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Arkane Austin's Harvey Smith on immersive sims

A brief video game history lesson with the studio director at Arkane Austin.

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Fun & Serious Game Festival last month was going to have an immersive sim flavour with the presence of legendary designers Warren Spector and Harvey Smith, and as we talked with the latter in the interview below, we wanted to learn about the origins of the genre from his perspective. Smith's answer is both a humble recognition to other designers and a little look back at video games history.


"You know, it's funny because I've been in games like 27 years now and in some ways, I still feel like the new guy who's learning things," Smith says when asked if he considers himself a precursor to immersive sims. "I'm insecure about my role and about the impostor syndrome. 'Am I worthwhile?', in the games we work on as a team. And all the fan validation is very powerful and is helping me heal or grow overtime as a person, creative people often say that."

"So I don't feel the precursor to anything because I remember the people I learnt from," Arkane Studios Austin director points out before acknowledging those mentors. "I had the privilege of working with Warren [Spector] and Richard Garriott in Looking Glass Studios. With Doug Church, Marc LeBlanc, Rob Fermier, Art Min, and all these other guys, all these other people that were influential in some way. Their viewpoint on narrative, on gameplay, on places, spaces and level design, on player experience... It shaped me, so to me they are the precursors of me, and maybe I'm the precursor to some other developer, I hope, a good influence".

"But it's a group effort", Smith continues, "the whole team collaborates and some of the best ideas, some of the things you remember the most, it might have been suggested by the audio guy or by a quality assurance person who's playing the game. So it's a long lineage of people, it goes back before video games of course. For thousands of years people have been making formal games and play is probably one of the oldest experiences, it probably pre-dates language, and so it's crazy to think how much time and history have happened just since the first video game".

"Some of the best ideas might have been suggested by the audio guy or by a quality assurance person"

"As a child I remember playing Atari 2600 games like Pong," Smith recalls when looking back at video games history, "and then the coin ups when I was 10 years old in the grocery store. And then all the pen-and-paper RPGs, all the D&D and stuff like that. And that is all a really short window of time, historically speaking. Somebody told me once that it took 100 years for photography to be considered an art, and video games not only they are just like a blip, but imagine if, even photography did not change that much in all this time, like yes, it was black and white at first, you had to stand still for a long time, yes, people posed with their dead ones, which is something crazy to think about, so culturally it's changed but in reality it's capturing an image, and now it's colourful and you can do video".

"But video games have changed from being a black screen with two white paddles to being like Red Dead Redemption," Smith compares, "where you're riding a horse under a storm and shooting at a rabbit that you're going to skin and cook. The degree of change and breadth in video games is huge; you can be talking about a game like Shadow of Mordor with the Nemesis System and going deep on that, or you can be talking about The Sims, or a roller-coaster simulator. The game I've been playing more than anything right now is a card game called Pirate Outlaws and it's a Slay the Spire-like game and it is just so deep, and you just keep understanding it at a deeper level even though it's very focused. And I'm also looking forward to playing Deathloop by the guys in [Arkane] Lyon, Watch Dogs: Legion, and there are constantly games of all different kinds coming out, and evolving in all these interesting ways. It's almost humbling just to be a part of it anyway."

How do you feel about immersive sims and the evolution of video games? Leave a comment below.

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