He has been called the Godfather of the UK videogame industry, and it's a moniker well deserved. After founding board game store Games Workshop and writing the first game books with chum Steve Jackson, Ian Livingstone OBE exploded upon the videogame world with one of the UK's leading ladies: Lara Croft.
Now though, with the nineties a fond memory and Eidos' new Japanese owner just a conference call away, Livingstone is turning his attention to other matters. Here, in a rare interview conducted at the recent London Games Conference, the Eidos Life President takes Eurogamer on a whistle-stop tour through the career of a living legend.
Eurogamer: Why are you famous?
Ian Livingstone: Well! I wouldn't say I'm particularly famous. I'm known by quite a lot of gamers, I guess.
My claim to fortune was, I was a games geek. I was sharing a flat in Shepherd's Bush with two school friends, Steve Jackson and John Peake.
We didn't have much money. Instead of going out we stayed in and played board games such as Diplomacy and Avalon Hill Wargames. We thought, 'Wouldn't it be great to turn our hobby into a business?'
We put out a newsletter called Owl and Weasel, a little instant print thing. We sent it to everybody we knew in games. One of the recipients of it, although we hadn't sent it to him directly, was Gary Gygax, who'd just invented Dungeons & Dragons. He wrote back and said, 'Love your magazine. Here's this game I've just invented.'
It was a little white box with three books of unintelligible rules, but it opened a whole new world of imagination. It was the very first role-playing game I'd ever seen in my life. Here was a design-a-game kit. One person became a dungeon master and created a labyrinth of rooms and passageways populated with monsters and treasure, and the other players took on roles, like fighters, heroes, wizards, magic users, clerics. Through conversation they explored dungeons, killed monsters and found treasure. And then they'd level up.
Of course, Dungeons & Dragons was really just a game of the imagination, but it had a profound effect on so many games going forward, especially in the world of computer and videogames. Without Dungeons & Dragons, would World of Warcraft be the game it is? Probably not.
We launched Dungeons & Dragons and ended up opening Games Workshop stores because we couldn't get anybody else to stock the game. Games Workshop was hugely successful. We launched Warhammer.
We also decided to take the essence of role-playing games and create a solo games adventure in a book format. This was the very first Fighting Fantasy game book Steve and I wrote called The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.
They were published by Penguin Books. They started off selling very slowly, but the word of mouth built of these cool, interactive adventures where the reader is the hero, made choices, killed monsters and had to win their way through the book. They were the very first interactive books and they were very compelling because suddenly the readers were saying, 'This is my adventure. It's not somebody else's adventure.'
Slowly the demand for them built as the word spread in playgrounds. They ended up selling over 16 million copies in over 25 languages. Warlock of Firetop Mountain, Deathtrap Dungeon, Citadel of Chaos, City of Thieves... They were fantastic times.
Eurogamer: How did you go from that to making videogames?
Ian Livingstone: I invested in a small British developer/publisher called Domark in the mid-eighties. I forgot about that investment until, having sold out of Workshop in 1991, I invested more money into Domark in 1992 and joined the company as an executive.
In 1995 we created a new company, which was four companies together: Domark, Simis, Big Red and Eidos Technologies. We created a new company, Eidos Interactive, and we floated it on the London Stock Exchange.
We didn't have that many great titles at the time. Championship Manager was probably the most famous. But then we acquired another PLC in the space, called CentreGold, and with CentreGold came Tomb Raider. We published Tomb Raider in November 1996 and the rest, as they say, is history. It was love at first sight with Lara and we went on to sell over 30 million copies of Tomb Raider.
Eurogamer: Looking back, how do you feel about your career?
Ian Livingstone: I've been privileged and lucky to have built an exciting, rewarding career out of turning my hobby of games into a business.
Eurogamer: What's a day in the life of Ian Livingstone like?
Ian Livingstone: Varied. Eidos, as you know, was acquired by Square Enix recently. The reason they bought Eidos was not to take all our amazing IP like Hitman, Thief, Tomb Raider and Champ Manager and take it back to Tokyo to develop. Far from it.
They were buying the IP but also the expertise of our studios, the ability to make games in our great studios for a global audience. So rather than just being a Japanese-facing entity with Square Enix products, apart from Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, which reached a global audience, they now had a big portfolio of games that addressed a global market.
Getting back to me, as Life President, within the company I sit on our green light committee, which gives a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to all games being considered, and also whether games in development meet the milestone.
I visit our studios occasionally to give them the benefit of my wisdom of my ancient frame. I do special projects. I act as an ambassador on a global basis. I do a lot of public speaking around the world. I lobby government on issues like production tax credits and skills agenda.
Right now I'm involved with the Livingstone Hope Skills Review. The Culture Minister Ed Vaizey asked me in the summer to look at the whole talent pipeline of the computer games industry.
Quite clearly there's a skills issue in the UK, and we want to make sure UK studios have access to great UK talent. All the studios are saying they can't get the right talent over here. We don't want more production moving overseas. We don't want to encourage even more studios having to employ overseas talent. We want to make sure we grow the right talent in the UK. That's taking up time.
I'm also one the GamesAid trustees, and the vice chair of the BAFTA Games Committee, chair of the Computer Games Council for Skillset, and do some advisory roles. I also tinker around with a few investments in the social games space.
Eurogamer: Not much then.
Ian Livingstone: I'm just a young kid having fun.
Eurogamer: Eidos' next big game is Deus Ex: Human Revolution from Eidos Montreal. Will it live up to the hype?
Ian Livingstone: It's been quite a long time in development but it's been well worth the wait.
Eurogamer: What is Eidos' expectation for it?
Ian Livingstone: It's a legacy product. Warren Spector of Ion Storm put out two amazing games over 10 years ago. PC Zone voted Deus Ex as the best PC game of all time. Being a legacy product with a huge amount of heritage, you've got to live up to the expectations of the consumers.
I can safely say enough time is being given to realise the potential of the game so not to disappoint the audience.
Eurogamer: Commercially, do you see it being a monster hit?
Ian Livingstone: I would hope so. At the end of the day it's a niche product, of course. Augmentation in the far future, the battle between warring factions – it's a tough subject matter for some people, but it's going to be of such amazing visual quality that people who have not been drawn into science-fiction before might give it a go. I would hope so.
Eurogamer: Were you surprised by the success of Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light?
Ian Livingstone: No. I was hoping it was going to do fantastic. It was brilliant for several reasons. One, the camera was pulled back and there was an isometric view, and you could see a lot more of the game area in which Lara was playing.
More importantly, the fact you could play single-player or two-player cooperatively gave a whole new dimension to the Tomb Raider experience. We had our concerns as to whether anybody would want to play anybody other than Lara, but everyone seems perfectly happy to play as her companion.
Eurogamer: As the first downloadable Tomb Raider game, was it an experiment?
Ian Livingstone: Yeah. There was a lot more action and jumping around and instant, fast action – as you would expect on a download title.
Eurogamer: Does it give you the confidence that a download-only game can be critically and commercially successful?
Ian Livingstone: Clearly no one can afford to ignore online. Some people say that by 2013 revenues from network sales will surpass those of packaged goods at retail. All publishers and content owners need to get their online strategy in place sooner rather than later.
You can't afford to ignore the new platforms. There's iPhone, on Facebook there's Zynga with 250 million players. Then 12 million World of Warcraft players. These are big numbers and you've got to be in that space.
Eurogamer: What can you tell me about the next pillar Tomb Raider release?
Ian Livingstone: Have we announced that? I really can't comment on that at this point.
Eurogamer: What was your reaction to the reception to Kane & Lynch 2?
Ian Livingstone: The negative?
Eurogamer: It seemed polarised to me.
Ian Livingstone: Yeah. Kane & Lynch 2 clearly had a Marmite effect on people. You either loved it or hated it. Some people liked the juddering camera, home video style. Others absolutely hated it. Some loved the characters. Some didn't like the characters.
But it's artistic, thrill-a-minute instant action stuff. I thought it was a great game, but I can understand people might not have liked it.
Eurogamer: Is the Kane & Lynch franchise alive and kicking? Do you intend to build on it and continue with more releases?
Ian Livingstone: We haven't made any announcements about Kane & Lynch going forward, but we all know that Kane and Lynch are two amazing characters who have a lot of brand equity. People like those guys, so they're not going to disappear.
Eurogamer: We've heard about lay-offs at IO Interactive. What's happening with that developer? We assume development of Hitman 5 continues.
Ian Livingstone: There have been a small number of lay-offs, but other than that I don't want to talk about IO today.
Eurogamer: Thief 4 has been announced. Is it a 2012, 2013 or 2014 title?
Ian Livingstone: ...
Eurogamer: There's an official website up on the internet for the game.
Ian Livingstone: I need to check. Why don't you send me an email and I'll tell you what I can. I'm always getting in trouble for saying things I shouldn't.
Eurogamer: You can't get in trouble. You're Life President.
Ian Livingstone: Trouble in inverted commas. They say, 'We haven't announced that! Why are you saying that?' Oh, sorry!
Eurogamer: What game do you consider to have had the most influence on your career?
Ian Livingstone: Probably Pong. That's being a bit flippant, but it taught me many things. It taught me about compelling gameplay. When people ask me, 'What are the three most important things in a game?' I always say, 'Gameplay, gameplay, gameplay.'
Graphics and technology are of course essential, but at the end of the day gameplay is the most important thing. You will always play a game with great gameplay and average graphics rather than a game with great graphics and average gameplay.
It taught me about simplicity. The rules are simple. Six words: avoid missing ball for high score. Developers often lose that message and they make games too hard and too complicated with complicated controls and rock-hard puzzles right in the middle of where they're going. Why?
Surely you want people to enjoy all your work. You don't go to the cinema, see 10 minutes of the film and then you're not allowed to see any more. It's ridiculous. Make it accessible for everybody to complete a game. You want some difficulties – that can be off-road – but don't prohibit anyone from going from A to B.
And the fact you want to play it again and again and again – it had that replay value. So for me there were three or four really important lessons from Pong, which, after all, was just one white dot moving across the screen, yet it had deep meaning.
But other games... Civilization. I used to play Championship Manager an awful lot in the early days, but that was just fun.
Eurogamer: Do you get to play games often these days?
Ian Livingstone: Yeah. I play a lot of games. I play social games. I play iPhone games. Everyone's playing Angry Birds, and I'm one of them. I still enjoy playing Virtua Tennis on Dreamcast. I play that with my kids. That was a great game.
If I'm allowed to say something that's not a computer game I'd have to say above everything else is Dungeons & Dragons. That had a huge influence on me. The fact you could role-play and level up with experience points and explore worlds through conversation – that opened a whole new dynamic to gameplay. That would be more important than Pong.
Ian Livingstone is Life President of Eidos Interactive.