Ian Livingstone interview – Eidos’ Life President talks games and government

Emily King November 9, 2011 - 3:00 pm

From Dungeons & Dragons, to Tomb Raider, to writing a government report on the games industry – IAN LIVINGSTONE has had a long and illustrious career. And he has no intention of stopping any time soon, he told BeefJack’s Emily King in an interview at last week’s ExPlay Interactive – a new development conference with an indie focus…

How important for the future of students and small-to-medium-sized developers do you think events like ExPlay are?

I think ExPlay is a fantastic event in that it brings people just starting in the industry to meet people who have a lot of experience. And of course they can listen to speakers, they can share problems, share ideas and get a glimpse of the future out there. The advice, in particular during the Boot Camp sessions, has allowed companies to get a quick vision of potential problems in the future.

Because producing games is not without its difficulties – it’s not just about the idea, it’s how you get to market. There’s lots of people with ideas, but to execute on those ideas is the hard thing. So if they can learn from other people’s experiences – problems they’ve had and how they overcame them – and particularly the things they can learn about are skills issues, access to finance, business models and how to scale businesses, creating and retaining ownership of intellectual property, marketing, discovery… There are so many facets to the games industry and hopefully they’re getting a glimpse or understanding of the issues in a different way. It’s a great platform for the exchange and examination of ideas.

Do you believe that we’ll see any of the 20 proposals put forward in your government skills review, Next Gen, put into action before the next General Election?

Well, I’d love to say yes, but the Department for Education works in a particularly slow way. They’ve recently slimmed down the curriculum to core subjects as it stands. What we’re calling for – the number one recommendation in Next Gen – is for computer science to be an optional part of science in the National Curriculum as a discipline, to be an optional STEM subject within science so that children can hop between biology, chemistry and geography and computer science – not making it mandatory, but an option.

Because we seem to have lost our way in ICT. In the 1980s we had BBC Micros as a cornerstone of computing in schools and in their homes, people were programming on the Spectrum. At some point this was lost when ICT became nothing more than learning Office skills, learning how to use PowerPoint, Excel and Word. Useful of course, but never going to give you a career in videgames or any of the digital industries.

And so many teachers thought that ICT was computing when clearly it isn’t. The difference between reading and writing – it’s learning how to use an application rather than how to make them. So there has got to be a fundamental understanding of what computing is. And you’ve got to be able to give children digital building blocks so that they can create stuff. Allow other people to enjoy – get an appetite for creativity.

In the digital world – and for this country in particular – we need this in order to be able to succeed in the digital economy. ‘Cause you can’t build one with a nation of digital illiterates. It seems to me common sense that computer science should be on the Curriculum.

We’ve made a lot of progress recently, since Eric Schmidt referenced Next Gen in his MacTaggart lecture. Since then we’ve had a ten-minute programme on Newsnight, which was speaking about Next Gen. And more recently – this week – it was debated in the House of Lords with Baroness Bonham-Carter and others talking about the recommendations report saying that it’s a good thing. Been talking to the government recently about it, with a specialist advisor at Number 10 and I’m going to the DfE next week. Of course Ed Vaizey’s been very supportive throughout the whole process. [Continued below...]

Ian Livingstone OBE

HIS MANY ACHIEVEMENTS

  • 1975 – Co-founded Games Workshop, creators of Warhammer and original UK distributors of Dungeons & Dragons.
  • 1981 – Co-wrote the first Fighting Fantasy RPG book. Went on to write more.
  • 1993 – Having worked as a designer for games company Domark in the 1980s, joined as a major investor and board member.
  • 1995 – Domark acquired by Eidos. Livingstone became a key member of Eidos Interactive.
  • 1996 - With new acquisition CentreGold, helped introduce the world to Tomb Raider.
  • 2005 – Became Acquisition Director at Eidos Interactive.
  • 2009 – Promoted to Life President of Eidos.
  • 2011 – Co-wrote government report ‘Next Gen’, promoting essential skills in interactive technologies.

[...Continued] So, it’s up there now and on the radar. Clearly altering the Curriculum is not an easy task and that also begs the question: if we were to implement the recommendation, how do we teach the teachers? Because not all of them are equipped to be able to teach computer science, but we have to start somewhere whether it’s computer clubs, isolated pockets of expertise, and slowly over time we introduce it to the Curriculum and it becomes a core subject. Have it available at GCSE – but it doesn’t have to be at GCSE level to start with. Children can enjoy using Scratch,= or Kodu to create content.

To me it just seems pretty much common sense to do this. If you see what’s happening in other parts of the world, you know, some of the best IP creating countries – Israel, guess what? They’ve got computer science on their curriculum. You’ve got a million engineers coming out of China every year. This is the reality of the crux of the problem, you cannot ignore it – we have to implement something.

You’ve said before that “clearly no one can afford to ignore online.” Now, obviously, I’m assuming you were referring to social games, mobile apps and stuff more and digital distribution. Do you think enough is being done to ensure that UK consumers have access to the infrastructure needed to consume entertainment online and essentially in the ‘cloud’? Like super fast broadband, do you think it’s being rolled out well enough?

I think to date our broadband access has been pretty average. If you go to South Korea, you have one gigabyte standard on landlines and one hundred meg on mobile – clearly you’ve got to have content to go down those pipes. But we’re boasting – almost – when we’ve got two meg in this country, sometimes slightly faster but of course it’s more slow when there’s lots of content being sucked down when you’ve got high demand in a particular area.

I know BT are saying that they’re going to introduce super fast broadband in the near future, but it cannot come soon enough. We have to upload our content as well as download our content. It is essential that the government helps drive that infrastructure, without it we are going to fall behind.

Why do you think the UK government sometimes seems a bit reluctant to invest in the UK’s videogames industry? Either tax credits or other things that they could do to be a bit more supportive.

Yes, it’s strange that the government, all governments, have been very willing to support the film industry, but not the games industry. I think there’s been a reluctance – partly driven by negative perceptions in the media – to embrace the industry. They didn’t want to be seen supporting an industry, which in certain popular press headlines is portrayed as poisoning children’s minds.

But I think now, as games become more socially inclusive and have much more diverse content – the government are now very willing to embrace the games industry, as one of the many drives of the digital economy going forward. That’s why I think we’re seeing government ministers having a much better dialogue with the trade associations and content creatives. And the fact that we’re getting to talk to senior ministers and engaging with them about the future of the industry, how they’re talking about games and the creative industries has been a major improvement – there has been a huge change in attitude.

Those people who have grown up with games do not fear them and those people are now getting into power. It’s the old fogies who didn’t understand anything about games, wanted to ban them for purely the wrong reasons.

What do you feel needs to be done to encourage more females into games development?

I think it’s going to take time. Games were created by guys for guys, so that early games were combat games, sports games – not content that women enjoyed. And if they weren’t enjoying the content, why would they want to make it? But I think now with more casual platforms, things like Facebook and casual games and mobile devices and diversity of content – women are being attracted into the industry to help be part of that creative process, which is obviously a good thing. It means we can get more diverse content for a much wider audience.

I think the problem – as I was told by a senior advisor in the industry – is that unless you get to women kind of pre-puberty, then teaching them the skills – they’re not interested because it’s not a cool thing to do. It’s too geeky for them as a skill. They don’t want to say that, “I’m a computer scientist,” from a social point of view.

But with games becoming higher and higher in value of the entertainment industry, with people like Mark Pincus and Mark Zuckerberg and some of the great games designers becoming kind of rock stars, as it were, I think there is more of a willingness to join the industry – and I absolutely embrace that. It’s going to make much more differential content, new ideas are going to come through from women and women will play a more major role.

There’s a lot of worry that with the massive growth in social gaming that we’re going to see a bubble situation like the one we saw with dotcom in the last 15 years. Do you think there’s a chance that we could have a bubble that bursts? What with the likes of PopCap being bought in the past year by EA for $750 million…

I would hope not. At the moment it’s more like the industry is under-invested in – there are so many cases of great teams out there who are unable to get investment into their companies. And the ability of the creative industries to access finance is limited. We are looking, with the government, into how we can make creative industries more investor ready. I think we’ve got an awful long way to go until before investment drops out.

Can you see yourself stepping down as an industry champion of the UK games industry in the near future? Can you ever see yourself as really retiring?

No, no. Games have been my life. I turned a hobby into an industry – I love what we’ve created. I love the people in the industry. And I want to see it grow forever. So you’re never too young to start and you’re never too old to stop – and I’m never going to stop, because if I stop being a champion of the industry, I wouldn’t want to be playing the games. I really enjoy what I do and I will continue to fight for the cause.

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