Starburst caught up with author and entrepreneur Ian Livingstone to chat about his Fighting Fantasy gamebook series, the founding of Games Workshop, and more…
Starburst: Games Workshop was founded in 1975, and was the strong precursor to Fighting Fantasy. Can you give us some insight into how that came about?
Ian Livingstone: Steve Jackson and I were sharing a flat in London in 1974 with another old school friend, John Peake. We had low-paid, boring jobs and played a lot of board games in the evenings. We always talked about turning our board games hobby into a business. So we decided to do just that, and founded Games Workshop in February 1975. We started by publishing a fanzine Owl & Weasel to reach out to people who shared our passion for games. We sold games by mail order from our flat before the big breakthrough came in June when we managed to secure the European distribution rights for Dungeons & Dragons. But D&D did not appeal to John and he decided to leave Games Workshop
Was it difficult to set up such a company in the ’70s?
It wasn’t hard to set up a new company back then, but it was virtually impossible to get a bank loan, especially for a small games company that sold obscure fantasy role-playing games. After being kicked out of our flat where we were running our mail order business, Steve and I had no choice but to live in a van for three months as we only had enough money to rent a small office. But we didn’t really care because we were following a dream and made it up as we went along.
How exactly did you and Steve Jackson come up with the idea for Fighting Fantasy books?
We’d been playing and selling Dungeons & Dragons since 1975, and started thinking about a single-player role-playing game system that might appeal to a wider audience. We used to run a games convention called Games Day and invited other companies to take trade stands at it. Penguin Books took a stand in 1980, and their editor was amazed by the enthusiasm of 5,000 people crammed into a hall playing RPGs. She asked Steve and I to write a book about the role-playing games hobby, but we convinced her that a role-playing gamebook which you could actually play would be much better. We worked hard on the narrative structure, gameplay and combat before Steve drafted the final concept and sent it to her. It had a working title of The Magic Quest. She liked it. However, it took another year to convince Penguin Books executives to commit to publishing The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. But they didn’t regret the decision; Fighting Fantasy gamebooks went on to sell over 17 million copies and are still in print today in many countries.
Was it an idea that came about for people who enjoyed RPGs that couldn’t get themselves involved in group get-togethers?
Steve and I were obsessed with D&D; designing dungeons, playing it, writing about it, selling it, and in 1981 we even created a book of AD&D monsters, The Fiend Folio, for TSR. D&D had a huge, dedicated fan base, but at the end of the day it was still a niche hobby. We believed that so many more people would enjoy role-playing if only it was more accessible. That thought ultimately led us to coming up with the Fighting Fantasy concept.
Who came up with the name ‘Fighting Fantasy’?
I believe it was me.
Who came up with which aspects of the game mechanics?
We discussed mechanics and rules a lot to make sure the combat was at a level so as not to interrupt the flow of the adventure. Adding Luck was a later decision. We agreed to use Steve’s terminology of Skill, Stamina and Luck in preference to my Combat, Strength and Luck.
How did you find the process of writing a gamebook yourself? What were the challenges? Was it harder than you expected or was it a liberating experience? What approach did you take?
Writing gamebooks is a lot harder than people might imagine. It is assumed that we use some digital template and fill in the boxes. It is anything but that. I always constructed the flowcharts manually as I wrote each paragraph, allocating the 400 references one-by-one as I went along. The manuscript, which I used to write in pen and ink, had to be typed up, collated, and checked for accuracy, difficulty, balance, numbers and consistency. Whilst I now use a laptop to write the adventure, it is still very challenging to create a gamebook. And it is very rewarding too.
How difficult was it to get FF off the ground and into the shops?
It wasn’t difficult to get Fighting Fantasy into the shops. That was the publisher’s job. Penguin Books is a major book publisher and well able to get retailers to stock new titles. However, Penguin as an organisation did not really understand Fighting Fantasy. Books with branching narrative with a games system attached was all a bit too weird for them in 1982. There was little marketing, and the sales reps struggled to educate the retailers on what FF was all about. Ultimately it came down to the power of the playground that led to Fighting Fantasy’s rapid growth. You can’t beat word-of-mouth for marketing!
The initial run of books had 59 titles. Why was it that you and Steve were involved in so few?
We were actually involved in all of the titles in one way or other. From personally writing them, to commissioning them or storyboarding them. The demand for new books was so great in the 1980s that we couldn’t write them fast enough to satisfy the market. It’s funny, really, that when Warlock of Firetop Mountain was first published, Penguin were not very enthusiastic about it. When they finally figured out they had a bestseller on their hands, they suddenly wanted to publish a new book every two months! That’s why we added the ‘Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone Presents’ books to the series.
Which, of the 59, is your favourite – and why?
That’s a bit like asking me which is my favourite child! I don’t have an absolute favourite gamebook, but Warlock of Firetop Mountain is right up there because it was the first one that Steve and I wrote. It was an incredibly proud moment when we first saw it for sale in the bookshops. Of the ones I’ve written myself, my favourite is a split decision between Deathtrap Dungeon and City of Thieves. The Forest of Doom and Blood of the Zombies battle it out for third place.
Considering most titles had about 400 choices – and quite a few grisly deaths – was there ever a temptation to create a bigger sized adventure that could rival Lord of the Rings?
No book can rival Lord of the Rings, but Steve’s Sorcery! series is certainly epic.
Talking of those grisly deaths, did you ever receive any negative feedback from parents or overeager pressure groups?
Yes, quite a bit. The Evangelical Society published an 8-page warning guide about the potential danger of reading Fighting Fantasy leading to devil worship! And a worried housewife in deepest suburbia reportedly said on radio that after having read one of my books, her son levitated! Kids thought ‘great – for £1.25 I can fly!’ This was all wonderful PR for Fighting Fantasy.
Was there any positive feedback?
It took a long time for FF to be finally accepted by the establishment. After years of misunderstanding and criticism, the media started writing nice things about FF. Teachers said that our books encouraged reluctant readers, inspired creative writing and art, helped with problem-solving, decision-making. These were books in which the reader was the hero. They made all the choices and that was seen as being very powerful and motivational for children.
Why do you think that sales of the series declined before it ended?
Nothing lasts forever. Video games were becoming very popular in the 1990s and digital interactive entertainment was taking over from analogue. But interactive entertainment was here to stay.
New versions are now being released on smartphones and handheld devices. How excited are you about this?
It’s brilliant to see the books being re-imagined in digital format, taking the series to a new generation of digital consumers. Blood of the Zombies, House of Hell, The Forest of Doom and Sorcery! are all available as Apps on iOS and Android. And we made sure you could cheat too!
Is it planned for all the old titles to be revisited this way?
Some of the classic titles will be released over the next twelve months, including Warlock of Firetop Mountain and Deathtrap Dungeon. Steve and I are also talking to a number of developers about action games based on FF.
Do you think that computer console titles like Oblivion, Fallout 3 and Skyrim are the natural successors to the series, just in a new medium?
Clearly there are some similarities in concept, but we were influenced by D&D when we created FF. We’re told that Fighting Fantasy influenced many video game titles. If people were inspired by our work, that is very satisfying. We are very proud of Fighting Fantasy.
As Life President of Eidos, are there any plans for the company to delve into the possibility of bringing Fighting Fantasy titles to the console generation?
Deathtrap Dungeon was a PlayStation 1 title in 1998. It wasn’t the best game ever developed to put it mildly, yet it sold well because of the brand. Since Eidos was acquired by Square Enix there have been no plans for further Fighting Fantasy games. It is a strange coincidence that Square Enix publishes Final Fantasy! Fighting Fantasy came first though!
Are you saddened by the fact that consoles have grasped hold of the children of today and they are less likely to read a book or use their imagination?
Children of today are fascinated by all screens; consoles, smart phones, televisions and other digital devices. But they still love reading physical books – Harry Potter proved that - and e-books too. Games are competing for their attention of course, but I don’t think that is bad. For me, games are a good thing. Problem solving, puzzle solving, intuitive learning, choice and consequence, simulations, game-based learning – these are all positive attributes of playing games. Parents and guardians just have to ensure their children balance their leisure time and don’t let them do anything too extreme.
What was it like to be writing a new gamebook again for the 30th anniversary?
Back in the day it would take me two months to write a gamebook. It took me two years to write Blood of the Zombies. But I had forgotten just how much satisfaction I got from writing a gamebook. Creating monsters, designing the plot, structuring the adventure, building tricks and traps, luring readers to their doom. Brilliant fun!
Do you think you will ever write another gamebook?
I was humbled by the positive reaction on websites and Twitter about Blood of the Zombies when it was published last year. It is very gratifying to know that there is still a lot of love out there for FF. So I’ve suggested to Steve that we co-write a new Firetop Mountain book for the 40th anniversary. At our age it will probably take us 10 years to write it...