THE DICE MAN: HOW IAN LIVINGSTONE CONQUERED THE NERD UNIVERSE

In a verdant enclave of West London, Ian Livingstone is poised precariously on a chair, clutching a premium box filled with incredibly rare figures.

The chair legs creak in protest, and there’s a moment when I fear I’m responsible for the untimely death of the man who helped introduce the world to such treasures as Warhammer, Tomb Raider and Dungeons & Dragoons. A life size Lara Croftsurrounded on all sides by stacks of board games, looks on disapprovingly.

“It’s been a good year,” he laughs once he’s returned safely to terra firma. To put it mildly – the day before we met, he was at windsor castle being knighted for services to video games. The next day, his new book, Dice Men, hit shelves, hot on the heels of a new entry in his Fighting Fantasy series, 40 years after the first was published. It’s also been exactly four decades since he opened the first Games Workshop store alongside his old school friend Steve Jackson. The company, which he and Jackson left in 1991 after cashing in their shares for £10million, would continue to float on the stock exchange, with its market capitalization peaking in 2020 at £3.3billion – more than that of Marks & Spencer and ITV.

Dice Men is the story of the beginnings of Games Workshop, a time when Livingstone and Jackson slept in an RV and rented offices in the back of a real estate agent. It’s a wonderfully nostalgic work, part memoir, part color scrapbook, told with infectious enthusiasm and delivered with the pace you’d expect from an international bestselling author.

It’s full of amazing little nuggets that seem too far-fetched to be true: how Richard Branson once tried to buy Games Workshop; how Livingstone developed a board game (unsuccessfully) with Andrew Lloyd Webber; how during the ‘Satanic Panic’ of the 1980s a woman claimed to have seen her son levitate as he read one of Livingstone’s fantasy books.

It’s also wonderfully evocative of a bygone era: images of smoky old desks painted in dull oranges and browns; typed letters covered in hand drawn scribbles.

We settle into a pair of armchairs while Livingstone tells me how he got his big break, when the American creator of Dungeons & Dragons managed to get his hands on his fanzine, Owl & Weasel. The spectacular name Gary Gygax didn’t have a European distributor for his new game – so Livingstone and Jackson terminated the lease of their Shepherd’s Bush flat at £10 a week and flew out to meet him at Geneva, Wisconsinreturning with sole European distribution rights to what was soon to become a global phenomenon.

“We came home, we had nowhere to live and nowhere to operate – but we got by,” Livingstone said.

I wonder if this kind of bedroom entrepreneurship is dying out amid soaring rents and education – could it Games Workshop is happening today?

“If you’re motivated enough, you’ll find a way,” he says. “When you’re driven by passion, you don’t see the difficulties. It’s not exactly living the dream, but I’d much rather do what we’ve done than do a much better paying job where you don’t. don’t get the satisfaction.was our passion that took us across the line.We were gamers, so work and play were the same thing.

Yet the level of their success is breathtaking. How would a young Ian have reacted if someone had told him that the business he ran with a van would one day be worth billions?

“I would have said you were kidding, wouldn’t you! It’s amazing – but we didn’t do it to make money, we had no vision of what it might become, we We just wanted to turn our hobby into a business and determine our own destiny. We wanted to create and import the games we wanted to play and we were excited that other people wanted to play them too.

So no regrets? “No regrets. If you use the analogy of being parents, Steve and I sold in 1991 and the baby grew up to be a very successful child and we look on from the sidelines as proud parents. I feel a huge feeling of pride that we have created this great British success story.”

Still, he must wish he had only kept one percent of that stock “You can always think like that, but it’s better to move on.”

Reading Dice Men, you could be forgiven for thinking about the story of Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson is defined by good fortune, a story of chaos somehow transmuted into gold. But lightning didn’t strike once for Livingstone – it struck again and again, until it couldn’t have been dumb luck, but rather the result of business acumen.

While Games Workshop a chance encounter at a games convention with a Penguin publisher led to the first novel Fighting Fantasy (another joint venture with Jackson), a version of the choose your own adventure format that saw players roll dice as they fought goblins and wizards on epic journeys. The franchise went on to sell over 20 million copies, many of which ended up in my teenage bedroom.

after leaving Games Workshop, Livingstone took on the role of chairman of Eidos, helping launch global hits including Tomb Raider. He published a report for Ed Vaizey on improving coding skills in schools. Now he is involved in his own free school, the Livingstone Academy in Bournemouth, which promotes game-based learning. “When you play a game, it’s a digital creation,” he says. “In Rollercoaster Tycoon, you learn physics when you build the rides, and you learn management when you hire staff.”

Considering all his experience over the years since his debut, what would he do differently?

“Make sure you get funds,” he says without stopping. “We were turned down by the bank – and in the bank’s defense we weren’t ready for the investors. We came in with an enthusiasm for Dungeons & Dragons and nothing else. It’s important to have a good business partner alongside the creative team, allowing everyone not to be afraid of failure, but fail fast and move on.”

Nothing else? “Hold on to your IP. My whole life has been trying to hold on to the IP. With D&D, we had a three-year contract, at the end of which Gary Gygax wanted to merge the two companies. We said no and we lost the case, and that’s when we realized we were vulnerable.

“So we started publishing our own games like Talisman, Battlecars and Warhammer. After Warhammer, the whole business was built around that IP – the publications, the miniatures and the stores, all leveraging the same property intellectual.”

Surely now, after more than 50 years of work, it is finally slowing down?

“No, no. I’m 72 now and I’m never going to retire. I’m probably working more than ever. I’m a partner at Hiro Capital, trying to help the next generation of game creators. I have plans for another book, I have my school I think success is quickly forgotten but ambition lasts.”

Rather adorably, after all these years, he and Jackson still play board games together once a week, usually on Zoom but sometimes in person; the same group of five have been playing since the 80s – right now they’re in a game called Splendor.

“I am secretary of the Games discofor which I published 604 issues of the newsletter to a six-person circulation,” he says.

Who usually wins? “We have a cup at the end of every year – I’ve won the most but this year I’m falling behind to become a game developer Pierre Molyneux.”

He leads me through his wonderland of memories. Spread over several rooms, there are Warhammer miniatures that have long since been out of production; an entire wall filled with original paintings from the covers of his Fighting Fantasy books and board games; Guinness advertisements alongside the artist’s original sketches, part of what was once the largest collection of Guinness art in the world (most are now sold); a sign Manchester City’s jersey from when his video game company Eidos was the club’s sponsor; a working pinball table.

I wonder if there’s a treasure he values ​​above all else – something he’d come back for if the house caught fire. “Oh no! That’s impossible,” he moaned, putting his head in his hands. “That’s like saying which child I would save!” He thought for a minute, apparently taking this doomsday scenario very seriously.

“OK, I have an unopened, shrink-wrapped 1975 Dungeons & Dragons box set, so I think I should reach for it.

“But I would also consider grabbing my first handwritten script for The Warlock of mountain on top of fire. I have kept all my manuscripts, of which the first 10 are pen and ink manuscripts. My girlfriend at the time typed them all.”

If his house really caught fire, I hope he doesn’t come back at all, because Ian Livingstone is himself a national treasure, the kind of creative spirit that only appears once or twice in a generation. Pick up a copy of Dice Men and you’ll see what I mean.

£ Dice Men per Ian Livingstone is out now, published by Unbound, priced at £30

I’m 72 now and I will never retire. I work more than ever. I think success is quickly forgotten but ambition lasts

(c) 2022 City AM, source Newspaper

Kimberly B. Nguyen