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Monday, July 05, 2004

THE SECOND LIFE OF HARVEY SMITH, PART I

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."

Tomorrow: The world of Deus Ex, and lessons learned...

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