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Domestic / Feature / Interview with Harvey Smith
Interview with Harvey Smith
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Feature by: Dunjin Master
Posted: 09/17/03

While most of the hype and credit for Deus Ex goes to Ion Storm studio head Warren Spector, a lot of the responsibility for making sure the project stays on track lies with unsung hero Harvey Smith, the project lead on Invisible War. Smith was also a driving force behind the original Deus Ex, too. While he says he’d like to work on something new after Invisible War (which you’ll read about below), he’d like to keep in touch with the sort of “emergent gameplay” idea that has been a hallmark of the Deus Ex series. Not only that, but he’s also a big tabletop role-playing fan, and he wasn’t afraid to talk about that, either. We asked him about wrapping up Invisible War, about his ideas for future games, and about his life as a dice-jockey outside the office.

GamePro: In finishing this game and taking it from what Warren described as a “block of marble” and turning it into the game that will ship to store shelves, what sorts of challenges have you run into?

Harvey Smith: It’s really weird. Every time we do this, we always say, “Boy, I wish we could get to the end quicker,” because the end is this super-powerful time when every day you’re doing stuff that dramatically improves the game. It sounds crazy, but for the first year and a half, you’re not really doing anything that moves the game closer to ship or makes the game more fun. You’re planning a bunch of stuff, roughing some stuff out, creating content (half of which you’re going to throw away), and it’s only when you get the game locked down to what it is going to be, you know, every square foot of every map, and then you say, “You know what would be better here, is if in this alley there was a dumpster you can hide behind, and a ‘bot that attacks you if you go here.” That sort of thing is really when the game starts to get fun. I don’t know if we just do it wrong, but we have this sort of sloppy weird kind of development style where we plan and plan and plan and rough out and rough out, and then for the last six months of the project we just start honing everything down, throwing stuff out and polishing, and we recalibrate our priorities based on what we think is going to be fun. It’s probably not the most efficient model of working, but it’s pretty much how we did Deus Ex.

GP: How did making this game differ from making the first Deus Ex?

Aaaaliens HS: For the first Deus Ex, we didn’t know what kind of game we were making. We all had different ideas, and halfway through we unified around this model of part-stealth, part-role-playing game, in this big dark conspiracy kinda world. Halfway through the game we sort of solidified on how we were going to do that; it was going to be an [Ultima] Underworld sort of game. This time, we knew going in exactly what we were doing. So that’s one huge, huge difference. There was no question about the plan. Halfway through Deus Ex I, I said, “This is the kind of game we’re making,” and I pulled the three different factions together. This time, I started by saying, “This is the kind of game we’re making.” So that was one major difference.

The other major difference was the personnel on the first game didn’t really get along that well, and for the most part, with a couple of exceptions, this team is vastly more unified. People here worked on System Shock, Thief, Deus Ex; they get along, and they want to get along. It’s a much more positive environment. So that made a tremendous difference, because there was a lot more fighting on the first project, to be honest.

The third way was that we started out with all finished technology the first time, the Unreal engine, and everything was stable, so we had three programmers. This time we re-wrote all the technology. We re-wrote the renderer, we re-wrote the A.I., we licensed Havok, we re-wrote the sound system. It’s huge. We got a ton of programmers. And that fundamentally changed the whole development process.

GP: How well do you work with the Thief team? Is there any crossover?

HS: Yeah, toward the end here, there’s been a lot of crossover, because we’ve needed their objectivity. It’s really powerful to have another group of people working on the same kind of game be able to love over, and you trust their values because they’re working on the same kind of game. They’re not the shooter team, or a racing game team. It’s pretty much the same kind of game. So they look over and give us really valuable, objective feedback. Plus, a lot of them are just really good friends. I’m really tight with Randy Smith, the Thief project director. Sergio Rosas is one of my good friends, and I’ve worked with him for a really long time, since we were at Origin together, and now he’s art director of Thief III and Deus Ex II. We borrowed him from Thief, basically. So there’s a lot of crossover, there’s a lot of idea sharing. It’s very spiritual in a way, because we’re all about this vision of this kind of game.

GP: What is your job like at this stage of development, and how has it changed over the course of the game’s development?

HS: This is probably the highest pressure and the most fun for me, because I’m not so good at the software engineering part. I’m pretty good at the design-plan part. Early on you’re doing a lot of pre-production, you’re doing a lot of engineering, you’re doing a lot of tool creation. None of that really interests me that well, and I’m not particularly great at it. Early on I spent time building a team and building the right chemistry on the team. That’s one of my big things. Planning a lot of the design—before we made Ricardo the lead designer, I worked as the lead designer for a year and planned out all the game systems, weapons, creature behavior, with the team.

Wheeeee Then we move to this space here, where all I do every day is run around, continually manage the chemistry of the team, tell people how to fix design and writing bugs, and remind people to keep their eye on the big issues. I set the priorities, basically. So I run in to the design team and someone says, “Well, we can fix the stealth situation this way, this way, or this way.” And I’m like, “Our values here dictate that we would fix it the middle way,” and Ricardo supports that, or he comes up with a better way or whatever. But we tell people how to fix it. We don’t have time for a lot of latitude at this point. I spend almost all my time on advising people on how to fix design bugs like, which way do we want to go creatively, based on my overall vision of the game, which is really what my job’s supposed to be about. Plus, keeping people fired up: “Don’t worry, it’s really buggy right now, but trust me, this is the kind of game we make here, and people know that it’s special and different. Like, they can play a game that’s scripted and you’re on a rail, and they can play this game and see the differences.” So that’s my whole thing at the end of the project.

GP: I heard you mention that you’d like to do something other than another Deus Ex game after Invisible War. If you had your pick of genre, type of game, storyline, anything, what kind of game would you want to make?

HS: That’s a great fantasy. I want to work on an immersive simulation, basically the type of game I’ve always worked on. But I either want to do a science-fiction horror game, or a Thief-like game, that I can’t go into details about but we’ve talked about some, or a big fantasy role-playing game, but not one where you talk to a lot of characters and buy things in shops. More like, did you ever play Eye of the Beholder or Dungeon Master?

GP: The old-school ones?

HS: Yeah. The first-person perspective, really immersive, very visceral, where you’re in a hostile fantasy world. Like, Deus Ex, basically, with fewer conversations, more monsters, more magic items, more game systems like creating your own magic items or summoning things. I have this big fantasy RPG that I want to make, and it’s sort of conversation-lite. It’s the more visceral use-your-interesting-powers-in-an-emergent-way kind of game. That would be number one, actually, and the sci-fi horror game would be number two.

GP: What kind of sci-fi horror?

HS: For years I’ve had this notion of an aquatic research base that’s partially above water and partially below water, where something bad happens. I just like that environment. It’s just like an interesting, creepy, aesthetically cool environment. Little moon pools, and thick glass windows outside which you can see aquatic environments. I would like to update a game like System Shock, basically, but in an aquatic research lab. I think that would be cool. I also like the notion of a system where you have a certain number of living people left, maybe six or something, each one is very interesting, each one has some role to play, you’re sort of cut off from each one, and through your actions in the game you can influence whether they live or die, what they do, where they go in the station. So there are living people to interact with, but very few, in a controlled situation, instead of having a huge city where you can walk up to some guy and click on him, and he says, “Hi! Leave me alone!” which is what everybody else does. I’d rather have a super-detailed, simulated, small set of characters.

GP: What’s your favorite thing about your job?

HS: That’s a good question. It’s certainly not the hours or the stress. I have to deal routinely with people freaking out, losing their creative work, getting pissed at me for some decision I had to make. There are plenty of people who don’t understand the vision of the game. They just work here, right? Then there are a lot of other people who really do understand. They’re part of what I call “the Cabal.” Then there are other people who don’t care because they’re super-specialized in other directions. They’re like a super-badass rendering programmer or something. That’s fine. But nonetheless, the hardest part of my job is dealing with all the people. The technology is second hardest, because it changes out from under us constantly.

My favorite part is probably the environment, the people. I mean, I love the games we make, but I could easily do something else and have just as much fun, I think. I could go try to write, or be a journalist; those are all things I’ve considered because I love to write and have a writing background. I love to travel; there’s a load of stuff I can do and have a good time. I could play more games then, frankly. So as a gamer, I’d benefit more from that, right? But really, what makes this special is the people. Because we end up with this really creative group of people who are working toward a common philosophy of design and who share this wild experience we’re all going through.

And in the darkness bind then I saw the Lord of the Rings DVD with all the behind-the-scenes footage where they all talked about what a special time of their lives that was, where they went through so much, and they changed, and it was so meaningful, and it sounded so familiar to me. Serge [Rosas] the art director and I, 8 or so years ago, worked on this game called Technosaur, which eventually got killed by EA, but for a year and a half, we worked on this game, with Steve Powers, one of the guys who make the Hong Kong level in Deus Ex, and David Reese, one of the programmers, and we went through this incredible experience together. It was bonding, it was weird, it was unlike anything else in my life. It was kinda like summer camp and making a movie rolled into one. That’s my favorite thing. That’s fantastic.

On Tuesday nights I play in a D&D campaign with the guys up here, and one of them—this is gonna shock you, probably—one of them I have played in a D&D campaign with since I was 14, which is 22 years ago. So I’ve played D&D with this guy longer than I’ve not played with him over the course of my life. I’m 36 now. Some of them are newbies to the game, but there are others here who have played board games. Some people here are working on a movie. It’s just a really cool environment. That is the best thing about it.

GP: What kind of characters do you play in D&D

HS: I’m about to run a Star Wars d20 campaign; I’m really psyched about that, because after Knights of the Old Republic, I got all fired up about it. We used to play the West End Games version of Star Wars, and so now we’re going to play the d20 one. I’m looking forward to running that. But in the campaign we’re playing now, Steve, who made Hong Kong and Cairo in Deus Ex 1 and Deus Ex 2, is running a campaign right now where the devils from Hell conquered the world, basically, so their armies, their governments, their cities populate the planet, and the characters are sort of like part of the resistance. My character started out as a barbarian sorcerer who—this makes me sound like such a nerd, I swear…I can’t believe I’m telling you this—who started out as a part of this gnoll tribe, and I have my own Prestige Class called an Infernal Nemesis that I can make available for you if you ever want to print it. It’d be so cool for someone to print my Prestige Class!

Your gateway to creativity.  I attack... the darkness! GP: I’d love to see that.

HS: If you want that, I can give you guys the exclusive on that. [laughs] I don’t know what percentage of people like d20 games, so….

GP: It’s big in the tabletop role-playing industry, but I don’t know what percentage that is now. I know I’m way into it, but no one else on our staff is.

HS: Anyway, that’s what my character is. To anyone outside the game industry, that would sound wacky, like, “Oh, you’re 36 and you still play games like that,” but obviously in gamer culture, it’s a fascinating creative exercise, it’s fantastic socially, it’s a very positive experience. I’ve been friends with some people that I’ve played with for 22 years.

GP: And you’re working on games now.

HS: And I’m working on games now. It really educated me about games and why people play games, what they get out of games, and how to make games fun, what’s frustrating about games, and all that.

GP: So kids, play D&D!

HS: Yeah, exactly. That’s the lesson today.

GP: Anything else you’d like to add, about Deus Ex or anything else?

HS: I’m just so happy with how it’s coming together here at the end. We have a weapon that fires an electromagnetically accelerated particle, and the Alt-fire is an EMP beam that kills ‘bots, and then we have the bio-mod that lets you see through walls. And somebody was running from a ‘bot that was tearing them up, and they jumped with their Speed bio-mod and landed in the dumpster and shut the lid, so the ‘bot’s outside searching for them. The guy turns on his vision so he can see through the wall of the dumpster and fires with the EMP beam that travels through walls, and kills the ‘bot. We were just like, holy cow. I mean, that was an entire string of events that were improvised, that were based purely on player strategy or tactics that no one ever planned, no one ever scripted. It wasn’t a scripted event that happens when you trigger a certain flag or whatever. It’s just improv, because the environment is a simulation that supports it. And that’s really what we’re all about. I mean, we have the big story, too, but that’s the thing we do differently from everyone else.


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