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Conversation with The Games Master: Ian Livingstone

Hari Kunzru

Ian Livingstone is less well known than Lara Croft, even though they share the same office. The head of Eidos PLC, the company that gave you Tomb Raider, can look back on a long history of gaming and game development. Livingstone was involved in games well before his success in the field of Computer Game development. He was the man who brought role playing games to this side of the Atlantic in the mid-seventies. With his old school friend Steve Jackson he founded the successful retailer Games Workshop, the magazine White Dwarf, and created the popular 'Fighting Fantasy' series of game books. But that was long after selling his share of Games Workshop in 1991, when he first turned his hand to digital gaming. SYNWORLD sends a probe down memory lane and talks to Ian Livingstone about the making of a games master...

"You enter a boardroom at the Wimbledon HQ of Eidos, one of Britian's largest computer games companies. In the centre is a large pine table, surrounded by comfortable chairs. Ian Livingstone, boss and gamer's hero, sits at one end. He looks preoccupied, as befits a busy, important, and presumably rich man. You sit opposite him and switch on a tape recorder..."

This could be the opening sequence of one of Ian Livingstone's best-selling 'fighting fantasy' book series, in which the reader role-played an adventure by deciding which page to turn to. Those books were published in collaboration with Steve Jackson, a friend whom Ian Livingstone met at grammar school in Manchester. However the seminal moment in the partnership which inspired a million rolls of the twenty sided dice, was when the pair shared a grotty flat in London's Shepherds Bush, sometime at the dawn of the 1970's. Since they spent most of their leisure hours playing strategy games like Diplomacy, founding a games company seemed an obvious move. They started a newsletter, 'Owl and Weasel', which they mailed out to everyone they knew in the (then very underground) world of hobby gaming. Somehow it got into the hands of one Gary Gygax, the American inventor of "Dungeons and Dragons" or "D&D", the game which players talked about in hushed voices, and no one else could see the point of. Soon Gygax got in contact with them, Livingstone remembers, "I had a marketing background, mailshot everyone in games with our newsletter 'Owl and Weasel', the precursor of 'White Dwarf'. One of the people who got hold of it was Gary Gygax in February 1975."

Gygax gave Ian and Steve a three year exclusive distribution deal: "We wrote back and said, we really like your game, can we order some copies. He said, alright then, how many do you want, so we went to the pub and we had fifty quid between us, pretty poor in those days, went back and ordered six copies, and on the strength of those six copies he sent us a 3 year European exclusive distribution agreement. So what we didn't know was that he was operating out of a flat in Lake Geneva Wisconsin. We were both role-playing the characters of businessmen, selling role playing game. The truth was we were both broke bums with about one pound fifty to our names."

"Games Workshop" as they'd just decided to call their company had no office, no staff, and was being run out of their flat, much to the chagrin of their landlord, who kept having to answer the payphone in the hall. "Because we'd called the company Games Workshop people thought it was a shop, and every morning you'd see people milling around outside our flat looking for the shop. We'd open up the window and call them up. Then we got kicked out by the landlord. So we put all the stock into my girlfriend's flat and went off to the States to go to a games convention called Gencon, to try to sign up these fledgling games companies doing role playing games. We came back to England with all these parcels arriving and no office. We managed to get a little office by the side of a squash club and my girlfriend at the time wasn't allowed to have guests staying during the week. Steve had a van so we lived in this bloody van parked outside the squash club."

Soon "Games Workshop" moved to the back room of an estate agents, before opening its first real shop in Hammersmith in 1977. Opening their own shop seemed to make sense in terms of marketing strategy: "People look back and say vertical integration. You make your own products, promote them through your own magazine, and sell them through your own shop. The truth was that other retailers wouldn't stock the game because they thought it was too weird, too culty, and the estate agent whose office we'd taken at the back wanted us out because we'd taken too much space - so we said find us a shop, you're a bloody estate agent. That's how the first one happened, in Hammersmith."

On the first morning of trading, a queue of 200 people formed outside. Ian turned to Steve and said "I think we've got something." Games Workshop mutated from cottage industry into business empire, as the role playing game phenomenon, and the associated craze for wargaming (not to mention the fledgling computer games market) swept teenage Britain. "Owl and Weasel" became "White Dwarf", the gamers magazine which still survives today. GW opened branches everywhere there were small boys and parents with chequebooks. And Ian Livingstone hit on the smart idea of combining adventure games with paperbacks, to come up with the 'fighting fantasy' book series, simple adventures which you could play by yourself, following numbered paragraphs, each leading to a different set of choices and possible outcomes. "In 1981 we came up with the fighting fantasy idea - why not fuse games and comics together to make a simple one player adventure. Warlock of Firetop Mountain came out in 1982. It was only after the eleventh reprint that the editor came and asked sheepishly for another book."

The Fighting Fantasy series have now sold 14 million copies in 21 languages worldwide, but for Ian Livingstone, the world of adventure was not enough. The man who called one of his early characters Goldhawk ("after the road", a Shepherds Bush landmark) sold his stake in GW in 1991, and after a stint ("just playing") in Spain pitched up in the world of computers in 1993. "In 1993 I was approached by Domark who were publishers of predominantly 16bit games for the Sega Megadrive. I said OK I'd lend them some money. I realised perhaps too late that the 16bit market was in steep decline, and I was funding a product which would either never come out or if it did wouldn't sell. They asked me to come on board as a non-executive director, and I was ready for a bit of a challenge. I gradually got sucked back into the management. After a year or so I met Charles Cornwall, CEO of Eidos, then basically an R&D company specialising in video compression. We needed their compression for one of our games. They were looking for a showcase for their technology. We got on well, and the two companies merged."

Eidos is now a multinational company with offices in London, Paris, Hamburg, Tokyo, San Francisco and Singapore. It makes games through its relationships with 21 developers, some wholly-owned, some partly, along with several in-house development teams. As computer games have become a major sector of the entertainment industry, Livingstone has set up cross-marketing deals to exploit this newfound status. Recently this has involved signing England soccer star Michael Owen to endorse a forthcoming football sim, a Tomb raider movie and buying Braveheart from Paramount and Twentieth Century Fox to promote a game set in medieval Scotland.

As a director of Eidos, Ian Livingstone has brought his twenty plus years of gaming experience into the digital world, and he has no truck with the technology-for-its-own-sake tendencies of many computer geeks. "For me, being an old time gamer, games design is the fundamental thing. A game has got to be fun, it's got to be great to play. Graphics and technology are important but they're there to support the gameplay."

Today Livingstone is overseeing design teams, both at the Eidos HQ, and in independent studios around the country. And he still exudes the enthusiasm of the young man who made playing his business all those years ago. "I'm very emotional about games. This is my hobby. Always has been. Always will be."