The last time we heard from Harvey Smith, he was publicly picking apart his first (and last) release at Midway, Blacksite: Area 51, a development experience he'd politely described as "so f***ed up." The former Deus Ex lead designer is a happier developer these days at Texas-based Arkane Studios, currently working on a so-far unannounced game.
"It's great to be in a group where everybody is doing this because they love it and the decisions are not so much driven from outside your influence," explained Smith to me during a phone interview last week to talk about his iPhone game, Karma Star. "Everything is very rational and everything is very passion driven, so I can't speak highly enough about how good that is right now."
Smith can't talk much about his work at Arkane, but he's happy to discuss his experience creating Karma Star, a deceptively simple card game-influenced strategy title published with the help of Cooking Mama publisher Majesco Entertainment. Karma Star is better understood through playing, but in a nutshell, each round, players are given a choice between enhancing a personal stat and attacking an enemy. The higher the stat, the better chance an attack has at succeeding. It's a game of trade-offs.
"It's really interesting how much you make it hardcore versus casual," said Smith. "I think it is --- it's unlike anything I've ever worked on before and probably unlike anything I'll work on again. But there was a balance between making it so that the average person could pick it up and play around with it and win a certain percentage of the time, versus something that you really had to learn all the ins and outs of it to maximize your score."
This balance, based on a series of simple mechanics, forced Smith to confront flaws in Karma Star's design head on. With a simpler game design, Smith argued, it becomes exponentially harder to hide flaws behind traditional "smoke and mirrors." In projects with hundreds of elements working together on the screen simultaneously, it's possible to cover design flaws with these elements or simply miss them entirely.
He also appreciated the chance to work with a smaller team.
"We're [Arkane] working on a game that is a much larger scope game that's with an unannounced publisher but it's super, super exciting stuff to me," he said. "But it's many layers of people involved, it's a large art team, it's spread out over multiple parts of our studio -- there's more pressure because it's a higher budget. With Karma Star, we were working with five guys. It was fantastic. It was like traveling back in time."
Working on Karma Star allowed Smith to head back to his roots. As his career has progressed, from being a tester on games like System Shock to a lead designer on Deus Ex and it sequel, he's moved to bigger, more ambitious, longer-to-develop games. These projects are in his blood, but it comes at a price.
"I have so many friends now that have shipped apps or games, where they're just like 'dude, download my app, I made it in three months,'" he said. "So I go check it out and I'm like 'it's interesting' and instead of being a team of 100, I know my friend so-and-so made this and then he moved onto something else. That's cool. And, really, if you're a game developer, you spend X number of years before you go insane and burn out, right? I've been doing this for over 15 years now, which even saying that number to me sounds…it's like, really? It's like when you hear two of your friends have been married for twenty years and you're like, what? No way. That's what it feels like a little bit."
The price of working on these kinds of games, Smith told me, is the ever-increasing possibility of things going wrong. Smith has been on projects that haven't turned out well. Deus Ex: Invisible War was criticized by fans and critics, and his feelings about working with Midway on Area 51: Blacksite were publicly documented. Some of the problems were his own mistakes, some of them were other forces at work, but experiencing these lessons required years of investment.
"When you look at your time [making games]," he sighed, "if these project cycles are three or four years, and if something goes wrong, like something that maybe you f*** up or something that's outside of your control -- either one, right? They both happen. … The lessons that you learn from going through the cycle from beginning to end -- it almost like it doesn't matter how long the cycle is, it's rather hitting the beginning, hitting the middle, hitting the end, negotiating those problems with your team and then shipping something and then evaluating how much you like it or you don't like it or what you like about it and what you don't."
These lessons are exactly why even though he's already back at work at a large-scale, multi-year project, the idea behind iPhone development is so attractive.
"The opportunity to stop and race through that cycle in four months, so that you have another perspective to look at games from, before you tackle your next thing, it really helps to fail and it really helps to succeed," he said. "The more that you can do that the better. I kind of think every other game somebody should knock out [an iPhone game]."
"All the mistakes, all the wins and all the little smart things you do and all the dumb things you do happen in a shorter period of time so you can absorb them," he continued. "I guess some people call unity of effect. If something happens over a long period of time, when the lessons that you're trying to absorb are stretched out over three or four years, it doesn't seem as likely to sink in. You can barely remember what happened a year ago on a project."
Despite this lavished praise for shorter development cycles (and nothing less than an obsession with everything iPhone on his blog), Smith does not seem himself working on another game like this anytime soon. He described Karma Star's creation as purely opportunistic. For the foreseeable future, all of Smith's time will be spent propping up Arkane Studio's mysterious new game.
Karma Star may show up elsewhere. Smith said development started on Microsoft's XNA Game Studio platform before becoming an iPhone endeavor. He's unsure what Majesco plans to do with Karma Star, but he didn't rule out the idea of his little strategy game showing up elsewhere. But if you'd like a taste of Karma Star now, however, it's currently $1.99 on the app store.