Steve Jackson (2007)
From Death Ray 4. I have also interviewed Steve Jackson’s business partner and friend, Ian Livingstone, when he was at Eidos, working on Tomb Raider. Interesting factoid? Maybe not!
Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone created the Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks, and founded Games Workshop, now one of the largest fantasy gaming companies on the world. Steve Jackson took time out from his busy schedule (well, actually he was watching the Wimbledon final, but he usually is busy) to tell us how these two great landmarks of the games world came about.
I know how GW came about, but what was the genesis of the Fighting Fantasy books? Where did you get the idea from for this strange new form of interactive fiction?
Originally we were supposed to be writing a ‘how-to-do-it’ manual on role-playing games for Penguin. You know, ‘These are the games, this is how you play, these are the clubs’ etc. But wouldn’t it be better if we showed the readers how they worked by having them actually play through a game? It was possible to get the RPG concept over with pre-defined choices. So that’s what happened. Trouble was, Penguin didn’t quite know what to make of it. ‘The Magic Quest’ (first working title) sat in Penguin editor Geraldine Cooke’s in-tray for almost a year until they plucked up courage to publish.
How did you combine writing with setting up Games Workshop? Did you ever sleep?
This was a real problem. Up at 7:30, in to GW at 8:30, work through until 6 or 7, then back home, grab a bite to eat and type until midnight. It was like that for almost two years. Fortunately my girlfriend (now wife) was very tolerant. But our social life was virtually non-existent. Apart from Games Nights of course! That’s ultimately why the ‘Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone Presents’ series started, and why we appointed Bryan Ansell as Managing Director of GW. We were exhausted!
Where do you stand on cheating in the books – skipping bits and rigging fights?
Because of the set choices, that’s always going to be an issue. I always liked to build something in which would catch the cheats out, like the keys in Warlock of Firetop Mountain and the language in Creature of Havoc. You couldn’t really cheat through those. Well, I suppose you could, but it would be pretty time-consuming!
Did you ever feel that they were too hard?
From talking to fans at the time, they seemed to prefer the more difficult adventures. Of course you never really knew whether they were just saying that to boast they’d got through it, and actually they preferred the easy ones… But as a result I’d try to make mine quite difficult. But not unfairly difficult. There had to be a balance.
How did you hand over to the other writers, did you have a massive style bible?
Many of the ‘Presents…’ series authors had a role-playing association. Some of them even worked for Games Workshop. They knew the sort of things RPG adventures were all about. They got on with it and we kept an eye on things. We didn’t need a style bible. We decided we could get round that one by allocating areas of Titan, our games world, to them. Alansia and the Old World were for mine and Ian’s adventures, and Khul was for the ‘Presents…’ series authors. There were some crossovers later but mainly we stuck to that and it worked fine.
How on earth did you make sure the games actually worked? The books must have been an editor’s nightmare.
A significant part of the editing time was spent cross-referencing all the numbers to make sure everything tied up properly. Plus we had to ‘test’ various gameplay aspects. Like if, at somewhere near the beginning of the adventure, you needed to buy a significant item from a passing merchant, it had to be possible for you to actually have collected that amount of money beforehand. And that a death trap followed on after on the same path that the warning, or solution appeared.
You’re also well-known for co-founding Games Workshop. What do you think of its success now?
I’m blown away by the fact that Games Workshop has lived long and prospered. It’s a different animal to what it was in the early days, of course. But it always tickles me when I turn a corner in a new town and find a branch of Games Workshop there.
Why did you leave?
It was down to the books, I guess. We were being called upon to do more in terms of writing and publicity, which was taking up time. And was a lot of fun too. After 3-4 years of working such long hours we had to make a choice between the books and the company – something in between wouldn’t have worked. So we appointed Bryan Ansell as MD and stepped back to let him get on with it. Bryan did an excellent job and eventually he came to us with a proposal to buy GW. By that time we were less involved on a day-to-day basis, so we set up a deal. In a couple of years’ time, the deal conditions were met and we sold Bryan 80% of the company. A few years later Bryan did the same thing when Tom Kirby took over. I can’t help but think everything worked out for the best with GW. Just as running the company started to become a chore for its owner, there was someone else ready to take over. It’s a great dynamic for a growing company. Always someone well-motivated at the helm…
What have you been up to since?
In the late 80s I did the F.I.S.T. series of phone games (possibly the first phone games??) and Battlecards (RPG card collection/game). Battlecards pre-dated Magic the Gathering. But didn’t do quite as well…! In the mid-90s I was a journalist, writing a weekly page on games & puzzles for The Daily Telegraph. Then I joined up with Peter Molyneux and a couple of his friends and we all co-founded Lionhead Studios (Black & White, Fable, The Movies etc). When Microsoft bought Lionhead last year I moved into academia. I am now a Professor at Brunel University, teaching an MA course on Digital Games Design. But perhaps one of my proudest moments was in 1993 when Ian, myself and two friends entered the prestigious ‘Intergame’ tournament in Essen. I won the title of European Gamer of the Year.