Interview With

Gene Kohler

of Retro Studios
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For our first feature, we are delighted to be interviewing Gene Kohler, who is credited for his work on Metroid Prime as a character modeler. He is responsible for modeling Samus’ suits, various Space Pirate designs and more. He has also worked on games such as Age of Empires III and Halo Wars. We put several questions to him regarding his work and his time at Retro Studios.

SS: Where did your inspiration come from when designing the models? Did you look over previous Metroid games for reference?

GK: Finding the inspiration to create the various Samus Aran suits, her Morph Ball form, the Metroids, etc. certainly wasn’t something that I had to dig far and wide to come by… I simply had to look on my desk at the amazing concepts created by Andrew Jones. The amount of detail, color, and mood that he put into his work was essentially all of the inspiration I needed. I still have many of the concepts he created that I used to model my characters from because they are, as I previously mentioned, amazing.

Of course, the fact that we (Retro Studios) had the opportunity to bring the Metroid franchise into the 3-D world was quite inspirational unto itself. Yes, the designers, Art Director (Todd Keller), the concept Artist (Andrew Jones), and the rest of the team poured over Metroid reference to ensure the vibe of the franchise was captured for Metroid Prime.

SS: Metroid Prime was a revolutionary transformation to the series, a jump from 2D to 3D. What was it like for you being part of a team responsible for this change at the time?

GK: I don’t think that I am going out on a limb by stating that the entire staff at Retro Studios approached the opportunity of bringing the Metroid franchise into the 3-D world as just that… an opportunity. An opportunity not to be taken lightly… this was something special. There are many game development companies and thousands of people working within the game development industry that never get the opportunity to work on a true gaming icon.

We had a gaming icon on our hands. A recognizable industry icon that already has a passionate fan base that was following our every move to ensure we got this right. Looking back, I feel as if the team at Retro Studios did just that… we recognized the opportunity, embraced it, and delivered. Creating Metroid Prime was indeed a special opportunity that I am very proud to have been associated with.

SS: The models you created look quite impressive and it’s obvious a lot of hard work went into them. How long did it take you to create them and which model was the most challenging?

GK: Thanks, I appreciate the compliment. Yes, a great deal of passion went into the creation of the Metroid Prime assets. The time to create a particular asset depends upon many factors: the amount of detail required with the basic design present within the concept, the gameplay design needs, the shader (texture pass) requirements, etc. I’d say the average creature took anywhere from 4 days up to 2 weeks. The Bosses created by my fellow character artist, Mike Sneath, probably took the most time given they maxed out all of the aforementioned requirements. He had his hands FULL.

The Samus models that I created were kind of an ongoing labor of love that makes it difficult to nail down an exact creation timetable. So many talented people were involved in the final product that you see today (errr back in 2002, that is). Andrew Jones created the concepts working closely with Todd Keller and the powers-that-be at Nintendo. By the time the concept hit my desk, many individuals already put a great deal of time and effort in capturing the look and vibe Nintendo desired.

Once I completed the models, they would then go through various critique stages with Todd, Andrew, design, and Nintendo. Every polygon, pixel, shader setting (which gives her armor the “shiny sexiness”) was put under a magnifying glass to, as I mentioned, get her just right. She is the star of the show and an industry icon so I felt privileged to work with such an amazing group of talent to do just that… get her right. I’m thinking we succeeded =)

SS: Tell us about a time when things got difficult for you during the development of the game. Was there a low point where you felt you couldn’t deliver on the experience?

GK: During my time on the Metroid Prime art staff there was never a moment when the Retro Team felt as if we could not deliver on the opportunity we had in front of us. I can only relay the vibe I felt during my time there. Perhaps others felt some difficult experiences but I wouldn’t know it because the other team members sure didn’t show any real dramatic concern during day-to-day development.

There was certainly pressure to deliver a great gaming experience given the Metroid franchise has such a passionate fan base, but that pressure was fuel for inspiration and motivation. The pressure was welcome because, as I said, there aren’t many companies or individuals that get the opportunity to create a chapter for such an iconic franchise.

SS: You made a huge contribution to the game; are there any specific models in particular that you are quite proud of?

GK: The obvious answer to this would have to be creating Samus Aran’s armor suits. I am also quite proud of how Aran’s various arm cannons turned out. Her weapons were conceptualized by Andrew Jones (as were all things Metroid Prime), and modeled by Chris Voellmann. I textured and built the shaders for her weapons. I am also really happy with how her Morph Ball form came out, the Metroids, and the Trooper Space Pirates.

SS: Were there any significant problems or restrictions that you or the rest of the team came across while working on the game?

GK: The only significant problem or restriction that enters my mind during my time at Retro Studios was that we had one of those coffee makers that can be found in any typical household kitchen. You know, the type with the 8-cup glass pot. Nothing puts the brakes on production quite like an empty coffee pot… and it was always empty! The pot was in Retro’s arcade. I remember issuing many a butt whipping playing NFL Blitz and Ping Pong while the coffee was brewing. Mike Sneath and Marco Thrush might have a different take on who kicked who’s butt though =) Wait a minute… Todd might be reading this… I immediately returned to modeling while the coffee was brewing and later returned to grab a cup… to find the pot empty once again =(

SS: Given that the finished product was one of the most graphically impressive games on the GameCube, was there any point where you felt that this game could set a new standard for future games on the same console?

GK: Once again, thanks for the compliment. From the get go the Art Team felt as if we could deliver a title that would set a standard in our industry. Not just on the GameCube, but console-wide. That was our goal and mindset. Did we achieve that? That’s for history to decide but I, and the rest of the team, sure are proud of what we have done.

SS: Do you consider yourself to be a Metroid fan? If so, what is it about the franchise that you like the most?

GK: Back in 2001 I quickly became a big fan =) What I like the most about the franchise is that it is of the Sci-Fi genre… Fantasy being my top passion with Sci-Fi and Super Heroes being a verrrrry close second. I really appreciate and respect the history of the Metroid franchise and its huge fan base.

Any intellectual property that withstands the test of time and continues to maintain a loyal fan base that’s hungry for more is a property that deserves admiration. Of course, it is a big plus that the hero of the franchise is a strong-willed, brave, kick butt kinda hot chick and there are tons of cool creatures in the universe =)

SS: Metroid Prime was a highly praised game overall and was even awarded game of the year by various websites on its release. What was your reaction to the amazing reception that Metroid Prime has received?

GK: In a nutshell… PROUD! Proud of the team and the contributions I personally made to the franchise.

SS: Metroid: Other M is the latest game in the franchise. What do you think to the collaboration between Nintendo and Team Ninja and the direction the team has taken artistically. Do you think your contribution on Metroid Prime has helped influence the look and feel of the game?

GK: To be honest, I haven’t intimately kept up with the franchise over the years. Not due to lack of interest but simply because I have other projects that I have moved onto that demand my focus and energies. I immersed myself into Age of Empires lll and Halo Wars, 2 titles I had the pleasure of working on since my time on Metroid Prime. Currently I am working on Age of Empires Online and other exciting unannounced projects. Occasionally I certainly browse the internet looking up Metroid info and still talk about the Retro days with colleagues. What I have seen from Other M looks amazing and I have complete faith that Nintendo will maintain their high standard of visual and gameplay excellence for their franchise. I know that Samus is in very capable hands =)

I believe a certain degree of the contributions I implemented while creating Samus influence what you have seen of the franchise since Metroid Prime. I do not think Nintendo, Retro, and the other artists working on her are sitting there thinking (while staring at an empty coffee pot): “Man, I wonder how Gene would model *blank*?!?” orrrrr “Does this look like Gene’s Samus model?!?!” Certainly not. For one.. it’s not Gene’s Samus model. The Metroid Prime Samus models were a huge collaboration of talented individuals, art direction, and Nintendo. I think the Prime version influences the later versions in a way that the teams would like to keep her look consistent and build off of the Prime version in a way that makes sense.

When I modeled the prototype of the Spartan for Halo Wars, I didn’t think of the particular artist who created the original Halo Spartan… but I certainly had action figures and images of that Spartan all over my office. Why? To stay consistent and true to the franchise while making subtle changes that made sense. So, well, that was a long winded explanation but… yes, the Samus model we at Retro created for Prime certainly influenced later versions… and I am very proud to have contributed to that evolution.

SS: Outside of your work, what do you do in your spare time? Do you have any interesting hobbies and interests?

GK: I’m not so sure how interesting my hobbies may be, you know, I can’t admit to sporting a colorful costume and going out to combat evil doers or anything… although that would be pretty awesome =) However, I enjoy riding my motorcycles. I currently have a ’08 Buell XB12S and a ’09 Buell 1125CR. I dig riding with my co-worker riding buddies out to nowhere TX, getting lost, using our iPhones to find ourselves, and continuing on our adventure. Not too long ago I rode down to Austin to ride the hill country with current Retro employee and handy modeler Chris Voellmann.

I enjoy creating illustrations for my company’s artblog posts.

As you can see, I work with some talented artists. I have a strong passion for Carp fishing… yes… I said Carp. I love watching my Steelers rack up Lombardi Trophies (I’m a born and bred Pittsburgh area yankee). I’m a Fantasy Football junkie… I’m actually Robot Entertainments first FF champ!  I spend as much time as I possibly can doing whatever with my newly turned adult son, Jake. He’ll be entering the AirForce soon =)

SS: What projects are you currently working on and how is it going for you?

GK: I am currently working for Robot Entertainment.

I’m having a great time working here. Dave Kubalak , the Art Director, does a great job of aligning the team to their artistic passions and strengths. He also comes up with ways outside the norm to enable the team to be creative and come together… such as the aforementioned Art Blog. The game I am currently working on has recently been announced: Age of Empires Online

I’m having a good time working on this title. I have always been a big RTS fan and enjoy MMO’s as well so this title has been a blast to work on and play given it kind of blends the two genres. Robot Entertainment schedules playtest sessions for everybody at the company. These sessions usually entail 2 hour blocks. I can tell you… while playing this game 2 hours feels like 10 minutes! It’s a great game that I hope others enjoy as well.

SS: Finally, what are your hopes for the Metroid franchise in the future?

GK: I hope that the franchise continues to grow, innovate, and lives on. It is a great thing for our industry to have and maintain iconic characters and franchises that stick around for generations. These icons bring gamers together in sharing their memories of a particular gaming experience and hopefully they’ll continue to create new ones to share. Personally I enjoy seeing the Metroid franchise live on given that I contributed, in some way, to Samus Aran’s visual legacy. That’s a special thing.

Shinesparkers would like to thank Gene for his participation in this interview and wish him the very best of luck with all his future projects.

© 2010 Darren Kerwin and Gene Kohler
Interviewed on 28th August 2010