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Deathtrap Dungeon’s creator is trying to make a smarter ‘gamebook’

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We talk with Ian Livingston about the effort to enhance his Fighting Fantasy classic

Key art produced for the Fig campaign to fund The Hero of Deathtrap Dungeon Sentient Play

Deathtrap Dungeon, the classic Fighting Fantasy adventure by Games Workshop co-founder Ian Livingston, could be turned into another video game. Called The Hero of Deathtrap Dungeon, it would be developed for PC by Sentient Play, a start-up based in Austin, Texas with connections to IBM’s Watson project. A campaign on the hybrid crowdfunding and investment platform Fig to raise $200,000 has reached roughly 66 percent of its goal and has five days left to go.

Deathtrap Dungeon was first published in 1984. It’s a “gamebook,” a single-player adventure that blends Choose Your Own Adventure-style narratives with the mechanics of a role-playing game. Livingston tells Polygon that the book sold over 400,000 copies that year in the United Kingdom alone, while the series sold more than 20 million copies overall.

“It was extraordinary,” Livingston said. “The clue [for players] was in the title: Deathtrap Dungeon. You’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen. [...] You came across a barbarian called Throm who is the person you needed to get through the dungeon. The premise is only one person is able to flee. The reader would have to actually fight Throm to the death. It left an indelible impression on young children’s minds.”

A mockup of the user interface for The Hero of Deathtrap Dungeon.
Sentient Play

“There’s been a resurgence in the genre because those who read them in the 1980s have now got their own children and they’re saying, ‘Hey, I used to read these back in the ’80s. What do you think?’” Livingston said. “Normally, children reject out of hand anything that their parents say is cool, but I’m delighted to say Fighting Fantasy game books seem to resonate with today’s generation.”

This isn’t the first time that Deathtrap Dungeon has been turned into a video game. You can currently download a 1998 version developed by Eidos on Steam. It’s also not the first time that the Deathtrap Dungeon source material has been published digitally in a book-like format. You can purchase it as a download for Fighting Fantasy Classics, from Tin Man Games, which is also available on Steam.

The Hero of Deathtrap Dungeon, Livingston says, will be different than previous projects. While the mockups of The Hero of Deathtrap Dungeon looks a lot like an ebook, there will be a sophisticated AI pulling the strings in the background. Handling the design of the game itself is the team at Sentient Play, developers of the successful text-based mobile game Komrad, which was released in 2016. Founder Brad Becker happens to be the former chief design officer for IBM’s Watson.

“Everybody knows how to use a book,” Becker said. “It brings back that feeling from the golden age of role-playing.”

“We’re really going back to [Livingston’s] original idea,” Becker continued. “What does it mean to have those cool pen and paper experiences? What’s possible in 2020? What’s possible in 2019?”

Key art produced for the Fig campaign to fund The Hero of Deathtrap Dungeon Sentient Play

Becker said he was inspired partially by a book by Neal Stephenson.

“In The Diamond Age there’s something called The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer,” Becker said. “It’s basically a book that writes itself. [...] That idea was something that I got when I was working on Watson. As AI starts to develop and as technology starts to develop, that idea is starting to become more and more achievable.”

The funding for the game is being raised through Fig, a platform that blends rewards-based funding with equity investment in time-limited, all-or-nothing campaigns. Successful Fig projects include Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire, as well as campaigns for Wasteland 3 and Psychonauts 2.

Like many projects on Fig, the campaign for Deathtrap Dungeon began with a sizable seed investment from unnamed investors already in place. Becker tells Polygon that, as it stands right now, that seed accounts for well more than half of the total investment shown on Fig. That imbalance is unusual for the platform. Historically, this late in a project additional investment far outweighs the initial seed. At time of publication, the campaign has 830 backers.

Becker said that if the campaign is not successful, it’s possible that the game will not be produced.

“We are in talks with publishers as well,” Becker said. “But we really want to make sure that we do this right, so I can’t say for certain that it won’t happen. What I can say is if, if people aren’t genuinely interested in this, if there’s not excitement about this, then it doesn’t make sense to go spend lots of person years working on this.”

One of the persons who could be involved if the Fig campaign is successful is Alex Gygax, the youngest son of Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons. Previously, Alex was the CEO of Gygax Games. Deathtrap Dungeon would be his first formal experience in the game industry.

“I’m excited for this thing to get funded and to get working and make some exciting and fun games that people will hopefully really enjoy,” Alex said.

The campaign runs through Dec. 19.