This week's most notable game release doesn't come on disc and isn't a download – it's Ian Livingstone's new Fighting Fantasy. MCV quizzed him about about keeping the series relevant in the age of Twitter and iOS.
Before he was a trusted source for government chancellors, before he was the leader of an educational revolution, and before he was even the ‘godfather of Lara Croft', Ian Livingstone was king of the geeks.
Not content with co-founding Games Workshop or introducing Dungeons & Dragons to Britain, he co-created an early form of ‘handheld' gaming: the Fighting Fantasy books.
A GAME OF THROWN DICE
Published in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the interactive fiction series was a permanent fixture on book shop or library shelves and, along with a pencil and dice needed to play, could be found in the schoolbags of a certain kind of kid.
This week sees the release of a brand new book in the series, Blood of the Zombies, written by Livingstone to celebrate its 30th anniversary.
In a dry summer for video game releases, it's actually the only notable ‘game' release this week.
Not only was the anniversary looming, but I was meeting so many people who were into the books as kids, in the games industry in particular, who said that one of the reasons they got into video games and the industry was because of Fighting Fantasy,” Livingstone told us.
MCV fittingly met with Livingstone at the Foyles bookshop's cafe – downstairs, in the children's department, a few of the reprinted FF's sit next to the likes of Twilight and Harry Potter. Although Livingstone downplays the legacy: This certainly wasn't something I did for commercial motivations as Fighting Fantasy had had its day.”
He's being a bit modest. Fighting Fantasy's influence at least on video games and developers of a certain age shouldn't be underestimated.
The series would have taught many a child the principles of games, via what Livingstone calls ‘pencil and paper programming': Problem solving, branching narrative with a game system locked on, choice and consequence… it really was the early days of those ideas.”
Gamers today might be spoon-fed luscious graphics and voice acting in the likes of Skyrim, but some of the underlying RPG structure hasn't much changed since FF offered it through a novel chopped into 400 segments. Likewise new book Blood of the Zombies , set in the modern day, could be an adaptation of something like Resident Evil. Having worked in the industry for 20 years, I was aware of zombies' lasting appeal,” Livingstone said.
Like any games publisher, Livingstone faced quandaries about the potential market for the new Fighting Fantasy.
Should I write it for the ten year old of today or the ten year old of 1982? Hopefully it will appeal to both.”
Book signings planned for Forbidden Planet this weekend and then during Edinburgh Interactive next week will provide the answer.
Livingstone predicts a line of 38-year-olds masquerading as 10-year-olds, or claiming ‘It's not for me, it's for my son.'”
Twitter has helped shape some of the book's direction, however.
Using social media has been really interesting. I couldn't decide between Blood of the Zombies or Escape from Zombie Castle as the name – on Twitter I had 1,000 replies in less than 24 hours choosing the former. That was very encouraging and humbling – it still resonated with the people who read them back in the Eighties.”
Livingstone has also given cameos to Twitter followers, both competition-winning civilians, and some famous friends including video games loving Labour MP Tom Watson.
FIGHT OF FANCY
Fighting Fantasy isn't staying just old school with its a paper book.
On August 27th, 30 years to the day since the publication of the first book, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, an iOS and Android game adaptation of Zombies will launch.
In a digital age we have to create a digital option,” explained Livingstone.
But it's not a straight port of the book. The developer, Tin Man Games, has incorporated what are effectively ‘cheats' to go back to save points.”
The books themselves are filled with pitfalls and sudden deaths, but readers could just flick back – the app will accommodate that, and add in a heap of extra Easter eggs.
The Blood of the Zombies app arrives 30 years to the day since the first Fighting Fantasy book
For Livingstone, who has worked in the video games industry for over two decades and with games in general for much longer, the actual fact of kids playing games hasn't changed much but the devices they use has.
The only difference I think is that back in the day I used to see kids on the tube with their five-finger bookmark lodged inside Deathtrap Dungeon,” said Livingstone.
Now books are being replaced by a tablet device.”
Livingstone, who helped spur a rethink of the National Curriculum with another tome, the Next-Gen Skills report authored with Alex Hope, heralds this shift.
Learning should be fun and in the context of kids' lives. Trying to shoehorn an education system from the 19th Century into the digital age hasn't worked.”
He certainly knows first-hand how making things like reading more interactive can engage and excite kids. The Fighting Fantasy books are testament to that.
I had no idea that what we did all that time ago had such a big impact on young children's minds and what they wanted to do in later life.”
As our chat winds up, Livingstone nods to a couple nearby, both reading global bestselling summer smut novel 50 Shades of Grey.
I doubt I'll be able to shift as many copes as that, though.”
He may be right. But the legacy of the Fighting Fantasy series, however, will at least last much longer.