UK games founding father Ian Livingstone shares tips with former College
The mastermind behind Games Workshop, iconic video games such as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Fighting Fantasy interactive gamebooks, Ian Livingstone, has shared tips with his former College on how to make it in the UK’s multi-billion pound games industry.
Ranked the 16th most influential person in the UK’s digital economy in the Wired 100 list for 2012 with a CBE and an OBE from the Queen, Ian studied an HND in Business and a Diploma in Marketing at Stockport College in the late 1960s, playing out his passion for games - namely Diplomacy and Three Card Brag - in our very own campus Common Room.
Ian remembers Stockport College off Wellington Road South as a welcoming and friendly place where he was able to learn practical business skills which better suited his learning style, after coming from studying A Levels at Altrincham Grammar School for Boys.
Tip One: Choose practical experiences
“If the Creative Media courses at Stockport College were around in those days, I would have chosen a digital media computing course and gone into the design side.
“If you can learn practical skills by going to College, then you should really consider it. I’m very practically minded and I would recommend these to anyone who wants to work in industry to gain skills which they can usefully apply to their work. It’s about know-how as much as knowledge. As an employer, I look for people with skills as well as qualifications. What you’ve got on paper might get you an interview, but it doesn’t tell me much until I’ve seen your portfolio.”
To help build awareness of a board game business he and his old school friends had set up as a sideline to their 9-5 roles in pre-internet and pre-mobile phone London, Ian applied what he had learned in business and marketing to launch fanzine Owl and Weasel. The publication caught the attention of Gary Gygax, the creator of role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, based in the United States. Gygax posted a copy to Ian and his flatmate Steve Jackson. They became so captivated by the game that they spent what little money they had in buying six copies – and signed up to become the sole distributors of Dungeons & Dragons Europe-wide.
Tip Two: Do what you enjoy
“It began in 1975 with us playing board games in our flat in London as a means of escapism from our day jobs. After launching Dungeons & Dragons, we opened our first Games Workshop retail store in 1978, after which things really started to take off. We turned our hobby into a very successful business, demonstrating that it helps to love what you do. I love games just as much as I did when I started out. I’m still on the board of eight games companies. Although I recently turned 71, I have no intention of retiring. Work and play are the same for me.”
After a deal to renew the distribution contract for Dungeons & Dragons fell through, Ian and his business partner Steve pivoted Games Workshop to focus on its own games, culminating with the release of Warhammer. They also started writing their interactive Fighting Fantasy books where readers made choices to journey through fantasy worlds, rolling dice to defeat monsters. The pair found early success with their first book The Warlock of Firetop Mountain in 1982, with Ian going on to write 15 titles, including Deathtrap Dungeon and City of Thieves, in the series which has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide.
Whilst Ian and his partners sold Games Workshop to a management buy-out sold in 1991, the company continued its stellar growth. Demand for Warhammer and Citadel Miniatures has never been greater, and the company is now listed on the London Stock Exchange and valued at over £3 billion.
Ian’s career turned to video games in the 1990s, with successive directorships in the companies responsible for producing the likes of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Golf Clash and Fall Guys. He is currently Chairman of Sumo Group plc headquartered in Sheffield.
Tip Three: Team up with the right people
“Developing a game is a team effort requiring talented people with different skills to come together to produce a hit title. This is a people business and it’s really important to put the right team together who not only work well together but get on well together.”
The skills needed for a games studio range from designers, programmers, artists, animators, storytellers, musicians, lighting technicians to monetisation experts and server architects to support services such as project management, marketing, advertising, accounting, HR and legal.
During his career, Ian has been called upon several times for his expertise in ‘the power of play’ through games-based learning and digital creativity. In 2011 he co-authored the Next Gen review calling for changes in ICT education which resulted in the introduction of computer science into the national curriculum with Ian working with the government to implement these changes.
Tip Four: Don’t be afraid of failure
“Failure is just success in the making. Don’t expect your first video game to be a hit. Know when to stop, take your learnings and try again. It took Rovio, the studio behind Angry Birds, 51 attempts before they produced their global hit.
“The UK video games industry is one of the success stories during the pandemic. Revenues are up and it is business as usual for developers working remotely from home using cloud-based development platforms. Digital consumption and digital creativity make the industry future-proof and it ticks all the right boxes for the digital economy - creative, knowledge-based, high tech, high skills, high salaries, digital, 90% export-focussed, IP-creating and regional. What’s not to like?”
Tip Five: Get work experience
“Learn your craft at somebody else’s expense! Get experience in a games studio and learn as much as possible about development, the market and the business models before thinking about starting your own studio. Retain ownership of your own intellectual property to build value in your company. I still own the rights to my Fighting Fantasy books when it could’ve been so easy to sign the rights away to a publisher.”
Tip Six: Don’t just think about it, do it!
“The games industry is very competitive and there is a lot to learn, but I would wholeheartedly recommend joining it. To succeed in games and most industries you must recognise your own strengths and weaknesses and hire the best people to help you build the best company. Overall, I would summarise my advice as:
- Do not be afraid of failure but aim to fail fast. Failure is success work-in-progress.
- Retain ownership of your intellectual property. Too often is the case that content owners end up trading away their IP for project finance.
- Do what you are good at and partner with somebody to do the jobs you don’t want to do or can’t do. Above all, treat people well.
- Ideas are cheap. It’s the execution of the idea that is the hard part.
- Making lots of money should not be the motivating factor for starting a business. Money should be a by-product of doing what you enjoy.
- Dare to be different. Be yourself and follow your heart.
- Make yourself investor-ready before asking for investor funding.
- Have ‘skin in the game’ i.e. invest your own time and money in your business or project before asking others to do so.
- Understand the business of creativity to enable growth.
- Enjoy what you do or do something else.”