An Interview with Arkane Studios Creative Director Harvey Smith.
I can't thank Harvey enough for revisiting this interview originally done back in 2014. We realized that a lot has changed on the Social Media landscape over the past few years but his advice on networking and community remains timeless.
Harvey Smith is a game designer and writer who has been working in videogames professionally since 1993. Currently, he is co-creative director at Arkane Studios, working alongside Raphael Colantonio. Most recently, Smith worked on Dishonored 2, while living in Lyon, France. October 2012 saw Smith and Colantonio release the award-winning Dishonored, working with Arkane Studios teams in Lyon, France and Austin, Texas. In 2009, Smith released the iPhone game KarmaStar. From 2004 to 2007, he served as studio creative director for Midway Austin, managing the design department, starting three projects and shipping Blacksite during that time. He worked at Ion Storm’s Austin office from 1998 to 2004, acting as creative director of Deus Ex: Invisible War and lead designer on the award-winning Deus Ex, winning the 2000 BAFTA and many other awards. Prior to Ion Storm, Smith worked at Multitude, an Internet startup in San Mateo, CA. There he was lead designer of FireTeam, an innovative tactical squad game that was one of the earliest video games to feature voice-communications between players. He started his career at the pivotal game company Origin Systems, working as an associate producer on Cybermage and Ultima VIII, lead tester on System Shock and a play-tester on Super Wing Commander. He has written about numerous game design subjects and has spoken at the Game Developers’ Conference, MiGS, SxSW, E3, QuakeCon and other conferences. In 2005, he won the Game Design Challenge at GDC for his entry, Peacebomb! Smith has served on Advisory Boards for the SxSW Screenburn Festival and the Game Developers’ Choice Awards. In addition to working with Arkane Studios, Smith has written the novel Big Jack is Dead, which he describes as a collision of Southern Gothic and Silicon Valley.
Dishonored 2, Creative Director
Dishonored, Co-creative Director
KarmaStar (iOS), Designer/Producer
Blacksite, Studio Creative Director
Invisible War, Creative Director
Deus Ex, Lead Designer
FireTeam, Lead Designer
Technosaur (cancelled RTS), Creative Director/Producer
Cybermage, Associate Producer
Ultima VIII (CD re-release), Associate Producer
System Shock, Lead Tester
Super Wing Commander, Tester
Rob Coble: You’re very active in the social media world. Tell me your thoughts on social media, what do you use it for and why?
Harvey Smith: Sometimes, I guess, though I just deleted 64,000 tweets, dating back to the early days of Twitter. It’s a blessing and a curse - I've interacted with so many great people that way, but there's obviously a dark side that the world is still grappling with.
Even a long time ago, in the late 80s when I was in the military, we had these satellite communications vans that we worked in, spread across the world. My friends and I went to tech-school and then we all scattered out. Some in England, Spain, and the US, and I was in Germany. We were on this ring, so if you knew where your friend was, you could teletype at night, on a big metal typewriter with a long yellow spool of paper. It was really loud and would rattle and spit out whatever you typed and the response.
At the end of your shift you’d tear the paper off, roll it up, and put it in a safe. They actually stored the conversations and traffic for a year or longer. Most of them were work related, so once in awhile we’d get snapped at for using the system for personal reasons. But reaching out to a close friend, from one country to another, even with a, ‘How you’ve been?’ or whatever, was kind of magical back then.
Now we have all these crazy-cool ways of interacting via social media, but they're also being used to mobilize hateful forces, and they're being mined constantly so that there's a profile on each of us related to who we are, what we like, and what we want to buy...what bits of political narrative trigger our reactions in outrage or support. It's all been around for a while, but suddenly it's very sophisticated.
The next step is making predictions about what we'll do at any given point in life, and as we advance through stages of life...staggering big data collection implications, many of which could hurt us, societally and individually. What you 'like' is who you are in some sense: Just thinking about it makes me nostalgic for the teletypes.
The tools are all very powerful and a huge part of our current age. This will be a significant piece of our history. I met my wife through MySpace.
RC: As long as the people are being constructive, I’m guessing that you appreciate the feedback that these guys are offering? That’s going to help you develop and grow more as a designer and creative head?
HS: Professionally, the Dishonored 1 and Dishonored 2 community has been amazing. For both games, I spent the first couple of months after launch directly interacting with players, thanking people for playing the game, or answering their lore questions.
Even way back, during Deus Ex 1 and 2 times, I always read the forums. The players for whom those games really resonate - people who are deeply affected by the experience - are rewarding to know.
And we gain valuable insights. Just to use one example, Raphael Colantonio and I, along with our team at Arkane, really figured out how much people liked the Heart in Dishonored 1 through social media.
At one point it was just a supernatural device for finding your targets, but we found the need from play tests to put markers on screen all the time directing the player towards the target. What that meant was the Heart had no purpose and we almost cut it. So we then were like, ‘What if it helped you find these hard to find Runes and bone charms that help you level up your character?’ And then we had this idea like, ‘What if you point it at people and squeeze it and whispers a secret about them?’
So long story short, the art is cool, its beats in your hand, it’s kind of creepy, it helps you find Runes and bone charms – so it’s mechanically very useful. But since you’ve got it out anyway, you might as well point it at some person and squeeze it and see what it says about them. And then we learned through Twitter and such that people were just loving the Heart. They talked about it a lot. They sometimes let it guide them on whether they killed people or not, based on what the heart told them, which evolved our thinking about it even more during Dishonored 2.
People have written entire articles about the heart now, and it’s the kind of thing that we would not have known so strongly had we not been paying attention to social media.
RC: What other ways has social media connected you to others?
HS: I have to say my ties with game developers of all stripes are stronger. I've lived in Austin, Texas and Lyon, France over the last decade, and both have strong indie communities. Of course, I’m not an indie developer, but there’s a common driven-by-passion thing between some developers. It has been this way for the whole time Arkane’s existed. I love staying in touch with people who are working on their own games, struggling; watching how they handle problems.
RC: It’s interesting to hear you talk about that, as someone who’s already made it in the gaming industry and is successful, and yet you’re continuing to use these social networks for your continued networking purposes. You’re meeting new people all the time and getting out there.
HS: I don’t know how true it is to say that someone has ever ‘made it in games.’ My experience has been all over the place, for 23 years now. Hard work, with some knocks, but really very lucky.
The people I've met and worked with have been the best part. It probably differs from person to person, but these days I don't trust the initial 'culture fit' gut reaction as much. Teams need to broaden. Further, creative chemistry is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In the past, I would have given a different answer.
But one of the best things is looking at the work someone is doing at the time. Chatting with them about it, and hearing their thoughts. Just before I moved to Lyon, in early 2013, I went through this phase in Austin, where I saw so many cool projects.
A large part of how I see people is by what they’re working on, their take on the subject matter, and where their interests take them. The team from White Whale, who made God of Blades - a Robert E. Howard and Michael Moorcock influenced fiction in a side-scrolling fighting game. And you unlock new swords if you go to public libraries, which is the coolest feature ever, right? People like Adam Saltzman who at the time had just made Hundreds, a really good mobile game.
You can talk to those people, and they are still trying to make their names in some way or another even though they’ve had some success so far. Still developing and getting closer to their own creative nexus. Few people I've met in games feels settled or done. Everybody is like, 'what am I going to do next? How am I going to take this in a more interesting direction?’
RC: There’s a lot of things an up and comer or a student can be doing while they’re still in school. Can you talk about that a little bit? What things would you encourage them to do while going to school to prepare for their entry?
HS: For most of it, I don’t think it ever changes, it’s always the same. Make games however you can, alone or together. Otherwise, it’s communicating better, working better with teams. It’s trying to identify problems that you have – whether you’re the ‘five-page email lady’ or the ‘always says something acidic guy,’ or the person who is only comfortable with certain types of teammates. Or maybe you hate a certain feature so much that when it comes up you lose your mind and start frothing at the mouth. There’s this social component to working with teams.
There’s also media, exposure to film, games, books, art. I took a class with Savannah College of Art and Design, I took an art history class. I would say that nothing in the several years on either side of that event have influenced me more than that art history class. It was just amazing.
Drawing from sources of media outside the norm. Everybody is going to see the next blockbuster movie because the trailer looks awesome. You could sit around with your friends and discuss why the trailer is so great, and download it and spread it via social media and all that. And I would think that the people that are going to end up in games are probably doing all that sort of thing. They’re fanatics for movies, games, books, art, music, but the very distinct works are more inspiring to me.
The year Beasts of the Southern Wild came out, it was all I could think about, this weird post-apocalypse movie set in Louisiana, revolving around these oddball characters and poor survivors, with an element of fantasy to it that was unlike anything that I had seen in a few years.
Further, always be working on some creative project. Especially the tiny ones. Give in to that desire to make something. I released a semi auto biographical novel, I got fairly far into a tweet-based work of fiction meant to be illustrated or accompanied by photographs, and I have a Tumblr that I maintain with esoteric monsters that I started when I saw a carving at the Vatican museum of a weird little monster from hundreds of years ago carved into the side of this fountain.
For that simple Tumblr, later, we were looking at a giant map inside the museum and there was also a little fish monster in the corner blowing wind, and it made me realize nowadays either we have preset ideas about monsters, like vampires, werewolves, dinosaurs, dragons – we know what they look like, they’ve been cataloged. Or someone makes something up for a movie, like Attack the Block, the British sci-fi movie where gang kids were fighting off aliens. Somebody designed a monster for that, or they designed a monster for Super 8, and then it’s gone – it’s the Super 8 property. But in the past, monsters took on all these crazy forms based on myth and illustration. Vaguely defined. I found this great image of this woman, this obviously female monster that had reptilian scales from the neck down to the knees, otherwise was a naked woman, and had the head of a donkey, and one foot like a chicken and one foot like a mammal or something. And it was just so weird, and I put that on the site. It's an interesting idea to me - that monsters were once more distinct from one another, but simultaneously more mysterious.
Anyway, my point is, I think we should all always be working on some little creative project, even if it’s as trivial as a Tumblr – I mean it takes five minutes a day to update that, it doesn’t have to be super ambitious. And I think every time you embark on a project what you’re capable of, you learn how long it takes you to do something, you learn how to parcel out your time and your energy, you learn something about the subject matter. I learned something about the paintings of Goya because of this monster Tumblr, and it’s probably going to influence my stuff later in the future.
The other one is probably collaborating with people, whether it’s a board gaming night where you tweak the rules of game, or whether you have an indie game on the side going, or whether you play poker with people. Getting together with groups of people and collaborating over time is really amazing.
I don’t believe in talent or innate ability, I believe in skills. I believe that things get better over time the more you use them. So often what we think of as innate talent is actually that some kid played guitar when they were 10 years old, and did it for 10 years before they were 20, before you ever saw them play. So it is skill, they just worked on it privately in the background. Or someone has some gift for speaking to people because their parents were hard to reach verbally, or whatever. Seems like a magical thing that they just grew up with or an innate talent, but it’s a developed skill.
RC: One of the most important things I would ask is, let’s say I brought you back out here to campus and you had the opportunity to stand in front of a classroom of kids that were in their very first day, getting ready to start their degree programs – be it for programming or art or whatever. Is there any additional advice that you would offer them as far as what to be doing as they prepare for the industry that you haven’t already talked about?
HS: Most of what I've said boils down to a few points – working on yourself, making games, collaborating, being social. But if I had to add something else it would probably be "if you can, get physical." Get outside, ride a bike, lift weights, do yoga, take hikes. I know that sounds like an oddball thing at all, but the influence that has on your mind and your mood and your creative work is tremendous. And actually the way you collaborate with people when you do that stuff together is different than when you collaborate in the safe confines of a classroom that’s very controlled. If you are lucky enough to have options like that, don't underestimate that.
I think a lot of kids come out of their homes where they lives with their parents and they then get into school, and that physical stuff is not part of their last couple years of school so much really, and then they get out into the "adult world" and they have an apartment and a job, or no job just debt due to our predatory system, and your physical life just falls away, along with all that it brings, or influences.
This part might be shocking to them because you don’t realize when you’re young how fast time moves, but 10 years can slide by and you realize you haven’t gone swimming, camping, bike riding or hiking. Don't let that happen, if you can help it.
RC: Yeah, enjoy life. You’re going to work hard in this industry, but you’ve got to take advantage of having a balanced life as well.
HS: A lot of game developers that I know do this thing where they get together with their friends and cook. A cooking night where there’s like six people or so and everybody takes on some responsibility for some part of the meal. A lot of game developers do that, believe it or not. So if you want a maybe less expected answer to, ‘How would I meet game developers and connect with them,’ cooking night is one of the secret ways I think.
RC: I haven’t heard of that one yet, but that almost scares me a little bit – what are they cooking?
HS: Imagine 8 of your students putting that sort of weekly event together and getting good at it; there’s probably some percentage of them that would end up great.
RC: So 23 years you’ve been doing this now, why do you keep doing it? What’s great about the industry? Why do you love your job?
HS: Well, there’s a particular thing I love about games. It’s an exploration thing. It’s being able to face and master monsters, and I think that’s somehow part of my psychology that I like that. I get a thrill out that. And games are just fun the way sports are fun or reading escapist fiction is fun, and now they’re capable of doing even more. You play Braid and it haunts you the way a particular poem haunted you the first time you encountered it. You keep thinking about it.
Lately I've been playing and commenting on Prey - Raphael's game, made with Ricardo Bare and the Arkane team in Austin. It is a very powerful experience for me, and lots of fun.