We are thrilled to be interviewing Bryan Walker, the former Senior Director of Development at Retro Studios. He was the Senior Producer of Metroid Prime 2: Echoes and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, and the New Play Control! port of the original Metroid Prime. Bryan shares how he became a video game designer, his memories of Retro Studios and his thoughts on the future of the Metroid series.
I was the Senior Director of Development at Retro Studios from June 2003-April 2012, overseeing the nuts and bolts of all our projects. This included internal coordination and scheduling, as well as serving as an interface with our development partners and QA teams around the world.
I had the good fortune to play the very first video game, Computer Space, when it initially appeared in the arcades in the early 70s. I had no idea what I was doing while playing it, but was simply captivated by the concept of being transported from the role of simply observing television to interacting with it. I was hooked. I began teaching myself to program when the TRS-80 debuted in the mid-70s, and was quite an arcade rat as well. But my other passion, aviation, also called. After earning an Aerospace Engineering degree, I went on to fly attack helicopters in the Army and saw action in Desert Storm. And it was while I was stationed in the Persian Gulf that I happened to see an early teaser ad for a game called Gunship 2000 from Microprose.
Seeing an opportunity, I reached out to the editors of my favorite magazine at the time, Computer Gaming World, and asked to review the game when it was released. Fortunately, the game debuted after I returned from the Gulf and the review was well received. The editors went on to assign several more reviews, and I greatly enjoyed moonlighting in the games industry while still serving. It was in fact the number of contacts that I made during these reviews that opened some doors. Some offers started coming in as my career in the Army came to a close, so I took the leap. With my leadership background, Production was a natural fit as I joined a small company in the Bay Area, Domark, which went on to become Eidos. And the rest of my career in the games industry ever since has been a wonderful blur.
I was very familiar with the classic 2D games, having enjoyed them a great deal during the 8 and 16-bit heyday. I was only able to play the original Prime in fits and starts, however, before I joined Retro.
It was at times an exercise in Imposter Syndrome. While I’d have the good fortune of working with luminaries such as Sid Meier and Richard Garriott before I arrived, the overall talent level at Retro was higher than any other team or studio in which I’d been involved. But devs at Retro had been terribly beaten up working on the original Prime, so my servant leadership sensibilities really kicked in and we dove into the nuts and bolts of modernizing the processes and disciplines to make Echoes a game that honored the original without destroying the team in the process. Echoes wasn’t a silk-smooth project by any stretch, but the studio took a huge step forward during that effort.
There were entrenched pockets of mistrust and antagonism that had built up over the years across not just the development verticals, but also extending from the team to our partners in Japan. This was an understandable by-product of the amount of stress and chronic fatigue the team had accumulated. But even though that baggage was understandable, it was nonetheless unacceptable. Moving assertively to address that wasn’t some kind of guns-blazing revolution, but rather a steady cadence of positive daily interactions, feedback, and examples. We’re also very fortunate that the studio had a strong cadre of organic leaders such as Mark Pacini and Mark Haigh-Hutchinson to serve as a cultural pathway to our new values.
It was a challenge that not a lot of teams then or now would have assumed. But the Nintendo level of quality was in our DNA, and the passion of the team to always push the boundaries was not going to be denied. Our top-shelf team of engineers had worked hard to provide cumulative performance advantages over the original code base that simply gave our Design and Art teams a broader canvas upon which to work. I’m very proud of how they embraced the opportunity.
Echoes was the project during which Retro Studios found itself, in my opinion. We made huge improvements across all metrics during that time. And it was these improvements that set our course towards becoming a high-functioning organization.
The multiplayer feature in Echoes was an experiment for us. We knew at the onset that the team simply wasn’t a big enough team to create (or support!) a larger multiplayer environment while still providing the engaging first-person experience at the level of craftsmanship that the original had established. We just didn’t have the bodies. But we also knew that local/screen-shared multiplayer experiences like Mario Kart were very much enjoyed by Nintendo’s legions of fans. So we stepped outside of our collective comfort zone quite a bit and took a shot. It was fun to work on.
We really had very little direct interaction with those teams at the time. Our involvement was primarily in the provision of audio and art assets.
We worked really hard on Corruption, and it was incredibly gratifying to have been involved on a key title during the huge surge of popularity that the Wii was enjoying. Having so much support from Mr. Iwata and Reggie really validated not just the quality of the games we were making but the steps we were taking as an organization. It’s hard to believe it’s been almost 15 years since Corruption launched.
I think we were barely able to scratch the potential of the Metroid universe during my time at Retro. The introduction of new bounty hunters opened up a lot of really intriguing possibilities, especially the motivations of Sylux and the rivalry he has with Samus. I would’ve loved to have seen those dynamics play out more across a larger storyline.
Providing what we refer to as “scratch voiceover”–a placeholder audio file–is always a fun perk of small-team game development. And Retro has had the great fortune of having an awesome Audio Director, Scott Peterson, who was happy to volunteer people for the job. I got the nod for that particular role due to being the only team member at Retro who had a military background, even if it did exposse my sslightly ssibilant pronunciationss of, “Sstand-to, Ssamuss.”
I’m thrilled, full stop. As I’ve said earlier, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the potential of the Metroid universe. I’m genuinely looking forward to not just MP4 but further, deeper explorations of other characters within the brand.
We’d discussed all kinds of ideas. If there’s something that the design team on the Prime series had in amazing abundance was ambition and creativity. Mark Pacini did an absolutely fantastic job nurturing that culture. But the flip-side to all those discussions was pragmatism. We had to be very selective about where to dig deeper to ensure that we didn’t just throw out some half-baked feature. I’ve often said that the execution is in itself its own form of innovation. The creative process at Retro really focused on execution.
In all honesty, the brainstorming sessions were all such a delightful blur I couldn’t even begin to recall all the cool ideas that wound up on the cutting room floor!
I have absolutely no doubt of that.
Nintendo’s fundamental philosophy on improving the gameplay experience will certainly be center stage. Is the control system intuitive? How does the movement feel? Are the object interactions absolutely perfect? Is the camera system so good it isn’t even noticed? Is the player constantly surprised and delighted? Nintendo’s games have historically responded to these questions in a way that was mercifully agnostic of hardware. I’m confident MP4 will represent those values.
I’m particularly proud of the Trilogy effort, as it represented some very resourceful approaches the (small) team had to employ to adapt the older executables and content to the new hardware. Any developer will tell you that trying to resurrect old code bases and tools is never fun. Being able to do so while adapting Prime 1 and 2 to the new Wiimote control scheme from Corruption was a testament to a fantastic engineering team.
DKCR was an absolutely amazing experience. It was the rare project that just clicked right from the get-go. The team was overwhelmingly excited, and the support we had from all the other Nintendo groups was off the charts. That one remains arguably my favorite project across my entire career.
While we were of course fans of the original, there were simply too many fantastically talented artists at Retro to simply do a rehash of the previous art style. The Tikis were a brainstorm of one of our character artists, Quinn Smith if I recall correctly, and we quickly glommed onto them as a way to modernize the art style of the game while still remaining very true to the spirit of the original. I really love how they turned out.
Turnover is the life blood of the games industry, as counter-intuitive as that may sound. Mark Pacini, Todd Keller, and Jack Mathews had been pioneers at Retro, proving their worth hundreds of times over as incredibly talented and passionate developers. And they were also our friends; brothers-in-arms. Their departures also came at a critical point in the studio’s trajectory as we were trying to determine what our next title could/should be after the completion of Prime 3. This did make for some challenging times, as many team members in the studio had only known the leadership of Mark/Todd/Jack. But we were incredibly fortunate in that the legacy of excellence they left behind stayed within the studio. And we’d been quite diligent about training and growing emerging leaders across all our disciplines. With adversity comes opportunity. As we empowered and challenged the next generation of leadership at the studio, they responded brilliantly. Vince Joly, Will Bate, Tom Ivey, Kynan Pearson, Mike Wikan, and Tim Little ran with the torch. The fact that DKCR was such a success across the board wasn’t just luck. We were able to back-fill the loss of great people with more great people.
What was, hands down, the most gratifying exchange I’ve ever been involved with in my games industry career was sitting in a meeting room at the Kyoto HQ in December 2010. There, Mr. Iwata profusely thanked and congratulated us for our hard work on DKCR, eventually looking over to Mr. Miyamoto and asking him if he could ever recall a Nintendo game that shipped all international versions early. I think a beam of light from the heavens hit me in the forehead as Mr. Miyamoto affected a playfully perplexed look and shook his head, “No.”
While my numbers may be a bit off at this point, our animators did a lot of work for that game. And our environment artists created 21 of the game’s 38 tracks. (Admittedly, many of these were remakes of tracks from earlier versions of the game.)
I was doing a great deal of coordination work between Retro and the EAD team on MK7, along with early prototyping/engineering efforts on DKTF. And one of my most enjoyable memories on MK7 was having Mr. Iwata himself join in one of our cross-continent online play sessions. The man could definitely drive, and tagged me with a Blooper ink splat in the process.
Not that I recall.
Lots of people at Retro had a chance to contribute their staff ghost runs. That was one of the most fun aspects of the post-production effort on that title. I was never that good at MK, I’m sorry to say, so I had to put in a good chunk of extra time to hit the criteria we had established for that level of ghost. And yeah, I confess to being really annoyed at how obnoxiously good some of our hard-core team members like Tom Ivey and Kynan Pearson had gotten with the game. They were just blurs going around the track!
What I liked most about my time at Retro Studios was the team itself: The quirks, the Halloween costumes, the hilarious comments in team meetings and emails, the White Board of Regret. There were no big egos or prima donnas. We celebrated individual breakthroughs. The team was passionate, but respectful. We had fun making fun games. But we took some lumps, to be sure. There were tough times and difficult discussions. But those tough times made the good times that much better. I think everyone in the games industry deserves to be part of something that special at least once in their careers.
I confess to finding the older side-scrolling Metroids to be hit or miss, but Dread is all “hit.” It’s easily the best of that series of game in my opinion.
The intense focus on the tiniest details was our day-to-day as a Nintendo developer. I’ve certainly carried that forward. But the boring side of game development, the process, discipline, and efficiency required to make a AAA-level game in a cost-effective manner, are also skills that I took away. They’ve proven to be just as valuable.
It would be awesome to get the band back together!
Thanks very much for the opportunity to represent the Retro team from back in the day. It was a magical time, to be sure, and the memories that have flooded over me during these recent interviews have been delightful. I don’t think any of us would’ve guessed that fans would want to know more about how we worked so many years later. On behalf of everyone who poured our hearts and souls into making these games, I sincerely thank you all.
© 2022 Shinesparkers and Bryan Walker
Special thanks to Darren and RoyboyX
Interviewed on 18th April 2022