Fighting Fantasy gets digital makeover
By Dan Satherley
It's been three decades since a generation of geeks was inspired to pick up two dice, a pencil and an eraser, and "set off on a perilous quest to find the Warlock's treasure".
The very first Fighting Fantasy gamebook The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was released in September 1982. Over the next 13 years, 58 more books in the series were printed, selling more than 15 million copies.
Since ceasing publication during the mid-1990s home console boom, the popularity of the series has waned considerably.
But with the publication of an all-new book by series founder Ian Livingstone and the rise of smartphone and tablet gaming, Fighting Fantasy – and the gamebook format it popularised – has the chance to capture the hearts and minds of a new generation.
"I’d forgotten just how much fun it is writing a Fighting Fantasy gamebook," says Livingstone. "Luring readers to their doom with false promises of finding treasure or victory, knowing that a gruesome death awaits them makes me smile when I’m writing a gamebook."
Blood of the Zombies is Livingstone's first Fighting Fantasy gamebook since 1993, but it's not as if he hasn't kept himself busy. Perhaps sensing where the future of gaming lay, Livingstone designed his first computer game in 1984 and later went on to become a gaming industry heavyweight, and in 2012 was ranked the 16th most-influential person in the UK's digital economy.
But as the 30th anniversary rolled around, the temptation to write a brand new Fighting Fantasy adventure was too hard to resist.
And in a nod to our zombie-obsessed times, Livingstone decided to ditch the medieval fantasy setting he normally works in and set Blood of the Zombies in the present, "since it’s more fun to use shotguns and grenades against them".
"But I didn’t go the whole hog and set the adventure in 21st century shopping malls. I opted for an adventure set inside an old castle to keep a link to my usual genre."
He also kept his methods fairly old-school, but again with a modern twist.
"I wrote Blood of the Zombies in the same way I have always done for the last 30 years - manual record-keeping of the allocated numbers, a hand-drawn map and flow chart, and keeping the adventure to 400 paragraphs.
"The only difference is that my laptop replaced my faithful old fountain pen."
FROM THE PAGE TO THE PORTABLE SCREEN
Modern fans of the series are able to ditch their pens and pencils too, with books like The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and this author's favourite, City of Thieves, being adapted for the iPhone and iPad.
Melbourne-based developer Tin Man Games recently secured the Fighting Fantasy license, and plans to release their version of Blood of the Zombies in mid-October.
"There are many 30- and 40-year-olds who lovingly remember their time with gamebooks when they were young," says founder and creative director Neil Rennison.
"Now that gamebooks are hitting digital platforms, these same 30- and 40-year-olds have the disposable income to buy iPads and expensive smart phones, so paying a few dollars to re-capture that nostalgia is a no brainer."
Tin Man Games is no newcomer to gamebooks – since 2010, the company has released its own series under the Gamebook Adventures brand. Rennison makes no secret of his love for the Fighting Fantasy series.
"It was about 1985, I was on holiday in the UK and it rained most of the time – like tends to do. To amuse myself I asked my mum if she would buy me Deathtrap Dungeon that was on the shelf of a bookshop that was on the beachfront. It literally blew my mind."
The leap from gamebooks to mobiles was an obvious one to Rennison.
"I had a ZX Spectrum 48k at the time and had just gotten into early gaming, so being able to have a portable gaming experience was incredible. It was almost like my '80s version of a handheld console or mobile phone – gaming on the go."
Rennison met Livingstone at a trade show last year, setting off a chain of events that saw Tin Man Games taking over the Fighting Fantasy license from Big Blue Bubble. Previous Fighting Fantasy books adapted for phones and tablets only came out of the iOS platform – iPhones and iPads – but Tin Man Games will be making both iOS and Android versions.
But don't expect their adaptations to be straight clones of the books.
"There are always changes that need to be made for a gamebook to work digitally," says Rennison.
"For a start, gamebooks place a level of trust in the reader to make sure they adjust stats and inventory. In games, that trust is taken away, so that it becomes more automated. That in itself is a major design shift as, let's face it, most of us cheated when we read Fighting Fantasy books."
Livingstone (pictured left) calls it the "five-fingered bookmark" – taking a sneak peek at each of the options, in case one lead to instant death. To account for this, the Blood of the Zombies app will have a "peek-around-the-corner cheat mode" for those of us who need it.
The app also has two different levels of difficulty – a 'medium' mode, which Rennison says is "more accessible for casual gamers", and 'hardcore' – the gamebook as it was originally printed.
"Gaming purists want a challenging experience that they complete and have a sense of achievement at the end, so we've also made sure that we cater for those people too," says Rennison.
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNET
In the golden age of the gamebook – the 1980s – the internet was only in its infancy. The World Wide Web, for example, had yet to be invented.
But nowadays fans from all over the world can find each other online through websites, blogs and – since 2009 – a web-based fanzine produced right here in New Zealand, with contributions from people all over the world (more on that later).
"Gamebook fans have been quietly blowing the gamebook trumpet for the last decade and built a great community," says Rennison.
Livingstone says the internet has replaced word-of-mouth in the playground.
"The internet has been extremely useful as a vehicle to tell the world that Fighting Fantasy is still alive and kicking," says Livingstone.
"I used my @ian_livingstone Twitter a lot whilst I was writing the book and during the launch, to engage with fans who I would never been able to reach in the old analogue world."
The title for the new book was decided upon by asking his Twitter followers which title they preferred: Blood of the Zombies or Escape from Zombie Castle.
"I moaned on Twitter when I lost a chunk of the manuscript when my laptop crashed. The resulting sympathy and encouragement from my followers was a huge boost for me."
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Many of Livingstone's followers on Twitter would be – like me – kids of the 1980s who've grown up, found themselves with a bit of disposable income and are indulging their inner geek, on something of a nostalgia kick.
But the younger generation are also discovering the wonders of old-school gamebooks too.
By day, Alexander Ballingall works as a relief teacher in Rangiora, just north of Christchurch. He was introduced to Fighting Fantasy in 1987 when his mother bought him City of Thieves.
"I got it as a birthday present," he says. "My mother seemed to have a good eye for what young boys liked to read, and never looked back."
In his spare time he puts together Fighting Fantazine, dedicated to the Fighting Fantasy series. The first issue featured an interview with Fighting Fantasy author Jonathan Green, a scoop Ballingall says gave the zine "the boot it needed".
"I've a small bag of FF books that I sometimes take with me to give kids something to read in class," says Ballingall.
"On some occasions I read a book to the class and the kids vote on the choices and take turns rolling the dice. From my experience kids love them, especially the seven to 10-year-old age bracket, and I often get asked if I've brought the books with me."
There have been another nine issues of Fighting Fantazine published since then.
Rennison says many kids respond to his company's games because having been brought up with blockbuster console titles like Call of Duty and Gears of War, gamebooks "really feel like a new experience".
"I get emails from fathers who have bought our gamebooks and now read/play them with their kids," says Rennison.
"Reading is such a positive thing for children and combined with nostalgic parents, you have a recipe for a new generation of gamebook fans."
BUSINESS TIME AGAIN
Both Livingstone and Rennison are realistic about the commercial prospects of reviving the gamebook format.
"I don't think it will ever hit the heights of the '80s and '90s," says Rennison. "The '80s especially was a special period when computer and video gaming was in its infancy and so kids like me had space in our lives to talk about Fighting Fantasy in the playground."
While there's no doubt gamebooks aren't the blockbusters they were two or three decades ago, Tin Man Games is determined to give it a go.
"Gamebooks are incredibly niche still and while our business grows slowly, it's still not huge," says Rennison. Tin Man Games has seen "very little return" on their investment so far, but Rennison says they are excited about getting Fighting Fantasy on board – not to mention the gamebook rights to the new Judge Dredd film.
Livingstone says it is "gratifying" to know after three decades, Fighting Fantasy lives on – even if its commercial glory days are likely as dead as the skeletons that lurk the tunnels of Firetop Mountain .
"I wrote Blood of the Zombies to mark the anniversary, not as a commercial proposition," says Livingstone, who still isn't ruling out penning another.
"Whether or not [Fighting Fantasy co-founder] Steve Jackson or I write any more depends on demand from the fans – I hope so. If not, perhaps we’ll start writing one soon anyway for the 40th anniversary because at our age it will probably take 10 years to write."
Ballingall, who's Fighting Fantazine regularly features fan-written adventures, says the market has been flooded with other options for the youth dollar.
"I think most of those new books operate on the slimmest of margins and rely more on nostalgia and fan enthusiasm than any desire to make large amounts of money, as most major publishers would want to," says Ballingall.
"The explosion in the amount of children's literature on the back of Harry Potter means that shop shelves are awash with fantasy-style books aimed at the Fighting Fantasy target age group, meaning that Fighting Fantasy doesn't stand out quite the same way it did back in the day."
Rennison says there's a chance new Fighting Fantasy titles could skip the paperback release altogether. His company's Gamebook Adventures are digital-only, saving a lot of money in printing and distribution costs.
"I did mention it to Ian," says Rennison, "but really it's up to him and Steve what happens with the series in the future.
"If Blood of the Zombies sells well, then who knows?"
Blood of the Zombies is out now, and the iOS/Android version is due later this month.
- Fighting Fantasy official website
- Ian Livingstone on Twitter
- Fighting Fantazine
- Tim Man Games
- Titannica – the Fighting Fantasy wiki
- Order Blood of the Zombies on fishpond.co.nz
source: newshub archive