Interview with Jane Whittaker

Voice talks to a founding director and owner of Keystone Games about their experience in the industry, Rogue Islands and what advice they'd give to young people

Interview with Jane Whittaker

Could you first introduce yourself to the readers?

My name is Jane Whittaker; I am a software developer and publisher, hardcore Doctor Who fan, Star Wars and Star Trek fan and general geek!

You have over 30 years' experience in the gaming industry, being involved in titles such as Alien vs Predator, The Sims and Goldeneye N64. However, most won't recognise the name Jane Whittaker. Could you give a little bit of background to that?

I am a type of Siamese twin and always felt that should be something that I didn't really want to publicise, being a rare joining of male and female twin. Many of my hit games, including Alien Vs Predator were developed as Andrew Whittaker, which was the name I used on many titles.

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You're a founder and owner of the developing and publishing company Keystone Games. Why did you decide to set up your own company?

It was a very easy decision after meeting with the disabled and life limited kids who benefit every year from the Over The Wall children's charity. They provide completely free holidays for the kids and their families in a safe secure environment that allows the kids to be themselves. It was a no brainer to be part of a company that supports this incredible initiative that changes so many lives for the better.

A central tenet of Keystone Games is philanthropy. Can you talk about how that works, and why it was important to you?

We donate the vast majority of our profits to Over The Wall. We develop and publish games just like any other publishing house, but rather than supporting investors in suits, we support thousands of kids!

Who are some of the people who have so far benefited from your work?

For many years I have donated a large percentage of my income to children's charities and to support specific children who really need help. That is something that will continue from me personally just as much as the support from Keystone.

Can you tell us about Keystone Indie and why it might be a compelling proposition to developers?

The Keystone Indie programme has got developers very excited. There are so many people out there with great ideas looking for support to bring their products to market. In addition to what we consider to be the best financial deals in the industry we are motivated to nurture and support the indie community. Every developer that works with us has daily access to AAA game developers for advice and support and we are mentoring a whole host of fabulous developers as they take their first steps in to the industry. It is something that we are really proud of.

I'd like to talk a little bit about Rogue Islands. To start with, could you give a summary of the game?

Rogue Islands is a fast paced, procedurally generated FPS. The pace is frantic as you try and survive on a series of very hostile islands. The aim of the game is to gather resources in order to be able to create fuel for your ship to leave each island. What sounds simple, is in practice an incredibly compelling action game as you face the inhabitants of each island who are determined to send you to your demise. It isn't a game for the faint hearted and is already been described in the press as one of the best first person shooters to be released this year!

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It was originally developed by Kiaran Ritchie of Bioware. How is it that Keystone Games ended up taking it on?

Kiaran, his wife Jasmine and I started talks when I first saw Rogue Islands. It seemed a perfect fit for a merger of skill sets. I had written many FPS titles over the years, from Goldeneye for Nintendo to Alien Vs Predator and many others. So a decision was made for the game to join the Keystone label. That has allowed myself to carry on the development of the game and add further features to Rogue Islands to really make the game shine.

The game came out at the beginning of September. What has the response been by the public?

Overwhelmingly positive is the short answer. Everyone who plays it loves it, with a raft of incredibly positive comments on Steam and the professional reviewers joining the public in praise of the game. It has been an incredible experience to wake up each day to see further positive comments, letters of support and an outpouring of real love for the game. In over 30 years in the industry I have not seen many titles with such an immediate positive response from people aged 9 to 90. Rogue Islands has struck a chord with everyone!

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The game is procedurally generated with adaptive A.I. Could you explain what that means for someone unfamiliar with the concepts?

Everyone who plays the game has a unique experience based upon their skillsets. In short, the game adapts around you. If you are finding the game too hard, it will automatically ease up a little until you find your feet. Alternatively, if the game gets too easy for you, the difficulty will increase in real-time. The idea is that there will always be a challenge. This difficulty includes both creature aggression and rate of fire, but perhaps, more interestingly, the whole environment itself can be less forgiving. Players may find themselves faced with less hospitable canyons and mountain ranges as their skills develop. There are actually over 120 million possible islands that can be generated. None of the islands are random but are built in accordance with a complex rule set to create the ideal gameplay arena.

One thing I've noticed is just how smooth the game runs, despite having lots happening on screen. Could you briefly explain how it was the team achieved such good performance?

A huge amount of hard work went in to optimising every system in the game, with the landscape generation engine being a particular focus. There are a whole host of technical enhancements going on under the hood to keep the game as smooth as it can be. It was really important to us that Rogue Islands runs as smooth as butter. It really enhances the gameplay experience. It also means that you don't need the latest top of the range hardware to run Rogue Islands. It was intended to be a game that everyone can play and enjoy!

Rogue Islands focuses on exploration, survival and shooting. Is there a story or quest element to the game?

Each island has a whole range of quests that require completing to achieve your goals. There is also a lovely backstory about Motwort our hero and the eternal fight between good and evil. You would expect nothing less from one of the key developers at Bioware to bring in considerable RPG elements to the game. In fact, in my eyes, I have always seen Rogue Islands as a blur of FPS and RPG, with its back-story, magic spell creation and fantasy elements.

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Being responsible for updates and expansions, has the team taken a break to enjoy their success or are they already focused on releasing new content? Is there anything you can tease to the reader?

No breaks! I think we are all far too excited with the whole Rogue Islands franchise to take a rest. We are already working on tons of additional content in terms of new islands, bosses and things to do in-game for future updates and expansions. We are also hard at work with creating multiplayer cooperative and PVP experiences and a world creator tool that we can share with the community. We have a huge list of content and new elements that we are going to be rolling out on a regular basis. Our aim is to support Rogue Islands as the franchise grows and always have something new to offer the player base.

Are there any plans to bring the game over to other platforms?

Indeed, we are talking with the console manufacturers right now, given the massive success with the PC version of Rogue Islands. You can expect to see the game come to life across a wide range of platforms as we continue to grow the franchise.

You're all very open about the fact that Rogue Island shares a lot with Minecraft - but looks prettier! What differentiates the game, and have you had any feedback from the folk at Mojang?

Actually, the only relationship with Minecraft is the voxel art style. We chose that style deliberately because it allowed us a world that could be destroyed as part of the FPS experience. You can set traps in narrow canyons and use the landscape to advantage so the voxel style was ideal for us. The relationship to Minecraft ends there, with Rogue Islands being a very frenetic first person shooter. We regularly get comments back from players that within the first five minutes of playing the game they realise that this is a very different beast to Minecraft and there is no relationship at all. It's rather like calling all open world games a Fallout clone! Yes, we have a voxel landscape, but that doesn't make us Minecraft. I have been so tied up developing Rogue Islands I haven't had the chance to chat with the guys over at Mojang. I hope that they enjoy Rogue Islands just as much as our team enjoy Minecraft!

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Gameindustry.biz ran a fantastic and very open feature on you a while back. Was it difficult to be so upfront and honest about your experiences?

It was something I had to think long and hard about before coming out in to the open but I am so glad I did. It has enriched my life with a massive outpouring of support from inside and outside of the industry. You reach a point in your life where you say this is me, take it or leave it! I was overwhelmed with the huge volume of people who have reached out to me with nothing but kindness.

I don't want to retread old ground, but is it fair to say you've had some very difficult times in your life? What would you say has been the biggest challenge you have had to overcome?

Certainly, the toughest moments were over 40 surgeries as a child. We had some really tough surgeries with my sister. It seemed a never-ending treadmill of surgery after surgery. Looking back though, it was this period of my life that led to my developing a lifelong love of technology. I learnt to code in a hospital bed. Would I want to endure the surgeries again? Definitely not, but there are no regrets in using that time to teach myself both coding and game design.

Conversely, what do you rate as your biggest success?

All of the friendships I have forged in over 30 years in this industry. I still share friendships now with developers I first met at 15 years old! Also, all of the relationships with people who play my games. Over 50 million copies later, there are so many people out there who have bought my games and enjoyed them. It's a wonderful thing to bring enjoyment and pleasure to so many people. The thought of so many people enjoying my games has been a driving force in my career.

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Do you think the industry has become a less sexist and prejudiced industry, and what more is there still to do?

I think the whole world has become less sexist and prejudiced, but as we all see on the news every day that there is still work to be done. It certainly is a different world than what I grew up in, with much changing for the better. In terms of the games industry, there has been massive change. In the huge majority of companies now it is talent that drives promotion rather than gender or cultural stereotypes. The change has been enormous and everyone benefits. Players have games now that have been designed by the most creative people in the world rather than gender or background deciding who makes those games. We can get on with making great games, which surely is what this business is all about!

What's next for Keystone Games?

We are about to release Homicide Detective, a fantastic crime investigation game, developed with the support of actual murder squad detectives! It has an all star cast too, with people such as Warwick Davis from Star Wars, Sir Kenneth Branagh, the amazing Katie Leung (Cho Chang from Harry Potter) and many other stars of stage and screen!

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We also have some incredible indie games from our talented developers such as Puzzleverse from Rob Anderson, Neon Sword from Japes and the incredibly beautiful space shooter, Voidrunner! That's to name just a few of our forthcoming releases. It really is an exciting time to be at Keystone.

Is there a technology or concept in gaming right now that gets you really excited for the future?

I believe that we are on the cusp of an explosion with low cost, high quality virtual reality. For decades we have been held back by hardware limitations both in the rendering and the equipment. The hardware underperformed, the VR headsets were too heavy and had thicker cables than a power station! All of that is changing and changing very quickly. It means that VR is no longer a gimmick but a viable platform that will change how we will play games. The challenge is rapidly becoming less about technology and more about making VR games really compelling!

What would you say is your favourite game of all time?

That is an easy question. Without doubt for me it is Elite, the space trading game. I was hooked on the first version in 1984 and I am equally hooked on the new version Elite Dangerous. It is a game that I have sunk far too many hours in to in the last 30 years as I travel the galaxy in my Cobra MK 3!

If you could give one piece of advice to your 16-year-old self, what would it be?

Don't change a thing, just never give up and keep on striving forward making a path for yourself through this tangled world.

What should someone do if they want to get into the games industry?

Develop their talent. That is the real key. Work really hard to be the best you can be with your chosen skill, be it design, art or coding. Just put in the hours, be self-critical and never accept second best. One amazing thing about our industry is talent gets noticed! Of course, if you are an indie developer come and see us over at Keystone and let us enrol you in to our Keystone Indie programme!

Where can people find out more about your work, and Keystone Games?

Our website is www.keystone-games.com Alternatively, gamers and developers can contact me directly through the get in touch option on our website, where one of my team will pass on your message to me. I am always happy to talk to the gaming community!

Author

Tom Inniss

Tom Inniss Voice Team

Tom is a Politics graduate, and holds a Masters in Journalism. He serves as Editor for Voice, and has an almost unhealthy obsession with Batman. His hobbies include gaming and reading graphic novels - his current go to series is Bill Willingham's Fables.

View more posts by Tom Inniss

1 Comments

  • Kayt Button

    On 20 October 2017, 09:44 Kayt Button commented:

    Great Interview - good to know that entrepreneurs can be so philanthropic.

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