Like many of you i’m sure, I’ve been a gamer since I was able to use a computer – though in my case, that’s an Atari 800 and then a Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48k (rubber keyboards for the win!). My first Flight Simulator was the old “Jumbo Jet Simulator” cartridge on the Atari 800, and that was back in the days when I really didn’t play it properly and 99 times out 100 i’d just wind throttle right up from the start and take off down the taxi way rather than actually finding the runway… My first Train Simulator is certainly the Southern Belle game produced by Hewson Consultants, followed shortly after by their Evening Star game.
I’ve always been in IT – starting out in technical support for a major UK ISP and then moving to running all the technical side of a smaller ISP. My core interest however has always been in developing software but i’d decided to specifically avoid doing that for a career as I didn’t want to “spoil” my hobby by turning it in to my day job. Turned out that the stress of doing administrative and technical IT work in the ISP was far too high in the small company we were in (lots of unhappy people and unresponsive management, so I was always the one on the receiving end of complaints, not good!) and an opportunity came up to go and do contract software engineering at British Telecom – so I took it. What a mistake i’d been making! I had the best time of my career to date there and spent a long time in my career continuing along that path. After BT I worked at a company producing online security systems and, scarily, it was my code protecting hundreds of thousands of bank accounts in Australia for a couple of months while they trialled the solution 🙂 After that, I went on to develop call center systems with the developer/supplier of most of the UK local government systems. Working with telephony is both hugely fun and a huge challenge because there are some many things outside of your control – but when it all works well, it’s pretty awesome.
It was at this point that I was offered the opportunity to join RailSimulator.com as the Head of Third Party Development, so I jumped at the chance and made a huge career change. I’m still there now at the renamed Dovetail Games and now i’m working as the Senior Producer for the next gen Train Simulator.
Note: All my views on this site are my own, this is not a Dovetail Games site and I am not speaking as a Dovetail Games representative. I don’t want to hide the fact that I work for Dovetail as that feels disingenuous and people may not be aware of any bias I may have – so I want to be completely clear about that, but at the same time be equally clear that I don’t speak for them either!
Before Train Sims were really a thing, I was heavily interested in Flight Simulator – starting with Flight Simulator 4. I also remember being able to take the world from one of the Flight Sim games and put it in to the game engine of Combat Flight Simulator and benefit from its much improved lighting and graphics but still use it for civil aviation purposes 🙂
As well as flying quite a lot, I also repainted a variety of different aircraft in a custom livery for Atomic Systems – the company I still run that owns things like UKTrainSim. None of these repaints ever got released, they were done for a friend and I to use on our round-the-world flight. They were also done a long time ago on a very old version of Flight Sim, so don’t be too harsh 🙂
I think the Hawk screenshot above is actually one of those taken from the Combat Flight Sim engine using the Flight Sim data, if memory serves correctly.
Train Simulation – Content Creation
Microsoft Train Simulator was released in the UK in something like June or July 2001 and I remember entering one of those silly competitions in a magazine (what colour is the green flying scotsman? – I think that was the question!) – surprisingly, I won! My prize was a copy of MSTS 2 weeks before general release and a new Microsoft Mouse. To my delight, reskinning was about as simple as it was in Flight Sim, so I set about playing around with things. I set up a web site called “Neutronics Repaint Workshop” to house my repaints which initially included such delights as a Virgin Trains Acela HHP-8. However I did get on to slightly more sensible projects when I repainted all the GWR coaches that were included to go behind Pendennis Castle in to a BR Blue Gray livery. I’ll show some shots of them below, and apologise in advance, I didn’t know what I was doing 🙂
The BR Blue Gray coaches proved extremely popular as one of the first “real” UK items available for people to add to the game, the Acela’s were perhaps less so – but I put that down to the lack of a UK electric route personally 🙂
I then advanced to 3D modelling using a product then called 3D Canvas (it’s 3D Crafter now), the author was adding support for MSTS exports so I helped where I could by simply playing with it. The end result was a Class 55 Deltic in a variety of liveries, I was supremely pleased with the result at the time but it really wasn’t very good at all and only barely resembled the real thing 🙂 However, it was good enough, and at a time when there was very little else out there, that Abacus decided to publish a collection addon called “Abacus Roundhouse” and they wanted my Deltic collection to be included, of course I was over the moon! 🙂 It was unpaid but that’s fine – they were sending me a copy of a new 3D modelling tool called Train Sim Modeller and putting me on the beta team to help shape it, so I was all in.
What I didn’t expect however was when I walked in to Game after it was released, expecting to buy myself a copy for my collection (they were going to send me a copy later but I wanted to be able to say i’d bought something with my work on it from Game!). They’d sent me some images of the key art for the box and it had a US loco on the front, which I kinda expected given that they were a US company of course. What I actually saw when I walked in to Game, right up there on the shelf in front for everyone to see was my loco staring back at me. I just cannot explain how awesome that felt! It was also used as the art on the disc itself.
So now we move on to Train Sim Modeller, I spent some time learning how to use this and ended up working very closely with the author (who was converting it over from the very popular “Flight Sim Modeller”. I ended up building a Class 66 in it – about 8 times in total what with improvements to the product and crashing occasionally losing my work (part of the beta testing challenge!) and I think I built the final version in about 4 hours from start to finish 🙂 I was very happy with the result, given my artistic skills I still look back and say – unlike the Deltic – that it does actually look like the Class 66. I’d experimented with extra detail on the bogies too, when many 3D models of trains were still using flat textured boxes for the bogies. I released it on UKTS (it’s still there!) in EWS and Freightliner liveries and it was reskinned by the community in to everything under the sun. Of course both the Deltic and 66 were replaced by significantly better models that other people made later, but these were mine and that was good enough for me 🙂
The Class 66 was actually included in source form on the Train Sim Modeller CD in case people wanted to see how it was built, and I also wrote the vast majority of the printed manual included in the box. I’ve since spoken with a lot of people at exhibitions and i’m amazed at how many people have built the model of my house, the NE Banana van from my dads model railway and the fictional diesel loco that made up the three fully worked examples I put together for the manual.
I also did a lot of contract work for various developers. I worked on a new US cab to go in the RS-11 locomotive that was in the LTV Erie Mining Company pack (and after that decided firmly I would never make another cab again in my life!), I also wrote all the scenarios for the Severn Valley Railway addon by Blue Arrow (what an amazing team to work with!). I also worked a lot with EuropeanBahn, doing various things such as helping optimise some of the 3D models and adding some MSTSbin compatibility.
Train Simulator – UKTrainSim
Some of you may remember at the start there was another site called Train Sim Files, which was the main site everyone was using for forums and file sharing. It was a great site run by a great guy and it survived for quite a while. It was completely free to access, which was obviously popular with downloaders – however eventually it started running in to problems, it had become too popular for its own good and internet hosts which advertised “free, unlimited bandwidth!” started pointing to “fair use” clauses and shutting the site down. The owner of the site tried valiantly to come up with all kinds of options for limited access during different hours, or running the downloads across multiple ISP’s but eventually it became extremely stressful and required a huge amount of manual work to keep it going.
I had always wanted to take “neutronics repaint workshop” and make it in to something bigger with a forum and download library – however I fully appreciated that the community was not big enough to support a second site in competition so I had offered some help to TrainSimFiles and said I wouldn’t do anything unless either the community got big enough or they asked me to do something.
I remember I had just returned home from a holiday to Florida when I checked my email and there was a message there from one of the co-admins basically saying that TrainSimFiles was now down permanently and if I wanted to set something up he’d be happy to pass the message on to anyone that asked. What then ensued was two weeks of frenzied coding while I built the file library and the main site – and UKTrainSim was born.
I opted for a paid-subscription model (£3 per month, or if you bought a year – £1.66 per month!) with limited free access. I was using a major host in the US which had access to loads of bandwidth but this was costing tremendous amounts of money (something like $1000 per month I think) – I did this during my time contracting for British Telecom so it was something I could afford reasonably easily (oh how times have changed!) and so the aim was to eventually have it pay its own way at some point, but to have a plan whereby the site would be stable and always there for people. I achieved that and while there were (and still are) people who complained about the subscription model I think having gone through the unfortunate situation with Train Sim Files, people appreciated that if it was something they were contributing money towards, that it made sense and ought to be able to stay around.
UKTrainSim grew to around 3000 paid members at its height before the “bubble” burst on the Train Simulation community and it’s been shrinking ever since. I seem to recall that at one point the bandwidth utilisation of the site was something like 20 terabytes per month and when I started enquiring with UK hosts about the possibility of moving it here, they literally wanted 5 figure monthly sums to host that much bandwidth. Ouch. With the shrinking site and costs going down, I was eventually able to move it to the UK however and for several years now it has resided on a server in Cardiff.
Eventually with my transition to RailSimulator.com / Dovetail Games I felt it was not appropriate for me to be there and be the person operating the main “independant” train simulation site, so I asked my father if he’d step in and take over the operation and administration of the site from me, which he agreed to do. In this way, I no longer have editorial control over what the site does, how the moderators act or have any influence in this kind of thing on the site and I think that has worked well.
Train Simulator – Dovetail Games
Since joining Dovetail Games i’ve helped a lot of people get their content on Steam for sale as DLC and i’ve even had the opportunity to contribute to some of the first-party projects with my own work such as implementing the signalling and cab signalling system for New York New Haven.
I started to take notice of this new phenomena called Twitch at some point a couple of years ago and eventually decided I would install some software, figure out how it worked and see what would happen. The initial goal was simply to understand Twitch rather than to actually start a channel and make a bigger deal of it. Initially as with any start-up channel it had zero viewers but it soon grew and after the first month it was already starting to get a regular following, so I decided to continue with it. I also encouraged Dovetail to start using it and the preview streams kinda came out of that, the first few of them just being done from my garage the same as my TrainSimLive streams.
That’s everything you never wanted to know, but hey, you asked 🙂