The redemption of Derek Smart

Infamous indie developer Derek Smart talks to Polygon about fear, regret and his latest game, Line of Defense.
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Derek Smart is running out of chances.

"Right now, in all of my 14 games I'm nowhere near 10," Smart tells me, referring to the videogame review scale, in which a "perfect" game is considered a 10. "I'm somewhere near a 6 ... but I'm not going to keep trying and keep doing this when I'm 90.

"It just doesn't work that way."

I'm sitting in a hotel room in San Francisco with Smart and his PR handler, just a quarter mile from where the most famous game developers in the world have gathered for the 2012 Game Developers Conference.

Smart is dressed, well, smartly. Nice shoes. Casual, but expensive-looking shirt. Gold jewelry. A self-confessed millionaire, he carries himself with the air of a man who has come into money, but still understands the value of hard work.

On the desk in front of him is a laptop computer running the product of that work: Line of Defense, his latest game.

We are ostensibly in this hotel room to talk about LOD, but during the course of our one-hour interview, we talk more about the man who made it and how this game, running quietly and smoothly on the table in front of us, just might be Derek Smart's last chance at redemption.


Fewer buttons, less thinking

"A lot of people who don't know me, who don't play my games think I've failed and I don't care," Smart says. "When I look at my bank account, I just laugh."

Smart tells me repeatedly how much money he has (a lot). He started his company with $100 dollars in his bank account. Since, he estimates he has made over $100 million. This is both a source of pride for him and a bone of contention. For in spite of how much money he has made, how many games he has sold, how many fans he has won, his ultimate goal has somehow eluded him. He has yet to make a perfect game.

Derek Smart has been making games for over 20 years. He sold his first games in plastic baggies at hobby stores. Yet his longevity is somewhat of an anachronism. Many gamers today don't even know who is is, in spite of the fact that his games have sold well enough to keep his company in business since 1992. And the games themselves, well they're mostly terrible.

Especially his first, Battlecruiser 3000AD.

From the Gamespot review of Smart's first game, Battlecruiser 3000AD:

The game crashes constantly, more than any game I have ever played.

Almost any action you perform will cause the program to go south.

I didn't know what half the functions were or how to use them.

Most of them don't work: going into orbit around a planet, using jump points, navigating to distant star systems, docking, and so on; the list is long.

Objects pass through other objects.

Ships don't do what they're told.

Equipment won't work.

I won't even go into the alleged ground combat mode because I couldn't make heads or tails of it, never got it to work, and haven't been able to find anyone who can even tell me if it's even in the game or not.

Best of all, the campaign can't be played past the second mission, which is structured in such a way that it cannot possibly ever end.

Gamespot's reviewer gave it a 2.6.

Smart himself may have fueled this criticism, over-hyping the game pre-launch, and claiming that it would be the most perfect universe-simulator ever designed. Surely it was intended to be, but owing to lack of experience and lack of time, the game, when it was first released in 1996, was unplayable.

It was also extremely complicated.

"If I fed my dog a set of Scrabble tiles he could have crapped a better manual," Gamespot's Liam McDonald wrote. "There is too much going on in too many places, and none of it is well-crafted. A messy network of screens, pop-up boxes, and function keys make managing even the most rudimentary functions a chore. Nothing is smoothly integrated or intuitive."

Smart has since worked to improve his approach to UI and controlling game mechanics, but in his heart he loves a game that takes a while to master. His games since Battlecruiser 3000AD have also been fairly dense. It’s to the point where "a Derek Smart game" has become synonymous with "impenetrable."

Which is why, for his 15th game, Derek Smart is striving for simplicity; fewer buttons, less thinking.

"You don't need five keys if you can make it work with one key," Smart says. "By the same token, that's also dependent on the game design. For instance, using the C key just to take off in a jet pack, some guy might think 'Well, I don't even have a jetpack, why do I need this C key?' So he presses the C key and nothing happens. But if you were in a fighter and you wanted to take off and if you know that the C key is for anything that flies, you know that it works for the fighters, for the jet pack. So we made it consistent."

Still, in spite of the focus on context-sensitive controls, Line of Defense is a complicated game.

"There are eight different objects in each base, and the eight different locations in each station need to be captured. So if you have your air defense shield, air defense jammer, you need to capture all of those eight points in the base and finally the star base in order for that base to be considered captured. You would think that it would take at least 7 to 10 days."

Smart believes that gamers expecting to be able to jump in and run and gun to victory will be in for a surprise.

"That's not going to work," he says. "Somebody could try doing that, but when they figure out that it's going to take them upwards of 15 minutes of standing in one point [to capture it], they'll really appreciate the purpose of a team player game where you have your team with you."

Players will fight in teams to control various points on planets, capital ships and space stations. Each control point serves a different function. Capturing the air defense point will disable the opposing force's air defenses, for example, allowing your team to bring in players equipped with fighters to begin bombing, which will make it easier to roll in ground vehicles, which will make it easier for infantry to tackle buildings, which can all be entered and explored, leading to building-to-building battles, or battles between buildings. Think of it like an intergalactic Fallujah.

"You either like my games or you hate my games."

"I wanted people to play as a team so when you have eight objectives and one primary, nine to take care of you're going to have one guy jumping from each one, sure he can try but probably die trying," Smart says. "It's all about teamwork."

Smart says that it's this level of complexity that characterizes his games, and what has earned him more than a few critics as games in general have trended toward more simplicity and shorter play styles. Smart still believes that his games are as complex as they need to be; no more and no less. And the critics can just deal with it.

"My space-games have always been complex and because my games are zero or one, there's nothing in between: you either like my games or you hate my games. And the people who like my games keep buying my games so I keep making those games.


The other cheek

Smart says he has made 14 games. Yet, in truth, this is something of a lie by omission. Many of those 14 titles are re-issues, upgrades or gold editions of other games. That's not to say Smart didn't work on each title separately (he did), just that what came out of those 14 separate development sessions can't entirely be considered separate games.

Battlecruiser Millennium, for example, released in 2001 is essentially a reboot of Battlecruiser 3000AD. That game also had two separate releases, Battlecruiser 3000AD in 1996, and Battlecruiser 3000AD 2.0, released in 1999. There was also the "Gold" edition of Battlecruiser Millennium, released in 2003. Smart counts these as four separate games although, truthfully, they are more like two.

In fact, if we're being even more truthful, even the Derek Smart games that are completely different Derek Smart games aren't entirely different Derek Smart games.

All of Smart's games are set in his 3000AD universe, and all feature some form of science fiction combat. Games like Galactic Command (2006) and All Aspect Warfare (2009), may have presented a lighter, more casual side of the Derek Smart game experience, but both have been widely criticized as far too similar (though admittedly more refined) to previous Smart games.

The perfect truth may be that Derek Smart has been making the same game for almost two decades; starting big, then working backward to a scale at which he can accomplish at least some of his goals.

"I don't know my limitations," Smart says. "I always aim high, and if I fall short that's OK because I'm not afraid of failure."

"The person who says 'Turn the other cheek,' never got slapped hard enough."

What he is afraid of is time; more specifically the passing of time, and the possibility that perfection may elude him before his own time has run out.

Smart believes that as a younger game designer he chased perfection too diligently, reaching too high for fear of not getting a second chance should he fail. He says that's something he's been working on.

"One of the things that I think I've learned is that you can still do things in bite-sized chunks and still be successful," he says. "The reason I've made the games I've wanted to make is because I was scared that if I compromised the vision of the game I wanted, I would lose interest in making that game. ... So what I've really learned is that it's ok to be scared ... and it's OK to wonder 'what if you compromise?'"

Some would add (and Smart would agree) that his tendency to overreach has only been part of the problem. The other part has been his ego.

Never one to shy away from hyperbole, Smart has continuously pledged that each new game would be the biggest and best he has ever made. And gamers, never ones to shy away from punishing such audacity, have routinely made Smart the target of their anonymous ire. He’s earned perma-bans from more internet forums than he can count, and the honorary moniker of "most-hated game developer of all time."

"I've taken my knocks," Smart said, "but when I was young I was foolish. I was stupid. I engaged in all that nonsense because it's very hard to turn the other cheek. The person who says 'Turn the other cheek,' never got slapped hard enough."


The fifteenth game

To hear Smart tell it, LOD is both the simplest and most complex game he's ever made. His smallest and yet biggest. His most focused, and his most ambitious. And as with most things Derek Smart has to say, all of these things are true, and also, perhaps, not. Not entirely.

LOD is a massive, multiplayer shooter. Players will join one of two factions and battle for control of star bases, space stations, planets and capital ships. There are a variety of weapons, vehicles and tactics. You can even wing suit jump out of a vehicle, and enter space stations through the airlock.

There is no diplomacy, no resource collection. It's strictly PVP combat. Smart says he's capping the servers at 256 players and concentrating activity into central areas so that players don't have to search for something to do.

Smart shows me the new game maps (which are huge), the new capital ships (also huge) and the various features that Smart hopes will bring his average up closer to 10 (and there are a lot of them). He also shows me the controls, which are designed to be simpler than anything he's designed before.

Smart wants new players to be able to pick up the game without reading a 50-page manual, but he also cautions that the game is not as simple as other online shooters. Meaning you may be able to pick up and play the game without a lot of training, but to learn how not to get your ass kicked may take days.

Players will earn experience points the more they fight, and they can then use those points to acquire weapons and vehicles at the aptly-named Asset Requisition Center, or ARC. Unlike in other multiplayer games, players won't be able to simply grab a vehicle and go, they'l have to earn it, then work together with their team members in order to do any good with it. There are anti-vehicle defenses built into each base, aimed specifically at eliminating jackasses who are simply flying around bombing things off-mission. In order to effectively employ a vehicle, first the team has to take out the defenses.

"They're going to be frustrated … and we already know what happens when gamers are frustrated with me."

According to Smart, this is just one of many mechanics he has built into he game to emphasize teamwork over solo jackassery. He says he envisions battles taking days, not hours.

"It's not a matter of a guy grabbing a flag, and being able to 'end the round,'" Smart says. "It doesn't work that way at all.

"The problem with this particular game — and this is the same with all of my games — it's really, really going to be difficult to teach people how to play. We put a whole bunch of resources up on the new website to prepare people for the game that's coming … if they come into this game and they don't pay attention to the tutorials that we put up, the in-game hints and whatnot, they're going to be frustrated … and we already know what happens when gamers are frustrated with me.

"The only difference is that I'm older now and I'm just going to ignore it. It's going to be — that's going to be a really big problem, trying to get them to understand that this is not another run-and-gun type of game. It's just not going to play that way."


Some extremes

Smart has an ego. He believes he can make a perfect game.

He also believes he's one of the most ethical and decent people working in games, and about that he just may be right. He does, at least, own his mistakes and stand for what he believes in. Which is refreshing in an industry where developers will rarely even pick up the phone without first clearing it through PR.

The insults and criticisms don't bother Smart, at least for no longer than it takes him to respond to them online and then get banned. What bothers Derek Smart is that people may not think he's a good person, and that his children may grow up having to hide the fact that they are related to him.

"Twenty years from now my daughter will be out of college and she'll be reading all of this stuff and I don't want her memories of her dad tainting her ability to progress in life," he says. "I know I haven't done anything bad, and have made mistakes, I'm only human ... people who are old enough and smart enough to understand that we're only humans and we all make mistakes will understand that.

"I didn't kill anybody, I didn't steal from anybody, I just made a game that I wanted to make and I may have not succeeded in reaching other people's expectations but I don't really care, it wasn't about them. It was about me and what I wanted."

Part of the reason Smart has earned such an uneven reputation amongst gamers has to do with the long and tortured development process of his first game, the game for which his company is named, Battlecruiser 3000AD. The battle to get it onto store shelves took most of a decade.

Smart had signed a succession of publishing deals with a variety of companies, all of which fell through, before landing at Take Two in 1995. The game was released in 1996. It has been alleged that Take Two released the game before it was finished, against Smart's wishes. A lawsuit between the two was settled in 1998, after which Smart regained the rights to publish the game himself, and he did so, updating it using the money from his settlement with Take Two and releasing it for free.

Smart says this was his way of apologizing to gamers for the sorry state of the game when it was first released, and taking accountability on himself for their disappointment.

"I sued them and they settled," he says. "and I took that money and fixed the game on my own time and I released it for free. I said: 'Look, I'm sorry, here it is.' and went back and started from scratch. That's the kind of guy I am. That doesn't change no matter what anybody says. I didn't take the money and run and say 'screw you goodbye.'"

"A Derek Smart rant with the team is not the same as what the rest of the world has seen on the internet."

This is the dichotomy of Derek Smart. He may be the most hated man in games, but he is also one of the most honest. It may be that the two are intertwined. He may be hated because he is honest, and honesty doesn't play well on the internet where an opinion is often treated like an insult.

Smart believes the true measure of him as a person is not the presence of criticism from gamers on the internet, but rather the absence of any criticism from people who have worked with him.

"One thing that some people don't realize is that you never go online and find anything about me from anybody who's ever worked for me," he says. "Most people don't understand why. The reason is I'm a nice guy. I treat my people well. They do work. All this stuff that I've built, I didn't build on my own."

After speaking with Smart, I tested his theory and sure enough could not find any direct attacks on him by former employees. Intrigued, I began searching for former members of the 3000AD development team. I found two.

"My work with [Derek] was all professional, though 'professional' might be pushed to some extremes," says Fred Rosenbaum, who worked at 3000AD for a little over a year, as a software developer. "But this is his style and it works for him."

Rosenbaum says that most of Smart's 3000AD employees worked offsite, in locations scattered around the planet and that most of their interactions with derek were in the form of email and instant message conversations. Some of which, similar to Smart's message board appearances, devolved into rants. Rosenbaum says that even though these conversations were not entirely similar to how Derek communicated publicly, thery nevertheless had a way of making recipients feel like "the lowest form of life on earth."

"It should be noted that a Derek Smart rant with the team is not the same as what the rest of the world has seen on the internet and cannot be compared," Rosenbaum says. "He has a specific, well-thought-out vision of what he wants for his games and what he expects from the people he has hired. Derek’s communications where often long and detailed, and ... contained everything we needed to know about his vision for the project." 

Rosenbaum says that even though he considered Derek's communication style to be unprofessional at the time, he has since come to recognize that there was a method to it, and has even begun to emulate it. Especially when, in his words, "surrounded by idiots, often in pointless, time-wasting meetings."

"Another positive thing I took away from working with Derek is to know the subject matter inside and out," Rosenbaum says. "An example of this is to keep all communications and use them when someone is wasting your time. I used this to great effect later when an individual on a remote team that made certain design statements later denied this in an email with many others. After attaching all of the emails for the conversations showing otherwise, I no longer had an issue with this person threatening my team and my deadline."

Darrin Hurd, another software developer formerly employed by 3000AD spoke even more highly of Derek.

"As a boss I found him very dedicated to his vision," Hurd says. "But always open to any new ideas I could throw into the mix. It was never his way or the highway."

Hurd says that even though he moved on from 3000AD, he and Smart remain friends. Hurd lives in New Zealand, and he says Smart was one of the first people to check up on him and his family after a recent bout of earthquakes rocked the island nation.

"[That] is a great indication as to his character, Hurd says."

Smart says that one thing he has learned as a businessman is that treating people well, and with respect, pays back in spades.

"As long as you know who you are," he says, "nothing matters."


Message board Derek

Battlecruiser 3000AD screen courtesy MobyGames

"I think that people expect to meet 'message board Derek' when they come up," says Derek Smart's PR handler, Shannon Drake.

He says the biggest part of his job when greeting journalists arriving at Smart's hotel room to preview LOD is talking them out of being terrified to meet Derek Smart.

"I had guys who were very concerned about that," he says. "[They] were like 'what's he going to be like, I might have banned him from a forum once?' And I'm like 'I've been in a room with the guy for three days and he's been fine.'"

Full disclosure: I know Shannon. I worked with him for close to two years, nearly a half decade ago, before he moved into games PR. The Shannon Drake I know is not one to hold back an opinion. In fact, it often surprises me that he's managed to maintain a career in PR and marketing for as long as he has. People as free with dissenting opinions as Shannon don't tend to last very long in that career path.

And yet, here he is.

"People think they know you from your internet persona. I think that's [Derek's] biggest issue."

It all comes back to "Message Board Derek."

There's an urban legend about Derek Smart. Similar to the game children play where they turn off the lights and look into a mirror chanting "Bloody Mary," the legend has it that one need only write Derek Smart's name into an internet comment forum three times and he will be summoned, as if by magic. As with all urban legends, this is only partly true. The whole truth is that it only takes one mention for him to appear.

I know. I've seen it happen.

"I don't give a shit about people long enough to care what they think."

Derek Smart at GWJ in 2005:

"Public opinion is meaningless to me because opinions are things you can't change and wasting your time trying to convince people otherwise is just that. A waste of time. If I wanted to waste my time, I know a lot of more meaningful ways to do it.

"Me? I'm just Derek Smart. I hide from no-one. I answer to no-one. I know what my goal in life is and I live it every day. Meanwhile, the f*ckers who figured they could put me under siege, ended up just creating a monster who has simply gotten too frigging big to shove back in the bottle.

"Then you have those tits who love nothing better than to flame me at a forum where I can't post; and posting all manner of c*ck sh*t. These are the same ladies who give flaming a bad name or who would just duck around the corner if they ran into me in public. Its one thing when you're dealing with a faceless entity - like all the corwardly wankers online who hide behind their fancy aliases, anonymity and obscurity."

The author's response:

"Wow. What a dick."

"If you have an ego, it's really hard to suppress that instinct to respond."

Smart Banned from GWJ:

"I banned Derek Smart.

"In the end, nothing good will ever come of his posting. He says something arrogant/insulting, gets a little of the same back and flies off the handle. I'm breaking the cycle and hoping those who insist on responding to loud-mouths with their own pithy comments re-evaluate why they're here and what they are contributing."

Several years ago, I belonged to an internet community called Gamers with Jobs, where community members talked about video games and other things. Derek Smart's games were eventually mentioned. Derek Smart was summoned. Derek Smart appeared.

His first post, by way of self-introduction, was a 1,300 word diatribe on the subject of flaming internet forums. It was bold, brash and obnoxious. It was simultaneously a justification for all of the behaviors for which he had become famous and a warning that he would unleash those behaviors if provoked.

It was an awesome and terrifying spectacle. Not unlike the sight of a silverback gorilla beating his chest, defending his territory against an oncoming locomotive.

Here's an excerpt:

When I show up and respond, some would liken it to me throwing gasoline on everyone. Thats not the case at all.

Gasoline takes too long to burn and would require more than one post to be truly effective.

A tactical nuke takes one post. A good TN post means that you don't even have to come back and explain anything nor respond further. Its my version of a drive-by flaming. One in which everyone - I do mean everyone - gets their collective asses singed. I'm an equal opportunity flamer. The end result is that long after your post, there are wankers sitting around wondering wtf just happened. So, like the predictable gits that they are, they keep posting. And posting. And posting. Comfort in the thought that I, like I don't have better things to do with my time, would go back and see the aftermath of my post.

Wrong.

I don't give a shit about people long enough to care what they think.

The Gamers with Jobs community, known for relatively reasonable behavior as far as internet gaming forums go, responded tentatively at first. Some attempted to engage Derek in conversation. Others egged him on. A few took jabs.

I was one of the latter.

For my part, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. In part, I was taken aback by Derek's honesty. I had never seen anyone even marginally famous act so openly hostile. Mostly though my ego was getting bruised and I responded without thinking.

I called Derek a dick. He responded. The conversation escalated and was almost immediately locked.

"It only takes one person to bring out the worst in everyone," wrote Gamers with Jobs co-founder Shawn Andrich, in his announcement post stating that the thread had been closed. "No matter how intelligent, interesting or entertaining someone may be … the most important distinction we can make is that claiming to be a nice guy in person and acting like a loud-mouthed prick who's just 'keeping it real' online doesn't make you a good guy. It's all you whether you're typing a message or shaking someone's hand."

Smart was banned from Gamers with Jobs about a month later. It was neither his first forum banning, nor his last.

"It only takes one person to bring out the worst in everyone."

It's hard to say what little children expect when they try to summon the mythical child-eating witch, Bloody Mary. Probably they don't even know themselves. As for the myth of Derek Smart, the question is far simpler.

The difference here is that gamers usually know exactly what they want from Derek Smart: they want someone to fight. And Message Board Derek is usually more than happy to oblige.

"It used to bother me, it used to bother me a lot," Derek says now, of his past as an internet forum brawler. "Do you know how hard it is when you work 18-19 hours a day and you go online and there's some guy trashing your work or trashing you personally because it makes them feel better about themselves? It's very very hard, Russ.

"It is the hardest thing to turn the other cheek, and guess what? If you have an ego, it's even harder because ... it's really hard to suppress that instinct to respond."


Line of defense

As Shannon Drake predicted, what I encounter in Derek Smart's San Francisco hotel room is not "Message Board Derek," but rather, something else entirely. Someone more complex. Someone human.

"I've learned from everything I've done over the years and I'm still the same person who started out in the 80's," Smart says. "Nothing's changed except that I've gotten older, I've gotten wiser and I've learned to make decisions without letting ego get in the way."

Smart's wife is a psychologist. She has been helping him come to terms with the fact that no matter what he does or says, people are going to dump on his work.

"One of the things that she says is that 'You need to understand even if you were a different person online, it wouldn't change anything because you really can't hold yourself accountable for what people think or what people say,'" Smart says. "But my counter to that is: It's more about pride than anything else. It's very hard to build something and have somebody tear it down. And when they can't tear it down they try to tear you down."

After close to two decades of being torn down, Smart thinks his chances of finally making a perfect game are getting slimmer. He's getting older. The industry is changing. Line of Defense may be one of his last games.

I asked Smart if, after all the criticism, he thought gamers would be willing to give LOD a shot. His honest answer surprised me.

"I've thought about that and the answer to that is: probably not. And the second part is: I don't really care.

"I really don't. Because I know it's a good game and the worst case scenario is that a lot of people are going to like it because it's different. That's what's always been the allure of my games: They've always been different. Even though this game is huge, it plays differently. It's more simplistic. It's going to be another game based on acquired taste. You either like it or you don't."

Smart says that he hopes the game will sell well and that players will find that it is, in fact, easier to play than his previous games. He's looking forward to the upcoming beta, scheduled for May, when players will have a chance to give feedback and help him polish the final product. But he knows from long experience that this close to launch, there's only a short window to make substantial improvement, and after that all bets are off.

But for Derek Smart, making games is still the best life he can imagine for himself, and he says he has no regrets.

"When I'm gone, my games will be out there," Smart says, looking wistful. "Those who like them will be out there. Those who don't like them will still be out there. But one thing I know is I'm still going to sleep at night because if I lost money, it was my own money. If I earned money, it was my own money. I never took advantage of anyone. I never caused anyone's company to go under. I never put anyone out of work because of mistakes I've made.

"Every mistake I've made I've owned and I've always held myself accountable and I'm OK with that."


Image credit: Derek Smart, 3000AD, MobyGames, shutterstock, SiliconKnights.net

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