At the 2007 Montreal Games Summit, Retro Studios president and CEO Michael Kelbaugh discussed the Metroid Prime arc of the classic Nintendo franchise, highlighting challenges faced by the team from the series' 3D debut to incorporating Wii functionality with Metroid Prime 3: Corruption.
Industry veteran Kelbaugh began his career at Nintendo of America in Redmond, Washington in 1988, and has been involved to some extent with many Nintendo titles since. From his most recent position as director in the business development department, Kelbaugh became Retro Studios' president and CEO of Retro Studios in 2003 managing studio efforts on Metroid Prime 2: Echoes for GameCube and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption for Wii.
Joining him at the event was Retro Studios game director Mark Pacini, who has worked on all three Metroid Prime titles.
A Bumpy Start
According to Kelbaugh, it wasn't easy getting started. “We started in 1999 with about, at the apex of Retro Studios, about 120 employees. By 2000, we were working on four projects -- that’s a pretty short time to ramp up so quickly and be working on so many projects. And honestly speaking, we did a few things wrong. By the end of 2001, all of the projects other than Metroid Prime were cancelled.”
Recalled Pacini, “I started at Retro when the company was created. And there were already a number of projects in development, with no development kits – no GameCubes, no nothing. We had a car game, an RPG, a football game, and an action adventure. It was an admirable goal, but it was never going to happen."
He continued, "And there weren’t a lot of ‘game’ people at Retro Studios. I was one of the few people who had already been through the process of creating the game, and I saw there were a lot of problems.”
Said Kelbaugh, “There was a lot of banter when we started Metroid Prime, particularly on the internet, on how a rookie North American dev company could get such an important franchise. And we really wanted to make sure we didn’t disappoint the fans.”
“Let me tell you a story," Pacini began. "When Mr. Miyamoto and Mr. Iwata came to our studio for the first time -- actually, Mr. Iwata wasn’t even the president then; he acted as translator, which was weird -- but it was one of the scariest things we’ve ever done."
He Hates Everything
Recalled Pacini, "It was kind of disheartening, because we didn’t have anything to show, other than some concept art and our 3 -page design documents (Nintendo requires that you be able to explain your idea in 3 pages). And people were going in -- the RPG team, the football team -- and they were saying, 'he hates everything!'"
He added, "And when I went in as part of the car team, we were working on a kind of Twisted Metal game (it wasn’t my idea). And the first thing [Miyamoto] said was, ‘why would you put guns on cars? Don’t cars crash into each other? Isn’t that what they do?’"
"And I said, ‘I agree. I have no idea why we’re making this game,'" Concluded Pacini.
Joked Kelbaugh, “Well, in the end, you didn’t!”
“That’s true," Pacini concurred, "but I really remember speaking to one of the leads coming out of his meeting, the lead on the action-adventure concept, and he actually said, ‘Miyamoto doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s ridiculous.’"
Continued Pacini, "I realized that this was a major problem. Because if you can’t take criticism of your game ideas, you’re in real trouble.”
Introjected Kelbaugh, “It’s alright, he doesn’t work with us anymore!"
But in the end, the two explained, Nintendo saw something in Retro Studios, and signed them for the first Metroid Prime.
Different Points Of View
Recalled Pacini, “Right around the time of signing the Metroid project, I know there was a lot of discussion in the studio and at Nintendo if the title was going to be first-person or third-person. And right before that ,we’d done some work with Rare on Jet Force Gemini, and we had some real problems with the camera, so it was a major discussion.”
As for Pacini, he said he was one of the number-one proponents of third person. "I almost didn’t want to be on the project if it wasn’t," he recalled. "And one of the things that NCL had talked to us about -- and Mr. Miyamoto was heavily involved with Metroid Prime 1, and at the time Miyamoto felt that shooting in third person was not very intuitive."
He continued, "We’ve come along a lot since then, but that was one of the reasons they were moving towards the first-person angle. And what’s one of the main themes of Metroid? – exploration. And the easiest way to observe your surroundings, even in a third-person game, is usually to switch to first person and move the camera around to observe where you are.”
Bringing the Metroid Experience to 3D
“We didn’t want to make just another first person shooter," said Kelbaugh. "We wanted to bring the morph ball into 3D. We wanted to bring the screw attack into 3D. Making a first person shooter would have been a cheap and easy way to go. But making sure the themes and concepts in Metroid were kept was something that we wanted to do. And translating those things into 3D was a real challenge. For example, translating the morph ball was one of the hardest things to do.”
Said Pacini, “We used Super Metroid as our kind of Bible. But as we’d been sold on the concept of first-person; we couldn’t see how to put the ball into the title. In fact, it was actually on the chopping block for a long time. We thought that concentrating on the exploration through platforming might be good enough."
He continued, "But Miyamoto’s first directive was ‘if we don’t make the transition between the ball and first-person seamless, then we can’t do this game.'"
"It took us a few months to get that correct," added Pacini. "And that was pretty scary, as it was one of the first milestones we had to reach, and thanks to our engineers ,we managed to create something that when Miyamoto saw it he said, ‘okay’ on the project. That was huge.”
“Nintendo really wanted us to stay true to the needs of the Metroid fan and the themes of the franchise," Kelbaugh explained. "For example, in Metroid Prime 1 there is not one repeated environment. Everything is unique, so it’s cool for the fans to explore."
He continued, "And then there’s the scan visor. A lot of people might debate if the inclusion was a good thing. However, we're pretty late in development and Nintendo kept saying ‘there’s something missing.’ And they delivered us the concept of the scan visor, and though it was late in development, we placed one artist and one programmer just on the scan visor and made sure it was completed. Because this was another aspect that Nintendo felt was critical to the project."
However, Kelbaugh admits the team found the scan visor concept boring at the time. "In the US even now people hate scanning, but it’s popular in Japan," he said. "So we tried to make it more ‘collectable’ and more informative in terms of describing how to beat enemies, etc. as we went along.”
What Happened Next
After completing Retro Studios' first game, Kelbaugh said the team took a rest to evaluate the process, "lick our wounds and perform a really in-depth postmortem."
And yet despite the frustrations, Kelbaugh said the first Metroid Prime exceeded expectations. "While we were napping, we sold over 2 million units, which is still something we’re proud of – to do that as a rookie studio," he noted.
So afterward, the team began work on Metroid Prime 2, beginning with the multiplayer component -- according to Kelbaugh, "something we were interested in doing with MP1, but we just didn’t have time for it."
The team was wary of the "sophomore curse," Kelbaugh explained. "We wanted to expand and add to the title, and not just slam out a sequel. Nintendo doesn’t do things that way."
Said Pacini, “NCL didn’t want to just do Metroid in a different setting. No, ‘oh, here’s Samus except now she’s in a desert.’ It all relates to a theme. Take Mario Sunshine. Everything relates to the core ‘water’ theme. It’s the same with Super Mario Galaxy, too."
So the team arrived at the light world versus dark world concept for Metroid Prime 2. Pacini explained, "We talked to one of the developers on Link to the Past, and he said, ‘oh, this is going to be easy.’ Well, he didn’t say that, but he did say he was familiar with the concept and, yes, a lot of people thought we were just borrowing the concept, but as it was new for the Metroid franchise, we thought it would be good."
Too Damn Hard
"One thing that we did in Metroid Prime 1 was intentionally create a game difficulty full of spikes. After all, in Metroid, when you’re exploring, you’re not worried about your health, but you do when you face a boss. We felt that was tuned in line with the franchise," Pacini said.
But they took a different tack with Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. "We’d really tuned it towards a hardcore audience – you’re always worrying about your health," contrasted Pacini. "Enemies are harder, and in the dark world you’re always taking damage – and we felt that we made it too hard, that we’d moved away from the fine tuning of the first Metroid Prime."
"That’s what we learned from Metroid Prime 2," he added, "The game was too damn hard. And gamers got lost too easily, too. Now, we know that Metroid games are tuned differently in Japan compared to how they are tuned for the Western market, and while in Japan gamers don’t mind being lost, western gamers much prefer to know where they’re going. They find no pleasure in finding their way. They’d rather know where to go... and we found that Echoes wasn’t tuned to truly fit the needs of each kind of gamer.”
Path To Corruption
Recalled Kelbaugh, “When we went to NCL to discuss the postmortem on MP2 and discuss MP3, during a break they said, ‘hey, come over here, we want to show you something.’ And back then, we had no idea what the 'Revolution' even was. And they handed us a Wii Remote and we were blown away."
Kelbaugh continued, recalling his first impressions of the Wii technology. "We played a few technical demos and stuff, and though I’m not a designer myself, I was watching the designers play with it and seeing lightbulb after lightbulb go off – with one exception. I don’t know if you remember, but with Metroid Prime 1, we used every single button on that controller. And we were seeing this little thing with a tiny number of buttons.”
Added Pacini, “They did have a small demonstration of the nunchuk, but it wasn’t really their primary demonstration. But it did give us some ideas as to what we could do with Metroid and Wii.”
Recalled Kelbaugh, “The TGS demo in, I think it was 2004, was very enlightening to us. We put together a demo of Metroid Prime 2 with Wii controls just to show people what was possible, and when we completed it in the studio, we really were amazed with it.”
However, Pacini pointed out, there was a caveat. "We spent an entire year tuning the controller for Corruption," he explained. "When we showed it at E3, a lot of people really weren’t getting it. We were lucky in that Metroid got pushed back from a launch title and people were allowed to learn the use of the Wii controllers and we could further refine the controls.”
Whatever happened to multiplayer, though? Explained Kelbaugh, "We decided early on that our resources were best spent in improving the single-player mode, the core strength of the franchise. We really think that we did a great job on the multiplayer in MP2, but it just wasn’t the direction we wanted to go in for the sequel.”
Looking toward the future, Kelbaugh noted, “Metroid Prime was a trilogy, and Corruption was the final part of that, so I don’t know what’s next for the Metroid franchise. I would be sad if it didn’t continue on in some way, though."
He concluded, "I can make an official announcement on what we’re going to do next: We’re going to take another nap.”