by Will Reynolds
The Lady Behind the Code
As you go along in life, you get to meet many people, and some of them will undoubtedly impress for one reason or another. In the Flight Sim World and indeed the gaming world, we do see plenty of these special characters and we at Avsim are very fortunate to call one of these very special characters our friend.
Jane Rachel Whittaker, a lady who was part of the team that brought you “The Sims” as well as “World of Warcraft” and many others, talks to Avsim exclusively about her experiences, dreams and achievements. We learn more about one of the true legends of gaming and flight simulation, and also about a person whose dignity, humility and human touch must be recognised.
Apart from being a multi-award winning programmer and designer, Jane has been one of the main supports for a little girl she met a while ago...Rosie Davies, who suffers from crippling physical disabilities and requires constant assistance. Jane leads the way in supporting this little girl and her family, and acknowledges the tremendous support from the gaming community as well.
Welcome to Avsim, Jane!
1 - Let's get to know Jane Whittaker, where were you born? Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in the city of Kingston Upon Hull, in England’s county of Yorkshire. For those of you unfamiliar with the county, its very famous as “Bronte Country” and also features in the famous James Herriot stories. I was raised about an hour’s drive away from the city of York, the county capital.
2 - What memories from your early years moulded the Jane Whittaker from today?
I think I have always had a love of adventure and visiting worlds of the imagination, be that through books, TV or movies, so I spent most of my childhood immersed in a fantasy world. Some will argue that I spent very little time in the real world and still don’t!
3 - You started your programming career in your teens, can you tell us how exactly? What called you down that path? How did the love of flight simulation come to fruition?
I was 13 and bought a Sinclair ZX81 computer with the express plan to teach myself how to program and to create an explorable world on the computer. I achieved it too, creating a huge space trading game (rather like a text version of the new Elite Dangerous!). Along the way I learnt how to write code in assembly language, which led to a number of very successful mail order games releases. By the time I had reached the age of 16 I already had a job waiting for me in the games industry, so I left school at that age and joined the industry, way back in the early 80s when gaming was in its infancy. At that time my publisher was Rainbird Software in the UK who were very rapidly acquired by Microprose which I became a part of. Many of you will remember Wild Bill Steeley and his flying suits along with a hangar full of flight simulation products, including the iconic Chuck Yeager titles and the Stealth Fighter and Gunship franchises. I was under 20 years old and found myself heavily involved in the flight simulation industry as my day job. I found that I absolutely loved it, no let me rephrase that, adored it! I quickly went on to get my flying licences and never looked back, including having spent time with commercial airlines as an agency pilot to maintain my licences and hours. Once aviation is in your blood, there is no cure!
4 - You went on to work with ATARI, can you tell us more about that role?
I have to say, it was the most amazing experience of my life. I hadn’t even reached 20 years old when I was whisked away to join the team at Atari. I worked on a number of titles for the company and saw a lot of the world! It was a dream job to be honest. I had the opportunity to work with 20th Century Fox, the alien artist HR Giger and Ridley Scott to code and design Alien Vs Predator for the Atari console, which went on to become their bestselling title of the 1990s. I saw the Alien and Predator movies literally hundreds of times to capture every nuance of the plot and working with two very talented people, Mike Beaton and Purple Hampton, the three of us turned all those concepts and ideas in to one of the world’s bestselling video games of all time! I spent a great deal of my time discussing the characters of those movies and their motivations with cast and crew at a time when movie spin-off games were unheard of. The fact people still talk about that game today I think shows us we did a good job. Yet, it still kept me in touch with aviation, thanks to being on various joint working groups and think tanks, including joint aviation products with Lockheed Martin who were also in Sunnyvale, along with NASA Ames. Really could there be anything better for a 20 year old aviation fan than working alongside NASA, Lockheed and Atari? It was a great time with great people. I have fond memories of the Atari CEO, Sam Tramiel and his family spending time with my family in Yorkshire and sharing bottles of brown ale with my Dad on visits to the UK!
If you want to know what the games industry at that time was like. When AvP was completed, Sam Tramiel gave myself and my partner keys to his daughter’s new sports car, tickets to Disneyland, a pot of cash and instructions not to return to the office for at least a month!
The success with movie licences led to being offered the role of Development Director at Metro Goldwyn Mayer, where one of my duties was to supervise and approve scores of movie spin off titles for PC and consoles. Many of you will remember the James Bond licenced games such as Goldeneye for the Nintendo 64.
5 - You were also Executive in Charge of Production at EA Games...how did that opportunity come about?
It was by invitation. I had always loved many of the products being developed by EA at that time, including the Jane’s (no relation!) flight simulation franchise and the award winning strategy games at their Bullfrog Studio. I had been friendly with the founders of EA, Trip Hawkins, Dave Maynard and Joe Ybarra for many years and it seemed a perfect fit for me. Peter Molyneux had moved on to form Lionhead so I returned to the UK to take up a post at the Bullfrog Studio of EA. It was also a fabulous time in my life, working on major franchises such as Theme Park and Dungeon Keeper. I also joined my first virtual airline when an executive at Electronic Arts and managed to recruit many EA staff members in to the world of flight simulation with regular late nights at the office flying together in multi-player sessions! By day, we were making games, by night, we were all pilots in Flight Sim, clocking up hours for virtual airlines and competing against each other to nail difficult landings!
6 - You have been awarded the "Programmer of the Year' title 3 times. That is quite a record, can you tell us what projects you were involved in at that time?
There was the aforementioned Alien Vs Predator, but I also worked on a slew of 8 bit titles for the Sinclair Spectrum and Commodore 64 computers that were really successful back in the day. I was also lucky to renew my acquaintance with the work of HR Giger, with my involvement with the award winning Darkseed adventure game for the PC and Amiga computers. Darkseed was very dark, disturbing, coming as it did from the mind of HR Giger, but ultimately very successful indeed.
7 - You have done over 30 game titles! What were your personal favourites?
It is hard to answer that as I have genuinely enjoyed every product I have ever developed. I think on reflection, that Alien Vs Predator would be the one. It was only the second only first person shooter game ever developed (after Wolfenstein) and the first with a full 3D engine ever in the games industry (Wolfenstein had no floors or ceilings, just walls). It also led me to pursue a part time PhD in Artificial Intelligence which has become something of a passion for me. An in-depth knowledge of both 3D engines and artificial intelligence has proved incredibly useful to me in my work with FSX.
8 – You are the assistant Editor at PC Pilot Magazine – How did that come about?
Nearly 13 years ago now I submitted an article to Mark Embleton at the magazine. It was a review of the very first airliner release by PMDG! The magazine published the article and asked me if I wanted to continue writing for the magazine. I thought it would be tremendous fun but never considered it would become such a large part of my life. Things snowballed and I was asked many years ago now to be the Assistant Editor. I can truly say I love every minute of aviation writing, never tiring of the wonderfully detailed simulations that many talented teams create for our hobby. We are so lucky to be in a hobby where the overriding aim of nearly every developer is to push the boundaries of their creativity and technical skills! There are some fantastic people and my role at the magazine keeps me in touch with this fabulous community of ours.
9 - Let's talk about your return to programming, the Arctic Rescue, Cargo Crew and Dangerous Approaches packages. Where did the idea start? How did you put the projects together?
To be honest I had a head full of ideas. I still do! Putting those ideas in to some semblance of organisation led me to the thought that they would make really great and exciting missions packs for FSX. I passionately feel that we have great aircraft and great scenery in FSX, but that there was a gap bringing it all together. We have all these assets what do we do with them? The short and obvious answer is people want to fly, but where and how? I feel that mission packs adds structure to the flying experience, giving people something to do that is unique and fun with their aircraft. I want to give them that cinematic experience and memories of some very rewarding flying within the packs. In short, I went right back to my roots and wanted to create an adventure for people!
10 - If we look at Arctic Rescue, Cargo Crew and Dangerous Approaches for what they are, it really is something historical, the very first add ons written specifically to assist in improving the quality of life of a wonderful little girl who may never get the chance most of us take for granted. You would have to be fairly heartless to not see the programs for what they are, have they been received well by the simulation community?
I actually think many of us in the simulation community have really taken to 8 year old little Rosie Davies to their hearts. For those who don’t know her, Rosie was born without a lower spinal cord and lower body. Not only was she paralysed at birth, but she also faced the amputation of both her deformed legs, the removal of a kidney and the fitting of an artificial stomach along with scores of other life changing surgeries. It is safe to say that the flight sim community have really got to know and love Rosie. She gets many messages of support on my team Facebook page when I post regular updates on Rosie’s progress. (www.facebook.com/janerachelwhittaker) Every copy of the packs that has been sold have gone on to help Rosie and this year our community generosity has seen her provided with special nursing care, “bucket list” vacations, a customised medical bed, a hydrotherapy pool and specialist treatment, a PlayStation 4 and countless other things to improve the quality of her life whilst in hospice care. Without the sales of the mission packs, that support simply could not have happened. I am continually very grateful for the amazing kindness and caring within flight simulation. I would like to express my very special thanks to Angel Heaven Lee, Jerry Lee and Will Reynolds (Avsim), for their never ending friendship and support and amazing voiceovers. Without them, there would be no mission packs!
Arctic Rescue, Dangerous Approaches and Cargo Crew are on Steam in to the long term and will continue to provide ongoing support for the most amazing, funny and courageous little girl I have ever met!
11 - Rosie Davis, this amazing little girl you are trying to help via the Virtual aviation community, is currently trying to recover from yet another operation. Is her family aware of the support you have created from our community?
Yes, she recently underwent further amputation surgery and has recovered really well. She suffers from a number of infections which continue to require ongoing surgeries. Her mother, Amanda and her sister Mia are completely aware of how the flight simulation community has helped and regularly interact with the community through the Facebook page mentioned above. They are incredibly grateful for the financial and moral support they have received from flight simmers in the support of Rosie. It isn’t telling a tale out of school to say that Amanda is regularly moved to tears by the support of flight simmers in aiding the care of Rosie.
12 - Where to for Jane Whittaker? This year shapes up to provide some changes, where will we see you next?
More mission packs, aircraft releases and lots of other exciting things lined up for 2016. By popular demand the team will also be releasing titles for classic FSX and P3D and X-Plane along with Steam releases for FSX:SE. As always, all products will be providing ongoing support for Rosie, so I wish to close by thanking each and every one of you for your tireless support during 2015 and here’s to 2016!
There you have it folks, not many of us can tell of achieving so much in a lifetime, as she did by the time she was 20!!
To come out of programming retirement with the focus on assisting a little girl and her family financially, whilst juggling all her other commitments....well, you truly need a Jane Whittaker to do what Jane Whittaker does.
Terrific to have the opportunity to introduce Jane to Avsim, be sure to say hello when you see her in our forums!