A visit to the fantasy world of Ian Livingstone
He made millions on Dungeons & Dragons, and millions more unleashing Lara Croft and Tomb Raider on the world. So just what kind of mind do they spring from?
Tuesday 02 June 1998
Everything about Ian Livingstone is tidy and strictly managed. The manicured version of his life is, by now, public knowledge. He grew up in what he calls "a Coronation Street terrace" in Rusholme, Manchester, the only child of a Belgian mother and a salesman father who had met during the war. After a degree in business studies at Manchester University, he found himself in London, working for an oil company and "staring out of the window".
At 25 he moved into a flat in Shepherd's Bush with his old school pal and partner-in-games Steve Jackson, and set up Games Workshop, manufacturing and retailing fantasy games and models. The two routinely worked 18-hour days, returning home from their day jobs to run the games business.
The big break came when Gary Cygax, the American inventor of Dungeons and Dragons, got in touch after seeing a newsletter put out by Games Workshop. Cygax was looking for a European distributor for D&D. Livingstone and Jackson persuaded him that they had something more to offer than a couple of square feet in Shepherd's Bush.
"It was nail-biting stuff," says Livingstone. "On no account must Gary find out that the business was housed in a run-down flat." The distribution business took off and Jackson and Livingstone quit their day jobs.
Eventually, their landlady got fed up with the endless mail and phone calls for Games Workshop and kicked them out. Undeterred, the pair hired an office, bought a van, joined a squash club with loos and a shower, and lived in the van. "Even though we were destitute because the bank wouldn't lend us any money, we were happy because we believed in what we were doing," Livingstone says.
In 1977, the two friends opened Games Workshop's first retail store in Hammersmith. Their phenomenally successful Fighting Fantasy series of role-playing gamebooks for children (typically boys aged eight to 12) followed five years later. At their most productive, Jackson and Livingstone were churning out one Fighting Fantasy title every two months. In an age of hyped-up publishing phenomena, this was the real thing. The Fighting Fantasy series has sold more than 14 million copies in 23 languages.
Livingstone and Jackson sold Games Workshop in 1991 for almost pounds 10m (it is worth more than pounds 200m now). At the age of 41, Livingstone retired to a life of fancy cars, plush yachts and golf courses. "I'd gone nuts. Penguin were just screaming for more [Fighting Fantasy books]. There'd been such huge pressure."
Livingstone's "retirement" lasted a year, during which he wrote two books, developed board games and got "bored crazy". With his entrepreneurial antennae twitching, he invested in a computer games company, Domark, and when Domark was acquired by Eidos in 1995, Livingstone followed.
Always on the look-out for the next big thing, Livingstone spotted an artist's drawing of a big-breasted Riot Grrrl on a visit to a games development company called Core, in February 1996. "I just thought, this is it, so I bought the company." The Riot Grrrl became Lara Croft, the infamous heroine of the Tomb Raider series of adventure/slasher games which have gone on to sell millions of copies. His latest, Deathtrap Dungeon, based on one of his early Fighting Fantasy books, has just been released for the Playstation and is cresting the console charts.
Livingstone won't say how much he is worth, but his shares in Eidos alone tot up to pounds 5m, and coupled with royalties from the books it can't be much less than pounds 10m.
Enormous wealth, a grand new home, a new young wife, Frances, and a baby son, Jack, would be enough to satisfy most people, but at 47 Ian Livingstone hasn't even begun to ease off. "I'm a workaholic," he says. "The adventure of the unknown is always very strong in me."
Ian Livingstone grew up an only child. At school he was bullied and even now he finds trust hard, although he claims to be "close to the people I do trust". As a child, his chief loves were Subbuteo, which he used to play with his schoolmate Steve Jackson, and comic books.
Was he lonely? "Being an only child, I suppose you are lonely and you do make your own entertainment," Livingstone says. He does this a lot. You ask him a personal question and he gives a generalised answer or trots out a pat response. He is a master of both unconscious and planned evasion.
When I ask him whether he has ever smoked dope to enhance his creativity, he quotes word for word the cheesy answer he gave to Loaded magazine ("This is the Clinton question ...") In common with many of his generation, he has smoked dope, of course, and admits to "once having something put in my drink", which was his first and only experience with LSD. (He hated it. It made him feel a loss of control.) These days, he claims to enjoy the "occasional roll-up with Samson tobacco and nothing else".
Like many driven people, Livingstone doesn't go in for self-examination. Introspection appears to fox him. When I ask him to list five of his most dearly-held moral principles, he comes up with loyalty and, after a long pause, compassion, then dries up. Neither does he seem to question the ethics of what he does. His latest game, Deathtrap Dungeon, features exploding pigs, axe-wielding zombies, splatter graphics and an impossibly endowed, virtually naked heroine. But he fails to see any of this as violent, or even questionable.
"Kids can differentiate between fantasy and reality. What you see as violence is actually comic," he insists. It doesn't bother him that one anxious mother wrote to the tabloids claiming that after reading one of Livingstone's Fighting Fantasy books her son had levitated. "Nothing could have been better PR." he says.
But it is the invention of Lara Croft which really stirred up a hornet's nest of trouble (and a ton of free PR) for Livingstone. The nubile, half- clad heroine of Tomb Raider burst on to the computer game scene in November 1996, to the dismay of many feminists, who saw her as the embodiment of an adolescent male desire to create a "perfect" and perfectly controllable fantasy of womanhood.
Livingstone handles the feminist arguments with faux-naivete: "I'm quite happy admitting I'm a dream merchant. There's nothing wrong with dreaming about beautiful women."
Yet, in an interview in Loaded, he took a more cynical line. "What would you rather watch - some hairy-arsed scaffolder ... or the pert-bottomed, large-breasted Lara Croft?" When pressed, he simply insists that "Lara Croft is part of our culture. Look at the Spice Girls, look at All Saints, look at every women's magazine or the TV. Lara is a product of that collective consciousness."
Perhaps as a reaction to his over-regimented and bullied school life, Livingstone thinks of himself as a happy-go-lucky, liberal kind of person, very much a child of the Sixties. A genuine democrat, he has no time for snobs. "I've always hated people knowing their place and people thinking they're superior. Some people may be more successful, but they won't be better."
He admits to contempt for bureaucracy, and has set up the office at Eidos to give his employees a great deal of freedom. This, he believes, is the way to get the most out of a team of creative people, and he is quick to cut loose anyone who, as he sees it, takes advantage of the unstructured environment. "If they don't react to incentives, then they must go," he says simply. "It's difficult to suffer fools gladly."
This, according to Livingstone, is all very Capricorn. He likes to think of himself as the quintessential Capricorn (although, of course, he doesn't believe in astrology). So what does he mean by it? "I suppose you could say I'm dogged, determined and lonely. A get-there-in-the-end person," he explains.
What Livingstone fails to mention, or even seems to notice, is his relentless need to compete. He talks a great deal about being a social person, yet his degree of interest in people (or, at least, in other men) appears to turn on whether or not he can beat them at some game or other. Every Thursday night he stages a social evening at his home where he and his friends gather to play board games for a trophy. "Men can only relate to other men through other things," he insists.
In his spare time he is a fan of Local Area Networked games "because you can enjoy through the screen the ability to get your neighbour and see him squirm". Internet gaming doesn't really appeal to him. "If I beat someone in Milwaukee, I may as well play the computer."
This rather instrumental attitude towards people seems to be part of Ian Livingstone's solipsism, his need to be in control. "If someone else's life impacts on mine, I get a bit twitchy," he admits. That may explain why he left it until the age of 47 to marry (although his workaholic habits couldn't have helped much). Even his son does not escape the Livingstone project. "I've done all this stuff and now I've got Jack. He's the final piece in the jigsaw," he says, as though the son is the crowning fixture in a monument to the life of the father. How does he make enough time for the boy? "You have to. It was difficult at first to make the adjustment, but now he's got some personality it's great," he says.
In spite of his own claim to have been influenced by the Sixties, he is in many ways a product of the damp, regimented, class-ridden, lifeless Fifties of his northern, working-class childhood. It is the Fifties he has reacted against and it is the Fifties from which he is still trying to escape. Even now, he remains very taken with the idea of life being dull. "We live in a squeaky clean, controlled world where we do what we're told to do," he says. "Life is going to the office, going shopping, deciding whether to buy margarine or butter."
Ian Livingstone has created a business from his own neuroses: the need for control, a deep-rooted fear of boredom and some fierce fantasies of escape. He is truly games-obsessed. The basement of his house, which he calls the dungeon, is immaculately stacked with games (Livingstone has 600, including such enduring classics as Dallas - Das Spiel der Ewing- Familie) and he is only really at ease when he is playing them, talking about them or reinventing them. Get him on some other topic and he quickly becomes insecure. Mere mention of the silver Porsche languishing on the gravel driveway launches him into a complex self-justifying argument about the trade-off between the pleasure he gets from driving the thing and the sense he has of its being a vapid status symbol.
In the world of games, though, Livingstone is on solid ground. It is a passion that has paid off, and he is understandably protective of it. When I suggest that fantasy fiction is Mills & Boon for boys, Livingstone looks hurt. "Not the way I do it. I'm more into that dark, medieval thing."
Having conquered computer games, Livingstone is headed for the next level: film. Paramount has bought the rights to Tomb Raider, and Livingstone says he is determined not to let the film become another games-to-movie turkey like Mario and Streetfighter, though he hasn't yet watched either. "From what I've heard, they've been done in a naff way." He has his eye on producing the first non-naff fantasy film. He promises that "it'll have disease and filth and a horrible, horrible fantasy world with plague, pestilence and religious maniacs and vile things done to people".
We climb the stairs from the dungeon back up into the light. "I don't like mess," says Ian Livingstone. "But my imagination, now that likes a lot of mess."
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