean, it didn’t look very much: a white, plain box with three largely unintelligible rule books inside, but it opened up your mind and imagination like no game had ever done before. And I don’t think any game ever will… we became obsessed with it. John didn’t like it at all but we ordered six copies on the back of that.
We got an exclusive distribution agreement for the whole of Europe because Gygax was also operating out of his flat in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. So it was kind of like role-playing at being businessmen around a role-playing game. And that’s really how Games Workshop got started, as exclusive distributors for Dungeons & Dragons and TSR Hobbies, the company that made it.
So we kept selling it as a part-time, little mail order business and then Steve and I decided we’d go all in and go full time. So at that time, this was kind of mid-1976, we’d left John, who decided not to join us on this journey. He left the company and we went to the States to go to a games convention called Gen Con IX, to meet Gary Gygax and all the fledgling games companies.
SJ: We were the only UK people there. There were all these people with all these wonderful, different fantasy-based games and books and things. And everybody wanted to distribute in Europe and the only people that were likely to do deals was one person, apart from the two of us. So we had rich pickings, we were very lucky.
IL: [laughs] We came back to the UK, had nowhere to live and nowhere to operate out of. So the stock was sent back to a girlfriend’s flat and we ended up finding a small office at the back of an estate agents. That cost about £10 a week, it was a tiny office where one person had to leave to let another person in. We had to live in Steve’s van for three months.
SJ: We used to park the van outside the local squash club so that we could wake up in the morning, go and have a game of squash, shower, shave, and then get out to work, walk across the road and get to the office. [laughs]
IL: So this went on until ’78, when we opened our first shop in Hammersmith. And suddenly we had a business where we advertised, we moved, we stopped publishing Owl and Weasel and changed it to White Dwarf – which was in June ’77. And then through White Dwarf we advertised the opening of our first shop and we were amazed, and very gratified, to find a huge queue outside on the 1st of April, 1978.
GC: So presumably they were all there because they’d been reading the magazines?
SJ: We’d done some special offer, like you could get six copies of Dungeons & Dragons for a pound. And when we got there on a Saturday morning and the queue was right round the block.
IL: But they’d come from far and wide and then a year later we had this games day and that’s where we met Geraldine Cooke, and that’s what eventually led, a couple years later, to the publication of Warlock of Firetop Mountain.
GC: So where did Warhammer come into all this? Because I don’t think either of you were directly involved in its creations, where you? Even though Games Workshop was your company.
IL: No, what happened was we had this three year exclusive distribution agreement with Gygax at the end of which, in ’79, they wanted to merge Games Workshop with his company, TSR.
SJ: Ah, it would’ve been a different world, wouldn’t it?
IL: As independently minded young Brits we said no to that merger offer. So whilst we remained the largest distributors of Dungeon & Dragons in Europe we were no longer the exclusive distributor.
SJ: There was a big mistake that they made at the time, where what they should have done is cut us off and deal direct from Cambridge to the shops. But based on the experience of America, where the distances are huge, they insisted on going through regional distributors, which included us. So we never really lost the exclusive on Dungeons & Dragons, ’cause everybody bought it from us anyway.
IL: So we set about putting out a range of board games, we started publishing games under licence, like RuneQuest and Traveller… we did pretty well with games like Talisman but we were missing that iconic game to replace Dungeons & Dragons.
Meanwhile, we started, in ’78, Citadel Miniatures up in Nottingham, which was run by Bryan Ansell, and Bryan wanted to sell more miniatures. Role-playing games are largely just one or two miniatures, ’cause it was a very personal thing, and he wanted to do some tabletop battles, which would therefore require people to buy a lot of miniatures.
So the idea of a rule-set originated at Citadel, it was originally Bryan’s idea. So he brought in Richard Halliwell and Rick Priestley to actually write the rules So Warhammer came out – The Mass Combat Fantasy Role-Playing Game as it was subtitled – in ’83 and we were still running the whole company then, we continued to run it until 1986 and then we became non-exec directors and then left in 1991.
GC: It’s interesting that when you talked about being the only Brits at Gen Con, Warhammer in particular is very clearly British. It’s very distinctive.
SJ: There’s a sense of humour in there.
GC: Yeah, it’s the dark humour, the fact there are no straightlaced heroes, and 40K in particular was clearly a satire, to some degree, of 80s Britain.
IL: Warhammer became the thing it is with the third iteration, with Warhammer 40K. I think that the imagery from the miniatures is very powerful, everybody wants to play the bad guys and that’s always been a kind of a British thing, I think. [laughs] But Steve and I really can’t claim any ownership of Warhammer, in the creative sense, other than to be totally supportive of it happening and giving it as much resource as possible.
SJ: We greenlighted some of the cash.
GC: Well, I think that’s plenty of influence. It’s also interesting to me that at this point you were essentially business execs, but you were also sitting there writing Fighting Fantasy books.
IL: There was an overlap of four years, where we were running Games Workshop during the day, which we did from ’75 to ’86, which was quite a task in itself. [laughs] But from ’82 onwards – well, actually ’81, when we started writing it – to ’86, we did five years of running Games Workshop during the day, coming home to our respective homes and writing Fighting Fantasy game books till, like, two o’clock in the morning, because they were so successful in the early eighties that Penguin wanted more and more and more.
We didn’t wanna say no, but obviously that takes a toll on people. So that’s why we decided to hire, to hand over the reins of running the day-to-day bits of the Workshop to one of our internal staff, and that person we chose was Bryan Ansell, who was running Citadel Miniatures so successfully and, of course, had a track record with getting Warhammer off the ground. So that was an easy choice for us to do that. So we carried on writing Fighting Fantasy game books at the same time, still being non-exec directors of Games Workshop.
GC: I think it’s great that you were already successful businessmen at that point but your passion was still designing games.
IL: We were creative entrepreneurs. We’re not kind of hard for business entrepreneurs. We understand and know business, but…
GC: When I first became aware of you at Eidos, it never occurred to me you were the same person that wrote the Fighting Fantasy books. I was shocked when you turned out to be the same guy.
IL: There was another Steve Jackson as well!
GC: Oh yeah, didn’t you have him write some of the books as well?
IL: Yeah. He wrote three of them, that was very confusing.
GC: But even at the point in your careers, as you moved away from Games Workshop, you’d already had a huge influence on gaming and many people working today. Personally speaking, Warlock of Firetop Mountain was the first book I ever bought with my own money. But I know, for example, the creator of Dark Souls was very influenced by Steve’s Sorcery! series.
SJ: Yeah, apparently. Sorcery! was a separate thing because Geraldine Cooke, who originally championed Fighting Fantasy at Puffin, she lost it from Penguin to Puffin and I said I’d do a more adult version of Fighting Fantasy to compensate, and did, and was it a good idea? Well, it was an awful lot of work. I’ll tell you that, with all the magic spells and things. I chose to do it over four volumes as well.
GC: I spoke to Miyazaki about it in an interview and he admitted that he cheated when playing, which is ironic giving the difficulty of his games.
IL: I’m sure you were no angel as well! I haven’t met anyone yet who hasn’t cheated, the five finger bookmark was evident on many a public transport when we were traveling around in the eighties. [laughs]
Miyazaki-san, we met him a couple of years ago at that Golden Joysticks. He was a big fan but there were many fans in the games industry. Even Charlie Brooker said The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was instrumental in coming up with Bandersnatch.
GC: How big were the books in the US? They weren’t just a UK thing, were they?
IL: No, they sold 7 million copies in the UK. They also sold 3 million in Japan, 3 million in France. And they’ve sold over 20 million copies globally and we’re delighted they’re still in print today and hence the 40 anniversary. We’re very excited!
GC: That’s a good segue! So, it’s obvious why you’re writing these new books now, but do they involve ideas that have been percolating in your mind for the last few decades? Are they maybe ideas you put on the back burner a while back?
IL: Well, I haven’t stopped writing since… I haven’t written as many in recent years as I did in the early years, but I’ve been putting one out every two years recently and I keep a book where I just jot down ideas. Or if I go to some place and see something, like in a forest or a cliff or in a cave that gives me an idea, I’ll jot it down.
So there’s a book of ideas, which then you think, ‘Oh, how can I put this into one adventure that’s challenging and hasn’t been done before?’ And for my book, this time, I realised we had never really done anything much with giants. So I thought, now’s the time for giants to enter the world of Fighting Fantasy. [laughs]
GC: What about you, Steve?
SJ: Here’s the thing, I haven’t written a Fighting Fantasy book for, I dunno, it must be 35 years. It all came down at the time to one of Ian’s favourite sayings, which is that there are only so many things you can do down a dungeon.
SJ: But anyway, the things that you can do have gone into this new book and we’ll see, we’ll see whether I’ve still got it or not. But I’ll tell you what, it was much more difficult doing this one than doing the earlier ones.
GC: If you got someone that was a video game designer 35 years ago and suddenly made them make a new game, I think they’d be totally lost in the modern world, but it’s interesting that you can just slip back into writing the books again. Has anything changed between how you made them then and now? Apart from technology, fantasy media in general is a lot more mainstream nowadays.
IL: Well, people think you use software, which I don’t, or some sort of branching software, like Twine or… I don’t. I still write manually, I have 400 numbers, which I cross off as I go along. I make a manual map, like a flow chart. So you keep a record of all the choices and consequences of those choices. And so you can stay on track and make a note of everything that happens at each kind of note. So other than a computer replacing the pen and ink, that I used to use in the old days, it’s exactly the same approach to writing as I had.
SJ: I’ve never noticed but when I was talking about doing this book, people were saying, ‘Oh, it’s got that Steve Jackson’s style about it.’ I have no idea what Steve Jackson’s style is. What do I do? Is it longer than normal? I don’t know what it was. Well, let’s hope it was popular, so I hope it comes through in this one.
GC: I imagine they were referring to the writing or the complexity of the puzzles perhaps?
IL: Hard is the word. [laughs]
GC: [laughs] So now you’ve both done these anniversary books do you intend to make more in the future?
IL: Well, you always think it’s gonna be the last one but as soon as you’ve handed it in, you think, ‘Oh, I’ve just got an idea.’ And hopefully that flame will never go out. This is a passion project, it’s very close to our hearts. It’s something that we created 40 years ago and it survived the test of time. Rather like James Bond has survived the test of time in cinema, so we find that very gratifying.
We find meeting people who suddenly revert to childhood when they talk about them and say what a powerful impact they had on them at the time and continues to have a powerful impact on them. It’s quite a humbling meeting fans from all those years ago, who are now in their 40s and 50s, who still have these tremendous memories of what it did to them as children and that certainly motivates me to want to keep going.
SJ: Yeah, I agree. Doing this, I got a wodge of paper, with ideas and puzzles and things like that that I didn’t use with this one. So it’d be nice to do one more! [pretends to groan] Oh, no… It’s your whole life for three months.
GC: So when exactly did you both get involved in video games? Ian, my understanding is that your role at Eidos was more of a managerial one [starting as Product Acquisition Director and ending up as Life President] but did you also get involved in the creative side as well?
IL: I can’t program and obviously video games is a team effort, so all I can contribute is to gameplay and titles that are put into production. So from the experience of Games Workshop, with the success of Warhammer and Fighting Fantasy, I’ve always been very much focused on intellectual property and ownership thereof. And so that’s what we implemented at Eidos.
So all the games, rather than taking a licence based on a film or a sport, the games were mainly our own original IP. So Tomb Raider, Hitman, Deus Ex, Just Cause, Championship Manager, they were all intellectual property that was owned by Eidos.
So that was my mantra, to build our own titles, as it were, and have total independence and I continued to do that after leaving Eidos, when it was acquired by a Square. And then I became a chairman of Sumo Group and was trying to do the same there. And it was acquired this year by Tencent.
GC: So did you have any design influence on Tomb Raider, for example?
IL: Obviously not from the original design, that was created by Toby Gard at Core Design in Derby. But we acquired the company before Tomb Raider was published, so my input was really sitting on the greenlight committee, reviewing concepts, making suggestions, talking about markets and the appeal of the game, and trying to kind of leverage, you know, decades of experience in the games industry to try and help people who are less experienced. So from adjusting difficulty levels to suggesting ideas for where the adventure should go, the kind of puzzles… So kind of adding value, I’d say, rather than creating the original concepts.
SJ: At the time I was writing for The Daily Telegraph, I had a games page, with puzzles and game features, it was a great job actually, because I could do anything I wanted. But then after doing it for two and a half years, I decided it was time to get back into development, into game design. And that’s where the Lionhead connection came through.
GC: I didn’t know anything about your role at Lionhead until I started researching this interview, so I’m going to assume most people have no idea either.
SJ: Yeah, well Lionhead was quite an experience, Peter Molyneux, who was the person who set up Lionhead, really, it was his baby. He had just sold Bullfrog for we don’t know how much, and he wanted to start a new venture and he had an idea for it, which was gonna be Black & White. And three and a half years later, the game came out. It was supposed to be a two year project.
GC: So what was your role at Lionhead? What were you actually doing?
SJ: Well, I guess the same sort of role as I had at Games Workshop, which was more on the design side, but also the administration side as well. So I was the business bod.
GC: It’s a fascinating mixture, for both of you, of sort of ultra nerdy game designers and traditional businessmen. I can’t think of anyone else that went back and forth between the two states so many times.
IL: We had to learn business, I wouldn’t say we were the best businessmen.
GC: You did all right.
IL: [laughs] We built successful businesses, but you’re often reliant on people to do the stuff you can’t do or shouldn’t be doing. But as long as you control the content you have to surround yourself with enablers. But what we failed to do at Workshop was raise finance. If we were better organised at the time we might have been able to at least get a bank loan. We go into the bank manager’s office and enthuse about Dungeons & Dragons, ‘It’s a role-playing game and you kill monsters and find treasure and go on these fantastic journeys of the mind’ and he looks at you rather like a dog watching television.
He had no understanding at all of what we were talking about, but in his defence we were hardly investor-ready. It’s not as if I would come with an investor deck and profit and loss statements, and management accounts. We would just assume that our natural enthusiasm and D&D would be enough to lend us 10 grand or something.
SJ: Fighting Fantasy was doing very well and Richard Branson decided that he wanted a piece of us. He’d just opened up a game shop on Oxford Street, but he had nobody to run it and he made us an offer. I shouldn’t say what the offer is, but we didn’t take it in the end. We stayed independent and a good thing we did.
GC: We touched on it earlier but, Ian, I must ask how you feel about Square Enix selling off basically everything to do with Eidos, for what seems like an insultingly small amount of money.
IL: Yeah. Clearly Eidos-Montréal, which we set up, and Crystal Dynamics that we bought, had been really great studios, but I don’t want to get into too much about the deal, but I think they paid $300 million for it all, which on the surface doesn’t seem a lot to buy the IP, let alone the studios as well.
I think there’s a big working capital hole for the next three or four years, though, before the next product comes out. I think the Avengers didn’t do as well as they’d hoped. And I think Guardians Of The Galaxy had reviewed well but, again, didn’t generate the revenue they were expecting. And I think they wanted to make a statement on the Tokyo market, which would require them to get some cash in. I mean, I’m not 100% certain.
Other interested parties for their studios couldn’t meet the deadline ’cause they wanted to do it for a reporting date on the Tokyo Stock Market. Or they were either busy incorporating other acquisitions into their organisation. So EA were onboarding Codies, Take-Two were onboarding Zynga. So that left, really, Embracer…
SJ: It’s a game in itself. Isn’t it? The game of high finance.
GC: I think the rumour is they sold it all off in order to make themselves a more desirable acquisition for Sony. But who knows.
IL: It left Embracer a clear run to buy it, but it’s not quite as cheap as you think, because there’s this working capital hole that has to be covered.
GC: I understand that both studios are expensive to run, but it still seems to grossly undervalue two really good studios and all that great IP.
IL: Yeah. But you know, the market’s the market. Everything had come off a bit, the other big players were busy. Chinese companies are not able to buy American corporations at the moment, ‘cause of CFIUS – the agency that looks at Chinese investments in American corporations. So that reduced the potential buyers as well.
GC: You mentioned Codemasters a moment ago, but they were basically the last big independent British developer. Despite the UK’s great influence on gaming, we seem very underrepresented in the market today. And even when there is a big studio, like Rockstar North, it’s not obvious from the games that they are British.
IL: It’s a question of overdelivering on content and being underserved by capital. That’s been an eternal problem for the UK games industry. All the studios you may mention, they’re all foreign owned. So all the big IPs, from Grand Theft Auto to Tomb Raider to Football Manager, etc., etc. are foreign owned. Now, the UK government might think, ‘Well, that’s a good thing, ’cause it brings inward investments, and secures jobs’ because these studios are growing with foreign companies investing in them.
But my point is that the bottom line is going overseas. So all the profit from the IPs is going to foreign companies. So I think the games industry in general has always been underrepresented as a great success story. I mean, Grand Theft Auto 5 launched in 2013, generated over a billion dollars in three days of sales – that’s bigger than any entertainment franchise in any medium. One of the companies I was involved with, Playdemic, 80 people in Winslow created a game called Golf Clash, generating 200 million topline revenue and hundred million EBIT.
There’s no other industry that I know where 80 people can generate that kind of revenue. And yet nobody’s even heard about it. They couldn’t get enough working capital into the company, sold to Warner Bros. and Warner Bros. sold it onto EA for $1.3 billion last year.
So we are so good at creating content, but we’re not very good at holding onto it, because we just don’t quite get the capital in to help scale those businesses so they get greater value of the IP ownership over time. It’s always been that a lot have been sold too soon, unfortunately. The only good thing is that as a creative nation we can keep on creating new content and new studios. You want to scale and become a global publisher, it’s gonna require a huge amount of UK capital to build up UK companies.
GC: Well, that’s it. The talent is always there, but do you feel, particularly with the consolidation that’s going on at the moment, that the chance has been missed for there ever being a big, independent British publisher or developer again?
IL: You could have said that about Sweden, couldn’t you? Then Embracer came along, they’ve listed, they did a lot of acquisitions, and they got a lot of backing and public money to be able to make more acquisitions, and now they’re a huge corporation. So there’s no reason why that can’t happen here. We’re certainly great at making games, we just have to have a bit more faith in the people who make them. And there’s no reason why there can’t be another huge global publisher in the UK.
GC: I’m guessing these are the sort of things that you say in your governmental role, when speaking to MPs and whoever [Livingstone was appointed Skills Champion by the government in 2010].
IL: I continue to fight the corner for the games industry, with the government and DCMS [Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport]. I also had some discussions with Number 10 recently, about this very same thing. About if you think about the digital economy and the post Covid world, the video games industry ticks all the right boxes. It’s high-tech, high skills, green, it’s regional, it doesn’t rely on London. It’s an instant export story, on day one 95% of the sales go overseas, through whatever digital platform you care to release it; it’s intellectual property creating. We are creating value over time.
There’s an awful lot to like about it and you’re learning skills that are transferable. If you can learn to code, you can move into fighting cybercrime or, god forbid, building databases for banks. During the pandemic no one was furloughed, because the games are created digitally, consumed digitally, it was businesses as usual. In fact, the games industry grew significantly during the pandemic. So it is a great British success story. It’s the forefront of the creative industries and yet massively underrepresented in terms of perception.
GC: Yes, absolutely.
IL: And not to forget the cultural, social, and economic impacts on the world from games. You know, it speaks to Generation Z. Everything they do is through their digital devices, the way they share, consume, and operate is interactive. Guess what? They prefer video games, because it speaks to them as people, more than linear entertainment.
GC: In terms of the tabletop industry though, where do you see that going from here? It’s clearly going through a golden era at the moment, but is that sustainable?
SJ: Well, generally games always had bit of a nerdy reputation, including board games and wargames. And the thing that’s changed about that is that these are all now legitimate hobbies and interests. And I think that makes a big difference. And I’ve noticed as well, over the years, the number of women who enjoy playing games has increased. It is all spreading.
IL: Ironically, the internet has helped board games, because in the old days if you had a board game, you’d end up making 5,000 copies, of which 4,900 copies would stay in your garage. ‘Cause there’s no kind of no distribution channel. But today, with Kickstarter crowdfunding, it’s effectively pre-marketing, it’s the market telling you whether your game is viable or not. And you can pre-sell that print run and sell it to a global market.
Also, you can learn how to play games and get reviews online from BoardGameGeek, for example, and then you can play games online, on board game platforms like Board Game Arena. So there’s loads of digital services now, that allow the board games market to flourish. And it’s no surprise, you know, last time I went to Essen [for the Internationale Spieltage SPIEL – the board game equivalent of E3] a couple years ago there was nearly 2,000 new board games released. And Asmodee was recently sold to Embracer for over $2 billion.
GC: A lot of the current popularity is clearly down to enjoying the tactility of it all though, and the chance for a non-virtual social activity. That, to me, is very interesting as well.
IL: Exactly, that’s where it all started, this love of physical products and board games now is incredible. The components now, obviously a lot of them are made in China, but the beautiful components and plastic pieces and wooden pieces and wonderful artworks… it’s very satisfying to play a board game and, as you can see, I’m sitting in a room with 1,500 board games.
GC: I’ve been trying to make out their names all interview, but the resolution isn’t quite good enough. That one’s definitely Axis & Allies though!
IL: [laughs] If some people like to surround themselves with books, Steve and I like to surround ourselves with board games.
GC: Well, I could talk about any one of these subjects for hours but I think we better wrap things up now.
SJ: I think, just to sum it up, we’ve been very lucky in the fact that we’ve been able to turn our hobby into a business and quite a significant sized businesses. And not many people get to do that. We were in the right place at the right time, but we made the right decisions as well.
GC: It’s not for me to say, but it seems to me that you’ve led a very good life and you must have had a lot of fun.
SJ: No complaints! [laughs]
GC: And you’ve had a very positive influence on millions of people.
IL: For us, work and play has been the same. So it’s been, you know, you could say that living in Steve’s van for three months was hardship but we were having a laugh. It was funny. We’d’ve much rather do that than have some boring job where you don’t have any sort of fulfilment.
SJ: What do you think you might have been? If it hadn’t been for games and Games Workshop and Fighting Fantasy, what would you be doing now?
IL: Well, I was doing working for an oil company, doing marketing and economics, and that didn’t really satisfy my soul, but making games really does.
GC: Nice. Oh, and I just realised I didn’t ask whether I should call you Sir at the start. I assume, at this point, that you don’t mind.
IL: No, no, I prefer Ian. And actually, that’s a perfect example. I’m the only person in the games industry that’s had that accolade thus far, and that’s only this year, and you think about other creative industries and entertainment industries, there’s loads of them. And that’s another mark of the way that the industry has not been recognised, there should be more knighthoods, there should be more damehoods. The time is well overdue.
GC: Do you think that’s because politicians worry too much about the Blue Rinse Brigade, that they’ll be accused of encouraging devil worship and levitation and whatnot. So they just decide that, politically, it’s not worth the risk supporting the games industry publicly.
IL: Yeah, they’ve always been scared of sensationalist headlines about games polluting children’s minds. But I think… the world health organisation have even changed their stance, recognising during the pandemic how great games were for children and young adults to meet online, with their avatars, in a safe space in some digital world.
So they just played together and hung out together. And this kind of metaverse world has helped a lot of children through dark times, of having been locked in their homes during the pandemic. And if you think about, I was talking earlier about games as a powerful learning tool, I think people finally are beginning to understand that games are actually a good thing.
And if you’re still not convinced think, when you’re flying off to your next holiday, how your pilot learnt to fly, would you prefer that they learnt from a book or using simulation software, which is effectively a game without the scoring. You know, games are a great enabler of skills in my mind.
GC: I always like to think, that if I’m ever asked to take over an aeroplane I could do it. Thanks to playing Project Stealth Fighter as a kid.
GC: Well, thank you both very much. That was a long interview, but it was a real pleasure for me.
IL: Not at all, it was good.
SJ: Thank you, good to see you.
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