Interview with Alasdair Evans, Senior Producer of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain

As a young boy, I found myself interested in role playing games at a very early age even though no one else I knew played them. I was fascinated by the different die shapes, the books that allowed you to make your own characters and all these other things that video games just couldn’t offer at the time (This was the era of the Atari 2600 after all). Because I was a bit ahead of the curve for this sort of thing, my experiences were confined to either reading 1st Edition AD&D books or playing what were known as “gamebooks” – a cross between a tabletop RPG for one person and the old Choose Your own Adventure books. I played many a Lone Wolf book, along with the D&D Endless Quests. My favorites though, were the Fighting Fantasy books. They were really well written and a lot of fun. The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was the best of the best and I ended up buying the board game version in college and even the DS version that came out a few years ago (But wasn’t very good). So of course when Laughing Jackal, a development studio back in the UK, started releasing the series as PSP Minis, well you can bet the 4-5 year old in me let out a little squee.

Our own Aaron Sirois reviewed Talisman of Death back in early September and just recently he reviewed The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. However, there were a lot of questions I still had about the series, especially about the conversion from book into video game. Since we cover both video and tabletop games here at Diehard GameFAN, this seemed like a wonderful article to write for our readers. Luckily, Laughing Jackal was more than happy to accommodate me and so Alasdair Evans, Senior Producer of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain took time out of his day to answer my questions.

Diehard GameFAN: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is available in many forms: the original Fighting Fantasy book, the awesome Games Workshop Board Game, a Spectrum video game in 1984, a playable version for the Kindle and iPad, an action RPG for the Nintendo DS and now Laughing Jackal has done a PlayStation minis version. What do you think it is about The Warlock of Firetop Mountain that has kept it not only popular for so long, but in so many different versions?

Alasdair Evans : I think the book’s success stems from the simple fact that Warlock was the very first Choose Your Own Adventure gamebook of its time. That alone gives it huge appeal to the fans – it’s the ancestor of all other gamebooks.

Also, I think that a lot of gamers who discover a game or genre they really like will eventually want to know the inspiration for it and how it started, so I think that’s a huge part of its continued appeal. It’s kind of the “go-to” gamebook for any and all would-be adventurers.

Besides that, it’s also a really cool story with plenty of replay appeal (and the keys system alone is pure genius!). It’s a surprisingly sophisticated adventure when you consider it’s the first book of the series. Some of the later books are a lot more complex, but even in its simplicity, Warlock still stands the test of time in comparison with the later adventures.

DHGF: There have been two previous video game versions of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. What sets the PlayStation minis version apart from both the Spectrum and the Nintendo DS versions?

AE: We think that our PSN minis adaptation of the Fighting Fantasy series offers a true replication of the original books, with the addition of a few modern day enhancements. The games are set in an atmospheric Wizard’s study with a virtual copy of each gamebook in front of you, and whilst the bulk of the experience is reading the story, there are lots of additions which mean the minis versions offer something very different to previous games of the same name. I’m obviously biased but I think they’re the best gamebooks around in this – or any – series.

We’ve gamified the books by offering skill tests and combat systems so that you don’t have to use dice rolls if you’d prefer not to, but both systems still stick rigidly to the rules set out in the original books. The difference is you can use your skill in timing your button presses and in observing the combat tiles to influence how likely you are to succeed. That means it’s almost always possible to win a fight or test, regardless of the character you roll; although your progress may be made harder, there’s always a way forward. In fact, rolling inferior characters is the only way to get to some of the pages in the books, which adds to the replay appeal for collectors who want to fill up their log book.

We felt it was important to provide people with a chance to move ahead even in the face of odds that would – in the original books – make failure inevitable. Because we didn’t want people to cheat their way through, offering these new ways to play seemed like the best solution. Hopefully we’ve pleased everyone and judging by the game’s user ratings on the PSN Store we’ve certainly succeeded in that.

DHGF: As a development team, what gave Laughing Jackal the idea to turn the Fighting Fantasy books into video games and how did you sell the idea?

AE: Our Head of Development, Steve Morgan, had been mad-keen on the idea of making our own Choose Your Own Adventure stories for ages and once he acquired the Fighting Fantasy license we were all totally on board. We’re all in our mid twenties or thirties here, so most of us have great memories of the FF books from childhood. Coupling the mighty Fighting Fantasy license with the flexibility of the minis platform just seemed a great combination. As you can imagine, we were over the moon when Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone said “Yes!”

DHGF: The original Warlock of Firetop Mountain was written by Steve Jackson & Ian Livingstone. Were they involved in any way with the translation of the story from book to game?

AE: Absolutely. Steve Jackson especially has been very heavily involved, although both he and Ian have both given us lots of very useful feedback and support as we’ve gone along. There were quite a lot of areas in the book that had various ad-hoc solutions, requiring the player to do things a certain way perhaps just one time. In a videogame we don’t have the luxury of asking the player to do that – the game has to manage it all eventualities perfectly every time – so working around those kinds of situations was a real challenge and both Steve and Ian were very helpful and a pleasure to work with.
Our approach was to go through the whole game to identify the areas where the book in its current form simply wouldn’t work when applied to a videogame’s structuring. We found quite a number of instances where a new solution was required so we met up with Steve Jackson on a few extended lunches at a very nice pub in London. Together we hammered out solutions to every roadblock we’d encountered and I’m happy to say that it was plain sailing from then on.

I guess all that means you could say that this version of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is – in some small way at least – the definitive version. I’m sure Steve won’t mind me saying that – maybe! ;)

DHGF: The original art for The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was done by Russ Nicholson. The art looks very similar to that in the original book. Can you explain the process of recreating his art in a digital format?

AE: Basically because of the age of the book we had no computer files to refer to when recreating it (the same applied to Talisman of Death). That means that every page of the book has had to be scanned onto a computer and then either converted into text or retouched by hand by one of our artists.

The pictures were the most challenging element of that because we have a very particular vellum graphical effect on the pages of the book so the illustrations had to be redrawn to some extent in order to reflect that rougher look, without losing the detail of the originals. The whole process was done painstakingly by hand by our incredibly talented in-house artist Jake Cooper. Some of the images had to be very heavily reworked but they’ve all been retouched very sensitively with reference to the paper originals and we’re very happy with the results.

DHGF: For those that have played your previous Fighting Fantasy PlayStation mini, can you compare and contrast The Warlock of Firetop Mountain with Talisman of Death?

AEWhilst the experiences of each game have obvious similarities, both stories are very different to each other.

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain takes place in Allansia which is part of the traditional setting of the Fighting Fantasy games. In contrast, Talisman of Death takes place in the world of Orb, which is used in Fighting Fantasy too, but is perhaps more familiar to gamebook fans as the setting for the Lone Wolf games. Talisman of Death‘s story involves the player being taken from Earth by mysterious forces and charged with stealing the Talisman of Death away from Orb to prevent it being taken over by the minions of Death. The player is basically an unwitting saviour in a world they are totally unfamiliar with.

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain differs from that and is a far more traditional dungeon-crawling adventure, in which your character travels into Firetop Mountain with the express purpose of seeking adventure and riches. Being our second release, Warlock benefits from quite a few technical and gaming improvements (as suggested by our fans of the first release), but they’re both awesome games in their own right! 

DHGF: You don’t see a lot of actual dice rolling in a video game but that’s a big part of these Fighting Fantasy games. For video game RPG fans who have never experienced a tabletop RPG (heathens!), do you think this will be a turn off?

AE: I hope not. I should point out that you don’t have to use dice rolls in our games – in fact they’re disabled by default. We’ve added luck and skill tests that involve timing and observation skills to influence the existing rule set. That means that even with the lowest possible Skill and Luck stats you’ve still got a chance of succeeding and the same applies to combat too. Careful observation should always offer you a way out.

That said, traditionalists can simply enable dice rolls in the Options menu to play the game as originally intended, which is a tougher and more passive experience. I’m squarely in favour of the new way of playing myself, but we felt it was important to offer both systems. 

DHGF: I’m sure this is true for everyone as a kid, but with the Fighting Fantasy, Lone Wolf and Endless Quest books I would sometimes…fudge my die rolls in order to keep going with the story. For those that just want more of a Choose Your Own Adventure experience, is that a possible option in the game?

AE: Well, you can’t actually cheat – even by resetting the game, however as I mentioned in my last answer the new game systems we’ve added give you a fighting chance even when the dice aren’t rolling in your favour. I’ve personally won plenty of fights against highly skilled enemies with the lowest player stats possible, so I can attest to the fact that there’s always a chance of success. We think that’s a much better approach than letting the player cheat their way through!

To help boost that sense of accomplishment, the log book we’ve added to help you map your way through the game also tracks every page visited. So even if you fail and visit an “Ëœinstant death’ page you’re still adding to your overall progress. In order to get that 100% in your save profile you’re going to have to fail sometimes!

DHGF: How hard was it to compose music for a book? I know I have the Kindle version of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and so when I played Laughing Jackal’s adaptation of Talisman of Death, it really struck me that there was now a soundtrack for a Fighting Fantasy book.

AE: We felt that the addition of music was essential in helping to create the atmosphere of playing a fantasy gamebook. We tried quite a lot of different pieces before we settled on music that’s actually quite passive but builds to a crescendo when appropriate throughout the book. This turned out to be very successful in building tension and I think it gives the books quite a spooky atmosphere which is precisely what we wanted to achieve.

Because it’s primarily a reading experience the music remains has to remain quite ambient – it’s got to be a background thing and not take you out of your reading experience.

DHGF: Do you have plans to do any more Fighting Fantasy titles in the near future?

AEAbsolutely yes, although it won’t be in the immediate future – we’re very busy with a number of other projects at the moment, but we’ve definitely got our eyes trained on a third title from the series, so you’ll have to wait to see which book it’s going to be. My personal choices for the next book would be City of Thieves, Forest Of Doom or Appointment with F.E.A.R. the last of which is radically different from what we’ve done previously. In any case, I’m sure we’ll be making an announcement shortly .

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m very eager to see what the third Fighting Fantasy Playstation Mini will be. It’s great to see actual RPGs for the Minis and it’s even better to see developer support for the PSP hasn’t dried up completely. If you’d like to learn more about Laughing Jackal and the video games they make, , you should visit their official website.



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