Train2Game interview: Ian Livingstone OBE on Make Something Unreal Live, Fighting Fantasy and game design

Ian Livingstone OBE is Life President of Eidos, co-founder of Games Workshop, co-author of the popular Fighting Fantasy novels and one of the most respected figures in the UK games industry.

He also judged the Train2Game and Epic Games Make Something Unreal Live contest, which saw Commando Kiwi and their Warlock of Firetop Mountain game named winners.

We sat down with Livingstone at Develop Conference, where the games industry legend discussed Make Something Unreal Live, the changing games industry and what it takes to be successful in it, his upcoming brand new Fighting Fantasy novel and more.

You were involved with Train2Game and Epic Games Make Something Unreal Live contest at The Gadget Show earlier this year, can you explain what your role was for those who weren’t there?

My involvement was to be supplier of the intellectual property, Steve Jackson and I allowing the whole initiative to use our intellectual property in terms of Fighting Fantasy. The development teams were able to use whichever titles they wanted – they used Warlock of Firetop Mountain, Deathtrap Dungeon, The Citadel of Chaos and Armies of Death – and imagine them in any way they wished to create a brand new game using Unreal Technology.

The winners of Make Something Unreal Live were Commando Kiwi with Warlock of Firetop Mountain, how is the game coming along ahead of its upcoming release?

The other part of our function was to help judge the final which was held at Gadget Show Live in Birmingham. That was really good because it was so close with deciding what game would be the winner, but in the end we decided on Warlock of Firetop Mountain because we felt that they’d achieved the most in an original way, a fun way, a very creative way and mostly importantly, something that’s a really fun game to play.

The team since then have been working hard, it’s incredible what they’ve been able to achieve effectively as a virtual team, only having met for one week to work together. Student teams with a lot of ambition, a lot of drive, a lot of creativity. I’m really looking forward to seeing the final game, and I’m sure it’ll be a very proud moment for them when they finally see Warlock of Firetop Mountain on the iStore.

The games are running using the Unreal Engine on an iPad which is a feat in itself, looking very good for what are mobile games.

Yes, it just shows their ability to develop fantastic content using a great piece of technology which is the Unreal Development Kit.

The future of iOS and mobile looks very bright, with analysts claiming it’ll overtake console gaming, or even make it obsolete. What are your thoughts on the issue?

Undoubtedly the smartphone is going to be the largest – or shall we say the biggest number in terms of being the most available platform – but that doesn’t mean for one second that Triple A console gaming is going to disappear, they’re going to live together.

And whilst the platforms of the consoles might change with their technology ended up embedded in a smart TV, or their business model might move from a premium to a freemium model, people will always want a very rich, cinematic, very visual gaming experience. Whilst at other times they’ll be happy to play games on their smartphones or social networks like Facebook, I think most core gamers will want that very rich, visual experience.

So, one is not going to be at the expense of the other; sometimes you want a big gaming experience, sometimes you just want a snack and some light entertainment like watching an indie film or watching a Hollywood movie.

You mentioned blockbuster games; many nowadays seem to focus on style over substance. But what do you think game designers can learn or adapt from old-school RPGs and board games?

You’ve got to create a strong storyline, a great narrative, have a great a great emotional engagement. But above all, with a game, the gameplay has to be fantastic because people will always buy a game which has great gameplay and poor graphics over something which has great graphics and poor gameplay. So when people ask what are the three most important things in a game? I will say gameplay, gameplay, gameplay.

You have a new Fighting Fantasy book on the way; firstly, can you tell us a bit about it, please? And secondly, why is now the right time for a new entry in the series?

Well, August 2012 is the 30th anniversary of Warlock of Firetop Mountain, and it just seems like yesterday when Steve Jackson and I saw it first appear on shelves at book shops around the country. Fighting Fantasy really touched a nerve at the time; pre-digital, the very first interactive entertainment albeit in book form, it resonated with a very wide population resulting in nearly 17 million copies of the series sold, translated to 28 languages.

I always wanted to celebrate the 30th anniversary, especially when nowadays so many people who grew up with those books, who are now in their late 30s or early 40s, and as soon as you mention Fighting Fantasy they sort of revert to childhood and have such fond memories. For me that’s very gratifying and almost humbling that people liked what Steve and I did way back when, and it’s still as relevant today as it was back then.

So I decided to write a new one and the title is Blood of the Zombies. It’s also going to be available on iOS and Android, so hopefully it’ll appeal to ten year olds of today and ten year olds of the 1980s.

How do you go about the process of writing a Fighting Fantasy book?

It’s a very complicated process! It’s a nightmare in parts; it’s like writing several books at once, because you have to keep track of several different parts of the branching narrative. So, it’s effectively writing a computer programme, a flowchart where you allocate numbers as the path branches, and keep track of all the items you can find and the inventory and make sure everything balances in combat, making sure the monsters, there aren’t too many of them or they aren’t too hard to overcome.

So there’s a lot of balancing required, but at the same time it has to be story driven. So, it’s part book, part game, part puzzle, but hopefully Blood of the Zombies will resonate with today’s audiences and will be a worth inclusion in the series

Back to game development if there’s one piece of advice you could give those aspiring to break into the industry, what would it be?

Be true to yourself, do something that you want to do, make something original, be creative, express yourself in your own way and hopefully you’ll find an audience that appreciates what you do. If you spend your life copying other people, I suspect that will never lead to monetary success and nor will it satisfy your soul. So, be true to yourself, that’s the most important thing you can do.

Thanks for your time.

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