Q&A: Invisible War's Harvey Smith
A refreshingly candid Smith delves into the reasons behind his departure from Ion Storm.
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He still has the face of a kid, but Harvey Smith is one of the industy's most prominent, widely respected, and hardest-working game design veterans around. Today, news of his departure from ION Storm/Austin started circulating on the Web. While the news had been known among a cadre of industy insiders over the past days, Smith went public only this morning, confirming to GameSpot and others that his alliance with Ion Storm, and with that company's even more storied studio director, Warren Spector, was over.
Smith has worked with a passel of industry legends including Richard Garriott, Chris Roberts, Edward Lerner, Art Min, Rob Fermier, Marc LeBlanc, and Doug Church and has worked at highly regarded game studios including Looking Glass, Multitude, Origin, and, most recently, Ion Storm/Austin.
We spoke with Harvey Smith shortly before the news was made public.
GameSpot: How long has the move been in the works?
Harvey Smith: I've loved working at Ion, but off and on over the years, I've expressed interest in stepping out on my own. I've wanted to apply what I know to some new endeavor for a long time. But, really, I just stepped away with literally nothing in the works. Unlike a lot of people, I took a leap of faith. Very scary, but as soon as I recognized that I was afraid, I had to do it. I just walked away from people I love, a professional role I loved, great pay, a good publisher, and some interesting future Ion/Eidos projects. Kind of freaky, really.
GS: As you make this leap of faith, what do you bring with you from your experience at ION Storm? What skills did you pick up?
HS: I would love to rant to you about how the last few years have changed my life. I resumed working with Warren Spector almost six years ago. I was in love with games, an "overcommunicator," totally into designing game systems and mechanics, a small-teams leader, and a hard-working level designer. I was also driven largely by anger, and my health was more or less falling apart.
GS: Falling apart? Explain.
HS: About four years ago, I started working on myself as a project: I started working out (and dropped 30 pounds), I went into psychotherapy, and I started absorbing as much information as possible related to leadership, communications, game design, and project management--and advanced on physical, spiritual, and intellectual fronts. Finally dealing with a bunch of my angers allowed me to adopt a more healthy attitude toward the very smart people around me who were willing to act as mentors. At first, these relationships were inhibited somewhat by the fact that trying to coach me was like trying to massage a rabid badger. Let's just say that Warren is the most patient man on the planet.
To make a long story short, I got serious about upping my game. Eventually, I got to the point where it turned me on just to see other people succeed. I'm happier now, and I expend my energy in much more efficient ways. I have much better relationships, creatively, socially, and professionally. And all these things will be called upon in my new venture.
GS: Ah, the new venture. What is it? What's next, Harvey?
HS: I can't go into details right now, but I have a bunch of very strong opinions about the future of games, of developer-publisher relations, and about independent development. I have goals related to people/culture, game design--of course--and I have an interesting business angle I am discussing with advisers and other developers. But, first and foremost, I believe that success revolves almost entirely around positive personal relationships: helping each other win, developing team culture, surrounding yourself with smarter people, and challenging one another to something greater than you can achieve individually. My best moments in gaming come from these situations; the best work I've done comes from swinging for the fence, for trying to change the world, and from working with people who believed that what they were doing was the coolest thing ever.
GS: Given that you've spent your entire career at either Looking Glass or Ion Storm/Austin, isn't it a bit daunting to cut the ties?
HS: Well, I worked for Origin--where I met Richard Garriott, Warren Spector, and Chris Roberts...all great people. Also, while there, I was fortunate enough to interact with Doug Church and some of the Looking Glass people. That was a life-changing time for me. Those guys were so smart, so fun...Looking Glass rocked. After that, I moved from Austin to the Bay Area to work with a startup called Multitude. Edward "Ned" Lerner, one of the founders of Looking Glass, had founded Multitude with Art Min, a wonderful human being, leader, and game designer. We made a game called FireTeam that--while not a huge financial success--was innovative and cool. I'm superproud to this day of what we did with FireTeam. Multitude was like "game mechanics boot camp." I got to work again, off and on, with Rob Fermier, Marc LeBlanc, Doug Church, and, of course, Ned and Art. It was a small company (initially), and we had a blast. We all learned a lot too. When FireTeam hit beta, I moved back to Austin to work with Warren on Deus Ex. I was at Ion Storm for almost six years--an amazing time in my life. So, yes, it's daunting to walk away from all that; some of my best friends are at Ion, some of my mentors and some of the smartest, most passionate people I know. I would stand shoulder to shoulder with them any day if they really needed me.
GS: Is your future in games, or are you considering a different medium, a different vocation?
HS: I've been very tempted to go back to school. I would love to finish my lit/creative writing degree. I'd love to get a psych degree. But, to be honest, the siren call of my current dream is nearly overpowering. I love games and game teams. I love the culture of game design. So, unless I'm wrong, I'll be doing something interesting very soon.
GS: How have you spent this past week, Harvey? Wrapped up in a good book, trolling Craig's List, hanging back at the gym?
HS: Ha. Running around in cutoffs in the backyard, climbing trees all day, and drinking out of a garden hose. OK, I wish. Actually it's been superbusy and very challenging. The caliber of advisers I have right now is humbling. I've been talking to people who have been in games or business for decades. I had breakfast with Richard Garriott recently, brunch with Starr Long this weekend, plus I've been talking to people from outside the games industry. There are some supersmart people out there. Some of them are friends, and some of them were strangers before GDC. A common thread that is emerging is this: The best people want you to succeed whether they benefit or not. The best people are willing to share simply because it excites them to see another person exercise passion--it excites them to see another person grow. Really, the amount of data I'm dealing with is scintillating, intellectually.
GS: Were you pleased with the critical reception Invisible War received from the game press?
HS: I have mixed feelings. I'd rate Deus Ex a 90 percent game. I love it, but I think it's overrated somewhat. I absolutely love Invisible War, too, but it has a different set of strengths and weaknesses. I might rate it as an 85 percent game--it accomplishes a lot but lacks polish in some ways, much like the first game. I wish we had not attempted to create our own tech from scratch, and I wish I had been better prepared for the move from lead designer to project director. I take full responsibility for these things. But we finished the game, and I love it. Of course, it could have been better, and next time it will be. It's still what I consider a great game. I still have fun playing the game. I think it allows the user to play improvisationally, which is tremendously important to me. I hope that people who haven't played it will go out and get the patch PC version (1.2), which will at times rock their socks off, or the Xbox version.
GS: Is there a connection between what you were able to accomplish (or what you were prevented from accomplishing) on Invisible War and the departure?
HS: No, absolutely not. Our success with Invisible War is related to the teams at Ion Storm and Eidos. Any problems the game suffers are mostly my fault, due to inexperience or overambition. Like I've said, I love both Deus Ex and Invisible War, because of their strengths and despite their weaknesses. I left Ion Storm on great terms. I love the place, including the new GM, who is really going to facilitate the creative drive there. I walked away for one reason: to follow a dream, even if it involves walking a dangerous path.
GS: What role did you play on the Thief 3 team?
HS: Toward the end they asked me to head up a strike team working on Garrett's movement. Over the course of a month or two, that team kicked ass; the movement feels a lot better now, in first-person and third-person. Thief 3--or Thief: Deadly Shadows, as it's called--is a beautiful game. My good friend Sergio Rosas is the art director. Another good friend, Jordan Thomas, is the lead designer. (He plays in my gaming group.) And, of course, my ultratalented friend Randy Smith was the project director for three years. The technology we created at Ion Storm is much more mature now, so Thief will benefit from that, as well. It's in beta right now, I believe. Hopefully, they will polish it up, and people will love it. Some of the missions are sublime.
GS: Is your new gig an indie play, or are you bound to ally with a deep-pocketed developer or publisher?
HS: I see four possible futures in front of me. Only one of them involves homelessness, which I suppose is a good thing.