Sir Ian Livingstone: from living in a van to becoming a gentleman

Sir Ian Livingston

Sir Ian Livingstone (left) with John Peake (centre) and Steve Jackson (right) (Image: PH)

“They’re calling me Knight of the Nerds!” broadcast Sir Ian Livingstone over Zoom, just weeks after receiving a CBE from Princes Royal. “And I’m very happy with it!” The British player was secretly ecstatic when I spoke to him recently, but even so, his passion spilled over into every word he said. The quiet British icon has been working tirelessly behind the scenes of the gaming industry for over 40 years, and now he has become the first person to be knighted for his services to the gaming industry. But that doesn’t seem to have changed him. And he has set out to prove it with his new book, Dice Men: The Origin Story of Games Workshop. In it, the math nerd lists dates, numbers, and statistics from his action-packed life faster than he could keep up. Along the way, it’s easy to see how his strategic and gamer brains helped him become a top businessman for decades. However, long before that, Sir Ian Livingstone was just Ian of Prestbury, Chesire, a young lover of board games.

speaking exclusively to Express.es, Sir Ian raved about his new book; a huge, hardcover, color-paged history text that tells the story of how three youngsters obsessed with board games created a company that raked in over £4bn on the London Stock Exchange.

Sir Ian, who met when he was young, teamed up with Jackson and John Peake to earn a living from his one true passion: gaming. Today, that may sound like a pretty normal and achievable thing, but in 1975, it was almost inconceivable. As born creatives, Sir Ian and Jackson handled the business side of things from the start (and later built their own fantastical worlds in the Fighting Fantasy series), while Peake, a civil engineer by trade, created classic board games (Backgammon , etc.). wooden by hand Before long, the name “Games Workshop” seemed to be a perfect fit for their business. After establishing a rudimentary base in London, they sold these games to any store that could buy them, including Harrods (“That was awesome at the time!”).

However, it wasn’t until the mid to late 1970s that Games Workshop really took off. And it was because budding entrepreneurs finally had a killer product to sell: Dungeons & Dragons. After contacting D&D founder Gary Gygax, Games Workshop secured an exclusive three-year distribution deal for the innovative role-playing game in the UK. In the years that followed, Games Workshop exploded in popularity.

In Dice Men, Sir Ian described these years as exciting, exciting and full of great moments. But behind the scenes, he and Jackson were “working day and night” and, indeed, they had fallen on hard times. “When we came back from the United States [after securing the D&D deal] We had nowhere to live!” he laughed. “We sent the [board game] stock to my girlfriend’s floor at the time. We could only afford to have a small office in the back of a real estate agent, so we were forced to live in Steve’s truck for three months, which was parked outside the office.”

Sitting firmly on the bread line, Sir Ian and Jackson resorted to desperate measures. He smiled: “We joined the local squash club to shave and shower in the morning…and we became very good at squash by default! It was a very triangular life. We lived on a pittance.”

That’s not to say they weren’t trying – they knew they had an amazing product on their hands, but looking back, it’s obvious they were ahead of their time. Sir Ian chuckled, recalling a case where the two tried to get a loan without any planning: “We went to the bank manager after we got back from the US and said, ‘We’ve got this great game, It is a role playing game”. game, kill monsters, find treasure and go on fantastic journeys.” The suit-and-boots clerk stared back at them “like a dog watching TV,” he said. “He didn’t have any understanding at all.” Despite this, he added : “But to be fair, I’d say we weren’t ready to invest.”

Sir Ian Livingston

Sir Ian Livingstone with his collection of 1,500 board games (Image: PH)

Even so, Sir Ian and Jackson fought on. “We manage,” he insisted, perhaps with a twinge of that British upper lip we’re known for. “We were so happy to determine our own destiny in gaming, which was our hobby, we were determined to keep going. But we probably made a lot of mistakes.”

Perhaps its greatest turning point came in 1978 when Games Workshop’s exclusive deal with Dungeons & Dragons ended. After another year of business, Gygax offered Sir Ian and Jackson the chance to be bought out by his own company, TSR (Tactical Studies Rules). After years of fruitfully working together on the extremely popular board game, this might have seemed like a no-brainer. But not for Sir Ian and Jackson.

“Steve and I were independent young Britons,” Sir Ian reasoned. “And we said no to that merger opportunity. [Gygax] I couldn’t believe it when we said no. But we would have lost control. We would have gotten a third of the combined entity.”

Fortunately for them (or as a result of their incredible intuition?), Sir Ian and Jackson made the right decision. Just under a decade later, in 1985, Gygax’s company manager, Lorraine Williams, bought out the company’s remaining shares and ousted him from her own company, becoming president and CEO in the process. She “also made it clear that Gygax would make no further creative contributions to TSR” (via Gygax, 1987). The D&D forefather took TSR to court soon after, but lost. In the 1990s, TSR ran into millions of dollars worth of debt and was eventually purchased by Wizards of the Coast, where the D&D license remains to this day.

Meanwhile, at Blighty in 1978, Sir Ian and Jackson changed their priorities. Sir Ian said: “[Games] Workshop focused on their own products rather than other people’s products.” The company later created Warhammer, a miniature fantasy wargame played with countless plastic characters on large, realistic terrains of more than two meters and a half. “Obviously it turned out to be the right decision,” said Sir Ian. “Because the company is still very much alive today.”

Still, does looking back and leaving Dungeons & Dragons come with a tinge of regret? “I have no excuses!” he smiled. “I’ve had a fantastic career over 47 years creating games. I went from the analogue to the digital world, I was instrumental in the creation of Eidos PLC [now a part of the Square Enix group], then we released Lara Croft Tomb Raider in ’96, and I really enjoyed that part of my career. And of course the rise of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks from ’82.”

sir ian livingstone steve jackson

Sir Ian Livingstone (left) and Steve Jackson (right) with Dice Men (Image: PH)

Of course: Fighting Fantasy. Sir Ian and Jackson’s best-selling “gamebook” series, which has sold over 20 million copies to this day, a book series that had them traveling the world promoting their groundbreaking second game series in a life… That Fighting Fantasy.

Eventually, however, Sir Ian admitted: “Something had to give.” In 1995, after Sir Ian and Jackson had dedicated over 20 years of their lives to Games Workshop, they took a ‘back seat’ to the company.

“We were writing Fighting Fantasy gamebooks when we came home [from the office]”, he recalled. “From eight to two in the morning. And then to Workshop in the morning, which was a booming business. That was pretty stressful at the time.”

But it was all worth it. Now at 72 years old, the Knight of the Realm, Sir Ian Livingstone, is firmly established as one of the original players. And the first and only person to receive this title for his impact on the world of video games.

Always the nerd though, he has a few bugs that need to be squashed for this amazing achievement.

“I’m incredibly proud to be the first person in the gaming industry to be knighted,” he began. “But there should be a lot more knights and ladies bestowed on such a fantastic industry. If you think about what happened during the pandemic, no one was suspended in the video game industry, because games were created and consumed digitally… The video game industry gaming is high-tech, high-skill, IP creation An instant export: 99 percent of the content is immediately exported abroad on any digital platform you want to launch your game to a global audience It’s regional It doesn’t have to be in London to be successful. It’s a pretty green industry.”

Sir Ian paused and took a deep breath before the math nerd slipped back under his breath, “I mean, there’s a lot to like about the industry! And that’s why it annoys me a bit when people don’t.” valued. Contributes 7,500 million to UK PLC, [it’s a] 250 billion a year industry with 3 billion people playing in it. This is a great industry! It’s bigger than music and film combined.”

Looking ahead, Sir Ian wants the vision of gaming to change even more drastically. He wants more ministers to indulge in the traditional photo opportunities with the gaming industry, and for his name to be given more respect.

And he himself hasn’t given up the fight yet either. Sir Ian recently worked with a small Wilmslow company called Playdemic, which was eventually sold to EA for $1.4bn. He also contributes his services to Pixelcount, another small company that is about to release a video game on Steam titled kyn seed.

If that wasn’t enough: he keeps writing too! Over the summer, he and Jackson released their latest Fighting Fantasy gamebooks: The Shadow of the Giants (written by Livingstone) and The Secrets of Salamonis (written by Jackson).

But, among multi-billion dollar companies, endless fantasy worlds, tons of plastic minis, and countless inspired kids, it all started with the passion and creativity of a trio of young people who just wanted to sit at a dining table and roll dice.

I think he’s earned the title of The Knight of the Nerds, huh?

Read Sir Ian Livingstone’s story in Dice Men: Sir Ian Livingstone’s The Origin Story of Games Workshop (with Steve Jackson) is now available from Unbound. Get your copy here.

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