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Arkane's Smith On Industry Problems, Future Hopes

Arkane's Harvey Smith is noted for his work on games such as Deus Ex, and he spoke at last week's Austin GDC about the "deep problems" inherent in the game industry, but amazing opportunities -- such as the iPhone or social gaming -- for up-and-com

Brandon Sheffield, Contributor

September 23, 2008

5 Min Read

"How can you call [game developers] the luckiest people alive?" posed Arkane's Harvey Smith. After all, Austin alone has seen a lot of layoffs in recent days, and lately, small studio closures have been the norm. Though the former Ion Storm and Midway designer (Deus Ex, Blacksite: Area 51) did discuss some of the downsides of the industry, he preferred to focus on the reasons why the students in attendance are making the right choice by entering game development. In Smith's AGDC educational keynote, titled "Luckiest People Alive," he proposed that despite some difficulties, game developers are in a fantastic position, and that the industry is a great one to enter. Smith began in QA and rose to production. His current company, Arkane, as Gamasutra reported last week, is working both on an immersive first-person RPG and a side project -- a casual strategy game for the iPhone. "The game industry has deep problems," Smith acknowledged, "problems that we can’t surmount in the next few years.” He added that the traditional publishing model has significant flaws, proposing that "It seems like that industry is partially collapsing under its own weight." So then, what makes a room full of development hopefuls so "lucky?" "I can tell you that spending your life energy on something that you love is absolutely a great way to live," said Smith. "Until you’ve done it a long time, you don’t look back on it and realize how meaningful it is to be working on something that you love -- working with people you respect on something with meaning." One of the reasons the game industry is so exciting, Smith said, is that the rules, techniques, and models are still being created. "You can go to school and learn to be a documentary filmmaker –- the vernacular of film is very established. But relatively speaking, we’re still in the stone ages. Games are still very much being forged. If you get involved today, you get into a medium that’s still being forged. And that’s great. There’s still potential to feel like a pioneer in games." "I feel like I would be remiss if I didn’t say you’re doing the right thing," Smith added. "If you’ve taken the right steps, I say bravo. I’m here to validate –- I took the same steps 15 years ago, and it changed my life, so I would never discourage anyone from joining this industry." Why Now? Games are everywhere now, on planes, in peoples’ pockets, and in their homes. The entire world is wired, and there are developers scattered across the planet, which means game developers have the potential to introduce their individual cultures to others. "Not all games are made in Silicon Valley anymore," he noted. "The fact that there are people in Kiev making games is amazing, their mythology is different from ours. The tools and techniques have been democratized to the point where there are pockets of game developers all over the world, and that will influence how you work when you enter this industry." In terms of the future, Smith thinks the iPhone App Store is a great platform. "It’s going to influence your design ideas," he said, as well as how much developers charge for games, and how long they are. "Steam," Smith added, "is just absolutely one of my favorite things in the world. Boy, have we felt trapped by retailers for the longest time. You only get a game on the shelves for a short time, and then you have to move it because, say, Halo 4 is coming out." The social aspect of games is another reason why this is a good time to enter the industry, according to Smith. Things have evolved to where someone sent his girlfriend a package in Viva Piñata with a note saying "will you marry me," and she sent a package back saying "yes." There’s also been innovation in usability. "If you look at the difference in usability from now to fifteen years ago, it is tremendous," Smith said. "Through your design decisions, you can increase the depth of the game, and reduce the surface complexity." To illustrate, he used Thatgamecompany’s flOw as an example, where at any time you can adjust the difficulty level by moving up or down in the field of play. "You find your comfort level," he said. Advice For the students and aspirational future game industry members, Smith had this advice -- embrace changes to the medium. "Use those changes to push games forward," he said. "You can sit down and take any single thing -– as an example, I wasn’t really into Gears of War, but a lot of my friends are. I heard that the team did something new with reloading, and I was like ‘wow, we’ve been making shooters for so long, and they did something new with it?’" Things people take for granted in games are a great place to start improving. Making games isn’t like writing a book or playing music, he cautioned. Games are obviously far more interactive, but also "…you’re not creating your masterpiece, you’re creating a space where a player is going to forge their own. You’re giving them the space to be a star, giving them a space to be the hero.” New industry members should also embrace constraints. “We want to dream big, it’s kind of part of being an innovator,” he said, and this also means one generally wants to rail against constraints. "But really great work is often done by people who work with their constraints." Infinity Ward, for instance, says, “good means polished.” Final Words "Always remember that play is ancient," Smith advised. "Play has nothing to do with the game industry. We were playing games as a species before we were painting on cave walls." "Of all the art forms, is gameplay one of the oldest? Certainly. Realize how lucky you are to participate in this in any way shape or form." Smith’s encouraging lecture ended with an inspirational quote from Warren Spector: "Don’t settle. There’s too much settling. Dare to dream of doing great things. Find the moment of magic you can introduce into a game, regardless of your role."

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About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield


Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

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