Ian Livingstone: Even hardcore gamers will be playing on Facebook of tomorrow
Gaming legend Ian Livingstone has seen it all. Now enjoying his 60s, the British entrepreneur started by creating Games Workshop, then Citadel Miniatures before moving on to what many see as the pre-cursor to video games – the Fighting Fantasy novels. After that came Eidos, Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, and Deus Ex, but now Livingstone has set his sites on another project – Facebook.
“We are enjoying the second golden age of games,” Livingstone tells Pocket-lint over a cup of coffee at BAFTA in London.
“Developers are liberated by high-speed broadband to access global markets. If they fail it doesn’t matter because the production costs aren’t that high. It’s very exciting times. It’s not just the next sequel in the series.”
Livingstone is now an investor with many fingers in many pies. He is still involved in the next edition to Deus Ex (it’s coming along nicely we are told) and he’s also involved in Playdemic – the developers behind Gourmet Ranch on Facebook, and Appatyze – a new advertising company that’s hoping to help developers of Facebook games make money.
Gourmet burger, launched last year and sees you having to grow ingredients for burgers before selling them in a restaurant. It’s your typical sim style game that’s highly addictive and one that works well for Facebook fans looking to waste 10 minutes here or there.
Appatyze rather than specialise in in-game advertising – i.e. branded parts or cars within the game itself – is a straightforward advertising play that shows banners alongside games you’re playing.
“Adverts may lose you some users, but at least you’ll be earning money,” Livingstone tells us acknowledging the necessary evil that are in-game ads, but why Facebook over more traditional platforms? According to Livingstone, that’s where it's all going to happen next.
“The scope of games on Facebook is going to grow immensely,” he explains. “At the moment they are mostly played by soccer moms, but we are only at the starting point for Facebook games. When production values increase like they did with PC games, traditional gamers and even hardcore gamers will play them. It really is a great platform to play.”
So is it the end of the road for big budget titles like Call of Duty or Killzone, then? Far from it.
“Consoles aren’t going to go away. AAA titles still drive the art and aren’t going to disappear. The best in class are going to sell even more going forward. The difference is that there will be no middle ground. That middle ground is going to disappear. Those people that buy games are going to buy best in class and then spend the rest of their time playing social games, games on their iPhone, or iPad or Android.”
That snacking mentally isn’t the only thing game publishers should be worried about, it’s the social element too with Livingstone working hard to turn single games into services; something he warns not everyone is doing, or doing well at the moment.
“The kids of today want one social media device. If you’re in the handheld space, and have a dedicated cartridge based hand held device, you’ve got challenges,” warns Livingstone who cites his favourite games at the moment as Words with Friends and Angry Birds on his "iTouch".
It's an iPod touch rather than an iPhone as he carries a BlackBerry for email and a rather old Nokia for calls. His console choice doesn't get much better either, preferring to play Virtua Tennis on the Sega Dreamcast. He owns a first generation iPad, but hasn't got around to upgrading yet (Apple hint hint).
He might be at the cutting edge of the industry, but you couldn't tell it from the gadgets he owns and carries with him. Livingstone is an ideas man that prefers to design games rather than play them.
“Kids want everything that affects their daily lives in one device; music, film, entertainment, and games and it has to be on a device that is also social. Console publishers will have to make sure they make really good games. They can’t just churn stuff out, and that’s a good thing.”
This idea of social gaming is what many say has saved the industry, that for a time got too complicated and too niche.
“I was always convinced that video games would always have a global audience. It went through a wobbly period for a while. Games became more difficult – especially on console games with a controller that is complicated and a daunting piece of kit for the non-gamer.
"Games became violent too, not all of them, but enough to scare the mass market away from games because of the negative press that surrounded them, even though only 3 per cent by volume had an 18 rating. The mass media created scare tactics so it became niche, but that niche was thankfully enough to maintain the industry.”
That changed in 2006 when Nintendo launched the Nintendo Wii, a family focused video games console that used motion rather than complicated controllers to make the action, something Livingstone believes was a huge turning point for the industry.
“The Wii was a key moment for the video games industry. Up until that time, games had been a single player experience played in the bedroom, while most parents thought their kids were up to no good. Suddenly it was in the living room being shared by young and old together. The fun created around the game, as well as playing it, became something that was good to do and it became mainstream.”
That involvement is key to making video games the most successful form of entertainment on the planet believes Livingstone and, yes, he does like the Kinect too, by the way.
So what’s next?
Livingstone is keen to earn developers some cash through his new advertising project, seeing the next Tomb Raider and Deus Ex out of the door (more at E3 we are told) and see what other opportunities are around to invest in.
Fighting Fantasy fans will be pleased to know that he’s taken up writing again, penning a new story for next year’s 30th anniversary of the FF series. Half way through the new book, Livingstone was shy on giving details, refusing to tell us what it will be about or what it will be called.
He did however tell us how he wrote the original books, using the same technique again this time around. Rather than write a single novel and then chop it up, he plots out a story and then writes the turns as they are needed.
"It's like a giant flow chart," he explains describing what must be an office full of post it notes and scraps of paper.
He’s acutely aware that it’s unlikely to sell in huge numbers, as traditional books struggle to take on video games, but that hasn't stopped the first five being turned into iPhone apps and the first book, Warlock of Firetop Mountain, being available on the Kindle in the US, with Livingstone tells us, a UK Kindle edition coming soon.
A word of warning however you can’t cheat, something that Livingstone tells us many have whinged about. The dice rolling is automated and you can’t turn back the page once you’ve made your decision, something any FF reader will tell you was half the fun of reading them.
As for the Facebook game revolution, for Livingstone, there’s no dice involved. It’s a sure bet. Whether or not the middle ground of gaming will drop out might be another thing. It’d certainly be a depressing world if the only choice was between the extremes Farmville and Call of Duty with little room for the smaller, less complex but just as playable independent titles such as Jonathon Blow’s 2008 hit Braid. If such games end up on Facebook instead of the console stores, then Livingstone’s plan of getting developers to turn a profit on the social networks must really have paid off.
So, come on then. Which was your favourite Fighting Fantasy book?