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SXSW: Counter-intuitive Creative Design with Harvey Smith

Harvey Smith, Creative Director at Midway Studios Austin, took the stage at SXSW to offer his experience in creative direction and a counter-intuitive "hands-off" approach to creative design.

March 16, 2006

9 Min Read

Author: by N. Evan Van Zelfden

“The idea behind this is...” began Harvey Smith, Creative Director for Midway Studios Austin, at a panel during SXSW Screenburn, “...after thirteen years in the game industry, roughly fifteen months ago I switched into a role where I'm creative director over two (technically three) projects.”

“It's been a huge transition, a much bigger transition than I would have thought.” Before this, Smith built levels and maps for games, set AI properties for characters and monsters in games, and set up game systems. “I was very much hands on.”

“Always did some leadership stuff too,” acknowledges Smith, “but all of the sudden I'm working on three projects where I don't have time to do all that. I don't really want to do all that as much, anymore. I really struggled with it, initially. I guess everyone goes through this at some point. I hated it at first. I felt uncomfortable. I felt like I wasn't doing any work. Felt like I was getting paid to come to work and not put my hands on something, and change it.”

About six months into it, it started to feel good. “I started to hear the guys I was working with, I started to hear them say things in meetings that I'd told them, and you know, I just kept my mouth shut. And everything started to run on autopilot, and I began to understand my job.”

Smith said that each time he experiences a major transition in the game industry, he begins to put together his thoughts on it. “This is like first wave of me understanding that job.” In the past, Smith worked at Origin, at a start-up called Multitude out in the bay area, and worked at Ion Storm (the Austin office, not the Dallas office). He's worked with a lot of smaller companies, here and there. He worked as a third-party associate producer for a while where he got to work with a lot of tiny developers, which he cites as a learning experience, “But I don't list those companies because it was six months here, six months there.”

“I believe in creative process.” Smith states, emphatically. “I don't believe creativity is some wild no man's land. I think it's something that can be de-constructed. I think you can come up with practical techniques. I think you can develop a shared vocabulary and then communicate with the people around you and upgrade them and they can upgrade you."

Like one of his early mentors, Doug Church, Smith also believes in the value of a shared game design vocabulary: “It's getting there now, but thirteen years ago when people sat down to talk about what made a game fun or not, it was really hilarious. It was like watching drunk people at a party try to explain some sort of important life experience to one other. It just didn't work.”

“I very much believe in mentoring.” Smith adds. “The game industry, especially when I got into it, it wasn't like there was a class you could take to learn what you need to learn.” He points out there are classes now; he recently spoke at Full Sail University and was very impressed. He also points out “The person you're going to get the best information from is often down the hall, or down the street. The person in the trench, doing your job. One of the best things is having access to someone who will spend time helping you solve your problems.”

The game design is a nascent industry. Film has been around for a long time, and there are books on the subject and courses. There is establishment when it comes to other creative media. “Games, we're still coming out of the dark woods.” Smith says. “Game designers are struggling with innovation vs. genre: ‘How important is innovation? Is it important to innovate every single time, every single way? Is it acceptable to make a game that fits into the model of a game that was a hit last year, but take one little element, take ten percent of the game and innovate, is that okay?'”

Now, you're ending up with people who've spent years thinking about this. “At Midway, our studio (Austin), and the Seattle studio, and the Chicago studio, we get together for these quarterly meetings where the creative directors get together with the lead designers and other types like that, and we're just like ‘Oh my God, how did you solve this problem?' It's still an emerging role; we're still figuring it out.”

But what does Creative Director even mean? Is it just Lead Designer with a fancy title? “Creative direction is not the same thing as game design.” Smith states, “It's not really creative dictatorship. It doesn't mean that when you become creative director you just get to say ‘make it like this.' It's not content creation in the sense that some of my old jobs were.”

“And while I was frustrated with it initially,” he admits, “I find that it's influential on the final outcome. As we get close to our next milestone, I look back on this milestone and I didn't touch 90% of the game. But the 10% I did touch is very important.”

Smith thinks that a creative director establishes creative values for the company. “Establishment of specific project goals is important. When you set out to make a game you can't – trust me I've tried – do every single thing better than everyone else who's ever made a game. You're better off trying to hit the minimum mark in a bunch of different places, and hitting a couple of areas to innovate and push.”

And also, Smith believes in mentoring lead designers. “It's a huge part of my job. I think framing concepts is a huge thing. Framing the concepts so it's as pure as possible. And then providing the designers with an objective eye.” Smith explains, “What happens over and over is they come up with an idea, get really close to something, they're down in the trenches, they're working very hard on it, they love it. And they've lost all objectivity on whether it's a good idea whether it fits within the overall frame, whether it's been done to death. You kind of need a guy who's not part of the team, to act as sounding board.”

You need different levels of objective analysis going on in the same building. “And mainly, I feel like you're heavily influencing things, but indirectly. You're working in parallel through your teams. You get to a point where your company wants to spread you around. You're very valuable to the company because you've been around for thirteen or fifteen years. But there's too much work for you to do one-on-one. You can no longer afford to go into your office and shut the door. You'd be highly inefficient if you did that, based on your seniority and there's an opportunity cost to that. You're not proving as valuable as you could if you were interacting with larger numbers of people, setting their values every day, and setting their goals. So it's all about working in parallel, through your teams.”

Which means there is a layer of abstraction between creative director and the teams. “I don't get to touch the game.” says Smith. “But I do touch the game indirectly, through all of them.”

“So, here's a heretical concept, or it's a total common-sense concept, based on your views.” Smith said. “Creative directors shouldn't attend most design meetings.”

He then explains, “I realized that about a year ago. I'd go to a meeting. I'd polarize people, because now they're not just arguing with their peers. They're arguing with the guy who gets the final decision. That changes people, psychologically. Further, I fall in love with the idea that came out of my mouth. Who's going to be objective about it? Who's going to later look at it and sort of test it? Assumably, since I'm the creative director, it's going to be hard for some junior guy to challenge me. He's free to do so, but I'll probably persuade him to go my way. By not going to the meetings, I can stay objective. I don't polarize people. Allow them to go away and come to their best conclusion. And then I look at it, and tweak the final ten percent on it.”

“The first thing you do is write your values on the wall,” Smith states. “Here's what we're into. ‘We don't teach the player by death.' At Midway Studios Austin, we have this big bible of high concepts. We have literally written down our values, and when designers are in arguments, we often tell them, ‘Is there a principle you can fall back on? You guys are arguing this one very specific point, but is there a larger principle at work here? '”

Once you do that, you must over-communicate those values. “My job is to just talk, talk, talk about principles and values, and goals, and things like that. That's how I see creative direction. And I think it makes me more powerful, more influential over a project. It took me a while to get used to this. It didn't feel as hands on, it didn't feel as direct. And as a result, it didn't feel as powerful. Over time, I began to see the influence, over time, across the entire studio, over multiple projects.”

Smith then states the epiphany. “And I realized, ‘Wow. If I was in that guy's office every day, working on his maps, I could influence one thing. But the way it's working now, I'm influencing a lot more by establishing values.' I believe you've succeeded when your creative team can act successfully without you.”

Smith closed his spirited talk by informing the audience that this was preparation for his GDC roundtable entitled "Counter-intuitive Creative Direction", on Friday, March 24th. “So, if you wanted to come to that, if you disagreed with some of the points, you could argue with me in that environment.” We'll see you there, Mr. Smith.



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