In The Chair: Jane Whittaker
Few games developers have been as simultaneously influential and unsung as Jane Whittaker. Nick Thorpe talks to Jane about a storied career and a new type of publishing company
We investigate the astonishing career of one of gaming’s best-kept secrets
The first game we’ve got you listed as programming is a game called Stellar Trader for the ZX81 home computer – how did you get into programming to make it?
I was a conjoined Siamese twin – I’m now a separated Siamese twin – and most of my childhood was in hospital. My uncle was, he’s retired now, but he was a computer engineer for the air force, so he introduced me to the kit version of the ZX81. So I built that from a kit in the hospital to amuse myself. I’d got this machine and I decided I wanted to do a space game, so I got a book on Z80 machine code and then literally wrote Stellar Trader. It amused me and my sister during the separation surgeries, and people who came to visit us in hospital actually liked it, and my dad came up with the idea of advertising it in the classified ads of magazines at the time, like Sinclair User. Before I knew it, I had a ZX81 game being packaged up by my dad and sent all over the world.
It must have been difficult to find the space and equipment needed to build a computer in hospital, we’d imagine.
It was. As well as the space limitations, with me and my sister being wired up, when I started doing the Spectrum games I had to use the keyboard with my feet, just off the edge of the bed, just to find a way of using the machine. It took us as long to learn how to use the machine as it did to write machine code! It was literally just an old Boots colour portable TV and the ZX81 and the Spectrum set up on the side table next to the bed. I spent many years in hospital – it wasn’t like today’s surgeries, some of those kept me in hospital for up to a year at a time. I actually had more time in hospital in my childhood than I did in school. The next thing that we’re aware of is that you worked with Graftgold for a bit – how did that come about?
I was one of the partners, and I was just 15 at the time! Graftgold was originally Steve Turner, then Andrew Braybrook joined, then I joined. So for quite a while, it was just the three of us.
Oh, right! How did the partnership form, then? I’m glad I’m talking to Retro Gamer, because you’ll know these companies. You remember Hewson Software? We were all freelance for Andrew Hewson, and [it was] Andrew Hewson [who] had the idea of putting us all together.
We understand that you moved a long way to work on those games at Graftgold, too…
Yeah – when I wasn’t in hospital, I’d go down to Essex for the weekend to work on those games. The
Born as a conjoined twin with a rare mixture of male and female body parts, Jane Whittaker took up programming as a young teenager during the Eighties, as a distraction from the dozens of complex surgeries being undertaken at the time. Despite contributing to many well-known projects for companies including Graftgold, Atari, MGM, Electronic Arts and Microsoft, Jane has maintained a low profile, initially using the pseudonym Andrew Whittaker and later choosing to remain uncredited due to harassment. Now as a founder of Keystone Games, a publisher which has been specifically set up to support charity, Jane has chosen to embrace publicity in order to further the cause.
original office was above a fruit shop in Witham, near Chelmsford. I’m from Hull so I used to commute from Hull at weekends, even before I’d left school, go and write code in Essex, then go back home again and get ready for either school or hospital, wherever I needed to be. Alternatively, if I was in hospital, everything was just sort of mailed across.
During that time in your career, you worked on a mixture of original games and arcade conversions, right?
Yeah, I’m just trying to remember! The big one for me, that I got very heavily involved in, was Flying Shark, that did very well.
What sort of resources did you get when you were asked to convert games like that? Did Taito give you any support?
Ah, now that’s a story. Gosh, you’d expect that Taito would have given you all sorts of stuff. What we got was the arcade board, and we had to go find an arcade machine and television screen to plug it into, and that was it. We had to just keep playing the game – they didn’t give us any script or any walkthrough, or nothing. So we literally just keep playing the game to find out what happened next, and then copied that in the code. There was no technical support at all apart from, ‘Here’s the game, copy it.’ That must have been a nightmare to work with, given that you could only work on games during the weekends, what with being so young at the time.
Yeah, but we turned it around, I think it was in six weeks or something. Steve Turner did one version, I did the Amstrad version and Andrew Braybrook did the Commodore 64 version. In a way, that’s part of gaming history in itself, because – and you might have to check this – I think we were the first team to do simultaneous versions for all three platforms. Back then, teams did a game for a platform, and we had the idea that between us we could do a platform each for the same game.
So how long were you with Graftgold?
I think I did 33 titles over a three-year period – most of those were for Hewson, who had introduced us all to each other, and then we went to Firebird and Rainbird which was all part of the Microprose empire.
We understand that you also worked with Mike Singleton on the Midwinter games?
Correct, yeah. When I was with Graftgold, when Rainbird was bought by Microprose, I was invited to get involved on the Microprose side of things. Bill Stealey and Sid Meier came to me and said, ‘We want to introduce you to Mike Singleton, we think the two of you will work well together.’ Off I went to Liverpool with Bill and Sid, met Mike, and from that day Mike and I were the best of friends, and we remained friends up until the sad end of his life. So I ended up going off to Liverpool for a while – I still hadn’t formally left school, and these games took a little while to come out – and I was working on the Midwinter series with Mike and his business partner, a guy called Hugh Batterbury.
Someone else that you worked with was HR Giger on Dark Seed – that must have been quite an experience.
It certainly was. If we could wind back to Alien Versus Predator first though, because it was AVP that led to Dark Seed. Even though, chronologically, Dark Seed came out first, it was AVP that was in production first. What it was, I’d been involved with Giger on Alien Versus Predator – Ridley Scott, too, they’d done a lot of the creative input on how they wanted the game to be. I hit it off with Giger, so I was invited by him. He came to me one day and said, ‘Why don’t me and you do a game with my artwork?’ It was a company called Cyberdreams that did it, run by a guy called Patrick Ketchum, and they basically funded the whole thing. Just before he died, the great Salvador Dali got involved as well – he was never credited because he didn’t want to be, he just got involved with it. Basically it was a point-and-click adventure game, and the character that was scanned was called Mike Dawson. Mike Dawson was an actual writer, but the character that was scanned was me. So that’s me walking around – they dressed me up in this weird Seventies corduroy type stuff. All the graphics were hand-drawn by Giger then scanned in, and I had to build a game around it, which was interesting because everything Giger did was phallic. I spent half the game development time trying to tone it down and make it seem less phallic. I really thought I’d got there, I really thought we had a great game, and then the game shipped, and a couple of weeks later Gamepro magazine came to me and said, ‘That was a fabulous game, we really loved that – but what was with the walking testicle?’ And there was one I hadn’t swapped. I thought I’d removed every single phallic reference, but it was too late once it was out in the marketplace. It did really well. [HR Gieger]
was a very kind man – he was always very kind to me, but he was very off-base. When you stayed in his guest room he had a pentacle around the bed. The whole thing with his house was like a Gothic mansion, it scared the hell out of me, to be honest.
That sounds like quite an experience!
It was, but then I met up with one of the other programmers, a chap called Mike on the Amiga version, and went from the sublime to the ridiculous. They sent me to Detroit in the middle of all the troubles there to finish the Amiga version, and I was like, ‘Oh no…’ They put me in this hotel, and the hotelier said, ‘I’m going to come with you to your room, because I’m going to show you how to pull the furniture over your door in the night so you don’t get taken.’ I thought he was teasing me, and then during the night all I heard was “bang bang bang bang”, I was right in the middle of Detroit’s crime land in the Nineties, it was horrendous.
It must have been a far cry from Witham!
You might get a bit of fruit thrown at you in Witham, but you didn’t get a submachine gun, that’s for sure.
So if all of this happened as a result of Alien Versus Predator, you must have been working on the Atari Jaguar a long time before it came out? That’s right. Not only was I working on the Jaguar a long time before it came out, I actually got involved with the hardware design of the Jaguar while I was at Atari. I was working on the Jaguar before the Jaguar was even called the Jaguar, from day one when John Mathieson came from Sinclair with the idea to build this console. I had to write all the dev tools for it. That console design was probably 18 months or more before we’d even mentioned Alien Versus Predator to people. I had to come up with the games while working on the console with John, while writing the development tools so I could make the game. I’ve still got the prototype here, the very first one.
But you’d been at Atari for a little while before even that, correct?
Oh yeah. When I was ready to leave school, because I’d already been working at Microprose, Sam and Jack Tramiel flew across to the UK and I was back in Hull, so it was at my parents’ council house in Hull, and they asked if I’d be willing to move to San Francisco. My parents couldn’t do it because they both had fulltime jobs, but they said I could go to San Francisco and join Atari on the proviso that I was looked after. So I left school at 16, didn’t do any A Levels, because I left school on the Friday and on the Monday I was with Sam and Jack in San Francisco. They treated me as one of the family for years – literally as one of the family, I used to spend all my spare time with the family. I was basically raised as one of the kids.
That’s a huge leap, to go off that far at that age, but we’d imagine that faced with that kind of opportunity, it’d be impossible to refuse.
It was something I’d always wanted. My parents had insisted that I’d be looked after and I was, I mean it was incredible – there was a car provided, they paid for my girlfriend at the time to come over and stay with us, I stayed with the family, I took my meals with the family. At the end of Alien Versus Predator, Sarah Tramiel lent me and my girlfriend her sports car! Every time Sam came to the UK he’d meet up with my dad,
Everything HR Giger did was phallic. I spent half the development time trying to tone it down Jane Whittaker
even now they do. I was welcomed with open arms, and I loved every minute of it.
After the Jaguar failed to compete, you must have had to move on from Atari?
I moved on because Atari effectively sold themselves after the Jaguar, Sam and Jack were retiring, so I went to MGM then. Because I’d done stuff with Giger and done Alien Versus Predator, I was invited to head up the interactive division at Metro-goldwyn-mayer.
Just so we’re clear, since there’s no release to check, was the cancelled M2 game Power Crystal something you did for MGM?
No, that was a side project for 3DO, because in those days you could still do projects in your own time. I was approached by Trip Hawkins and Dave Maynard, and they said, ‘We’ve got this new M2 console coming, you did the best game for the Jaguar, do you want to come and do the launch game for the M2?’ I was already in the process of moving across to MGM, so I told MGM about this and they said, ‘As long as you do your day job with us, this isn’t competitive so it’s fine.’
Power Crystal was an open world RPG – how much of that was drawn from your Midwinter experience?
Oh a ton of it. The whole way of building 3D worlds,
I’d learned how to do quest structure from Mike. It didn’t play like Midwinter, it was a traditional fantasy RPG. People who played it later said it was like an early Zelda – not Wind Waker… Ocarina Of Time? That’s sort of how it played like. It was finished and ready to go out, and they cancelled the console. They had some really quality stuff, it was a lovely console – it wasn’t the quality of the console or the games, it was purely a financial decision, and it was really sad.
So at MGM you worked primarily with the James Bond games – that must have been a fun, high-profile thing to work on.
Yeah, I joined as director of development in the interactive division and within six months, I’d got my promotion to vice president and they wanted me to work on the movies and the games. When you looked at it from a games point of view, I think I made the right decision at the time to focus on James Bond games, because you can only do so much with 2001 and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. They had lots and lots of movies, but none that I thought would make big games franchises.
At that point in the mid-nineties, movie licences had a pretty bad reputation. How much of a challenge was it to turn that perception around? Oh, it had gotten to the point that the movie guys had seen these games, which bore very little relation to the movies they were based on, and got so scared that they didn’t want to do movie licences anymore. Fox took a bit of a risk with Alien Versus Predator and it paid off for them, and that was what convinced MGM to actually take a punt and have a try at making some franchises based on Bond. There was a lot of discussion where they were saying, ‘We don’t want to make movie games like they’ve been done in the past, because it’ll damage us.’ And that led to Goldeneye, actually. The reason Goldeneye is as good as it was is because of that ethos that it had to be right. That’s why it was Rare, because as far as I was concerned Tim Stamper had the best team in the world. It was a very deliberate policy, because there was a huge nervousness in MGM about what had gone before.
You always seem to have a lot of projects going on at once, it must be a lot to keep track of? That’s been me all my years – I get up, I work on a game, and I go to bed, seven days a week. I still do. I don’t do anything else, don’t do a social life. I’ve got a three-year old car with 500 miles on the clock and I live in the countryside, so that tells you how often I go out.
I think I made the right decision at the time to focus on James Bond games Jane Whittaker
I’ve never conceptually or technically found it a problem, I’m happy to jump around between things. When I went to EA, that’s part of the reason they employed me – part of my job was to go between all the studios and troubleshoot projects, write code, manage it and deal with teams across 30, 40 projects at a time. EA picked up that I was one of those people who would spin all these plates. Officially, I was the executive in charge of production, unofficially however I was the studio troubleshooter.
In recent years, you’ve been best known for working on the Flight Simulator expansions. How did you come to work on those?
It all stretches back to Microprose, because they used to be huge in flight simulators. Sid and Bill roped me into helping out on those. They dragged me into that genre and I loved it, so I stayed involved with that for years and years as a hobbyist. I was asked by Bill Gates to assist the board at Microsoft, where I worked for ten to 12 years. They were working on Flight Simulator X, and Bill Gates asked me if I’d give some support to that group. As a flight simulator fan I said, ‘Yeah, I will,’ and it really came about more by accident than anything else – someone on the group said to me, ‘Why don’t you do some expansion packs?’ So I decided to do it, but every expansion pack would go to support a children’s charity. Keystone was formed out of that.
Yes, we were going to ask about Keystone – as we understand it, the company doesn’t operate on a for-profit model, and the profit instead goes to support the children.
While I was at Microsoft I got approached, and Microsoft and other companies got involved, to create Keystone. The Serious Fun children’s charity, which was founded by Paul Newman – it’s called Above The Wall in the UK – they came to me and asked if I wanted to continue helping the kids, but on a bigger scale.
They had the idea of Keystone as a publishing and development company. We got various people together from the industry – my old team out of EA, some people out of Microsoft, some good people – and we formed Keystone. We’ve got support from Microsoft and Unity, support from Valve for Steam. We’ve had support from over 30 companies in the industry who have said ‘We’re going to help you build this.’
So how does Keystone Games work?
My premise was, and it was agreed by the board, that we will run just like any other publishing and development company, whether that’s an Electronic Arts or a Microsoft or whatever. We buy third-party titles or we license third-party titles or whatever, we put them out with full worldwide distribution, we have four internal teams working on projects, we have teams working in Singapore, London, Calgary and Michigan. So day-to-day, because we had significant investment we’ve been able to start off running as quite a reasonably sized company. People ask me, ‘Are you an indie team?’ and we’re not really – not with four internal development teams. So you’ve definitely got some strength there, in terms of support and numbers.
Yeah, but the difference was that instead of the profits being funnelled into the investors, all the investors in the company have invested as a donation, and the ongoing profits of the company go straight to the children’s charity. It runs just like any other publishing company, but at the end of the day we don’t use the profit to line anybody’s pockets. We all agreed that the profits would go to the kids, and it’s unique in that sense.
It’s been an incredible career so far, and it’s amazing to think that people are just finding out about it now.
Well, that’s because whenever I go to a company, because of all the issues of being conjoined, I’ve only ever signed up if they sign a non-disclosure agreement for me! So it’s certainly been unusual since I’ve come out of the woodwork.