Ian Livingstone is widely acknowledged as a pioneer of modern gaming culture, with a storied career spanning multiple celebrated projects and franchises. Tapjoy recently spoke with Livingstone about the history of gaming, how digital technologies are impacting consumer behavior and what modern gaming investors look for in projects worth funding.
What We Learned:
From Games Workshop to Fighting Fantasy to video games, you’ve been enmeshed in the fantasy genre for decades. What initially attracted you to fantasy? What were some challenges of the business, and how do they compare to present day?
I used to read lots of comics and science fiction and fantasy novels in my youth. I started playing Dungeons & Dragons in 1975 not long after co-founding Games Workshop with Steve Jackson. I became obsessed with D&D and realized that fantasy was an amazing genre for games because the imagination could run wild. Playing it sent you on heroic journeys of the mind in the comfort of your own home. It was adventure unlimited – epic worlds, perilous quests, flesh-ripping monsters, gold, treasure, danger, chaos and magic spells!
We were kids who never grew up. Playing games was our pastime and we were lucky enough to make a business out of it. There were multiple challenges back then, many of which remain today in the world of digital games. Raising finance, finding talent, convincing retailers about this ‘weird Dungeons & Dragons game’, distribution, stock control, cash flow, advertising, marketing, building a community, etc. We made it up as we went along. It wasn’t easy when we first started Games Workshop – we had to live in a van for three months at one point – but who cares when you are living the dream?
Do you see that same enthusiasm for “living the dream” in the latest generation of game developers and publishers? In what ways does it differ, and what challenges do they face that you did not?
The enthusiasm is absolutely there, but there are a lot more people doing it than when I started out. There are over 2,000 video game development studios in the UK alone. Many of them are micro studios bootstrapping their fledgling businesses. But ultimately this experience will serve them well as future investors like to see entrepreneurs who have made sacrifices and are invested in their own businesses. They’ve made a few games and have the scars to prove it! The Americans call it ‘skin in the game’ and these are the people who are most likely to get investment.
You recently spoke at Advertising Week Europe about “The Power of Play”. What exactly is the power of play, and how did you tap into it?
Play is the first thing all children want to do, and they do it instinctively. There is no prescribed formula for play. Play is natural. Play in the broadest sense of the word, from building blocks to solving puzzles to playing board games or video games, is important. It allows us to have fun, but it also has deeper and more tangible cognitive benefits. Playing games combines a broad mix of problem-solving, decision making, intuitive learning, trial and error, logic, analysis, management, communication, risk-taking, planning, resource management and computational thinking.
Games stimulate the imagination and encourage creativity. Games give players continuous assessment and allow them to fail in a safe environment. Games are a contextual hub for learning. My Fighting Fantasy gamebooks raised literacy levels and got a whole generation of children reading in the 1980s. But at the time some parents wanted them banned because they had the word ‘game’ in the title. Why do some people think it is impossible to learn whilst having fun? It’s often the academic assumption that ‘play’ and ‘creativity’ lack rigour. Yet simulation games are used as a training tool for pilots and surgeons.
In the last two decades, there’s been a heavy shift to digital in the gaming industry. How have consumer and business habits shifted to accommodate the change, and how did you adapt?
Technology constantly drives innovation in the games industry. During the last decade we’ve seen the industry transform from being predominantly about premium-priced physical products sold at retail to digital services free at the point of delivery and up-selling content in-game. Mobile games are now enjoyed by millions of people who had never played a game before, happily swiping their fingers across touchscreens. Free-to-play is certainly the most successful business model in mobile with only one premium game in the Top 200 top grossing charts. Formats, player experiences and business models have changed dramatically.
It’s fascinating that we can play games for free and yet creators can still earn revenue from their games. Twenty years ago it was unthinkable, but over time it became a reality. However, free-to-play does not mean free-of-value. If you do not give players value, they will leave, even if the game is free. Thankfully, that is now understood. For example, rewarded advertising is an elegant solution since it generates value for both the players and game makers.
If you could give any advice to your 25-year-old self before starting Games Workshop, what would it be? And what advice do you have for the fantasy-loving hopeful entrepreneurs just starting out today?
I’d tell myself to raise capital for the business sooner rather than later. Crowdfunding can be a good route to market, and the government’s SEIS and EIS investment schemes have brought a lot of seed capital into the industry. But investors like myself tend to limit themselves to about ten projects. The reality is that there are a lot more companies currently seeking investors than there are investors seeking companies to invest in. You might have to kiss a lot of frogs to get funding, but if your studio ticks all the right boxes — talent, experienced team members, strong track record — the money will be there.
I’d also say don’t be afraid of failure. Failure is just success work-in-progress. Try to avoid trading away your intellectual property for project finance because owning your own IP builds greater value in your business. If you are a creative person, do what you are good at and partner with people to do the stuff you can’t do or shouldn’t do, but never give away creative control. Above all, enjoy what you do. If you don’t enjoy making games, you’re in the wrong industry.