"I'd go on holiday and have piles of books in the back of the car with a pencil and an eraser and a couple of dice, and that was my mobile gaming," Neil Rennison explains.
The co-founder of Melbourne-based indie studio Tin Man Games is describing his journey, how he and his partner Ben Britten hit upon the idea of turning the Fighting Fantasy novels of the 1980s and 1990s into video games.
Created by UK game designer Steve Jackson and fantasy author Ian Livingstone, the Fighting Fantasy adventure gamebooks added tabletop role-playing elements to the choose-your-own-adventure formula.
"We were just thinking of different things that could we make, or I could dredge up from my childhood. And I thought, well, I really love that stuff. I know loads of people that love that stuff, the nostalgia factor. I kind of had a gut feeling I was on to something, but I didn't think seven years later I'd have an office with seven people employed, do you know what I mean? I was just kind of doing it because I had some money and I thought it was cool."
Tin Man Games has carved these books into a niche on the mobile market, turning them into digital versions for iOS and Android. Its ever-expanding range of Gamebook Adventures includes both those beloved Fighting Fantasy titles and entirely new content. But the studio's newest venture is its first designed specifically for PC, and Tin Man is taking a new tack.
It's based on "The Warlock of Firetop Mountain," the very first Fighting Fantasy book title ever released, way back in 1982.
"'The Warlock of Firetop Mountain' used to be called 'Magic Quest,' and it actually started as an instruction manual on how to play tabletop role-playing games, because in the early 80s, nobody knew about D&D," Rennison said.
"So really, 'The Warlock of Firetop Mountain' evolved from an instruction manual on how to play role-playing games. So we thought oh, let's take Fighting Fantasy right back to that."
Tin Man Games' version of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, seeking funding on Kickstarter at time of writing and slated for release in April 2016, steps away from the Tin Man formula a little. To date, the Gamebook Adventures have been almost purely text-based adventures.
Warlock adds something new: An animated isometric map, with a miniature moving around, so you can visualise your position in the game, and a turn-based combat system, where you have to actually fight during the encounters. The dice are still present and optional, though, for those who prefer dice combat.
"When we first released Gamebook Adventures six or seven years ago, the very fact that you could have an interactive book with dice on a phone or an iPad was innovative enough, but people want more now," Rennison said.
"And it's good that people want more, because it means that developers are really pushing the envelope of what's possible. There is a blurred line now between video game and interactive game book, and what's coming out of that is almost new games. Like, who'd have thought of a solo miniatures-based adventure game where you could unlock different miniatures. That's come out of all this questioning, you know, trying to find new ways to do things."
The story of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain is pretty standard. The eponymous warlock, Zagor, has infiltrated and conquered the mountain. As the game's hero, you have to go in, defeat a bunch of monsters, kick Zagor to the kerb and steal all his gold. As with all adventure gamebooks, there are many different endings, most of which are failures, but even so, there's limited replayability.
That's why Tin Man Games is introducing unlockable miniatures, and with each miniature, slight shifts in the story's perspective to fit the character.
"We thought, well, let's just have different stories to tell within the same story. And to do that, take a different miniature in," Rennison explained.
"As you're going through the adventure, you meet a few of the characters within Firetop Mountain. And when you do things for them, you unlock them as miniatures. So let's say you meet a dwarf, and suddenly, it says you have unlocked the dwarf miniature. So you carry on with your adventure, and then you go, I'm gonna try this again with the dwarf. And then as soon as you go into the game, your motivations are completely different. It's not about getting gold, it's about reclaiming your home. It'll still be Firetop Mountain, but it'll be subtly different."'
Other developers working in the gamebook realm include Choice of Games, Cubus Games, 3 Minute Games and, most pertinent to The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, Inkle Studios, which has been releasing Steve Jackson's Sorcery! as a series of gamebooks. Inkle expanded on the Tin Man gamebook formula by adding a map, a miniature and a combat system. Rennison makes no bones about it. What he and his team have built with Firetop Mountain is directly inspired by Inkle's Sorcery!.
"The people who do this stuff are brilliant, we're all always innovating off each other," he said.
"You could tell immediately, as soon as I saw the very first screenshot of Sorcery! back when they were previewing it, before it was even released, I just went, wow. They're on to something there. You know they have the map, they have like a little counter that moved along the map ... And I thought we'll need to up our game now. The landscape's going to change. This is it. So we wanted to think of a way that we could something different."