For our fifth feature, we are extremely happy to be speaking with Mike Sneath, who was a senior artist on Metroid Prime. In the first part of this interview, Mike gives us an insight into his time at Retro Studios and his work on the many memorable bosses from planet Tallon IV. Mike also brings to light some interesting information about each of the bosses he worked on.
SS: First of all Mike, please tell us about the role you played at Retro Studios and how and why you were approached to work for the company.
MS: I was working at EA Canada when a couple of my fellow co-workers (friends) had given their notice to go work for Retro. They were going to Retro to work on Retro’s NFL football game. I asked them about their new jobs and long story short I was very interested in what they told me about Retro’s other projects. I contacted Retro as they were in looking to hire quite a few artists at the time. Originally, I was hired to be an environment artist, but when I first got there, they didn’t have any concepts ready, so they gave some concepts of characters to start out with. Well, they were pretty happy with my work and that was how I began as a character modeler at Retro.
SS: Before Metroid Prime, the series had been a 2D affair, and taking the franchise into the third dimension was a huge leap for the series. Tell us what it was like bringing Metroid into the third dimension as a first-person adventure genre.
MS: When we landed the gig to recreate Metroid in 3D, I can remember that we were all thinking “wow, this is a big deal because this game has quite that cult fan base.” On the flip side of the coin, we were also thinking “damn, I hope we can pull this off because gamers out there are already thinking that we are going screw it up since we were an unproven studio.”
SS: Before creating the models in Metroid Prime, were you given a description of the type of environment where they would be found and where did your inspiration come from? What kind of research did you do to gather ideas?
MS: Sometimes I had an idea of the environment where the creature would live, but for the most part, I did not have to consider the environment when it came to modeling and texturing the creatures. That responsibility was more Andrew Jones where he made sure the colors for the creature would contrast well against the game’s backgrounds.
SS: In the early stages of development, you put together one of the first versions of the Varia Suit which was eventually redesigned and modelled by Gene Kohler. Tell us about your version of the Varia Suit and why it was eventually scrapped to be completely redesigned.
MS: When I first modeled the Varia Suit, it was under a very tight deadline and as I finished each part of the suit, another artist Rodney Brunet, would paint the texture plus another artist Ludovic Texier, created the gun arm of Samus. The deadline was so tight because the model had to be complete so it could be rigged and animated. At the time, the goal was to make sure we could create this cool movie for E3 when Nintendo would announce that we were creating Metroid. So, at that time, we simply had to take the old Samus Varia Suit and just recreate it so we could get the E3 movie done.
We had used that version of Samus for about a year and then I think after about a year into the project was when Nintendo had asked Retro to explore a new updated design for Samus. When the new Varia Suit redesign ideas were being considered, Gene Kohler (the other character artist on Metroid) was already doing a great job on Samus gun arm and Gene already had reputation not only as great character artist but he really kicked ass when it came to making metal armor look really cool with all the work he did on Retro’s RPG title before it got canned.
SS: Some of our members may not be aware that you were also responsible for the look of the Phazon Suit that Samus wears towards the end of the game. What can you tell us about your influence over the suit?
MS: The look of the Phazon Suit was just one of those things that happened because we were running out of time. One thing I became known for our team was that I could create cool looking shaders or surfaces that just looked interesting. We didn’t have time to concept or model a new suit for Samus so Todd Keller came to me and said, “make a cool looking suit by messing with the shaders and textures.”
So, the Phazon Suit came about because of time constraints, but sometimes the most creative ideas just happen when you’re not given the time to over think it. I think I only worked on the Phazon Suit idea for a couple of days at the most.
SS: You were also responsible for the concept of Phazon. How did you come up with the look and feel of the substance and how did the name ‘Phazon’ come about? Also, what can you tell us about the ‘Red Phazon’ in the impact crater?
MS: Todd Keller one day told me that the game story was going to be centered around a posionous substance called Phazon and wanted me to do a concept. All he knew was that he wanted it to be blue. So, I started searching on the internet for microscopic images of germs, etc. I had found a few images and found some images of some gel-like spheres. I took all these images into Photoshop and then experimented with adding various shades of blue.
SS: It is clear that a lot of detail and care went into the bosses you created, and in my opinion, were a key part of what made Metroid Prime so great. What is the model you’re most proud of?
MS: I’m glad that you enjoyed fighting the bosses of Metroid, as I had a great time modeling them. Todd Keller and Andrew Jones’ concepts and ideas for these creature were very inspiring. The boss I’m most proud of would be Ridley because I really liked how the organic anatomy and metal came out on this character. Also, the glowing wings were a challenge but they came out matching the concept bang on.
SS: You were working on Metroid Prime from the very start to the very end of development. Tell us about the highs and lows of your time working on the game, and how you and the rest of the team felt during those times?
MS: The hardest part of working on Metroid was all the stuff that was going on with the other projects in the company. People were being laid off every few months and games were being cut or threatened to be cut. That was the low for me because it’s very stressful to go work when you’re wondering if you might be the next person to be let go. I think that was the low for a lot of people on the team too because it wasn’t until we got to about the half way point in the development when we finally knew that “OK, we are going to finish this and everything is going to be OK.”
When Nintendo told us that we had to show a playable level for E3, from that point on, everything started feeling good about working on Metroid. The reason that was the high point for me was because when a publisher tells your team they want to show the game you’re working on at E3, then you know they’re happy with the project.
SS: Several years after Metroid Prime debuted on the GameCube, it was released again as part of a compilation for the Wii in Metroid Prime Trilogy. The game lacked some effects from the original game such as ripple effects in the water and particles from the beam weapons, yet some things were added such as bloom lighting. What are your thoughts on these changes to the game compared to the original?
MS: I only played Metroid, so I have no comments about the other games that came out afterwards.
SS: During the development of any game there are ideas that don’t make it for various reasons. Can you tell us about any concepts or models you came up with for Metroid Prime that didn’t make the final cut and why?
MS: The entire first year’s worth of characters I modeled for the game were cut. At first, we were making all the enemies looking just like the old Metroid 2D enemies. Nintendo later decided that they wanted the enemies to have a new look, so we scrapped all of those creatures. These weren’t just models that were scrapped, but these were enemies that had a full set of animations and some even had AI programmed. I’m actually very glad Nintendo made that call because I think the newer designs that Jones and Keller came up with were a big improvement over the original 2D designs.
SS: The most recent Metroid game in the series, Metroid: Other M, took Metroid back to its roots in a third-person environment with first-person elements. What do you think to the game overall and do you think Metroid Prime has had an influence in the game?
MS: Sorry man, I never played Metroid: Other M. No comment.
SS: When we interviewed Gene Kohler about his work on Metroid Prime, he mentioned that he gave you a bit of a butt-whipping in NFL Blitz and Ping Pong during the coffee breaks. Was he really as good as he claims? Or are you going to tell us what really happened?
MS: Gene Kohler claims that he kicked my ass playing NFL Blitz and Ping Pong and as usual, Gene likes to tell fish stories. OK, I’ll give it to Gene that he’s got me when it comes to football-related video games, but no way in hell could he kick my ass in Ping Pong.
SS: Tell us about your work since Metroid Prime and the projects you’re currently working on.
MS: After I left Retro, I went to work at Edge of Reality to help finish up Pitfall Harry and then I went onto Shark Tail as the lead character artist. Unfortunately, after Shark Tail, not much else happened except for working on two canceled projects. Once again though, I’m now working on another big classic game which is Twisted Metal for the PS3. I’m creating environments again, which is something I love to do just as much as creating cool sci-fi creatures.
SS: If you could go back in time to working on Metroid Prime again, is there anything you would do differently? What kind of changes would you have made to the finished product?
MS: The only thing I feel could of improved on would be some of the textures as I wished I could of spent a bit more time on them in Photoshop. At the time, I was using a paint program called DeepPaint which saved a lot of time, but the quality wasn’t as good as working 100% in Photoshop.
SS: Overall, what are your thoughts and feelings on Metroid Prime, and how do you feel about the project and its success? Also, what are your hopes for the future of Metroid?
MS: Of all the team’s I’ve worked with over the years, the team of artist’s, programmers and designers is one of the finest teams I’ve ever worked with. Everyone made a lot of sacrifices and I’m really glad it paid off for the team, studio and for Nintendo. Metroid Prime is still the crown jewel of all the games I’ve ever worked on. I’m sure Metroid will continue to be a successful franchise for many years to come.
We then asked Mike if he could give us a further insight into the bosses from the game. He also gives notable mention to the other talented members of the team who worked on them.
MS: I was not really involved in the design of any of the creatures for Metroid Prime. My main responsibility was to match as close as possible the concept art that was provided to me by my art lead Todd Keller. The look and feel of the creatures mainly came from Andrew Jones. The Parasite Queen and Thardus were concepted by a concept artist that was on the project in the very early days of the game’s development, but I do not recall his name. All other characters were conceptualized by Andrew Jones. I only created the concept for one character, and that is the space pirates you see at the very beginning of the game on the ship.
For most of the characters I did for Metroid, I was provided a single overall 3/4 view, as I’m pretty comfortable working that way. This saved a lot concept time as Andrew was not required to create orthographs of the front, side, top and rear views of each character. I actually prefer to work from a single view concept as it gives me some creative ‘wiggle’ room when it comes to bringing the character from a 2D image to a 3D game model.
Overall, I was given about 22 days to create the bosses from start to end, fully modeled and textured. The animation team took care of the rigging.
MS: Even though I had a concept of the character, I had to look to other sources to inspire what I wanted the surfaces of the creature to appear like. For the back of the creature’s shell, I mostly looked at photos of lobsters and different species of crabs. For the underbelly of the creature, I had tried at first to use a lizard skin and an alligator skin for the texture, but both did not look right as they didn’t have that ‘alien’ feel to them.
What ended up working the best was to create my own version of the parasite’s underbelly from scratch in Photoshop. This of course took longer, but the results fit the look and feel of the creature much better than using real-world animal skin as a starting point. The gameplay for this boss was developed over time, thus different ideas where explored. The room the boss is in was created after I had finished the art for it.
MS: Flaahgra is the first boss character that Andrew Jones concepted. This creature was a lot of fun to work on because Andrew did about five variations for the creature. There was the ‘core’ concept, but I ended up taking a few other details from the other variations Andrew created. Todd Keller created a concept for the giant plant flower that Flaahgra sits inside of. The first version of this boss had all the tentacles as part of the plant. Later, the designers decided to detach the tentacles and make them more part of the room like you see in the game. The room and creature sort of evolved together as the designers worked their way through how this boss character would play out.
MS: Thardus was concepted by that first concept artist I mentioned earlier. There was a movie that inspired this character, but I don’t remember the movie. Sorry man, it was a long time ago. I am not 100% sure, but if I remember correctly, Thardus was supposed to be in a large lava pit arena, but I believe we had to change it due to time constraints. There’s not a whole lot to say about this boss since it’s a bunch of rocks so I looked at rocks for additional inspiration. I would say of all the bosses for Metroid, this one was the easiest for me to create.
MS: I believe that this boss was the boss I did the quickest because at that point in the project, we were getting to the tail end of development and that meant he had to be done quickly so the animator’s and programmers could do their work. Not much else comes to mind about the Omega Pirate.
MS: Meta Ridley, of all the bosses, was the most difficult for me to pull off. One reason Ridley was difficult was because we ended up creating him twice. The concept Andrew did had a lot more details and the design was very asymmetrical with him having some mechanics on one side, but then more alien anatomy on the opposite side. Also, Ridley’s wings were far more mechanical looking.
So, I had completed this first version of Ridley, but I think everyone was in agreement that there was just too much stuff going on. So, I moved onto some other enemy creatures while Andrew went back to the drawing board to simplify the design. The second design of Ridley was a lot cleaner and much more symmetrical. The big mechanical wings were also replaced with the holographic looking energy wings. Ridley is definitely my favorite creature of all the creatures I worked on. I am very happy with the way he turned out.
Metroid Prime (Shell / Core)
MS: Metroid Prime’s shell was a lot of fun to model and the concept for this boss was very clearly laid out as Andrew did several different views for this design. The part that was actually more challenging was the core of the creature. The main reason the core was challenging was because there were limitations to what we could do with multiple layers of transparent polygons. The core had jelly-like outer skin with glowing brains and arteries underneath the skin. In the end, I worked with the programmer who helped by giving me a couple of shaders that enabled me to work around the limitations I was running into with sorting transparent polygons.
SS: Thanks for taking the time to speak to us Mike, do you have any closing comments you would like to make?
MS: Thank you very much for giving me this opportunity to share a little bit about the bosses and creatures of Metroid Prime. And I’d like to say thanks to all the fans that enjoy playing video games because without you guys I’d probably be flipping burgers at McDonald’s. Cheers!
We would like to thank Mike Sneath for taking the time to speak to us about Metroid Prime and wish him well with his latest project, Twisted Metal on the PS3 and all his future endeavors.