INTERVIEW: Harvey Smith (Game Designer)

June 2, 2006 — 2 Comments

Harvey Smith is one of those really “Big Thinker” designers. He’s someone I really respect, and at the Game Developers Conference 2006 he entered a fun design competition run by Eric Zimmerman, where leading game designers have to pitch a game design (in only 5 minutes) that’s based on a really difficult subject. 2005 was the “Life and Works of Emily Dickinson“, for 2006 it was designing “A Game to Win the Nobel Peace Prize.” (Not easy.)
He had damn good competition with people like Cliff Bleszinski (CliffyB – The Gears of War Designer) from Epic, and Keita Takahashi (the Katamari Damacy designer). Harvey won, taking the crown from Will Wright the winner for 2005.

What games has he worked on?… Some amazing, award winning games that sit proudly on my game shelf… Wing Commander, Ultima VIII: Pagan, CyberMage, System Shock, Deus Ex: Invisible War, Thief: Deadly Shadows and Area 51.

DP: Looking at your career biography it looks like you got into the design side of the video games industry by working your way up from Quality Assurance. Is this an effective/easy route in for potential designers? Are there any other routes you wish you had taken into games design? (The reason we ask is because many of readers really want to know “How the HECK do you get your foot in the door these days when all the adverts say that experience is required?”)

Every person’s path is a little different. It may be that the industry has stabilized to the point where there are some established entryways into game development. To say that I “worked my way up from QA,” is only half the story.

I am of the generation that came of age with interactivity in hand. I grew up with ‘pick your own path’ books, home video game consoles, 7-11 arcades, and late-night D&D games. From a young age forward (around 11 or so), I was writing short stories, talking about what video games I’d like to see created, working up fictional fantasy universes and experimenting with my own (very derivative) paper RPG rules. My family could never afford a computer, so I did not get one until I left home and got a job. (It’s good to see that people are now making some small efforts to redress the power/learning imbalance between those who have access to technology and those who do not.)

When I started thinking about video game design as a profession, I was in a position to move to Austin, where Origin was located. By that point, I had played a zillion computer games, sold some fantasy-based fiction, still designed and ran paper RPG campaigns. In some ways, I was an ideal candidate for the QA department. However, I wanted to be a game designer. I started hanging out at Origin functions-I played on the softball team, I played in an ongoing Shadowrun RPG campaign held weekly in one of the Origin conference rooms and, eventually, I even jumped out of a plane with a group of employees that Richard Garriott took skydiving. All to no avail… my efforts failed utterly to get me into the company. Then, after 6 months of doing this sort of thing (all while unemployed), I responded to an ad Origin had placed in the Austin newspaper for game testers. I was hired immediately, making $7 an hour. (Some people from Origin already thought I was an employee by that point…)

QA, as it turned out, was a far better place for me to start. I’m actually thankful that I didn’t get the entry-level designer position initially. By working as a tester for roughly 14 months, I learned a tremendous amount, cycling through the end of multiple projects and working with just about everyone at the company. During that period, I was lucky enough to work under Origin exec Kay Gilmore, who gave me latitudes that matched my passion, energy and ambition. I owe an enormous debt to Richard Garriot, Warren Spector, Doug Church and numerous other people who were working with Origin at the time. I was frequently around those people for short, but intense periods, soaking up their differing approaches, styles and skill sets. (Think about the opportunity implied there.) I was very fortunate–my own tenacity and love for games met with their experience and generosity in such positive ways. QA is sort of a fast-paced, epicenter for the final phases of the development cycle. I highly recommend it to all potential game designers.

DP: If I were to apply for a games design job, what is the best way of showing potential employers that I have the required talent to design amazing games? (How should I present myself and my talent?)

The definition of “game design” seems fairly muddled in the minds of many people. Due to the legacy of the industry-namely that games were once created exclusively by programmers and, later, programmers working with artists–I think it’s hard for most companies to justify paying “game designers.”

Today teams are made up of talented programmers, artists, map builders, writers, audio engineers, musicians, software testers, producers and directors. And, whether most people in the business want to admit it or not, the Plan at the average studio involves the assumption that someone who fills one of those roles will also understand (and possess the ability to generate and balance) systems related to the rules of the game-scoring, advancement, difficulty increase, reward, feedback, et al.

To be fair, this mostly works. Some of the best programmers I’ve worked with are also really good game designers. But many of the programmers and artists we interview seem mostly skilled in areas related to software engineering and graphics generation. As such, we are super enthusiastic when someone in an interview shows a really powerful grasp of game design in addition to demonstrating strength in their respective disciple (code, art, maps, sound or whatever else we’re looking for.)

So, to cut to the point, the best way to get a game design job is to be really good at something else (that is critical to the project), like map building or programming, and also show that you understand game design. Sad, isn’t it?

DP: As games are getting increasingly and more complex, what are the various kinds of ‘design’ job that you foresee companies needing in the next 5 years?

(This heavily relates to the previous question about looking for talent in “game design” roles, so I’m sort of cheating and continuing the theme of that answer here.)

What type of team you need depends heavily on the game you’re making. If I were staffing up for a realistic racing simulation, I’d want the best programmers, artists and audio engineers in the business, a really experienced producer, plus maybe a NASCAR consultant, and I’d worry a lot less about everyone else. At this point in time, I would probably not hire a “game designer” for a realistic racing sim, at least not in the same sense that Deus Ex required game designers. On the other hand, if I were about to start working on a massively multiplayer RPG, I’d definitely want someone whose fulltime job was to analyze the game world’s economics, character progression, environmental resource system, the ecology of the world, etc.

Often in the past few years a programmer or artist critical to the project would say to the producer, “We don’t need a game designer; we can handle all that stuff.” Not everyone does this. Some companies have been putting increasing emphasis on game design as a distinct discipline. I think projects (and companies) that do this will start to emerge as dominant forces in the coming years. Last year, there were some games that featured the next step in graphics and technology features, yet were entirely boring from a gameplay standpoint. By contrast, last year there were several games with dated graphics and technology that were a lot of fun because of the gameplay. Look at the Sims, for instance: Nothing revolutionary in the way of graphics (though the project had nice art direction), but a phenomenal piece of entertainment software because of the novel gameplay and the simple (yet fascinating) needs-based character behavior.

I think the near future will be much the same as the present-people staffing game teams will look for developers who are strong in a critical discipline (like “writing,” on an RPG, for instance), who also have some specialized talent or skill (like a really good grasp of resource economies) that adds to the team. And, as time passes, these value-added specialized skills will become increasingly valuable. Right now, many of the people who rise up to direct projects from the ‘in the trenches’ ranks of programmer, associate producer, map builder (or, hell, even tester) are people who understand the ‘game’ part of the project better than anyone else. Maybe in the future more teams will feature people solely dedicated to game mechanics.

DP: Some of our readers are young and still in school/college… What classes/degrees do you think help hone the best chances at excelling in the video game design field?

As a drop-out, I’m probably not qualified to answer this, but here goes: Programmers should get a CS degree, artists should get degrees related to tradition and high-tech art generation, designers should play so many games they flunk out. (Kidding, mostly.) Extra stuff like economics, comparative media studies and emergent behavior couldn’t hurt.

DP: What specific talent/skill/ability/mindset do you feel a good game designer needs?

A love of games, a degree of creativity, the ability to apply logic and an aptitude for deconstructing and analyzing things.

DP: Do you use any particular software or hardware or tools in your job that I could benefit from learning myself? (I heard that in Japan they use LEGO bricks to design their 3D levels?)

We used a knock-off brand of Lego type toys to work out the sports-arena-like maps we built for FireTeam. This was useful for thinking about view-cones and occlusion, plus for setting up maps that allowed players to think tactically. Maybe it was actually Lego? I can’t remember.

Everyone on the team these days should have a passing understand of fencing, baking, basket-weaving? Oh, wait, that’s only if you’re working on an Ultima. I meant to say that it doesn’t hurt if everyone is familiar with tools like Photoshop, a 3D rendering program like Maya, LightWave or 3DS Max, some audio program like SoundForge, the basics of compilers (and SourceSafe type tools) and editors like UnrealEd or QRadiant. It generally helps to be at least partially fluent in the language of everyone else on the team.

DP: When designing a game, where do you start? An idea, a story, a character, a theme, a hook, a license, finding money, clearing your calendar?

There are numerous answers that come to mind here, but the only one that rings true on a personal level is this: I get an idea that I find interesting. I think about it until I feel creative pride in some aspect of the concept. This compels me to starting writing things down and trying to make the various aspects of the concept play off one another. Later, in my excitement, I tell other people about the idea, which has, in the past, equated to recruiting team members and getting funding.

DP: When designing a game, how much do you REALLY have to think about any issues that could create negative publicity or restrict sales – like violence, nudity or sexism?

I have little respect for the objectivity or intelligence behind much of the “thinking” people have done vis-à-vis video games and violence. People have always been violent. People often react negatively to new media. People usually look for a ‘silver bullet’ simple answer to explain away things that disturb them. Most of the studies I’ve seen tend to confuse “aggressive play” with “the desire to hurt.”

After watching Sinbad movies as kids, my brother and I would wrestle on the carpet or have mock sword-fights with sticks. We never confused this with the intent to harm one another. Concurrent with the last round of violent-event sparked video game censorship talks in the US, the news agencies were saying that the violent crime level was lower than it had been in years; the murder rate was lower than it had been in decades.

That said, violence in and of itself is not interesting to me. It’s not at the heart of my goals as a game designer, nor do I think it’s necessary for good, commercially viable games. (Last year, Pokemon Snap was one of my favorite games.) Whenever I feel like the game (or simulator) we’re working on needs tension, I will use violence if it feels appropriate. Just like the creators of a novel or movie would.

DP: How long does it take to design a game from initial concept to full design spec ready for programming and graphics – how long was it for Deus Ex? (Many of our readers would like to know what “doing the design” really is… Meaning what are the documents you need… Like what is a design document & what is a technical design document?)

God, what a question. If I didn’t feel like cheesing out, this would take all day to answer. Deus Ex took something like 2.5 years to make, I think.

With regard to docs: In almost all cases, the development team and the producer eventually put together a tech plan (talking about programming solutions to all “problems” or design features), design doc (often an HTML site on the local network that covers all aspects of the gameplay and fiction), schedule and resource/staffing plan. This is often submitted to some form of review agency (like a special approval board assembled by the publisher). This board makes recommendations to people higher up the chain that dictate budgetary spending. After approval, the team (or, more likely, a small subset of the team) begins to flesh out the nascent game idea with design docs, technology prototypes and art direction concept work.

DP: In your opinion, what makes a really good games design – any particular examples?

That’s a highly subjective issue, but my own preferences revolve around games that immerse me in another place, let me plan out my tactical or strategic actions (even if in the blink of an eye), allow me to impact the environment in predictable (or strategic ways), allow me to create something and feature an interesting environmental simulation or ecology.

DP: What game do you wish you had designed yourself? Would you change anything about it?

There are many, many game projects on which I wish I’d been privileged enough to work. To name something specific, I wish I had worked on Dungeon Master.

DP: The games industry is growing all the time, with more specific job titles being created. Do you see more opportunities for writers? What do you think a director/writer/storyboard artist needs to know before throwing themselves into the video game business?

I see fewer opportunities for writers. Especially given the speculation that MMPOG’s and other multiplayer games are going to continue to grow in numbers. Also, more designers are going to want to feature ’emergent’ gameplay over pre-scripted stuff as time passes. And, eventually, game entities will be intelligent enough to analyze the player and the environment, then generate their own conversations (and bring them to life with speech synthesis).

A storyboard artist should always try to understand technical constraints (like poly count) before embarking on a project.

DP: Do you see the next generation of consoles and PCs with their amazing processing power as a benefit or distraction to game designers? Surely all those new engines that absorb most of the development time do nothing but steal time that could be spent on balance/gameplay?

New power means higher complexity of detail, which means more time involved in creating game assets. However, more power also means better tools, which means less time involved in creating game assets. As others have pointed out to me, over the years the cost of a PC game not changed much at the retail store, but the cost of development has climbed dramatically, making it harder to profit in the PC market.

As to the last part of the question, I see the point about the focus on “better graphics” robbing from other considerations, but new technologies also allow for new designs and for better games (if the technology is used effectively). For instance, now that Deus Ex characters can be skeletally animated (instead of key-frame animated), the next game can feature many more animations per character. Plus we can use the skeletal animation system for all sorts of cool tricks. (The game Hitman allowed players to drag unconscious, inert characters recently, for instance, courtesy of skeletal animation.) And the more realistic an environment looks and sounds, the easier it might be to make that environment immersive.

DP: Do you know of any really good books, magazines or websites on games design that I could look into? What websites do you visit every day? What search engine do you use?

Witchboy’s Cauldron and Planet Deus Ex, of course. (Heh.) I use Google, which our art director Whitney Ayres pointed out to me one day. It just seems faster. I search for whatever I want using arguments. I even self-diagnose any medical problems I have using Google. (I haven’t had to go to the doctor for a while now.)

DP: In your opinion, what do you think a newbie could earn (total package) as a video game designer in the United States. (Start from intern through to an award winning/industry respected designer?)

Nothing more valuable than knowledge, camaraderie and creative fulfillment.

DP: If I was to interview with you, what terrible game design would I have to show you to make you just fall asleep in your chair. (What is an automatic turn-off these days?)

Following the wisdom of some of my mentors in the design field, I like designers who can tell me why they’re interested in minimizing pre-scripted events, putting the player in charge and deepening the simulation or environment in interesting ways.

DP: Thanks Harvey!

You can find out more about Harvey Smith here:




2 responses to INTERVIEW: Harvey Smith (Game Designer)


    Testing is not well paid, generally minimum wage upwards depending on the company. Larger publishers tend to pay more. It’s a great job for people that don’t need to support a family that can afford the time to build respect and relationships inside a publishing company. Some enjoy it so much they stick to it full time, others quite often leap their way up the ladder and end up producing or designing games.


    I have always loved my video games but when i turn around and realize thats what i wanted to do it was too late ive only just passed my 21st Birthday but it seems too late to start. Any tips or anything that will put me on the right track???

Leave a Reply