The development legend on his new Fighting Fantasy game

Fantasy Star: Q&A with Ian Livingstone

Many UK games developers of a certain age will fondly remember the Fighting Fantasy series of books.

The interactive adventures first arrived before mass-market portable devices and Game Boys, but were no less compelling – the original handheld RPG, if you will.Devised by Games Workshop founders Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, the series ran for a decade. Since then, Livingstone has become an influential figure in the UK games industry – first as one of the exec leaders of Eidos, where he helped bring Lara Croft and Tomb Raider to market, and more recently as a campaigner for computer science education reform and lobbyist for tax breaks.

But today sees the publication of a brand new Figthing Fantasy book, Blood of the Zombies – released to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the series. Develop caught up with Livingstone recently to find out more. 

What brought you back to Fighting Fantasy for Blood of the Zombies?
I was regularly meeting people in their 30s who were reminiscing about Fighting Fantasy, saying what an effect it had on them as a child. They all recounted their adventures, and almost all of them revert back to their childhoods, going down dungeon corridors and slaying the bloodbeast from Deathtrap Dungeon or saying what fun they had in the City of Thieves.

I was meeting so many people who were into it as kids and meeting people in the games industry in particular who said that one of the reasons they got into the games industry was because of Fighting Fantasy.

The more I thought about it with the impending 30th anniversary, the more I wanted to write another one. So I started in 2009 and it’s taken me over two years to do this one, finding the odd hour here and there at midnight, 6am in the morning, holidays, weekends.

I’ve had to fit it all in along with everything else I do, like the ambassador role for Eidos. But I’ve really, really enjoyed doing it. I forgot how much fun it was devising tricks and traps to lure innocent readers down to their doom.

The design aspect of giving people very visual options to choose and knowing that they were going to go to their doom, always gave me a lot of pleasure.

And one big difference is that this is the digital age; it’s now going to be available as an app as well on the App Store and on Android as well.

How do you convert interactive fiction into an app game?
In a digital age we have to create a digital option. 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 and now they’re being replaced by a tablet device.

But it’s not going to be a straight port of the book. They are going to incorporate, effectively, cheats to save points and there will be little bits of hidden – not like an Easter egg – but there are bits that you’ll find in the app which you don’t find in the book.

The developer of the app, Tin Man Games, is working towards an August 27th release date – which coincidentally is 30 years to the day of the publication of the first Fighting Fantasy, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.

Some might buy both the book and the app. Those who treasure the books could buy the book and put it on the shelf, have those childhood memories and look at the green spine affectionately, and then play the app when they’re travelling to work or whatever they’re doing.

Was it tough to go back to writing it?
No. I did it in the very same way as I always used to. You write 400 references, numbers pre-assigned, and then you write it as a flow chart. So number one splits, you take two numbers so one goes to 77 and 106 and this unfolding flow-chart evolves as you add content.

Then you realise that you need items further on in the adventure so you have to go back to the beginning and add them in. You have to balance it and play test it. I had plenty of volunteers.

It’s like ‘pencil and paper’ programming; all the problem solving, the branching narrative with a game system locked on, choice and consequence.

However in the old days it would take me two or three months to write a Fighting Fantasy, in 15-hour stints. Finding the time has been pretty difficult. This one has taken two years.

And I should stress it’s not just the writing that makes it work. Art makes a strong, strong component of Fighting Fantasy. When Penguin Books originally signed them up, they wanted to brief the artist for the cover and the covers they proposed were largely nice little fluffy creatures wandering through the woods sitting on toadstools.

But having started Games Workshop and used all the Games Workshop artists, we wanted to use Workshop-style artists, with a strong gothic feel and scary monsters that the reader feels is going to rip their heads off.

These were books written in the second-person present, it’s all about you the reader and so you had to throw that challenge out.

We’ve gone back to that with Blood of the Zombies and we have an amazing cover from Greg Staples, who is a renowned 2000 AD artist, and Kevin Crossley, who has drawn the interiors.

Have you drawn from any of your games industry experiences this time around as author?
Having worked in the games industry for over 20 years, I was aware of the ever-lasting appeal of zombies and I’d never really dedicated a Fighting Fantasy game book to them.

I started off writing it in my traditional medieval fantasy world but the more I thought about it, the more it felt like it needed to be contemporary. I didn’t want to go the whole hog, though, so rather than having the zombies running around shopping malls and 21st Century streets, I still set it in a medieval castle so it’s a bit of both.

Hedging my bets I guess. I wanted people to enjoy modern day weaponry to mow all those zombies down and there’s an overarching threat that, unless you do the right thing, you will turn into a zombie.

Also, using social media has been really interesting this time. I couldn’t decide between the name, Blood of the Zombies or Escape from Zombie Castle, but on Twitter I had 1,000 replies in less than 24 hours and that was very encouraging and humbling. It still resonated with the people who read them back in the Eighties.

That in turn gave me a new dilemma. Should I write it for the ten-year-old of today or the ten-year-old of 1982? Hopefully it will appeal to both.

So that’s how it all came about. It certainly wasn’t going to be done for commercial reasons because Fighting Fantasy had had its day. Even if it only sells in limited numbers, I really don’t care; it’s been fantastic to be involved in the whole thing and see the love for Fighting Fantasy is still there.

The audience for interactive books has diminished as a book but clearly interactive entertainment has boomed in the digital space. We didn’t do any market research for this – it really was a homage to the 30th anniversary.

But maybe it might encourage some late 30s or 40-year-olds with children to show them something they enjoyed as kids themselves.

The book arrives after a quite a pivotal 12 months for you with success for two campaigns you were heavily involved in – Next-Gen Skill and games tax breaks. So, cheeky question: from education and economic reform to a new Fighting Fantasy – what’s been most rewarding?
Well, going from co-writing the Next-Gen report to Blood of the Zombies was certainly a shift!

For me, games have always been my life so there’s no distinction between the pleasures of playing them to the business of making them or being involved in supporting them, so they’ve all been very gratifying to do.

I think the most rewarding thing is for [UK education minister] Michael Gove to acknowledge our recommendations in Next-Gen and to announce that the current education curriculum needs changing. That could be transformational, not just for the games industry but also for the whole digital and creative economy.

I’m very proud of that – but it wasn’t just me at all; I was the flag-waver but a lot of people have been part of the process. Now we’re moving from recommendation to implementation and there are new challenges.

I’m at the Department of Education regularly dealing with the examining boards, seeing if we can get a new teacher training programme organised and how do the schools implement this, and so on. It’s a monumental amount of work to do.

The thing I’ve learnt is that learning should be fun and in the context of kids lives. The UK has been trying to shoehorn an education system from the 19th Century into a digital age and failing.

Computer science is one element of making education relevant, and you can use games as a contextual hub.

Urban regeneration? Why not use SimCity. Teaching global warming? Get children playing a game like Red Redemption where they can actually blow up the world and realise the consequences rather than just reading passively about something that doesn’t relate to them.

One day all learning should be done through games.

Of course tax breaks was another big win for our industry. So it’s been a big year.

And then Man City won the Premiership! I couldn’t have asked for more.

And you’re contributing to another publication – UKIE’s developer manifesto. More writing for you.
Well, there’s always been this division between UKIE and TIGA and yet there’s been a blur between publishers and developers lately.

Publishers became developers and developers became publishers. So in my mind, we really do need one trade body and I think it’s important in the short term that UKIE offers as much to developers as it has done historically to publishers.

The manifesto is part of that. If I can help make that happen, then great. Again, it’s all about relevance in the world we live in today, not what happened historically.

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