Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson interview

In issue 160 of SFX, writer Jon Hamblin interviewed the gents behind the classic Fighting Fantasy series of game books, Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, on the occasion of the series’ 25th anniversary. Here we’re able to bring you the transcript of that interview in its complete form, featuring more Q&As. Enjoy!

SFX: We’re
herewith Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, creators of the
Fighting Fantasy novels. Thanks for talking to us guys!

Ian Livingstone and Steve
Jackson:
Hi!

SFX: Let’s start with a
bit of background on how you guys met.

SJ: We
actually met at Altrincham Grammar School. Ian and myself used
to play board games even back then, in an upstairs room.
IL: Lots of
Subbuteo as I recall. But as we got older, we started to
get into more complex games. I was into war games based around
Stalingrad and Mesopotamia.
SJ: We read
a lot of gaming and sci-fi fanzines, and it was through these
that we stumbled across Don Turnbull’s Albion magazine, which was
devoted to a game called Diplomacy. It was a game where you submitted
moves on pieces of paper, and no-one would know who was doing what
until the end of the turn. It was terrifically exciting, and alliances
were constantly formed and broken. I remember one game where two
players had a four-hour long alliance. The night drew on –
these games could go on for eight hours or longer you understand
– and suddenly, one of the pair stabbed the other in the
back. The other guy was stunned and he stood up and threw the board
everywhere. Seeing games like that made you realise just how powerful
games were. Through an ad in the back of Don’s mag we ended up getting
into Dungeons and Dragons.
IL: Back
then it was hugely complex. We had to actually go and watch it
being played just to understand how it worked. We started selling it
through our mail order company, which eventually became Games Workshop.
SJ: We found
an office for Games Workshop, but we had no cash, so we
were sleeping in the back of a van.
IL: We
parked the van next to the office, which fortunately was next to
a squash club. So we joined the squash club. We’d get out of the van at
7.30 in the morning and go into the squash club for a shave and shower.
We got very good at squash by default. Then into the office,
which was the size of a bread bin, where we did all the mail orders for
D&D until past midnight. The estate agents our office was above
got fed up of having people milling around outside all day though.
SJ: So we
said to them – you’re an estate agent, find us a
shop. And that became the first Games Workshop.

SJ: We
had
customers that’d come in, and on Saturdays we’d
have quite a few customers because the word was getting around and they
were making trips from Newcastle and Manchester and places to come down
especially. We had this tiny little office and if we got any customers
we’d have to go and stand outside because there wasn’t any room.


SFX: So you’ve get to
this point where you’ve been into D&D a
lot and converted your Owl and Weasel Magazine into White Dwarf. So
White Dwarf was just purely D&D before you started your
own?

Ian Livingstone:
No it wasn’t just D&D, it was mainly
D&D but it was other role-playing games we were interested in
too.
Steve Jackson:
We had this memorable trip in 1976, when we went to the
States and it was basically a holiday with some friends. We were going
to take in Gencon, a games convention on the way back from California.
And we drove across the States and we got to Lake Wisconsin. Gencon was
in its infancy and I don’t know whether it was the second or third
time they’d had this Lake Geneva convention but everybody in the
Fantasy Games world was there. All these tiny little companies that had
flown in with a rucksack full of games that they had hand-produced to
sell to fantasy gamers because they were all going to be there. We
arrived there and we were the only people from Europe there and
everybody was desperate to export their games. These were games in
Ziploc
bags with little counters in two colours and
things like that. So we hoovered up all these agencies for these
fledgling games companies and became European exclusive distributors
for them all and helped build Games Workshop.

SFX: You must have
realised you were onto something important and big
by that point.

Ian Livingstone:
You could sense the enthusiasm for the games we were
handling and we decided to open the shop for a couple of reasons. It
just seemed like a good idea, but secondly it was very difficult to get
other shops to stock our stuff because they just didn’t get it. It’s
such an oddball range selling books and stuff that you can’t really put
on shelves and you need this specialist knowledge to sell it, so we
thought we’d better do it ourselves.

SFX: Especially as a lot
of it was amateurish looking, in Ziploc
bags, and so on. It’s difficult to put that on a shelf in a toyshop.

Steve Jackson: Later
on it came. Everything got more professional as
the market grew, but to start off with it was a tiny little market.
People were producing a few hundred copies of the game and selling them
for quite a lot of money; it was an expensive hobby.
Ian Livingstone:
But for Games Workshop, the first shop for those in
the know it was like the Holy Grail to come and visit. It was all their
whole hobby under one roof.
SJ: We were
very lucky because the Estate Agent found us one which just happened to
be round the corner from Latymer
School, it was a private school and so the kids
were quite wealthy and bright. They used to come in at 4 o’clock once
school was closed and there’d be loads of them perusing the shelves and
buying a few miniatures. They kept us going.
IL: We
spread the word through White Dwarf as well, news travelled
quickly and it wasn’t long before we were opening more shops.

SFX: So how were you
distributing WD at that point?

Ian Livingstone: Subscriptions,
conversions from Owl and Weasel got it
off to a flying start.
Steve Jackson: It
was Games and Puzzles magazine which was the
professional type magazine that was around that was in WHSmiths and
things. We used to advertise in there and we used to write articles in
there and we got a good response.
IL: And
there were a few other fledgling games shops
around like Just Games and Night Games and Games Centre who would stock
WD as well.

SFX: It sort of spread
that way?

Steve Jackson: It
was very slow to start with. I mean there wasn’t a
big advertising splurge on TV or anything like that. There might have
been these days. It was very low key. We were just working with cash
flow and not paying ourselves anything and just reinvesting.
Ian Livingstone: You
could sense the excitement of consumers that they
knew it was going to grow. We weren’t so much commercially minded
ourselves then, we were just hobbyists ourselves. We were enjoying it
as much as they were. We were doing all the supply of it.

SFX: At what point did
you decide to diversify into the Fighting
Fantasy books?

Steve Jackson: It
was evolutionary more than anything else. It was the
way the whole industry was going. I remember going to a show
in
America one January and I had a typed-out manuscript for The
Warlock
of Firetop Mountain. We’d written the book and it was going through
the Penguin system and I’d brought it to go through doing corrections
on the plane. I got to the show and was talking to one of our
suppliers, from an American company producing games. He said, “So what
else is happening in England?” I said, “We’re just doing this book.
It’s
interactive, you do this, that and the other, turn left, turn right, go
to different pages.” He said “I don’t believe it.” And he went running
into the back of his stand and he came out with a manuscript for
something that was similar. But he wasn’t actually having it as a
standalone system like Fighting Fantasy, he was incorporating it into
his games. But it’s almost like, at that stage of the evolution of the
fantasy gaming hobby that someone would come out with that and we just
happened to be the first.
Ian Livingstone: Well
clearly D&D was for six to eight players taking up
whole weekends and people couldn’t always do that, so the idea was to
address a single player, in a role-playing-lite experience. Steve will
tell you the story about how we used to run this thing called Games
Day. An Editor from Penguin Books came along called Geraldine Cook. She
took a stand to promote a game called Playing Politics. She
saw the
enthusiasm of all the role-players and she wanted to know more about it
and she wanted a book about role-playing. 
SJ: It was
exclusively a manual, you know: what are the
games, where are the miniatures, where do you get them from, how do you
play these things, that sort of thing. Well we got all excited about
it, we might sell 3000 copies. After a bit we were
talking about it and thought, rather than doing this manual why don’t
we actually show people how it works with the Fighting Fantasy system,
where you read a paragraph and you make choices, that sort of thing. So
we handed this in, which was a very short synopsis with two encounters
and she didn’t really know what to make of it. It was
illustration-heavy, it was like a picture book.
IL: Have
you still got that?
SJ: No, no
I don’t think so. I know all the pictures were
taken from a D&D scenario module. She said, “Thank you very
much”… and sat on it. Penguin were going through an economic problem
and
they weren’t taking any more books. We were sitting there waiting and
we thought, “Well are they going to do this or not?” Eventually a year
later she said, “Okay, we’d like to go ahead with this.” I always
thought it was such a shame about that because during that year, when
Fighting Fantasy came out, there was a similar series but on a much
simpler level that was published in the States called “Endless Quest”
where you read a paragraph and you made a choice and there was no game
system. They dominated the children’s bestseller charts in America for
several years. If we’d have had that year it would have been Fighting
Fantasy in America.
SFX: Is that similar to
the Usborne “Choose your Own Adventure” series?

SJ: Yeah
very similar to those. They were written for
younger kids, whereas ours were written for people we knew.
IL: Nevertheless
Fighting Fantasy did appear in the US and
it was reasonably successful. Not on a pro-rata success rate as it was
in the UK or France or Japan, but it was still pretty successful. As
you know the whole series sold over 15 million copies in its various
situations and in 20-odd languages.

SFX: How did you actually
develop the system itself? Did you have any
late-night arguments trying to work it out?

Ian Livingstone: This
is all explained in the 25th anniversary book
about how we had two vaguely different game systems. So there was a lot
of negotiation about which system was finally adopted.
Steve Jackson: We
both had basically the same idea that
these would be paragraphs like that with two or three choices and you’d
move around and everything. Our combat system was slightly different
and our styles were slightly different as well. Ian had a lot more
encounters, and I had less encounters but more things that you could
do. So it was a mix of styles. We had already decided that Ian could
write the first half from the entrance to the river. And I would write
from the river onwards into meeting the warlock, and the keys and
things like that. We’d get together thinking, “We must have a talk
about
this because we’re working along different lines”. So I’d go round to
his place and we’d start talking about it and then say, “Let’s have a
game of snooker!” And then we’d have a game of snooker and it would all
be out the window and we’d end up with nothing being decided at all.
But it all fell together in the end. It all worked out.

SFX: You were saying
the Fighting Fantasy was complex – you could roam around, and even
revisit
locations.

Steve Jackson: There
were certain circumstances where you could revisit
but it was always difficult.
Ian Livingstone:  Here’s
the map that’s going to appear in the 25th
anniversary book.
SFX: Wow, that’s really
cool. A lot of people did make their own maps
as they went along with the books and you kind of had to with some of
them really. I know with Firetop Mountain keys there was some 
complex stuff in there in terms of how you played them. A lot
of
people remember the dice rolling but they don’t remember the
structure.

IL: Did you
cheat?
SFX: Well I was in a car
most of the time when I was reading them so I
didn’t even have dice.

IL: So
you’d think, “I’ll beat that monster”?
SFX: Yeah, I reckon.
SJ: I used
to stick some things in where you had to lose to
the monster to open up a separate passage as part of the adventure!
IL: We used
to think of different ways of cheating so if
you met a guy who tells you he was 58 years old, later on it would say,
“How old was the man you met, turn to that paragraph number”. So there
were lots of ways of keeping in check. Unless you’d met him you
wouldn’t be able to progress because you wouldn’t know which one to go
to, it wasn’t a choice, it was you have to go to that number.
SJ: I
remember doing an interview for Radio Southampton and
the guy had obviously been given the book by the PR people and leafed
through it. And he said that night he sat up in bed and he’d tried to
do it and he did it for a bit and so he thought, “I’ve got to get
through to the end, and I’ve got to cheat”… “You bastard,” he said.
“You put keys in there, I couldn’t get through”.
SFX: There was one, was
it Starship Traveller, where at the end you had
to get a code, and one of my friends said he got stuck on the end of it
trying to work out what this code was. He resorted to flicking through
the entire book reading every paragraph trying to find out what the
unlocked code was. He said he couldn’t find the passage that nothing
else referred to. He wrote down every single link between pages to find
the one where the final paragraph was hidden on. It was almost more
work than just finishing it.

IL: That’s
the thing with puzzles, you feel like you have
to finish them.

SFX: One of the strengths
of the Fighting Fantasy books was that they mixed
and matched genres. A lot of them were set in Titan, but within that
you managed to do horror and fantasy. And the space adventures. Were
there
any genres that you wanted to do that you never got around to?

Steve Jackson: We
did super heroes as well.
Ian Livingstone: I
did a sort of future-apocalypse thing called Freeway
Fighter. But at the end of the day it was the fantasy ones that were
the most popular. Steve in particular liked to try different genres. I
kinda stick more with the fantasy apart from Freeway Fighter.
SJ: I used
to get restless.
IL: It’s
the world of magic and monsters that excites kids
more than any other. With science fiction they have to have some kind
of basic understanding of technology perhaps, or they don’t relate to a
super hero world or whatever. But with fantasy it’s the biggest piece
of
the cake in role-playing.
SFX: Is that what you’d
expected from D&D days?

IL: Well
from Games Workshop we’d realised that
D&D was hugely more popular than say, Traveller which was a
Science Fiction role-playing game. You just realise that people get
excited by monsters and magic and discovery. Look at mythology,
we’ve always liked stories about fantastic worlds.
SJ: We
thought from the Games Workshop experience that there
were certain genres that had that fan following. It wasn’t WWII at the
time. It might be with computer games these days but it was fantasy
mainly. Science fiction was second. Comics. Super heroes. Horror
definitely. Pirates was one as well. You could see these things coming
out in the board games when people tried out new genres and some of
them worked and some of them didn’t. But there was definitely a pecking
order to it and fantasy was on top. Probably more popular than the
other’s combined.
IL: “Dungeons
and dragons” kinda says it all doesn’t it?
People like dungeons and they like dragons more than they like
starships or stars.

SFX: I think the most
popular Fighting Fantasy books
seem to be the sort of “dungeon-crawl” ones. Which ones did you enjoy
writing most in terms of genre? Which ones did you find easiest to
write.

Ian Livingstone: Deathtrap
Dungeon
was one of my most popular ones, and I made sure the title played to
that audience.
SFX: And that had a lot
of instant deaths in it didn’t it? I read a
thing that listed all the deaths and Deathtrap Dungeon had something
like 34 in it I think.
Did
it correspond with
being the most popular and being the most fun to write?

IL: For me
it was between Deathtrap Dungeon and City of
Thieves and maybe Eye of the Dragon (the latest one, after ten
years of experience).
SJ: I
think the one I put the most into was Sorcery
because it was a four-part series. I had the idea of the magic, I don’t
know if people cheated their way through it, probably they did, but I
thought the magic system was alright. But with each book I was
determined that each one would be a bigger adventure than the one
before. It got a bit out of hand at the end. The Crown of Kings had 800
references! I think that was the one I was most proud of. After Warlock
I suppose.
IL: Warlock
we’re most proud of. Because it was the first
one, and you go into a new bookshop and seeing it on the shelves. It
was a very big moment in our lives, like opening the
very first Games Workshop shop.

SFX: Did you feel it gave
you legitimacy when your books were in
WHSmith?

Steve Jackson: Well
it wasn’t long before seeing it on the shelf was quite
chuffing. But really it was
Penguin. Within a month they were back saying, “This is selling quite
well, we’re actually very surprised. We’ve had to reprint it so many
times.” We’d said it would be very easy to turn it into a series, not
really thinking that would ever happen. And lo and behold it did. They
were soon after us to do more.
SFX: So it wasn’t planned
as a series?

IL: No,
no. They were very reluctant at first. They didn’t
do any promotions. The reps weren’t really aware what was going on. For
them it was just a normal book. It was only when it spread through
playgrounds that they realised. They still didn’t believe in it.
Penguin reprinted it something like 11 times in the first couple of
months, always small print runs and always selling out. So someone
figured out that it could be something quite special. They came on the
phone and said, “We need two more!” So Steve started writing Citadel of
Chaos and I started writing Forest of Doom.
SFX: Was there a point
where you felt you were just banging them out in
terms of getting enough stock on shelves as fast as possible.

IL: By 83
and 84 it was a madhouse. They wanted more than
we could possibly cope with. They were selling incredible numbers.
Normally a children’s book would sell 5000 units and be a success. In
83 and 84 these titles were selling 300,000 and more in the UK alone
and this
was extraordinary for the time, just madness.

SFX: Was it hard to
satisfy the demand? I know obviously later on you
got another writer…

Steve Jackson: We
had to take a strategy on that actually. We found
that other publishers were going to be coming out with similar books as
they always do, the copycat thing. And even more galling was that some
of the people who were writing them were people that worked for us at
Games Workshop.
Ian Livingstone: They
all left to compete with us!
SJ: When we
found out about this Penguin said, “What we could really do
with having is a new Fighting Fantasy book each
month.” So when kids go in with their pocket money they could have this
brand new series or what they know and trust and love. Well there was
no way we could do a book a month. So that’s when we started with what
was called the “presents” series where other authors came in and did
them. So it was “Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone presents…” and
then
the name. And the funny story about that was there’s a
company in America that’s run by a guy called Steve Jackson.
SFX: US Steve Jackson.
SJ: That’s
right, US Steve Jackson. He was over at the time
we were talking about this getting other people to write them. He was
over talking about Games Workshop business, distributing his games and
things. We were telling him about the books and how fantastically
successful they were. You could see his ears prick up. Steve Jackson
was quite well known and it was only a small business really. And the
numbers we were talking about he got all excited about. We did our
business within a couple of hours and then, “Do you want to go see the
Tower of London or Stonehenge?” You know, all those things the
Americans
like to do. And he said, “No, I wouldn’t mind having a go at one of
those books.” “Oh it would be fantastic if you’d write one of those
books”. “Could you lend me a typewriter?” So he sat in our boardroom
for three days, for the rest of the trip typing out what turned out to
be
Scorpion Swamp. So it was “Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone presents
Scorpion Swamp by Steve Jackson”. How confusing was that?!

SFX It must have been
difficult coming up with so many ideas. Did you
play quite heavily on your D&D days?

Ian Livingstone:
We were huge role-playing players ourselves so we’d
seen just about every monster known to mankind, real or unreal. And we
would read quite a lot of science fiction and fantasy books as well so
we
were steeped in the mythology and the history of the genre. So it
wasn’t
that hard to come up with original ideas for game books. It wasn’t a
chore – it was a pleasure.
Steve Jackson:
You’re always looking for the new angle, though. Like
Creature of Havoc which turns the tables, where you were the monster
and you had to work yourself out. I always liked things like that
rather than just having another warlock adventure.
IL: There
was lots of different stories to tell. Whether
you start off with you dying and you have to find an antidote or
there’s a race against time. There’s always a different type of mission.

SFX: You’d worked on Owl
and Weasel and Warlock and White Dwarf, but
did you worry about not being professional novelists before?

Ian Livingstone:
I remember being on Saturday Superstore and
being asked a similar question by John Craven. There we were occupying
number one, two and three in the bestsellers list and he started
saying, “When
you are going to write a proper book?” Like it had no validity at all
the fact that millions of kids around the world were enjoying these.
Steve Jackson:
It was a different sort of writing though, from a novel.
I mean you didn’t go into tremendous depth into characters or settings
or anything because it would just be a bit dull to read. People wanted
a choice to make, a game to play, a
puzzle to solve, something like that.

SFX: You’ve got to leave
room for the imagination too. That’s kind of
the point isn’t it?

Ian Livingstone:
Well there is imagination, obviously the fantasy
setting made it a very rich environment. But people enjoyed the choice
and the consequence of that choice. It was the thing that drove them on
and on and on to want to play more and more and more. They ended up
being seen as a sort of educational tool for reluctant readers and
people with a very short attention span who were really enjoying these
books. At first the books were discarded as being terrible for kids -
the Evangelical Society prints this eight-page warning guide because
there’s ghouls and skeletons in there, like these demons are going to
overpower the children who read them. Then suddenly education saying
they were the best thing ever for reluctant readers and education and
creative writing!
Steve Jackson:
It seems funny looking back at how tame they are in
today’s society. What kids see on TV and things. There was a fuss
especially with the religious fanatics who didn’t like demons being
treated as general monsters, as though devils and demons were real
[laughs].

SFX: I was quite
surprised that they were published by
Puffin as a lot of the pictures seemed ghoulish. But looking back they
seem tamer than I’d remembered.

Ian Livingstone:
That’s one thing – it took them a long time
to decide whether to do them for Penguin or Puffin but they realised
that the age of the reader was likely to be 10 or 11 so it had to be
Puffin. What we insisted on, which took a lot of convincing, was we
wanted to commission the artwork. We didn’t want little cutesy bunnies
on the front of these books, we wanted hardcore, graphically detailed
monsters and barbarians. So we used a lot of the Games Workshop artists
to do the book covers and the interior illustrations. We were
absolutely vindicated by that choice as that was what stimulated the
kids imagination, seeing this very intense graphic detail, these
gruesome creatures.
SFX: And the idea that
you’re almost seeing something you shouldn’t be
seeing. That seems slightly too grown up for you.

IL: I don’t
remember hearing of one child who was scared
by them, because kids can realise the difference between fantasy and
reality and can compartmentalise graphic imagery and say, “Well that’s
just make-believe and this is the real world in which we live.”

SFX: As far as I can
remember House of Hell was the only one that was
actually set in contemporary “our world”. Was that partly why that
decision was taken or was that just how it worked out?

Steve Jackson: Well
it was based on 50s B-movie horrors basically and
they’re all set in a contemporary setting. That’s the only reason
that’s set in modern times.
SFX: Did you ever think
of doing more contemporary Fighting Fantasy
books, despite the title of the series?

Ian Livingstone: Well
the richest environment to escape into is fantasy,
otherwise you could do one about shopping, “Do you want to go left to
the bread counter or right to the meat counter?” and then it’s no fun
any more. So the worlds of pure escapism is fantasy and that’s where I
tend to put all my efforts.
SFX: Unless you go to
Japan where they have lots of dating games that
are similar conceptually to Fighting Fantasy.

IL: Fighting
Fantasy has spawned a huge amount of
interactive entertainment, whether it’s computer games or the books you
described or online gaming – it’s all really stemmed from
interactive role-playing games like D&D and Fighting Fantasy.
SFX: Also simultaneously
there was the big text-adventure boom.

IL: Yeah.
There was also MUD and the Ultima series. When
did that start?
SFX: The 1980s,
definitely. Also in the early ’90s you had the LucasArts adventure
Games.

SJ: And
Fighting Fantasy got turned into computer games. Penguin did three of
them and there was this other
company called Adventuresoft that did a range of about four or five,
but all
they tended to do was to stick the text on the screen and a digitalised
picture over the top. I thought what was the point of spending
£15 on that when you can buy the book for three quid?

SFX: I was going to ask
about the covers. I don’t find the reissues as
evocative as the originals, particularly on Forest of Doom.

Steve Jackson: Well
that was Ian McCaig and he was something special.
SFX: Maybe it’s partly my
own nostalgia for the originals. I notice
that Appointment with Fear is the same, the Brian Bolland one.

SJ: Well I
don’t think anyone could beat Brian Bolland. It
was such a great cover that it would be almost disrespectful to replace
it.
Ian Livingstone: Icon
just wanted to put their own brand on them.
SJ: It’s a
publishers thing I think. If you re-launch with
the same covers it doesn’t create any fuss, but if you re-launch with
new covers it looks like a re-launch.
IL: The
25th anniversary’s going to look like the very
first book. They are going to keep it exactly the same.

SFX: When you were
writing the books did you have any trouble keeping
to deadlines?

Ian Livingstone: It
was years of late-night stuff. I remember two in the
morning was the norm, because we were running Games Workshop in the day
and writing Fighting Fantasy books at night.
SFX: How did you manage a
social life?

IL: None.
SJ: It’s
one of those things. Everything was taking off, it
was all moving, all going. Everything seemed to be quite successful and
if that sort of thing happens at that stage in your life, you go with
it.
IL: Girlfriends
weren’t that impressed either. I remember
my girlfriend ended up doing most of the typing for my books. That was
like our night out. I would write it longhand and she would do the
typing and some editing.

SFX: A lot of
your books
came to 400 paragraphs. How did you come to
that number?

Steve Jackson: Well
that’s in the 25th anniversary book. I think when
it came about and were all numbered there were 399 so we decided to
write another one, just a meaningless one to make it to 400. And that
stuck as a standard.

SFX: Did you actually
enjoy writing them, when you were really banging
them out?

Steve Jackson:
Oh yeah. It was like doing and designing a dungeon on
graph paper, but doing it in a form that thousands of people would be
reading.
Ian Livingstone: There
was a perverse pleasure in luring people to
their doom. Because you’d paint a rosy picture that attracted them to
what they thought was going to be a massive amount of treasure but they
ended up falling on poisoned spikes or being fried to toast by a dragon
because actually the other way was the best way to go. That used to
make me
chuckle writing those bits.
SFX: How did you work out
the numbering? Did you throw them all up in
the air?

IL: No no.
SJ: There
were different approaches. Ian used to allocate
numbers and cross them off as he used them. I wrote them in a logical
sequence with As and Bs and indexes instead of numbers then renumbered
the whole lot at the end. There were things to take into account, like
every 30th reference or maybe even less than that would be illustrated,
so they needed spacing out so you’d have to pick out the ones that
needed illustrating and pick out the right numbers for those. And then
somewhere allocated to puzzles where you had to get certain numbers and
things.
IL: I’d
write one to 400 on a sheet of paper and
I’d start off with number one and if it split into two I’d choose 77,
cross that off and 78 and cross that off so I wouldn’t reuse them. And
then I’d circle every 10th one with one that had to have an
illustration. So every time I had an illustration I’d just choose one
of those pre-allocated ones so just getting rid of all these stuff so I
didn’t have to renumber them because there would already be space
because I’d choose numbers that were at least 20 paragraphs apart. It’s
just record-keeping.
SJ: It had
to be re-checked and re-checked and re-checked…
SFX: Was that a system
that you had at the beginning or did it evolve
like that?

IL: No I
had it from the beginning. And I kept a map of
the whole thing. At home I’ve got all these hand-drawn maps the length
of this table as you go through the adventure. It took quite a long
time.

SFX: So at what
point did
you start to part ways with Fighting Fantasy?

Steve Jackson: With
the books, we were exploiting all the ideas we were
coming up with and eventually we had other authors bringing them out as
well and they sort of took over. And from my point of view I was always
looking for a new angle. I guess, I don’t think I’ve ever said this
before, but the thing that killed it for me was that I’d spent a year
writing Trolltooth Wars which is a novel. It had been a lot of hard
work and a lot of it had to be changed and eventually we came out with
something we were happy with. I put all of this effort into and spoke
to the director of Puffin and said, “It’s finished, how are you going
to
be promoting it?” and her reply was, “It’s not Puffin’s policy to
advertise individual books”. I thought, “God, I’ve done all that work
and nobody’s even going to know it exists.” They did a little bit in
the
end but is it worth all that work, all that aggro?
Ian Livingstone: Considering
the volume of sales we’d achieved through
Fighting Fantasy they still weren’t actively advertising and promoting
it which was a bit disappointing because we’d sold millions of copies.
I mean we’d not sold as many copies as Harry Potter but at the time it
was on a relative scale to Harry Potter – and to say that Harry Potter
wouldn’t be advertised would be bizarre.
SJ: They
had a certain philosophy at Penguin/Puffin. They would release 30 books
a month and they’d go
out there in shops and they’d sit back and wait to see if anything
caught. It would be complete fluke if it did, because someone in the
Sunday Times review section had picked up one of these books and given
it to their kids and their kids liked it. And then an article would
appear and they’d sell lots of this book. And some of the others that
were just as good wouldn’t get an opportunity but that didn’t matter to
Penguin because it was the shotgun approach – scatter them
and a few would come good.
SFX: So how did Fighting
Fantasy catch fire then?

IL: It was
a combination of us promoting it through White
Dwarf and the power of the playground.
SJ: WD did
feature Fighting Fantasy but it was in the game
book section. There were a couple of good bits of publicity we got
because the concept was good. We were
on a phone-in on radio in the midlands for about two hours where people
were phoning in saying,
“Turn left, turn right!” And mocking up battles and that sort of
thing. According to the promotions manager at Penguin it was really
significant as sales shot up after that.

SFX: Apart from video
games, Fighting Fantasy wasn’t expolited more in terms of other mediums.

Ian Livingstone:
The main problem Fighting Fantasy suffered was that
there was no central character, no Harry Potter, because the reader was
the
hero. So we had a generic brand that related to role-playing games but
there was no character identity, which was a bit of a stumbling block.
So it was the power of the brand. In fact a lot of people didn’t refer
to the books as Fighting Fantasy, more as “the books with the green
spine”
or individual titles. From the merchandising of Fighting Fantasy into
other media, it didn’t have that single
character or brand awareness of the title as other brands had.
Steve Jackson: The
other thing that happened is that at the
time in the 1980s there were a lot of people talking about doing
computer games.
Everyone who came to us with a proposal for a Fighting Fantasy game
series was just churning them out.
IL: It
could have been a lot bigger brand but what was
holding it up was that Penguin held the merchandising rights and they
weren’t doing a selling
job. We had arguments at the time about that.

SFX: Do you think
nowadays a Warcraft-style MMORPG could have been the
way forward, something like that?

Ian Livingstone: We’d
have liked to have seen a lot more products
based on Fighting Fantasy, and build a Fighting Fantasy world in other
media and other products of course. It’s partly to blame with Penguin
not actively promoting the brand and not going to licensing shows and
saying, “These books have sold millions of copies!”
Steve Jackson: I
think Fighting Fantasy has got to offer a believable
world. A consistent world that’s been developed and it’s in all the
manuals and the adventures themselves and everything. That is the
potential attraction for a licensee who wants to do a computer game or
whatever. There have been Fighting Fantasy phone games, particularly in
Japan actually, there are about ten of the books as phone games. That’s
the main draw, that consistent world with the depth of characters and
creatures, and geography.
IL: We
should have had those
rights with an independent agent. Penguin
didn’t realise the potential of what Fighting
Fantasy could have become in other media. It was too early. But we’ve
got all those rights back now.

SFX: Do you own
everything now?

Ian Livingstone: Yeah.
SFX: So do you think in
times to come…?

IL: We
would be delighted and surprised if there was a
resurgence of the sort of sales volumes that we achieved in
the ’80s. I
think given the sort of interactive environment in which we live now
it’s highly unlikely but it would be great if it was.

SFX: I read that you and
Steve and a few other people still do gaming
nights. Do you still do that?

Ian Livingstone: Oh
yes. There’s a Game Night Newsletter. Issue 294. It’s the same people,
Peter Molyneux, Steve and myself, Clive Robert (who
runs Deep Red) and two guys who aren’t in the industry. We play games
regularly about every 10 days, board games and particularly games like
these. We keep a points tally and at the end of the year a trophy is
given out to the winner. It’s like a spoof of a gentleman’s club, very
tongue in cheek but we enjoy our games nights.
Steve Jackson: We
don’t tend to play heavy-duty role-playing games,
these are games that will last no longer than about two hours. Caylis
is
one – our current favourite. And we play a lot of German
games, the Germans still have a good industry that produces a certain
type of strategy game. Nice artwork on the board, we’re quite
particular about that.
SFX: Is it difficult to
just add a new game to the games night?

IL: I have
about 1000 board games at home. I replace
games nowadays because of limited shelf space. I will dump something
that
isn’t a classic for one that is a better game. It’s not just collecting
for the sake of it. It’s collecting because the game has some sort of
value or the game mechanic or a theorem is particularly good.
SFX: Does it make you sad
that many generations now are not growing up
playing board games?

IL: Well
time is the enemy for everyone, there’s the three-minute generation
where people don’t have any attention span anymore. You are competing
with the mobility of people, the internet and just
people’s lives in general. There’s no time to get together to play
board games.
SJ: I can
see board games being something for a certain age,
like blokes who go down the pub, not so much kids, because kids are
media-driven and it’s all hype and console games. It’s reasons
for men to get together, they go
down the pub. But to get together over a game… Well, it’s compulsive,
I
don’t know why more people don’t do it. They’ve got no history with
board games I suppose. Men like to compete, they do like to get
together and compete. And over a board game is the perfect way to do it.
IL: There’s
nothing more satisfying than stabbing someone
in the back while looking at their face. Looking into their eyes and
stabbing them. The banter is always fun.
SFX: Do you ever have any
board-throwing incidents or is it pretty
reserved these days?

IL: We’re a
bit long in the tooth, a bit more tame these
days and our egos aren’t so charged anymore.
SFX: It must be quite fun
just to be able to go back to where you
started, just playing games.

IL: Well at
the end of the day we are hobbyists, we are
games players, and we are very very fortunate to be in a position to
make a business out of our hobby. If we were in a business about making
cups we would have been much less enthusiastic about it. The fact that
you can make a business out of your hobby that you enjoy it’s fantastic.
SJ: Most
people say, “Don’t do it because it spoils the hobby!” But it’s not
spoilt our hobby at all.
IL: We’re in the
entertainment industry at the end of
the day. We’re about creating fun for us and other people.

SFX: I guess we’re
out of time! Thanks for talking to us guys!

Ian Livingstone:
No problem!
Steve Jackson: Thanks!

If you enjoyed that, be sure to join us for more interviews and features in SFX every month.