THE SECOND LIFE OF HARVEY SMITH
Originally published here.
On Harvey becoming Harvey, being introduced, and parachuting into the game industry...
Toward the end of my interview, I overheard a resident in the audience say something like, "It's such an honor to meet a famous game developer in person!" But the thing is, Harvey Smith never left his home in Austin, Texas, for the interview, and as far as I know, this resident wasn't in his house at the time. Online interviews have been a commonplace thing for quite awhile (mostly conducted in chat rooms), but something seems to shift, when you're inhabiting the same 3D space as the subject, and you're both embodied by avatars. It feels more real, somehow.
The first task for the interview, then, was for Harvey-in-himself to become Harvey-as-avatar. (As it happens, "avatar" is derived from the Sanskrit term for a god embodied in human form.) In this, I was ably assisted by Cybin Monde and Baba Yamamoto, residents who created an Interview Harvey and a Back-Up Harvey, respectively. Cybin's version is closer to the contemporary Harvey Smith, while Baba's seems more like a Harvey from ten years ago. So when both versions were standing next to each other in the green room (my in-world office, actually) it was a little like looking at Harvey Smith when he first began in the game industry, next to Harvey Smith as he is now.
Or maybe that's a stretch. Anyway, after some last-minute tweaks of Cybin's version, we're ready to begin, and I teleport to the stage, to introduce Harvey to the full-capacity crowd:
A game developer for over a decade, Harvey Smith made his mark at the renowned Ion Storm Austin game studio, where he was the lead designer for the award-winning, critically-acclaimed Deus Ex, and then the project director for this year's follow-up, Deus Ex: Invisible War. He also had a hand in the design of Ion Storm's equally excellent Thief: Deadly Shadows, which recently hit the shelves. With a keen intellect and a wide-ranging creative background, Harvey helped bring to the Deus Ex series a new level of player freedom and improvisation, setting that style of emergent gameplay in a dark, morally challenging world of the near future which seemed a perfect fit to that aesthetic.
Now a free agent himself, as he prepares to launch his own studio, Harvey recently joined Second Life to help judge the Game Developer Competition. And I'm pleased to have my friend here to discuss his games, the inspiration behind them, and his thoughts for the future of the medium-- especially in this realm of online, user-created worlds.
With that, Harvey teleports onto the stage, and after greeting the audience (including someone who came as J.C. Denton, for the occasion), we begin.
Hamlet Linden: So to start off, maybe tell us a bit about your personal background, and how you broke into the game industry.
Harvey Smith: I started playing paper RPGS when I was eleven. And then there were the arcades parlors of the 70s. God, so much history with games. I ran D&D campaigns, wrote short fiction, played games, played in MUSHes. Anyway, a friend started at Origin over ten years ago-- Steve Powers, who made [the] Hong Kong [level] for Deus Ex, and Cairo for Deus Ex 2. And he was the other Dungeon Master in our RPG group. So I applied for a design job. I tried for six months to get the job. AND FAILED COMPLETELY.
I played on the softball team.
I played in the Shadowrun campaign in one of the meeting rooms.
I went skydiving with LORD BRITISH.
No luck. Finally, I just saw an ad in the paper. WANTED: TESTER ($7 per hour). So I applied for that and eventually worked my way up... which is another story. But... when I started at Origin officially, people said, "Dude, I thought you already worked here."
HL: So what was it like, jumping out of an airplane with Lord British?
HS: He took a group of about 30 people... friends and game makers from Origin. I paid my own way, out of principle, but I had a blast. It was a great group. Origin was a great place to start. Everyone LOVED games. [I broke into the industry] older than most people in games... I STARTED at 26.
HL: You spent a fair amount of time at the late-lamented Looking Glass Studios-- tell us about the games you worked on, and what you learned at LGS.
HS: I never worked there, actually, I just worked with those guys off and on. I was lead tester for System Shock, which allowed me to work with and learn from a bunch of great guys. Doug Church, Mark Leblanc, Art Min, Rob Fermier, etc. And eventually, working on Fireteam, I worked with some of them again. Fireteam was done by Multitude, a Looking Glass spin off. And of course, Warren [Spector] was around Origin and Looking Glass, so really, I was fortunate. It's been a super-speed learning experience."
On helping create the world of Deus Ex, and lending a hand on the latest Thief...
Hamlet Linden: Let's leap a few years to the first Deus Ex, when Warren Spector brought you in to be the lead designer. Talk about the biggest challenges you had on it, and what your evaluation of the final game is now, looking back it four years later.
Harvey Smith: Well, when Fireteam hit Beta, I decided to come to work on Deus Ex. Warren and I had been exchanging mission and game system documents-- several groups within the team had different visions for the game-- but I wanted to create some aspects of Underworld, in a modern environment.
We learned a lot; it was challenging. In retrospect, many parts of the game were too sloppy to even ship, but the whole of all the parts surprised people, and had an impact, which is cool.
HL: Moving over to Deus Ex: Invisible War, when you took over as project director, tell us about the main challenges you faced, in its creation.
HS: Well, you make mistakes on every project. We made one huge mistake that I regret. All the others were trivial.
HS (continued): We tried to create our own renderer and did not manage the process very well-- as a result, we ended up with an interesting renderer that didn't serve the game very well, which required making a game that felt different.
Also, we could have used a few more months.
Deus Ex got to the end, needed polish BADLY and we just blew out the [deadline] date, spending five more months or so on polish. We didn't end up having that time for the second game, sadly. It was mostly our fault, for being too ambitious technologically. But I still really like the game, and parts of the team really came together.
HL: Why were you not able to move the ship date back?
HS: Just because of the sheer expense. When you let things get away from you, from a schedule point of view, you end up with a huge cost. Anyway, like I said, I really like the game, especially on Xbox, but it needed more polish and would have been served better by [another] renderer.
Right now, I am playing City of Heroes, which I love, and I think very highly of their [graphics] engine. It doesn't change the graphics world. But it does just what the game needs to be amazing.
HL: Was the trouble with the renderer what led to the small segmented levels [in Deus Ex: Invisible War]?
HS: Yes. That led to smaller maps. We really had to pare things down due to the normal mapping, volumetric shadows engine, "space dungeon" engine. Like I said, our fault.
HL: So you ended up with smaller areas that are vivid and beautiful, it's just you have to be taken out of them to reload the next segment.
HS: Yeah. My favorite part of DX2 is Antarctica. Our homage to The Thing.
HL: As you know, I'm also a huge fan of the Thief series, so we gotta talk about the latest game; tell me what kind of design work you did on it.
HS: Well, I was always around. and I love members of the team, but it wasn't my project at all. I came in at the end, at [project director] Randy [Smith]'s request, to work on "movement". At the time, movement was bad. All the mantling, jumping, running, ladder climbing, third-person [view], first-person [view], etc.
So, with Mike McShaffry, Sergio Rosas, Randy Smith, Warren and everyone else pitching in, we formed a small strike team to fix movement. it got radically better, which helped Jordan Thomas (lead designer) and the rest of the team started polishing the game and maps up for [product] ship. Sergio Rosas, the art director, has been a friend for almost a decade. He's very, very talented.
HL: Yeah, it's a great game. Seems like they were able to use the same renderer to make bigger maps, by then.
HS: They had time for some optimizations, and their world allowed for smarter use of the objects.
HL: Seems like that's a key case where the technology was hampering the design, in the beginning at least.
HS: Yeah. We just mucked up the tech management. It didn't have to be a hamper. Deus Ex was done with three programmers and [the] Unreal [engine] . Deus Ex: Invisible War had an army of programmers.
I am a big fan of middleware.
THE SECOND LIFE OF HARVEY SMITH, PART III
The big themes behind the world of Deus Ex, and the big picture for the future of game development...
Hamlet Linden: One thing I really admire about the Deus Ex world is how it abstracts current ideologies, and extrapolates them into the future in terms of factions. Tell us a bit about how you and your team created that morally ambiguous world.
Harvey Smith: We were probably over reacting to the people who, in Deus Ex, wanted to be able to "stay with UNATCO". [The UN's elite counter-terrorist team, which the hero belongs to at the beginning of the game, though he's later convinced to switch sides. -- WJA] But we wanted that all along [in the sequel, Deus Ex: Invisible War.] We chose new organizations like the WTO to continue with our political themes; even the endings were morally ambiguous.
HL: Well, I did get the sense at least that toward the end, there is a moral spectrum of Bad and Less Bad.
HS: Yep. Reflecting the current state of politics in America, which is, as the Australians say, The Dog's Breakfast. I love that phrase. I was recently in Melbourne--a great city--for a conference called FREE PLAY-- and I heard people use the expression, which means "a big mess," as you'd expect.
HL: Were you able to respond, you and your team, to new current events, and incorporate your response into Deus Ex: Invisible War?
HS: Some of them. We half expected another seattle WTO riot...
HL: So in your "Future of Game Design" essay from a few years ago, you made some short term predictions of technological innovations we'd see: Speech synthesis and dynamic game conversation, long-term persistent games, auto-generated content, and vastly improved AI. How would you gague those predictions now? Where are we at now?
HS: Well, given that people are using realtime voice in Xbox Live now, i'd say that one will be super mainstream soon. I almost think AI is going to die for a while, in favor of real humans controlling more and more of the game entities. I mean, AI will still be what it is now... but the dream of 'really intelligent, creative entities' is a looong way off.
Nova Linden (relating an audience question): I'd like to ask Harvey how he thinks greater detail and realism in avatar animations will affect human-to-human relationships in future games.
HS: Well, good question. First, I would highly recommend people look up "the uncanny valley"-- Google that term. [From the audience, Adam Zaius offers this link.] There's a point at which realism starts to look freakish, but I assume that somewhere past that, avatars will be photorealistic and fully responsive to users input, even in the form of expressions, via facial recognition tech and cameras.
Tiger Crossing [from the audience]: As in "close, but something's wrong here..."?
HS: Yes, but more like, "Close, but you look like Michael Jackson."
Zero Grace [from the audience]: What technologies do you see contributing the most to a sense of humanity in future multiplayer gaming?
HS: Facial expressions, real time speech, body language animations, full support for 'emotes', stuff like that
ZG (smiling): Thanks, Harvey, you just confirmed an article thesis for me.
HS: I demand a passive royalty rate.
THE SECOND LIFE OF HARVEY SMITH, PART IV
Harvey on Second Life, and Harvey on Harvey...
Hamlet Linden: Let's discuss the potential as a game development medium for a MUSH like Second Life. What do you see as SL's strengths, in that regard? And what about its possible shortcomings?
Harvey Smith: The best thing here is the community and the creative empowerment. If this were my environment, I would lobby for a much smoother interface and a better physics model. But otherwise I love this place. Very innovative and cool.
HL: So how was your experience as a developer, judging the entries in the game competition?
HS: It was totally fun... I loved getting tours. People [put] so much work into it, and each one was full of cool ideas. Each time I would look at one, I'd think, "this one deserves to win", then I'd see another one that had some other cool aspect.
And I kept coming back to the board game Deus Via, trying to master it, having fun playing it. The Demolition Derby had TONS of effort put into it, the Mah Jong was super cool in multiplayer mode, and Mysterious Journey had the most unique flavor. So, hey, tough decisions...
I have a couple of thoughts about the future, of course... I think something like SL on something like the Gameboy will eventually be the biggest game in the world.
HL: Why so?
HS: Well, if you could put your computer on [a] console in your pocket, why wouldn't you? Portable is better. Imagine a sleek, ergonomic device... sexy to even look at, much less touch. Just fun to hold, like the IPod. Sometimes I just stroke my IPod... MY PRECIOUS.
OK, not that bad.
But anyway, if I could have the exact same great game experience either on a couch, holding a controller, at a PC desk or "wherever" with a cool hand held, i'd go with the latter. And Second Life is just more in line with human existence than most "trolls and rocket launchers" games... in MMO environments, you [can] have it all.
HL: Finally, let's talk about what you're doing now, game-wise, and what you hope to do in games.
HS: After a decade, I want to guide my own studio. Increasingly, I am into team culture and creative direction. So, along with some really talented allies, I am going to start a game studio in Austin, Texas. I am moving into the final stages of discussion with a couple of potential publishing partners. The games I want to work on will, as always, feature rich ecologies and lots of tools that support player improvisation.
And of course, I believe in the power of narrative. I still get this fascination from exploration. "An announcement" might be months off. I'm prepared to slog through all of the talks, and to crash and burn if necessary. There are no guarantees.
But it's going really well. I've written three 20 page creative pitches, all of which I love. Well, I want to work on original IP... it's what my team specializes in. That and we want to use middleware.
HL: So what kind of themes, artistically, are you dying to express in the games you totally control from concept on up?
HS: Well, games are always a consensual artistic business effort. (God, what a mouthful.) But I am into ecologies that allow for emergence as a key feature, plus I like exploring gloomy, exotic locations. I like self expression, as a player, more than just about anything.
THE SECOND LIFE OF HARVEY SMITH, PART V
Audience Q&A: Harvey on breaking into the industry (sans parachute), the future of VR, writing a game proposal that sells, and some of his favorite games.
Foster Virgo: Whats the word in the Industy right now regarding Virtual Reality and game design for a home based market in respect to VR?
Harvey Smith: System Shock supported two VR headsets, the Cybermaxx and the (what was it called) VR1, mostly because Doug Church and James Flemming were so psyched about it. It was cool testing the game wearing those, even if the tech was not ready for prime time.
One time a friend was testing with one of those and I smelled something burning. I looked over, saw him driving around like Stevie Wonder, seriously, with his head rolling around, and I saw smoke. I yelled, "JOHN, IT'S ON FIRE!", and he threw this five thousand dollar headset into the wall, crushing it. Anyway... [an] anecdote. So I hope something like a replacement for the monitor comes in the next 15 years.
Cybin Monde: What does a proposal need to consist of? (I.E., [a] 20 page game proposal.)
HS: I would recommend finding a sample game pitch THAT ACTUALLY GOT ACCEPTED. Basically, a high concept premise that is powerful and "recognizable" first off. Then cover all the technical development bases, a strong team profile, and for the game, some info about story, game systems, interface, etc.
Cybin Monde: Are there places where I can view entire documents like that?
HS: Check with Gamasutra.com.
Adam Zaius: Why was the Software Developer Kit for Deus Ex 2 cancelled? Also, your prior work has always been in single-player oriented games, would you ever consider producing a MMO of some description?
Harvey Smith: Two questions, two answers. Second question, Fireteam was multiplayer only, and Technosaur was a multiplayer real time strategy [game] (that got cancelled), so the notion of me being opposed to multiplayer is inaccurate. I'd love to work on some multiplayer (soon), [though] maybe not an MMO-- I am into the more intimate experiences.
First question: We really want to do an SDK for DX2, but trust me, our tools were jacked, and we didn't have time or budget to clean them up, and we had no support from above on such a release. We only even got to do it for DX1 because the game sold so damn well. Remember, we didn't release the [Deus Ex level building] tools at first, only six months later
AZ: "From above"-- was this the result of Eidos' influence? (I have noted they are very non-supportive of user modification.)
HS: I can't blame Eidos... they approved the SDK for DX1, so under different circumstances, they would have approved it for DX2. It's much, much more convoluted than that. Making games is hard. Many factors.
CrystalShard Foo: Do you see cellphones as one of the possible future platforms for SL-type enviroments in the future?
HS: Not on my donkey little Nokia, for sure. "Donkey" is a word we use a lot in the Ion Storm game design culture... As in, "this pizza is donkey".
Mickey Valentino: I heard you mention you played Shadowrun. Did you get the chance to play the two different games under that license on SNES or Sega? Have you considered resurrecting the license from the now defunct Data East?
HS: I'd love it if SOMEONE ELSE did that. I want to work on unique new stuff.
Mickey Valentino sighs.
Zindorf Yossarian: I'd like to ask: What types of games are your favorites? (Role playing game, real time strategy, first person shooter, etc.)
HS: I love games that immerse me in a simulation, RPGs and some strategy games. Like I said, right now I am playing City of Heroes-- yay Cryptic [Studios], call me if you can hook me up with cheats. But XCom is one of my all-time favorite games.
Silva Anansi: My question is "What is your take on Far Cry, Doom 3, and Half Life 2?"
HS: I think Far Cry has awesome island rendering. I want Doom 3 because I am a horror/atmosphere buff, and I think Half Life 2 is going change the world.
Hamlet Linden: How come, with Half Life 2?
HS: Humanistic character animation and expression, plus Valve has put a lot of effort into dramatic impact.
WackyChris Dawn: If you have ever heard of Neverwinter Nights, do you like that people can make and monitor their own modules and have other people on multiplayer play on it?
HS: I love NWN. I love Bioware. I've played all their games, and I even spent some time playing with their editor for NWN... Mostly to make myself powerful.