The Life and Times of Harvey “Witchboy” Smith
- Ultima 8
- CyberMage: Darklight Awakening
- Technosaur (Never shipped)
- Deus Ex
- Deus Ex: Invisible War
- Area 51: Blacksite
- Speaker, Character in 2nd Life, Award-winner
- Web Site: http://www.witchboy.net
My Favorite Harvey Quote?
- “Focus so you don’t have to compromise quality.
- Do not undertake the creation of a bunch of brand-new tech if you are not prepared for the time hit involved.
- Good process is critical.
- You’ve got to surround yourself with people smarter than you are in areas where you’re weak.
- And you should pare your team back to positive, mature, people.” – Interview at gamespy.com, April, 2004
“If you don’t keep a quote file, you should” – Spector
Question: “You’ve described some of your early years as hellish. Where did that come from?”
What percentage are software engineers: 50%
Visual or audio oriented: 25%
Business people: 0
Every game developer I’ve ever met is a different beast. Driven by some of the same stuff, but a different background. Lived all over, including Germany for a while and the Bay Area.
The best thing about the industry is that it puts it mark on you as much as you put your mark on it. “Escapism was a huge huge thing for me.” We were rabid consumers of media in all forms. I was constantly looking for an outlet. Games was just another angle on that. “These [music, games, radio, books, movies, etc.] were like magical forces in the world.”
Question: “One of the things that I find disturbing about video games in particular is that they tend to be male adolescent power trips. Was it empowering for you as gamer? Or was it escape or an outlet for energies which you didn’t know what to do with?”
[SPECTOR! Holy hell was this a crap question. Talk about defining empowering as a negative. As something different than the necessary precursors of what it takes for something to be empowering. In order for something to be empowering, it must first show you a different and compelling [escape] version of the world, and a path [outlet] to get there. The or is really conduct unbecoming here. /STOMP.]
“I think it was both. … As much as people malign them [power fantasies], you immediately point to an adolescent power fantasy and talk about it as a cliche or as a nacient drive that young people have. As much as we dismiss it, it’s hugely important.”
[No kidding – How are we to find the capabilities of our agency and, in turn, ourselves as individuals without considering how they interact with others and society as a whole?]
“Fighting daemons is sort of a literal presentation of an abstract idea. … There kind of a cathartic process there. Part of it was expression and exploration.”
[Adults understand this. Kids do not. Yet Adults seem to forget this when evaluating games when they are played by kids. They use the wrong lens.]
Psychological term is Mastery.
Question: “For me as a D&D player, I loved putting on different costumes. To try out what it was like? Where you trying out who you were?”
I don’t think so. Gave a talk called The Imago Effect (2006). About ideal identity. Summary Notes. About the idealized self, because I realized early on because my game avatars, regardless of games which were very different from himself.
“I Want through therapy, because that guy [Spector] influenced me.” – Smith
“Only because I think that everybody should go through therapy to be a member of the human race not because I’m making a comment about Harvey.” – Spector
One of the interesting things I did early on was making a list of D&D characters that I had made. For the first time, I saw patterns in them – history, fiction, signature marks. For me, it was always a different aspect of myself – pushing it to the extreme.
Some players take on a different role. Some players take on an idealized aspect of themselves.
[Hey – look! It’s why so much of game criticism and commentary is so controversial. The other person is having a completely different play experience than you, because how they relate to the character, and the choices they make, come from fundamentally different wellsprings.]
Question: “Do you think that still informs your design sensibilities today? … People too old to be doing what they’re doing are really important to me. That was true even when I was the youngest person in the room, not the oldest one. Dysfunctional families.”
I find that totally true. You sit around and think about what you could do with technology, with the IP available. You stir the post for a while, find something that excites you and then you start running with it. Later, you back up and look at it, you’ll recognize it as a variant of something you made before. Patterns.
Question: “From D&D and Freeport, you went to the military. What the heck?”
He spent 6 years in the Air Force. Wanted to marry his high school sweetheart. Random chapter in his life. Wanted to get away from the small town. I was totally miserable before I talked to the recruiter. [LOL, have I heard this story before.] “I read comics since I was 4. I never realized that someone wrote comics for a living.” [How is this even remotely possible? He doesn’t understand how that leap didn’t happen and then it did happen either.]
[He was in Germany @ the same time I was. Part of the University of Maryland’s LitClub. Thomas More was his professor.] “These people [that he met while being the military] changed my life. It was like being around the parents that I had always lacked.”
Question: “You’re largely self-educated from the University of Maryland?”
He dropped out. He was a satellite communication technician. [I wonder if I met him @ one point or another. Odds are non-trivial. For sure, we worked on the same systems.] “My self-confidence was so low.”
Long story where he was surrounded by people working on video games. He thought about them continuously. He eventually came around. Used classic dream job tactics: learned about job, socialized with people (skydiving with Lord British), played pen & paper with them. By the time he got hired, people thought he already worked there. For six months, total failure, but kept the pressure on. Wrote nice cover letter. Took a job as a tester in 1993. Warren pulled him into a Technical Design Assistant role.
Question: “Was QA a good way to get in the business?”
It was fantastic. He wrote a novel in the six months while he was trying to get in. [Awesome.] Where most people put their heads down on a team, look up and it’s been two years and you’ve been beating your head against the same problems. In QA it was a cross-functional role across many projects. Testing System Shock changed his life. Directly on top of his interests: sci-fi, cyberpunk, immersive worlds, etc. It was a powerful experience. By the end, he was lead tester.
Question: “You’ve played a lot of roles. Tester, Lead Tester, Associate Producer, Creative Director… Talk about the roles on each of your games.”
Lot of quest for legitimacy in there which everyone in this room is going to struggle with. [No shit. Don’t think it’s any different for anyone else.] When he first started, he went after writing and game design positions. Once he put his ego aside and started in the testing group, it turned out to be the best thing ever. A strong QA person works with all of the key people on the team. At some point or another, everyone had counted on him for something.
[Origin was really amazing at that point. Such a small group but so many quality people. I met many of them, and worked with a few, but the transition from a publisher to a development-only shop really killed that studio.]
The industry transition form one programmer making a game to one which required game designers as a discipline. Letting specialists do their thing results in a higher quality product. “Who foresaw that the game industry would explode like this and we’d have all of these specialist roles?”
[Interestingly, the pendulum has swung back a lot since 2007 on the requirement and game team sizes can be much smaller now, but the game designer, as a discipline, hasn’t gone away. Proved its worth. Wonder what his thoughts on this are now?]
Question: “Where did that person [specialist] come from? Who should it be?”
He’s hired many people straight out of college. This thing that’s happened to me by accident… He started to recruit people out of the mod community. One out of ten would really take off. He’s talking at schools like Full Sail, Carnage Mellon. Focused on multi-discipled people, specialist plus additional skills. Enforced mentoring by co-locating people. In two months a person can pick up 80% of an advanced skill [example used was game tuning.] They won’t get the last 20% without years of experience and multiple projects.
[Codified a process similar to Joel’s recruiting strategy.]
Question: “Back to QA. Wing Commander.”
What is a bug? At the time he had no idea. Required specific training. First ones he wrote were terrible. Had to be taught that he needed to find repeatable use cases. Playing games continuously for hours get really boring.
Question: “System Shock.”
Was one of the first games with VR. The technology wasn’t ready for prime time. [Wonder if it’s ready now?]
“Totally ready for VR headsets to come back. As crazy as it was… Seeing the world as if it was with no distractions. It was an amazing experience” – Warren
Best thing about working on System Shock was the availability of the team. Able to have creative conversations about the direction of the game.
Being a Producer for a while was a really phenomenal experience.
Re: Job at Looking Glass Studio
Long story about a keypad at the Looking Glass Studio. Door code was 0451 which is the same key code used for the first keypad in System Shock. Illusion to Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
“It wasn’t about being a genius it was about connecting the context.” – Harvey
“You got the job right there.” – Warren
He didn’t take the job.
Question: “From there – Ultima 8. That was you first real design challenge, right?”
When Ultima 8 shipped, he didn’t believe that it should have. He felt the development team was very hostile. “They were not about the end-user. They were about their own whims.” Some, not all. There were great people on that team. In terms of usability… user interface… [it just wasn’t fun.] Long example where a designer hid a death trap behind a tree, costing the him 30 minutes of his time. Players want to look out into the environment, see a problem, and solve the problem creatively with the tools they have. Highly constrained game or no. He likes the less linear experience. Figure things out according so rules without. The concept of information economy, where you deliberately withhold information, to make the player feel vulnerable (horror movies), there is a moment to do that. Need to choose the right time and be fair about it.
The response from the designer was really arrogant.
That made him really angry and sent a list of 100 things to Ultima 8 to key management. Richard Garriott, thinking three steps ahead, asked him to fix the bugs. That allowed them to release a much better game later. What he was really doing at the time was driving like a producer, but he didn’t realize it at the time.
Re: Cybermage & FireTeam
It’s very possible in the game industry to make a bad game, but realize later that you made something very innovative. Whether the game was a failure or a success, it was super interesting. One major failure of the process, was that this was the end of the era where one guy could do a game. It was the beginning of the era where you had to manage a team, of when you had to treat your customers well because you were no longer the only game in town. You have to respond to user feedback.
[Interestingly, while clearly true that there is more than one mobile game, there are truckloads which treat their customers really badly. I suppose they’re getting away with because of ignorance. I wonder how long before a social game-like flame-out happens.]
Question: “Technosaur. Terrific concept. Your first experience building a team. Every one of those guys is now a playa in the industry. What the heck happened?”
“One of the best experiences of my life.” He played Dune 2 and was blown away. Complexity and depth are not the same thing. Everyone gave you instant feedback with voice. He immediately wanted to do something like that. Describes the plot of the game at 1:05. He could describe it in such a way that excited people.
One of the truisms of games is that it’s very easy to put a demo together, but very hard to ship a game. The last 20% of the game, takes you 80% of the effort. There was one flaw – they wanted to have lots of animations with close-in zooming. The only way they could afford that was do them from purely top down instead of 3/4 angle like most other RTS games. At review at Electronic Arts, Don Mattrick rejected the top-down angle. He totally blew him off, but they ran into problems with it anyway because people couldn’t identify the units well. EA killed the project. “If I had just listened. I thought I knew everything. I was too hardheaded, so the project got killed. They fired all of us but 3. I watched 10 of my friends carry boxes out the door. It felt so bad.”
“The interesting thing is knowing what lesson to take away from that. In that case, the people who gave you that advice were right, but sometimes you have to stick to your guns. Making that judgement call is what separates out successful people.” – Spector
“Art and I did our interview in the town of Diablo.” In chat. Over the top masculine warrior guys. Was a good experience. It was a video game in the video game sense. If you get that opportunity, you should take it. An arcade game teaches about dealing with compressed time. Everything has to happen very rapidly and clear. Distilled form of gaming.
Question: “This game was like a sporting event? Sounds perfect. What happened?”
The people who founded the company insisted that you can only buy the game over the Internet. [TOO SOON!] They made the game with VC funding and bypass the middlemen. [Interestingly this hasn’t happened. Steam has taken this place as a the digital distribution middleman. Credit Card on File is KING.]
Question: “Deus Ex. Harvey really functioned more as a Co-Director.”
So many people at so many levels contributed to it. The team even seemed small by today’s standards. ~30 people. Harvey, Warren, and Chris would fight like cats and dogs to make decisions. [Combative creativity.] Only the second time he had been a level designer. Really enjoyed that.
At the time, my then wife… [second ?]
Question: “You made huge contributions. I look back at two and thing Thank God Harvey was there. First, you redesigned the skill system. “
Lesser granularity, if a change happens in the game, you notice it. If it’s not demonstrable to the player, don’t do it. Originally the skill system was binary, he extended it and made it more granular than that. Didn’t remember actually doing that. Totally different perspectives on events. Signal loss. The next day it’s gone, from you even.
Question: “The other big thing on Deus Ex. Warren had huge grandiose stories and tried to ground it more. Harvey pitched a simpler variation of the same story which expressed everything.”
On a daily basis, we were building the rooms. They knew how long things were taking to do – what the limitations of the engine. If you routinely use the tools – you know what the limitations are. Intimacy with the technology. Very often a story is about a handful of people.
Example, Bioshock is really about story of Andrew Ryan who had this crazy vision – and thee player’s choice about the little girls. There’s probably five or so actual important characters in that game.
It wanted it to be more personal and intimate. Focus.
Deus Ex still had a non-stop cast. Guys would walk on screen and off without you talking with them again. It’s so hard for people to realize that whenever a player walks into a room, everything is new. The best games which take a small set of characters and repeat them over and over. That’s the best chance you have to get people to care about them.
Repeat Exposure. [Hey look – it’s a Thinking Fast & Slow concept.]
This is one of the basics of storytelling which we as developers were not applying.
[Long story about Gunther Herman. Talks about the kill codes of the cyborgs. ]
Give all of the characters a finale.
Question: “Deus Ex: Invisible War, you took a leadership position…”
This was a difficult project [separated from wife.] I feel like they had bad tech choices, bad AI, bad team chemistry, bad story, shipped too early. Moved into the future which undermined what made Deus Ex great by removing the grounded-ness.
Question: “There were certain thinks that we say as problems in Deus Ex which we wanted to address. I’ll start talking if you don’t…” [Nice…]
Really talk to the players that you’re aiming at. Don’t go for the extreme. It’s not selling out to cater to an audience. The listened to their designer friends and not to the players of the original game. They tried to fix some of those things, which took fantasy away from the player. Hindsight is 20/20.
Achievements are a collectable. Players love collectables. Game develop teams are going to start doing clever things with them. [Hadn’t ever thought of it that way.]
Never underestimate how much effort it takes to communicate something new to a player in a game. [I would remove the word new. Especially on mobile.]
[No wonder this game didn’t do well. Was very anti-US & highly political. Again and again. Katrina. Bush. Iraqi War. FEMA. Like all the damn time. Does NOT miss any opportunity to make an anti-American/anti-Bush statement. Using every tool available: pictures, words, setup, weapons, scenarios, story. As nearly as I can tell, the game embodied everything which made Democrats angry over the last six years of the Bush Administration. Preachy and ham-handed.
Here’s a tip: don’t piss of a potential 50% of your audience.
Here’s another tip: anger passes – it’s not a stable foundation on which to build art, or even a lasting memory.
Isn’t the commercial failure of this game a relearning of the player feedback lesson from Ultima 8?
Metascore of 62 didn’t just come from bugs. Sales.
Granted CoD isn’t much better on this point, and trending worse every generation but, for that series, the single player part of those games isn’t what sells them, it’s the multiplayer which is politically agnostic.]
Audience Question: Intelligible.
Tips of the day are a really good idea. You typically write these at the end with what people are confused about. It’s a stopgap, because it would better that the game would train you.
Question: “Section of questions about game design philosophy.”
Alternation is pleasing – color palette, gameplay situation, etc. Goes a long way for making an experience enjoyable.
Blacksite hits three or four of my most deeply held beliefs we hit: good story, fair immersive, alternates experiences. It misses on things like differentiated creature mechanics, second stage mechanics (example pac man interacting with ghosts). Every project you ever work on will be like that.
Don’t bury the lede. List it first, don’t build up to it. Use simpler words for communication. Had problems using jargon words when communicating within the team.
Question: “Orthogonal Unit Differentiation?”
Make each creature distinctive with different mechanics.
Question: “Emergent gameplay?”
Making the game as a chemistry set with five things which can be combined in interesting ways. You have enough tools, the environment works consistently, that you can solve your problems. You only have a certain amount of complexity to spend on the player. You’d better hope that players are signed up for a sandbox experience if there aren’t enough directed goals. I think most people need that.
He’s a big proponent of story in the game – by which he means the fantasy in the players head. Example: Band of Bugs. Interesting mechanics for good fantasy even though the story doesn’t appeal to him.
Question: “Gameplay ecology”
There are tools, rules, players and enemies. You could just make lists of each, but you will interesting second order interactions if you think of them as an interconnected structure. You need to pay attention that if you want to not “waste” your development budget. The game gets stronger if there are relationships between those things.
Question: “That’s a great way to think about analysis. Customizable avatars.”
Totally believe in self-expression in game combined with strong narrative. There’s a time for customizable and canned avatars. Some gamers would like to have a strong central lead. He’s learned to be less dismissive of the player. It’s a dialog between the player and the designer. It’s a bizarre thing to make entertainment software.
Question: “Balancing your creativity with the players. What’s the hardest part? Most enjoyable?”
The emotional component of the team is the hardest part. Management issues. Keeping the creativity moving in a consistent direction. Specialists who don’t get other’s issues. The stakes are high. Max out a skill + maxing out collaboration. How to loose arguments a certain percentage of a time.
Question: “5 favorite games?”
- Doom 2
Players can imbue random generated content with their own emotional value. Example: random generated soldiers who you go on missions with. The game generated two characters who had the same last name, one male, one female, so he generated a fantasy that they were married and had signed on to fight aliens together. When one died on a mission, he could not move on. Kept playing the mission over and over until they both got out alive.
- System Shock
Question: “Is there a demo?”
There is a demo for Blacksite. It’s old.
[Long description of even more anti-America setup from one of the missions in the game. “I doubt Joe Walmart will notice that…”
Further buttresses my core assertion that game failed because it didn’t listen to its potential audience. If I had to wager, that’s why it was ripped out of their hands and shipped early, because a business person modeled the sales and blew the whistle on further investment.]
Question: “How did you get such a subversive game made?”
If marketing at Midway had known, they wouldn’t have paid for it. There are characters in the game with “other views.” It largely falls back to things which I think most of us can agree on. “Torture is not good.” [CoD:BLOPS… /sigh]
It’s kind of an innovation to actually run around America as a shooter. [Agreed.] I think the game operates at two levels and you can appreciate it if you agree with our views or not. I don’t think everyone knew what we were going to because many of these elements came on very late.
At the end of the day, he’s paid to impart some of his vision into the game. Otherwise you’re going to end up with something totally diffused and derivative. [Long story about how he had a list of things like mission names that he withheld from most of the team. Placeholder art was allowed to exist for a long time, until the last possible minute sounds like. He keeps using the word ironically in the literary-correct sense, but also arguably in a foreshadowing way.]
You want someone watching everything to make sure that you’re moving in a consistent direction. So not everyone on the team buys into it. [“Blacksite is political satire.” Maybe… That wasn’t my reaction from his presentation.]
He does have the support of a bulk of the team. [All sorts of warning signs in just having to utter that sentence aloud… Echoes of my experience at LucasArts. I wonder if it’s part and parcel of creative-driven development that this occurs. Might well be…
I do wonder though, how much different this would have gone had Midway’s marketing department been fully cognizant sooner about the nature of the game being made. At a floor minimum, it would have changed the “buy-in” equation substantially and might well not have resulted in his departure from Midway. Can’t ever really know that for sure, but fodder for consideration.
Echoes of the EA/Don Mattrick lesson unlearned? Having worked with that level of EA management in the past, you don’t get to make that mistake more than once. I have to believe that Midway would have been similar.]
If I had more time, I would pick the five clunkiest and make them better. Art Director would do the same.
Sounds like a total brutal crunch period. “Happens on every team.” [Nope.]
For what it’s worth, I have no idea how good the game is or not – I’m too close to it. Same was true of Deus Ex for him and Warren.
You can work yourself into a trap of being a perfectionist. I don’t know if he’s ever going to ship it.