To follow Ian Livingstone’s life story is to garner something of an understanding of what it takes to join the global games industry’s elite. It also serves as an encouraging example of how faith in personal passions can pay off.
His achievements are numerous. This is the man who co-founded Games Workshop, created the Fighting Fantasy books with his business partner, and established Eidos when Lara Croft was little more than a pixel in her creator’s eye. He went on to become an advocate of the UK games industry’s strength, and today, is working as hard as ever.
Like many video games life stories, for Livingstone it begins with a true classic.
“I remember my father teaching me chess,” says the Eidos life president of his earliest memories of gaming.
“We also used to play Monopoly quite a lot. We used to play games like that a lot at school too, and later I heard about games like Diplomacy and the like, and games from the US.”
It was exposure to those board games from seemingly distant lands that set Livingstone on his path to greatness. Fascinated by the way predefined rules could turn the simple process of playing into the higher act of gaming, he soon found allies with which to pursue his hobby.
“That’s what this kind of play is all about. It’s voluntary, but with rules, and it’s a distraction and escape you can immerse yourself in, so I just fell in love with playing games,” he says. “Then I met Steve Jackson at school, and we loved those games.”
Years then past, and Livingstone, Jackson and their other closest gaming friend John Peake grew to be young men, and drifted into jobs that failed to inspire them while dragging them apart. Eventually they moved back in together and decided they had to take charge of their fortunes, and dedicate their professional lives to the games that had kept them enthralled during those least exceptional years.
As science fiction, fantasy writing and the comics of their youth continued to enthuse the trio, they began to feel unsatisfied with the faltering evolution of board games, and took the bold step of moving from being players to game makers.
“We just thought ‘why not?’ and decided to do it,” explains Livingstone, proving how readily he embraces ventures that would intimidate most.
“Around that time we created a little newsletter called Owl and Weasel, and we called the company Games Workshop, because at that time John was a craftsman, so we’d started doing what everyone else was doing. We were making very traditional games. The very first Games Workshop products were workshop made backgammon boards and things like draughts and go boards.”
It was the mid 1970s, and despite an ordinary start, an extraordinary company had been born.
WISE AND SLY
In those early days of Games Workshop a copy of Owl and Weasel, so called because board game players should be ‘wise like and owl and sly like a weasel’, found its way to the hand of a pioneer board game designer by the name of Gary Gygax.
“He got back to us telling us he loved our magazine and liked our ambition for building up the games community in the UK, and he sent us this game he’d just invented called Dungeons & Dragons,” explains Livingstone.
“We thought it was just amazing when we played it, and saw it as a real milestone in gaming with a totally new rule set and role-playing element where you played the hero. It was so exciting to be able to be killing monsters and finding treasure and creating characters. We really thought it was the best thing that we’d ever played.”
Yet while Jackson and Livingstone found themselves enamoured by this curious new spin on board gaming conventions, Peake was less impressed, and decided to leave the company just at the point it readied itself for a bold move away from tradition.
Despite Peake’s departure from the fledgling business, which was at the time also doing pieces for Games and Puzzles magazine, Livingstone and Jackson were so inspired by Dungeons & Dragons they ordered six copies to sell in Europe, securing them an exclusive distribution deal that would last three years.
Fully committed to their new business plan, the pair devoted themselves fiercely to making Games Workshop a success, and showed some remarkable dedication.
They lived in a van so they could dedicate rent money to an office, dealt with a drunken landlord berating their customers, and finally set up the first proper Games Workshop store in April of 1975.
They had helped Dungeons & Dragons become a global sensation, to the point that today 20 million individuals are estimated to have played the game. It has become such a household name in popular culture it has appeared in the likes of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial and The Simpsons.
“We’d been designing our own games and had done theme folios for D&D and Citadel Miniatures,” reflects Livingstone. “Then we lost the D&D exclusivity deal as the three years was up, and at that point the D&D company TSR wanted to merge with Games Workshop to form a global RPG games company. Steve and I, though, were wildly independent at that time, so we said no to the merger. That’s how Warhammer came about; to replace D&D.”
At around that point the duo moved on to pen the immensely popular Fighting Fantasy books, which simplified Games Workshop’s role-playing systems and repackaged them for individuals wanting to enjoy the RPG experience alone. The books, which let the player choose a path through each title’s narrative, went on to sell over 16 million copies in 23 countries.
“That kind of interactive fiction and branching narrative is really a predecessor of many adventure games in the digital world,” suggests Livingstone, moving on to a love that has come to dominate the rest of his life.
RIGHT ON THE DOMARK
In 1984, a developer-publisher approached Ian with a question. Could he take his skill in penning interactive fantasy novels like Deathtrap Dungeon – which sold 200,000 copies that same year – to the art of writing for games?
The answer was clearly yes, and the result was Livingstone’s first game Eureka!; a text adventure that offered potential buyers a tempting carrot stick.
“We had Eureka! programmed in Budapest for secrecy reasons because they’d attached a £25,000 prize to solving the game for the first time,” explains Livingstone.
“It was then I started to think that this digital stuff could
start to catch on, so I invested in Domark at the time. It was a great opportunity to move my content from the analogue to the digital world, and to realise the ideas that I had for games.”
Having invested in Domark in 1984, Livingstone sold out his remaining interest in Games Workshop in 1991. A year thereafter the two directors of the video games studio asked if he wanted to invest more in Domark to help fund their cartridge development.
Little did Livingstone know that at that time the cartridge and 16-bit market was about to enter a period of savage decline. He had loaned a lot of money that was suddenly no longer repayable, so opted to convert the loan into equity and came on board as part of Domark in 1993.
“We tried to turn the company around and decided that it was really too small to go it alone, so, to cut a long story short, we met with the CEO of Eidos Technologies as it was then called, and two developers,” says Livingstone.
“This was back when Eidos was a video compression company. We put these four companies together and went with the name Eidos Interactive, and floated on the stock market in 1995.
“Eidos really took off in 1996 when we acquired Centregold, and with Centregold came all the publishing rights to their existing catalogue, but more importantly Centregold also owned Core, and Core was then developing Tomb Raider.”
Livingstone vividly remembers an early visit to Centregold to perform due diligence on the company, where he drove for several hours through thick snow to be given a tour of the studio.
It was that day that he walked into a room in which a screen was showing an early version of Lara Croft. “It was love at first sight,” jokes Livingstone.
Eidos budgeted to produce 50,000 copies of the first Tomb Raider. They went on to sell seven million, establishing Livingstone and Eidos as one of the most recognisable, acclaimed institutions in the global industry.
Some years later, at the point Eidos had become well established as a global business with a catalogue of hits to its name, the chess-playing boy from Cheshire turned international success story could have rested on his laurels.
Stepping away from the industry is not in Livingstone’s DNA, however, for he is a man fuelled by passion.
“I’ve always done everything for passion, because I enjoy the games industry as a whole,” he confides. “Success has been very nice, and obviously I’ve done well out of gaming, but that’s never been the motivating factor. Success was a nice side effect. I could retire now, but I enjoy working and I’ll never stop trying to create and help and build the games industry.”
Helping the industry progress and evolve is clearly an obsession for Livingstone, and his motivations are simple.
“I’ve done well out of the industry, and so I want other people to do well out of the industry. Computer games play on the strengths of the UK. We have incredible creativity like nowhere else in the world, as demonstrated by our success for decades in music, fashion, film, design and advertising. We also really understand technology,” Livingstone offers.
“If you put those two – technology and creativity – together, you get computer games. So, we are a world leader in a creative aspect. Though we don’t always do as well as other countries in exploiting the IP that we create.”
Livingstone isn’t one to hide his affection for the UK creative sector, so much so that he has co-lead a Government review into skills (see Livingstone’s Hope) that hopes to better position the country on the global development stage.
Which brings us to the present day, where we find the man behind Games Workshop as enthusiastic as ever.
“It’s a very exciting time for the industry,” he says.
“We’re in a transition moving from boxed product to online, moving from offering a product to a service, and independent companies are reaching global audiences.
These are exciting times for new IP, and it’s faster to iterate and you can get to market quite quickly. The numbers out there are just astonishing, and the UK is well placed to benefit from these new market opportunities.
“Obviously there are new challenges like that of discovery, but I think it’s a wonderful time to be in the industry. Whilst I’m not about to start running anything of that kind at this ripe old age, I enjoying helping indies, and I invest in start-ups quite a lot, and I hope I can help in some way to make the industry continue to strive in the UK. Games are as important culturally, socially and economically as music and film, and our industry is bigger than both those industries. It’s never ever had the recognition it deserves, and never had the support that other entertainment industries have had.”
Livingstone, at least, has had the recognition he deserves. While his OBE remains his most high profile decoration, the two-minute standing ovation he received for his Development Legend award was clearly an emotional moment for him.
Immediately after departing the stage, he spoke of the importance of the fact that those at his feet were his peers.
“It’s very, very gratifying. You don’t set off in life on a mission to do anything in particular; you just do things to the best of your ability. If you’re passionate and successful and you get recognition from your piers and society it is wonderfully gratifying, and it gives you that lift and fulfilment, and it’s just amazing,” he later concludes.
The chances are the industry will have to raise from their seats to celebrate his achievements again. By his own confession, Ian Livingstone is far from done.