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Playing Catch-Up: Will Harvey

Playing Catch-Up: Will Harvey

August 8, 2005 | By Frank Cifaldi

August 8, 2005 | By Frank Cifaldi
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Today's 'Playing Catch-Up', a regular column which talks to notable figures in the video game business about their notorious past and intriguing present, talks to Will Harvey, an original Electronic Arts 'star programmer' and the creator of Music Construction Set and Zany Golf.

Harvey is a 23-year veteran of the games industry, whose first game, 1982's Lancaster, was developed while he was still in high school. In 1984, Harvey's Music Construction Set was released by Electronic Arts to heavy acclaim, sparking a long-term relationship with the publisher that gave birth to a computer port of Marble Madness and two original games, Will Harvey's Zany Golf and, finally, 1990's The Immortal. All of the above were ported to various consoles and computers, usually by Harvey himself.

Interestingly, Harvey's games had an underground reputation for having some of the most obscure and difficult-to-access Easter Eggs around, with Zany Golf being a prime example. As Harvey explains of the electricity hole: "There were a couple of small mouse holes in the cement wall of the laboratory. Occasionally, you would see little mouse eyes blink inside the hole. And if you shot your ball into the mouse hole, the mouse would kick your ball out. But if you got right in front of the mouse hole, and then watched very carefully for 2-3 minutes, bloodshot mouse eyes would peer out for just a fraction of a second, and if you hit the ball in the hole in that exact fraction of a second, then you would be taken to the secret hole."

Harvey's Marble Madness conversion, for which original creator Mark Cerny was unaware of the secret level until after the game had shipped, is another prime example. After accessing the level by a secret elevator, the player reaches a large level with lilypads across a river, and, as Harvey details: "So the puzzle here is that there is no way of solving this level by yourself, you can only solve if you’re playing in two-player mode with a friend, and if both of you sit on the secret elevator and get lowered into the secret level, and then on each side of the river there’s a tile that is a special color. And when either one of your marbles is sitting on a red tile, the lilypad won’t eat your marble. So the way to solve this is that one of you keeps his marble on the red tile, the other crosses the river on the lilypad."

Even more obscure, in The Immortal, if the player memorized a puzzle that normally required a trapdoor detector and jumped into the final trapdoor, he would reach a massively long corridor, Harvey explains: "If you walked for ten minutes or so, finally you would reach the end. And at the end of the corridor, you then find animated characters of each of us who were on the team of people who made the game, 4 or 5 of us. And each of us had a little something to say, one of them being an artist who, as an inside joke, hated to be awakened in the morning without having coffee. So if you walked up to him and if you didn’t have a cup of coffee to give him, then he would kill you. And if you did have coffee, he would give you the spell of infinite body odor, which you would carry with you for the remainder of the game. Incidentally, the coffee pot was hidden in an earlier level."

Harvey left Electronic Arts to finish up his PhD in Computer Science, which he used to found a networking tools company in the mid-90s. The company, called Sandcastle, created tools for latency programs for online games. "At the time, multiplayer games were starting to become popular over the internet," Harvey told Gamasutra, "and people were using the same programming techniques that worked over LAN. These techniques didn't work so well over a high-latency network, such as the internet." The tools Sandcastle developed, he said, allowed developers to create games with "high responsive interaction." The company was sold to Adobe in 1997.

In 1998, Harvey founded another company, called There. "The idea behind There was to create a virtual world for online socializing," said Harvey. "When you think about meeting people in real life, doing things together is a big part of that interaction. When you meet a girl, you might ask her on a date somewhere. If you're with your buddies, maybe you'll go to a ball game. And so I created There to give people a place to go and do things with their friends." Harvey left There in early 2003 due to the company's drastic change in direction. "They started focusing on creating simulation software for military situations as a defense contractor," said Harvey. "That was a decision that was supported by our investors, but my personal interest is in creating entertaining experiences."

Harvey went back to his original vision, more or less, by starting IMVU (imvu.com), which remains his latest adventure. IMVU has been in beta since April, and allows users to chat in real-time with customizable 3D avatars. "The product allows you to get a free avatar, and to move the 3D instant messenger to chat and hang out with your friends for free forever," he said. "And the way that we make money is that you can buy virtual clothes and virtual scenes, or backgrounds, to customize your avatar to the way that you like." Content in IMVU, including 3D objects, are made by third party developers using a system of simple tools created by Harvey and his team.

Harvey sounds genuinely excited when discussing the game's economy. "When that user-created item is sold in the game's catalogue, the proceeds are split three ways, between the user, the third party, and IMVU. So each person gets a piece of those proceeds. And each person can even set the price of the object, so basically, the user is able to set his markup over the wholesale price that the original developer set. And the wholesale price that the original developer has set is a markup over what we call the 'electron cost.' So each person can be a businessman and can essentially run his own business."

[Frank Cifaldi is a Las Vegas-based freelance author whose credits include work for Nintendo Official Magazine UK, Wired, and his own Lost Levels website.]


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