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

Retro Gamer - - CON­TENTS -

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.

[Am­strad CPC] The early part of Jane’s ca­reer was spent at Graft­gold, mainly work­ing on home com­put­ers.

[Amiga] HR Giger’s dis­tinc­tive art sets the tone for Dark Seed.

[Jaguar] Alien Ver­sus Preda­tor was one of the few must-buy orig­i­nal games on the Jaguar.

[Amiga] Jane con­sid­ers Mike Sin­gle­ton a men­tor, hav­ing worked with him on games such as Mid­win­ter.

[N64] While at MGM, Jane worked on pro­lific Bond games, such as Gold­en­eye.

[PS2] Jane’s time at Elec­tronic Arts in­volved over­sight of a huge num­bers of projects, in­clud­ing sim­u­la­tions like Theme Park World.

[PC] The 2017 re­lease Rogue Is­lands was the first game to be pub­lished by Key­stone Games.

[PC] While be­ing a board ad­vi­sor to Mi­crosoft for many years, Jane still found time to code.

[PC] The Sims is one of the most no­table fran­chises that Jane worked with as Elec­tronic Arts’ des­ig­nated “stu­dio trou­bleshooter”.

[PC] Jane’s cur­rent project is Homi­cide De­tec­tive, a mys­tery in­ves­ti­ga­tion game that will be pub­lished through Key­stone Games.

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