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With a long history working for some of gaming's most celebrated developers like Origin and Ion Storm, designer Harvey Smith has had roles on a laundry list of notable PC games such as Ultima VIII: Pagan, System Shock, Deus Ex, Deus Ex: Invisible War, and Thief: Deadly Shadows.
Most recently, Smith made news with his participation in the 2006 Game Developer Conference's Game Design Challenge, where he faced off against Gears of War designer Cliffy B and Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi to create a game that might win the Nobel Peace Prize. His challenge-winning entry, Peacebomb!, was a DS game that organized players to take part in real-life peace and community activist flash-mobs by setting them in a fictionalized game-world underground movement rising up in revolution.
Now a creative director at Midway Austin, we sat down to catch up with Smith on what the next-gen might bring, life at Midway, collaborative versus competitive play, avatar psychology, and what gaming can learn from social community-driven sites like MySpace and Digg.
GS: As we're standing on the cusp of the next-generation, what are you most excited about in the coming years? What more can you do with the technology as a designer now that you couldn't do before?
HS: In the past, I've said "speech synthesis." I've always been so excited about empowering AI's with a wider range of verbal expression, and I still think that'll be meaningful to game designers and AI programmers in the near future. But right now it's a toss up between several things. First, it's exciting to me that some games are moving toward needs-based AI. Especially shooters and RPG's.
Second, seamless online elements in games, so that the game assumes that the player is online all the time. I still think there are small roles for all of us to play in one another's games, even in traditional types of games where one player is the center of the universe. For a long time, I've been using the examples of players in a chat lobby being pulled into shooters for micro play sessions, playing the parts of throw-away enemies or even the player-character's semi-autonomous rockets. I've also used the "cell phone players are the butterflies in MMO's" example. Some of that is starting to happen, which is cool.
Finally, for lack of a better term, I'm continually excited about participatory culture's influence on game design. One of the coolest, watershed moments in my career was seeing mod makers create Deus Ex missions, then hiring one of them, Kent Hudson. We're still working together and he's the design lead on one of our projects here at Midway Austin.
And, even as a fan of hardcore PC and console action games, I still hold the often-maligned view that handhelds are the dominant platform of the future. Someday I want a handheld device with a completely realistic screen; something that looks like a little portal into a strange place.
GS: Without divulging classified info, what kind of overarching thematic areas are you exploring with the work you're doing now?
HS: As always, I spend a lot of time split between gameplay and fiction. My role at Midway allows me to bounce around some between a couple of games, though I am also super committed to developing an idea of my own in the background. I've been building up a staff of game designers here in Austin, mentoring the lead designers, setting up the culture, and framing our games. I get to dive in at a lower level from time to time, but my goal is always to make the people around me as autonomous as possible; to align people to a specific vision for a given game and to impart what I consider good, player-centric gameplay values. I've worked on innovative titles like FireTeam, Technosaur and Deus Ex, but I've never really executed with a high degree of polish. I really admire teams that can do that, so my goals right now involve polish and execution.
Thematically, I'm still wrestling with what's going on in the world, in terms of conflict, intolerance, fear and control. So our games reflect that. And, as always, I love playing around with gameplay ecologies; I'm fascinated still by inter-relationships and rule sets that facilitate improvisational gameplay. Doug Church's late 90's talk on Intentionality is still one of my favorite "game designer lessons."
GS: Does your role as creative director even allow you that kind of freedom to set those themes? Or are you more involved with higher-level management?
HS: Management. Ha. I'm a terrible manager. I tell stories. I develop a shared narrative, whatever that means. I sometimes inspire people, sometimes piss people off. And I'm a game designer. Yes, I'm free to set the tone at a high level or go in at a low level and redraw a level layout. When I have to do the former, I'm doing what I'm supposed to do. My goal is to empower people who are in alignment (and can take me farther, teaching me something along the way); working side by side with Jim Stiefelmaier, Kent Hudson and Ricardo Bare (our design leads) is a challenge and the best job I've ever had. They're amazing, strong personalities. When we're in agreement, it's electric. When I have to do something like redrawing someone's level layout on a whiteboard, I go into teacher mode and it generally implies a process failure. But secretly I have the most fun during those times.
GS: Are you satisfied with where you're at in your career right now?
HS: Yeah, totally. We're pushing ourselves hard as part of Midway's new wave. The first next-gen Midway game is Stranglehold and it's stunning. Our games will follow that as part of David Zucker's turn-around. Also, in the background, I have a revolutionary game idea and a cool fiction that I want to work with that is literally keeping me awake at night.
I'm a really lucky guy, given my background. The thing that keeps me most excited about the future is, oddly, the presence of a couple of production leaders at our studio. Denise Fulton, my boss, and Brett Close (from the Medal of Honor games) are, respectively, our Studio Head and Production Director. And my chemistry with them is very motivating.
I'm learning a lot. A lot of satisfaction is related to how you see yourself, personally; how happy you are with yourself; and where you've come from, relatively speaking.