© John Watson

How Ian Livingstone conquered the gaming industry

The Games Workshop founder on running the service out of a van and bringing Dungeons & Dragons to the UK
April 5, 2023

Two life-sized statues of Lara Croft stand like guardian angels on either side of a monumental desk in Ian Livingstone’s study. Along three walls of this room in his southwest London home are floor-to-ceiling shelves covered with a rainbow assortment of new and vintage boardgames, books, action figures and other geeky paraphernalia. On one narrow shelf, lined with lime-coloured spines, is a collection of Livingstone’s own gamebooks. He used to be contracted by Penguin to write one every three months; now he does about one every two years. On the floor nearby is an old piece of white cardboard with an elaborate decision-tree drawn on it, an artefact from his first book. Tucked away on one shelf is a silver-faced Bafta award and another large trophy.

You’ll almost certainly have heard of at least one of the games Livingstone played a hand in. As one of the founders of Games Workshop, he brought Dungeons & Dragons to the UK market, was one of the founding fathers of the Warhammer tabletop games series and later helped kickstart the videogame franchise Tomb Raider—among many other projects, including his Fighting Fantasy books. He remains the only person ever to be knighted for services to the British gaming industry.

Nobody knows anybody in the games industry because we don’t have celebrity… we’re not film stars

Livingstone set up Games Workshop in 1975 with two friends from Altrincham Grammar School in Greater Manchester, John Peake and Steve Jackson. It started off largely as a mail-order service, distributing newsletters and traditional boardgames. Livingstone’s characterisation of the early days makes them sound a bit like a choose-your-own-adventure story, with fewer fantastical creatures and much more financial precarity. At one point, they “had nowhere to live and nowhere to operate”. For three months in 1976 they slept in the back of Jackson’s van, which they parked outside a tiny office they rented beside an estate agent; the van they nicknamed “Van Morrison” and the office “the breadbin”. They joined a nearby squash club so they could shave and shower—“and got quite good at squash by default”.

Gaining the exclusive UK rights to distribute Dungeons & Dragons—a game that “opened your imagination like no game had ever done before,” Livingstone says—was the real turning point, and the business became a name to watch in what was a fledgling industry. After years of dealing with fans only through the post, Livingstone was amazed to see a large queue form outside their first shop in Hammersmith, west London, on its opening day in April 1978. “It was surprising and a great relief to realise there were a lot more people like us out there than we thought.”

I bring up the stat that the gaming industry is now worth more to the UK economy than fishing (by about seven times), despite the latter having received far greater attention during Brexit negotiations. Does Livingstone think the gaming industry remains undervalued? “It absolutely is undervalued, in terms of perception,” he says. “Nobody knows anybody in the games industry because we don’t have celebrity… we’re not film stars.” Livingstone is also disappointed by cuts to arts education. “What differentiates us is our ability to create,” he says. “We are one of the most successful nations at that, so why would you want to strip that out of the classroom?”

And Livingstone has made lifelong friendships from gaming. He’s played boardgames every Friday night with the same group of friends—Jackson and games dev Peter Molyneux, among others—for many years. “It’s like a spoof gentleman’s club, in a way,” he jokes, but their commitment is serious: Livingstone compiles a weekly newsletter for the night, “where I just slag off the other players and say who’s winning the league,” while a trophy is handed out to the winner. After the most recent session, Livingstone came out top of the league. He shows me the trophy—it’s the one I saw earlier, beside the Bafta. Who’d care about film stars, when you can make friends like these?