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VICE vs Video games

In Conversation with Games Industry Legend Ian Livingstone

From Games Workshop to Fighting Fantasy to being the "father" of Lara Croft, Livingstone's a true MVP of the British games industry.

Ian Livingstone photographed in his games room, 2015, by Oliver McNeil

Ian Livingstone is why you played Dungeons & Dragons in the UK in the 1970s. Ian Livingstone is why you adventure-booked your way through the caves and castles of Titan in the 1980s. Ian Livingstone is why you explored tombs and escaped tyrannosaurs in the boots of Lara Croft in the 1990s. Ian Livingstone, CBE, is why your kids might grow up to be computer geniuses in the coming years. And when I say that speaking to him is a Career Moment, I mean it.


For me, Livingstone's name was burned into my brain courtesy of the Fighting Fantasy game books he created alongside fellow Games Workshop founder Steve Jackson. The first in the series, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, came out in 1982 and established the structure of these pre-teen library essentials – you know, "turn to 302 to open the chest with the key, turn to 141 if you'd rather hit it, over and over again, with an axe, just in case there's a goblin in there", that kind of thing. There was magic and there were monsters. I didn't play/read (and of course I cheated, most of the time) a Fighting Fantasy book until I was around nine years old, some years after Warlock's publication – but once I did I continued to collect them into my early teens, my final acquisition being, I think, 1992's Island of the Undead. I still have all of them in my bedroom, and I'm 35. You might think that's sad. But then, you can turn to 247 to piss right off, mate.

In video gaming, Livingstone was on the board of Domark, and when the British developer and publisher became Eidos Interactive in the mid-1990s, he followed as a part of its foundational team. In 2013 he finally left the company, which had by this point become a subsidiary of Square Enix. Amongst his most famous projects while at Eidos: the creation of a certain series by the name of Tomb Raider.

And that's where our conversation begins.


The original cover to 'The Warlock of Firetop Mountain', from 1982.

VICE: Ian! You're speaking at Digital 2015 next week (see what else is happening at the June 8th-9th event, held in Newport, here), and the PR I have for that calls you "the father of Tomb Raider". Is that quite the heavy reputation to carry around?
Ian Livingstone: Well, the first Tomb Raider was almost 20 years ago now, so I suppose it's quite a recent thing given my 40 years in the industry. I'm delighted, though, to have been a part of the team that helped launch Lara Croft into the world, and then guided her through her life. She's gone her own way now, though, and I'm onto new things. I've loved every moment of my 40 years in games, and Lara has been a big chapter of that – but before that came Games Workshop and board games, and the Fighting Fantasy books, and now mobile games. I love that my hobby, my passion, is also my job, and I'm very fortunate to have been able to make a living this way. It's been fantastic fun, where there's not been a lot of difference between work and play.

You've a stack of experience in the fantasy genre. We've had a few big-budget, blockbuster-proportioned fantasy games come out in recent years, most recently The Witcher 3. Some of them are great, but they do rely so heavily on the old standards of elves and dwarves and wizards and all that kind of thing. Their "language" is pretty archaic, though the games' plots can represent some very modern concerns. Do you think the genre needs a shake up?
Traditional fantasy seems to come in waves, to be honest. We saw a huge rise in interest in the 1970s, thanks to Dungeons & Dragons, and then when the (Peter Jackson-directed) Lord of the Rings films came out, that caused another swell of interest. But beyond that, we do have science-fiction fantasy, and newer variations on the genre are emerging. But I don't think fantastic worlds will stop being exciting, because they're precisely that: fantasy worlds where anything can happen. There's monsters and magic and all of this wonderful stuff from the imagination, so it's a lot less "structured" than science-fiction worlds, where you do have to have some understanding of technology. In traditional fantasy, anything goes. Fantasy worlds are a lot more escapist.


Ian (right) co-founded Games Workshop alongside Steve Jackson (pictured, left) and John Peake, and soon imported the first copies of 'Dungeons & Dragons' to the UK, in 1975. This photo dates from 1976.

You mention escapism, but we see in games like The Witcher 3 and shows like Game of Thrones very real, contemporary issues being addressed, and some very mature topics discussed. Like in The Witcher 3, the way that the elves are treated, how they're harassed and ultimately forced out of town, could be seen as a reflection of how some people feel about immigrants. So this is escapist fiction, but it also serves as a lens back onto the world we're watching it from.
Games are stuff of the imagination – Dungeons & Dragons was so popular because it let you do all of these heroic things in your mind that you could never do in the real world. The imagination is a very powerful tool. And you can tackle issues in games, and TV and film, of course, which you couldn't be so open about in real life, perhaps. Grand Theft Auto V is a great example of this – it's a great pastiche of American society in many ways, yet it's a game. You can do a lot in games.

Grand Theft Auto V's satire is pretty heavy handed at times, but that it's taking such steps is surely a good thing for the games medium, isn't it? It's showing that this multi-million-dollar game can take some risks, narratively, by possibly poking more than a little fun at the people actually playing it, or financing it.
The Grand Theft Auto series should be celebrated as a great British success story. The fifth game proper generated over a billion dollars of revenue in three days, and its roots go back to Scotland. It's had a huge cultural impact, to the extent where it's the largest entertainment franchise in any medium. And yet it's more often pilloried in the press, rather than praised. Games are shaking things up, and there's no escaping the cultural, social and economic impact that they're having. You only have to look up on any public transport to see people playing games on their phones. Games have become mainstream entertainment, largely because of Apple and smartphones and the simple "swipe" technology, which allows anyone to be a player, even if console and PC gaming seemed inhibiting to them. Games are pervasive.


The opening day of a new London branch of Games Workshop, 1978.

What do we need to do to bring the mainstream press, the outlets who would rather run a piece on Grand Theft Auto V's violence rather than everything it does amazingly, around to this position of realising the power and potential of modern video games?
The people who criticise games the most have rarely really played one. They've seen other reports, and seen some titles, and just assume that these things poison children's minds. I mean, Grand Theft Auto V does have violent parts, but it's not supposed to be played by children – it's got an 18 rating, and parents should be responsible with games in the same way they are films. But if you park your prejudices for just one second and think cognitively about what's happening when you play a game: you can't get through one without problem solving. Games are all about intuitive learning, and they're motivational and engaging. They can develop social skills, and creativity – look at a game like Minecraft, which is effectively digital LEGO that kids build and share with their friends. There's risk taking, and games give you continuous assessment. You learn a lot that you can transfer into the real world, and I really believe that video games provide you with great life skills; but because they're seen as play things, they're regarded as trivial. Yet, when we enter this world, we learn through play, and through trial and error, and video games allow you to fail in a safe environment. We traditionally punish kids for making mistakes, but games allow them to succeed eventually, and not be punished for their mistakes. Failure is just work-in-progress success, and games allow you to do that.


You're a great advocate of putting kids in front of computers, aren't you?
Well, we're exponentially reliant on technology, and children have to understand how code works. Not every child is going to grow up to become a coder, but they should all at least know how it works in order to be a digital citizen of the 21st century. Now, for the past 30 years, we've managed to bore kids to death with the ways in which information technology and computing was taught. In the 1980s we had programming in British schools, with the BBC Micro, and people had Spectrums at home, and that ultimately gave rise to the British games industry. And that was formed not because of consumption, but creativity. But with schools being concerned about exposing children to the open web, or viruses on their systems and networks, that creative component got shut down, and all schools were allowed to do was handle other people's software, like Word, PowerPoint and Excel. Now, that's entry level stuff for anyone, and so it's no wonder that ICT became so dull.

During my Lara Croft days, as it were, there simply were not enough good programmers around to hire. So I went and had a whinge to Ed Vaizey, the culture minister, and told him about the problem. He tasked Alex Hope, the CEO of Double Negative, a visual effects company, and I with producing the "Next-Gen" review. We conducted a survey with NESTA and wrote up recommendations, the main one being to have computer science in the school curriculum as an essential discipline. But wasn't until Eric Schmidt's MacTaggart lecture in 2011, in which he referenced our work, that the government actually sat up and took notice. Before that, every time I'd raise the matter, I'd be told there was nothing wrong with ICT. I said that all we were doing was teaching children how to read, but not how to write; how to use an application, but with no tools to make their own. You need to have this creative component to encourage engagement. And the UK, I think, is a naturally creative nation, but children were not being given the right skills to create for the digital world.


But, to the government's credit, they did introduce the new computing curriculum, which came into force in English schools in 2014. But that's just the starting point, because a lot of the teachers we have simply aren't able to teach it, so we need to give them more support. We need to allow children to lead the teaching some of the time, inside the schools, and encourage peer-to-peer learning because it's so important in this area. Today's children are part of a connected generation – they are born onto the internet, so let them connect and share and collaborate and hack their own knowledge. Then they'll become digital makers – they'll build an app, make a game, do something with robotics, design a website. Anything like that, they'll be happy doing it, and they're learning. Literacy and numeracy are incredibly important, of course, but as soon as possible in schools, I encourage learning by doing in computing. This fragmented world we live in requires kids to be problem solvers, to be coders, to be communicators. It's pretty common sense, I think.

Do you think that this lull in programming talent in the UK is why we now think of the US and Japan as being home to the very biggest games studios? Because we didn't nurture enough domestic creativity, for a while?
It wasn't just a question of skills. You need a situation where costs are low and skills are high, and I'd say that for a while in the UK we had the opposite of that, with high costs and low skills. We had to do something about that, and getting computing onto the curriculum is the first thing that had to be done. That's a long-term play, so we won't see its benefit for a few years. We also needed to level the playing field, across mediums, which is why I was part of a group that lobbied government for production tax credits, so that we could compete with France, and Canada, in the same way that film does. (Read: The Great British Video Games Tax War.)


Also, we've needed to get the investment community to understand the value of digital IP. It was often the case that games were not understood, and the creators had to trade away their IP in return for project finance. So if you allow others to buy your IP, that's not good, ultimately, for the UK. And we have seen the demise of many UK publishers – but I'm delighted to see, rising from those ashes, a really vibrant independent community, with over 1,000 studios contributing something like £2 billion to the UK economy. A lot of those are micro-studios, where one or two people are working, but that's not the point – you can create really big things at really small studios. And I think these are exciting times for indies, as they're driving into new markets, finding new ways of expressing themselves. It's like a second golden era of gaming, to my mind, like it was back in the 1980s when Matthew Smith was creating Manic Miner, and all the exciting stuff that was happening then is doing so again.

Today's young creators can crowdfund their ideas, and then reach global audiences via broadband. They can all find their market. The traditional gatekeepers of the analogue world, of creating physical product and selling it at a premium price, are disappearing. Of course, this presents new challenges, like acquiring, retaining and monetising audiences; but there's enough success out there for people to want to do it, and more power to them.


Ian photographed with Lara Croft, aka model and actress Karima Adebibe, in 2006.

Hardware aside, what have been the biggest advances in gaming that you've seen during your career?
The rise of Steam, with 100 million subscribers, has been massive. We've seen people gravitate towards digital consumption, and towards watching games – nowadays, there are 100 million people regularly watching eSports online, with 100,000 of them showing up to live events. The global games industry is changing, still, at an alarming rate. The global market for games, next year, will amount to $100 billion. These are big numbers, and yet gaming is still largely misrepresented in the mainstream media.

Which must drive you nuts.
You can't make people change their attitude towards games quickly. I've been slowly campaigning for the positives about games for 40 years, and I'm delighted with where we're at today. I think games sit alongside film and TV now, rightfully, and are seen in the same light as those mediums. For me, games are even more powerful than those, though, because they're interactive. Going back to my Fighting Fantasy books, they got a whole generation of kids reading, because you were the hero, and you were engaged in where the story went. In the traditional, linear media, the director controls the action, but in interactive media, the player controls the action. It's all about them, and that can make it a more enjoyable experience, which is why gaming is just going to grow and grow. It's more rewarding, I would say.


All of these flashbacks are making me hungry. Fancy a sandwich?

Let's talk about the books. I had a lot of them. I still do.
Now, come on, did you cheat?

Of course I did, all the time. When I tried to write in those little skill and stamina boxes, and then erase the pencil marks, it used to tear the paper, so I stopped doing that altogether. But those days must have been amazing.
Oh, they were phenomenal. The Warlock of Firetop Mountain came out in 1982, and Deathtrap Dungeon, the sixth book, followed in 1984, and sold 400,000 copies at a time where your typical kids book would sell 5,000. They were busy days, and Deathtrap Dungeon remains one of my favourites. There's actually a screenplay of it being written right now, which we're touting around. So you never know.

There's been a bit of a resurgence in the Fighting Fantasy series, where people who read the books when they were children are now reading them with their own kids. Clearly the world has moved on, and Fighting Fantasy couldn't exist as it did then today, but the principle of the interactive, branching narrative is still very relevant to today's generation. So I'm delighted that it still touches people in a very positive way, and it's amazing, and humbling, to regularly meet people who tell me how they used to read my books. They immediately revert back to their childhoods, remembering some awful moment where "they" fell onto some poisoned spikes, or were murdered by some man-eating beast from hell.


A lot of the books were set in the same world, Titan. Do you think there's the opportunity for some big, or small, games developer to produce a role-playing game, or an MMO, set in that world, featuring a lot of the locations that appeared in the books?
Well, that'd be something that would delight Steve Jackson and myself. If someone wanted to take the books and base an MMO on them, well, there's an amazingly rich world there that's ready to go, with its own culture and economy and legends. It's well known, and well loved, so that would be amazing – it's just a case of finding someone who'd want to do it in the first place.

But a video game wouldn't be quite the same as a book playthrough. You can't keep your little finger between the previous pages when you're playing something on a PC.
But I never minded when people cheated. I'd ride on the Underground, and I'd look around and see people keeping five-fingered bookmarks on the go, and I'd laugh to myself. I think 98 percent of children cheated their way through Fighting Fantasy, but that's fine. It's just peeking around the corner really, isn't it? It's not really cheating. But we did introduce some anti-cheating devices. So, for example, you might be trying to get into a room, and we'd ask if you had a key. But rather than give you a number to turn to, it'd say, "turn to the number stamped on the key". We did put those frustration points in, mostly for our own amusement.


But the thing is, nobody made you read a Fighting Fantasy book. Children wanted to read them. They lit up imaginations. They dealt with problem solving. It was all about you, and killing monsters and finding treasure. It ticked a lot of boxes for kids back in the day.

The original cover to 'Deathtrap Dungeon', from 1984.

To cycle back to Tomb Raider, the series got a celebrated reboot in 2013. How proud were you to see that this character was still so relevant, and that fresh-feeling games could be built around her?
It was very gratifying to see, and I'm very proud of the continuing love of Lara Croft. She's survived the test of time in the same way as James Bond has in the cinema, and it's great that we'll be celebrating the 20th anniversary of Tomb Raider next year. The reboot was a tremendous achievement by (developers) Crystal Dynamics, which went right to the core of Tomb Raider, with adventuring and environmental puzzles, and the combat, and it was a very immersive experience. I think the prequel set-up was perfect, showing how she gained the attributes to become this dynamic archaeologist. It's great to see the continued success, and long may it continue.

And just finally, your legacy – what do you think is the one thing, that you've achieved, that people will best remember you for? Or, rather, what are you asked about the most, now?
That's a difficult question, as it's like asking me to name a favourite child, and I have four of them. I think the Eidos and Tomb Raider thing is maybe a way down, perhaps in third. It's the Fighting Fantasy books and Games Workshop that I speak to people about the most, almost in equal measure. But more and more these days I'm speaking to people about helping kids to become creators, because I am so passionate about kids having more games-based learning, and getting this positive side of games out there. I want people to develop greater skills, and not just the knowledge, and that's so important. That's what I'm really excited about, now. Historically, perhaps Fighting Fantasy just nudges out Games Workshop. We sold 17 million books in 30 languages, so I hear people's memories of them wherever I go in the world. I don't like to look back, though – I like to look forward, and I certainly don't want to retire. Life for me is a game, and long may it continue.

Ian Livingstone appears as a keynote speaker at Digital 2015, the annual festival of digital inspiration and innovation, held on the 8th and 9th of June in Newport, Wales. Full information here. All images and photography provided by Ian (thanks).


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