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Interview: Paul Jackson On RailWorks

Usually when I meet a person that’s selfishly occupying one of my dream jobs, I end up spiking their drink, driving them out to a secluded Forestry Commission car park, and setting Bosnia and Hernia (my pedigree Romanian Fighting Badgers) on them. Paul Jackson, CEO of the company that makes train sim RailWorks, was lucky. He got away with a light grilling.

Obvious first question. What’s someone who’s been vice-president of EA Northern Europe, midwifed a massively popular franchise and led ELSPA in their time, doing making train sims? I’m guessing you’re not in it for the money or the prestige?

Once the UK age ratings battle was over I knew I wanted to get back into the commercial world. I felt I had achieved everything I could at ELSPA and it was time to move on. So it was pretty much a choice between building another boxed product publisher – I felt I had been there and done that – or trying to build a DLC led, web 2.0 games company. At the end of the day it wasn’t that hard a choice. I had spent a good part of my career at EA building the Sims brand. The secret of the Sims is that its a virtual dollhouse, well this is a virtual train set.

Rail Simulator/RailWorks and RSDL/RailSimulator.com have a pretty confusing history. Didn’t the sim start out as the Kuju-made sequel to Microsoft Train Simulator?

Yes it did. Kuju approached me at EA after Microsoft told them they didn’t want to do a sequel to MSTS (Microsoft Train Simulator). I commissioned a new simulator from them and they started work. I think Microsoft then changed their minds and started a new sim, then cancelled again. Eventually EA released the game, but by then I had taken up the post at ELSPA and the original Rail Simulator wasn’t quite what I had envisaged. In the meantime Microsoft started up again (the one they just cancelled) and the project that is now RailSimulator.com ended up being owned by a group of Edinburgh Financiers. A group of us got together and bought the project out and set about our new vision.

I hear you’re currently working on a version of the splendid Tornado for RailWorks. I’m guessing the project would be impossible without the help of the A1 Steam Locomotive Trust?

It would be impossible without them and they have been absolutely fantastic. We have clambered over her, photographed and measured her. Someone said we took over 600 photos. Now we have her almost finished and what a fantastic project she is. I think the Top Gear feature with Jeremy Clarkson said it all really. What I love about what we are doing, is that soon all of us will be able to drive her… Well virtually at least. What a great business to be in!

A fair number of train simmers and train sim modders seem content to stick with MSTS for the moment. Do you have any specific plans to woo these refuseniks?

If someone is still using MSTS after all these years, it’s a fair bet that they are both talented and committed; of course, we would like them to support us. But I do have a lot of sympathy for someone who has been working the same software for eight years, knows it intimately and just plain doesn’t want to start over. It’s sad that the software is now dead and will become increasingly outmoded. The bottom line however is that for most this is a hobby not a career, and in a hobby you surely have to be left to enjoy it the way you want. Our job at RailSimulator is to focus on making the best software we can. That’s already bringing lots of new talented and committed people into our hobby and if eventually it convinces all to come onboard then great.

I’m sure you’re aware of OpenBVE. Is there stuff in Michelle’s Sim that you’d like to see in RW eventually?

From what I have seen he has done some beautiful stuff. However I think BVE is going in a very different direction to us and I can only respect and applaud that. I learnt early in my career that software platforms don’t really compete with one another, they compliment.

Is RailWorks an indication that RS.com are now pursuing an MSFS-style development cycle? Are we likely to see similar bi-annual revamps in the future?

Traditional games have been “Buy, Play and Throw away”. I think that model will become outmoded as platforms like RailWorks develop. I want us to constantly enhance our core platform so that in five years its entirely new, in ten photorealistic, and in fifteen who knows? The key is we never ask you to buy it again. Now fifteen years is a long time, so I make no promises. But if we end up releasing “RailWorks 2” I will feel it a failure. As to biannual or not, I am not so sure. At the moment it’s more frequent, but it may settle down.

Unbeknown to even my closest family and friends, I crave a rail sim in which I can both drive trains and man signal boxes. Is there any chance RW will ever be that sim?

I really hope so. I want us to have an on-line module ready next year that would allow you to signal, while I drive, while Ed from New Jersey is my Fireman. I like the model of say Battlefield 1942. Groups of friends meeting up on-line to run a railway, Drivers, Firemen, Signallers you name it. I think that is something rail fans would find compelling. I hope that out of that effort will come the technology to deliver a stand alone signalling sim, and goodness knows what else.

The demise of ACE’s work-in-progress Train Simulator sequel would, to the cynical observer, appear to be good news for RS.com. Is that how you see it?

I think it was bad news for us. Our initial plans factored in a release of Microsoft’s new product about now actually. My personal guess was that they would launch, bring in lots of new consumers, then lose interest again and we would be there in an invigorated market. Que sera, sera! We just need to work all the harder now.

How important are the US and German markets to RailWorks and RS.com?

Historically the three big markets for train simming have been UK/US and Germany and they are still important to us. However because we can now reach all corners of the globe digitally its throwing up some very interesting things. Based on current performance I have high hopes for India, Russia and Japan, but we even have customers in Armenia, so who knows! Sales are very healthy in the US right now, but in Germany we are holding off while we work on an improved German version that we think is right for that market. Oh, and as a bonus of our platform model everyone will get the enhancements when we release it in Germany.

Transport sims are one of those rare gaming genres where a pre-existing interest in the subject matter is vital to the enjoyment of the Sim. Do you think RailWorks has anything to offer the gamer that [shudder] doesn’t see locomotives as the poetic, handsome and endlessly fascinating creatures that they actually are?

I think it does. People love to simulate doing things they can’t rationally do in real life. Flying planes, driving cars or even storming up Omaha beach, each has its own things to teach and engage us. Now honestly I think we have to do some work to help people with train simming. Firstly I think all train sims post Hewson’s Evening Star have got the interface wrong. Frankly I don’t want to drive a keyboard, I want to drive a train. Secondly, I want to be an engineer, so don’t make me learn the route…. My “willing suspension of disbelief” is that I have been driving it for years, I know every blade of grass. What I don’t know is what the next signal is saying, and what I have to do is use all my skill and attention to drive this train safely and on time to is destination. If I can stop the boiler from blowing up or the circuit breakers from exploding as well then great!

So with that in mind we have been developing new Career and Achievement modes that will make your sim driving life more real. We hope to upgrade RailWorks with that in November. More importantly, we are working on a new driving interface that will really allow you to forget the hardware and feel like your there. Early usability testing has demonstrated how simply compelling this will be.

Apart from the best chair in the office and the simpering respect of underlings, what are the perks of being CEO of RS.com? Do you get to choose DLC themes or get footplate rides during research trips?

Ha! The idea of having a private office is a distant memory and so I seek out any vacant desk in our increasingly crowded open plan office, and there has been scant sign of any simpering so far! But it’s great; I am very involved in the development process and get to see things through from conception to release. For instance, imagine the buzz of signing off and then a few months later driving the Challenger!

Once I’ve completed my time-machine, one of the first railway-related trips I’ll be making will be to Dawlish in July 1969 to watch the Westerns and Warships thunder past the sea-wall. Where would you go and why?

Well firstly I would join you down at Dawlish, if I may? I missed the Westerns by four months and it still rankles! For my own choice, gosh that is so hard. Union Pacific steam over Sherman Hill in the mid 1950s when the Big Boys were pulling their heaviest loads? GWR Broad gauge at Langley in 1855 or possibly just a simple tour round the London termini, a replay of my spotting days in the 1970’s but this time in the mid 50s. In the end through it has to be Crewe in mid August 1895 for the “Race to the North”. Watching Hardwicke take over from Adriatic in the middle of the night, all thought of rules and safety left behind, and then the mad dash to Carlisle. Madness! It has to be done:-)

Thanks Paul. See you in Dawlish.

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