By Kieron Gillen on November 23rd, 2007 at 1:59 pm.
[At this point in these postmortem features, I decided to mix it up a little for PC Format. Since they were integrated into the mod-section of the magazine – with the subtext that they were inspirational things for readers thinking about becoming games developers – I thought a look at how a designer got to be a designer could be fun. Luckily, Harvey, who’s previously worked on landmark games including Deus Ex and System Shock, was up for it. The interview was done after the end of Ion Storm Austin, but before he’d joined Midway to work on Blacksite.]
We all look back, in an unholy mix of nostalgia and self-analysis. It’s what this column is all about. This time, however, we’re going to take an alternate route through this terrain. Rather than follow the path of a game, and what went right and wrong, instead we’re going to follow a career. How it started, how it moved on and what was learned at each step. And, indirectly, one of the most common questions that arrive in our inbox: “How do I get into the games industry”. Here’s a case study of how one man did. The man in question? Harvey Smith, who started back in 1993 in Quality Assurance at Origin and continues to this day at Midway.
RPS: Were you always thinking about entering the industry?
When I was younger, I wasn’t as meta-aware of the game industry as many people were. I played games, initially, with little thought for who made them or how. In fact, I still remember the shocking moment when I realized that ‘creating games’ was a potential profession. To me, because of my background, I had never considered the possibility.
RPS:So how did you actually get in?
For 6 months I schmoozed at Origin, playing softball with the corporate team, playing in various RPG campaigns with the people who worked there, playing multiplayer games in the building with friends at night, going to lunch with members of various development teams and finally even tagging along on a skydiving trip with Richard Garriott and about 30 other Origin staff members. All to no avail. Eventually, I answered an ad in the newspaper that said, “Wanted: QA Tester with knowledge of video games.” It paid $7 an hour, but I got the job immediately. Within a couple of days, I was sitting at a folding table in the back of the QA Pit, flying Wing Commander missions on a 3DO. They were almost all missions I already knew from having pirated the Wing Commander games a couple of years prior.
RPS: So what was it like working in QA?
It was a weird time. Everyone treated new QA test team members as if they were diseased or mildly retarded. To be fair, they treated the established testers very well…there was just this period where you had to “prove yourself not to be psychotic or slothful.” I was told several times that I was “too intense,” but I was on a mission: I wanted to create games. For me, it was all about self-expression; I just burned, in an way that I know to be very unhealthy, to show everyone what was inside me. In a short time, I believe I had demonstrated that I was energetic, articulate, social and dedicated. Some of the qualities were actually helping me hide some major dysfunctions, related to anxiety and anger.
RPS: So how did you get out of there?
Two things happened: I spent 10 months as Lead Tester of System Shock, working with the amazing developers at Looking Glass Technologies, and (without being asked) I wrote a detailed, aggressive report on what was wrong with Ultima VIII. I learned massive amounts working around Doug Church (remotely and for a while face-to-face), and I attracted the attention of Warren Spector and Richard Garriot. Eventually, Richard let me type up the “top 100 problems” in Ultima VIII, gave me the support of a programmer and a designer from the project, and we fixed a ton of problems before Origin released the CD version of the game (which was much more favorably received).
RPS: When looking back at this, what do you think?
I suppose the point here is that right out of the gate–without any formal training or permission from anyone ‘above’ me–I was naturally reaching out, changing things (often according to my strongly-held sense of what was right, creatively, or my burning desire to self-express), articulating problems and design solutions, and deconstructing games.
RPS: You then became a associate producer, yes? Why and how?
Having been in QA for a year and a few months, Warren Spector offered me a job as an Associate Producer and Richard Garriot offered me a job as a Junior Game Designer. I felt like Warren, as a producer, drifted toward teams and games that felt more interesting to me. Plus, I felt like the Associate Producer position would allow me to be more flexible, more improvisational in my role; I wanted to have an impact across the entire team and on the entirety of the game.
RPS: You had a “lost” game around this point, didn’t you?
I pitched a highly-innovative RTS called Technosaur to Warren and Richard. I had -again, without permission – recruited a small team from within the company. We were already working on our game, at night after work, from someone’s apartment or at a 24-hour greasy spoon called Jim’s. Origin let me pull together a team, a demo, go through several stages of pitching, then enter full development. After a year of formal production, however, the project was canceled along with 4 others, as EA was slowly beginning to close Origin down.
RPS: How did you react to the dismemberment of Origin?
After most of the team had been fired, and Origin had started to get so gloomy, I didn’t have the heart to stay and work on Ultima Online (with my good friend Star Long). I’d met off and on with Star about UO, but I never really aligned with their design. I kept wanting the game to resemble a multiplayer Underworld (or EverQuest).
So I packed up and moved to San Mateo to work with Art Min and Ned Lerner on a game called FireTeam [of which there’s a fan remake here. It was a great move, like game design boot camp. I think I was employee #6, and I was the company’s only dedicated game designer. Everyone there was a game designer, though, which was great.
RPS: How was the experience with Fireteam?
FireTeam was great–a multiplayer squad game with voice support, back in the mid-nineties. To this day, I am still very proud of that game and very happy with all that I learned. I built almost all the levels, refined them throughout test, wrote script code for the training missions, hand edited files that controlled animation playback, stubbed in the game’s sound effects, and came up with many of the game mechanics behind the sub-games, character classes, weapons and powerups.
RPS: Care to say how you got from Multitude to Ion Storm Austin?
It was the late 90’s and the dot-com madness was beginning to end. So, as Multitude started transitioning from games to voice tech, I left, moving back to Austin to work with Warren Spector on a new project that was shaping up to be what I instantly understood to be “like Underworld in the modern world.” We created Deus Ex there in the Austin Ion Storm office with little attention from the more-chaotic Dallas Ion Storm office and little attention from our publisher, Eidos.
Once again, I was leading (parts of) a game team, designing game mechanics for character systems, weapons and tools, laying out interface elements, writing parts of the mission/story script and building (A LOT OF) 3D levels. It was great–very intense.
RPS: What sort of things did you get up to as Lead Designer on Deus Ex?
As I had since day one at Origin, I was also slowly creating my own form of culture from within the company. I felt like I could best be described as a leader, not a manager, and as a game designer, not a level designer. My focus was on inspiring people, aligning the team toward a common goal, and designing overall game mechanics and systems.
Still, the writer in me loved creating 3D levels (more so than the visual artist, which is pretty weak). I loved playing “dungeon master” once again and creating richly-populated exploratory spaces. I created most of the maps for the NYC and Paris missions in Deus Ex. I was inspired enough by my role to give a GDC talk called Systemic Level Design.
RPS: How did things change when you were Project lead on Invisible War?
By the time Deus Ex 2: Invisible War came into production, I was too busy to work on levels, which made me sad, actually. I was project director, recruiting and leading the entire team, not just the level/game designers any more. I also was effectively Lead Designer for the first year of the project, writing the initial (ambitious) design doc.
RPS: So, now, looking forward how do you see the role of Level Designer changing?
I was only a level designer on two games: FireTeam and Deus Ex. In the future, the level designer role will increasingly be played by environmental artists, with the skills to create highly detailed and architecturally meaningful spaces. But of course these people will always need to keep things in mind like the map-flow, the dramatic rhythm of the encounters, technical issues like occlusion and line-of-sight, et al. That is, until “world creation” is an automated process–which it will be–driven by pre-arranged patterns related to architecture and gameplay.