We are happy to be interviewing Kynan Pearson, a former Retro Studios employee who worked as a Level Designer on Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, and Senior Designer for Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. Kynan shares several anecdotes from the games he helped develop, his feelings about working at Retro Studios, and with the colleagues he befriended. We are thrilled to finally be sharing this interview with the Shinesparkers community, and hope you will enjoy hearing Kynan’s insights.
My name is Kynan Pearson. I worked at Retro Studios for around 7 and a half years. I was a level designer on Metroid Prime 2 and a senior designer on 3. On Prime 2 I mostly worked on level design and world planning but I also helped out with mechanics. On Prime 3 I did level design, mechanics and world planning but I ended up doing more event planning towards the last half of the project.
Retro Studios was and continues to be an amazing studio filled with incredibly talented and collaborative people. Working on the Metroid franchise was a dream come true. Working with experts in every field made it easy to trust in your teammates and learn something new with every experience. There’s really no other studio like it. It was hard work but we always felt we had to give it everything we had and make games that were worthy of the Nintendo name.
When I got to Retro Studios I was working alongside a good friend of mine, Jason Behr, who was the lead level designer on the first Prime. We had previously worked together while at Iguana (Acclaim Studios Austin) so there was already trust there and we were able to hit the ground running. Making a new game, sequel or not, is a challenging experience. The pressure is there any time you attempt to make something great but if you fear failure then you can second guess your own decisions and become paralyzed in making any forward progress. It’s best to just work as hard as you can as a team and continue to improve things as much as you can before the end. Metroid Prime was a fantastic game and everyone wanted to make a game that continued the Metroid legacy but provided a new experience.
All games are team efforts so there’s no one person responsible for any single part. It’s all a collaboration of constant iteration and improvement. I have many fond memories of working with great people who were always willing to go the extra mile and make hard adjustments no matter how much rework it would require because we all cared about the game enough to do anything we could. The team was full of cool and interesting people and I feel it shows in the games. There aren’t really any games that feel quite like the Metroid Prime games. We were all willing to try new things or do things differently and that’s a big part of the culture.
By its very nature traveling between two different dimensions is complex. In order to make a complex route through dark and light world variations there needed to be some relatable clarity in how the world flows. An easier to cluster standard world structure made up for a more complex back and forth between dark and light.
I’m proud of the Metroid Prime games. Most of the time when I look back on games all I see are the flaws and compromises but in the end I know that everyone did the best they could at the time. It’s all subjective too, since no two players have the same experience. I believe Prime 2 is difficult but there are people that appreciate that. I believe Prime 3 took advantage of the unique elements of Wii hardware. Everything that made its way into games was because people on the team were excited about doing them. Once a game is out it’s up to the players to decide how they feel about it.
The Wii was exciting because it was different. It’s always nice to be forced to think about things differently because it’s interesting and fun to go into undiscovered territory. Mark Pacini and Mark H.H. worked heavily on the Wiimote aiming and gameplay mechanics and it was always exciting to jam on ideas together and figure out interesting ways to improve the feeling. The Wii was a totally different beast than the GameCube and allowed for many unique mechanics that weren’t possible on any other system. The Wii remote in particular was an actual revolution at the time. Pointing, motion, acceleration and form factor opened up the ability to think about things in a more creative manner because they weren’t ever available until packaged so nicely together in the Wii Remote.
Every decision in mechanics changes how a game is planned. Beam stacking impacted planning in the same way that any other tool does in any Metroidvania style title. Beam stacking just increased the need to utilize other tools since beam switching wasn’t a mechanic requiring manual player involvement.
About a year into the development of Metroid Prime 3 I left Retro to pursue another opportunity. After around 3 months studio creative director Mark Pacini asked if I would come back. I missed the team and was very excited about the future so I returned. I was fine going uncredited on Prime 3, since I had left during development, but the studio ended up listing me as special thanks anyways. All in all I worked around the same amount of time on both projects but handled significantly more level design on Prime 2 and more event planning on Prime 3.
I think there are many possibilities that could lead to an exciting and interesting multiplayer Metroid title. Does Metroid need to be multiplayer to be successful? Of course not. Could it be multiplayer or include multiplayer and be successful? Of course. It all depends on the idea, effort and execution. I love Jack and consider him a friend, but I definitely still believe Metroid could potentially have many exciting multiplayer possibilities, they would just need to be unexpected and different from standard common multiplayer ideas.
SkyTown required lots of effort in general and took a large group of designers, engineers, artists and animators to pull off. I personally worked on event planning for SkyTown. This mostly involved figuring out elements we could use to polish and differentiate areas in order to keep variety up and make each separate pod memorable. The level designers, engineers and artists for this world had it rough because of all the custom work it took to make a world unlike any other in the 3 Prime games. There were no walls preventing players from seeing the entire collection of pods so making it work at 60 fps was no small feat at the time.
A bunch of us worked on the Screw Attack. We came up with the idea to limit it’s usage so it doesn’t allow players to gain vertical height. Once we had these limitations in place the really hard part was tuning wall jumps and making sure the camera presentation was polished and allowed players to understand the timing of the mechanics.
I enjoyed the Ing and Luminoth because they were a new and unique element of Prime 2 that added to its atmosphere. The music in the game also helped express the feelings I associate with the luminoth and Ing. I love the Chozo as well but there’s always something special about discovering something different that expands the universe. New things allow you to absorb the world without relying on prior experiences. I’d love to see them return someday but I’d also enjoy seeing new races and enemies that defy expectations and allow for creative options. Part of the joy of playing Super Metroid was discovering new things that hadn’t existed in the Metroid universe prior. Things that surprise players imprint on them and become new memories. The Metroid universe leaves infinite room for the expression of interesting and diverse concepts. I personally don’t think I’ll ever stop having new ideas for Metroid games.
Andrew “Android” Jones had done a concept of an Ing with it’s legs extended out to look like outstretched fingers. A Luminoth was below it and symbolically it invoked imagery suggesting a puppeting scenario. The Ing are extra creepy because they have 5 legs and move around like a hand. This image was always pretty powerful and thought provoking, sticking with me ever since.
Many of my great memories and highlights are about the people, many of whom are still good friends to this day. During Metroid Prime 2 the team was smaller, so everyone had more responsibilities. I blocked in a little under a third of all of the rooms and halls in the game so the pace was insane but satisfying. I loved working with the amazing talent at Retro and SPD and got to hear many fun stories from everyone’s past experiences (which I can’t share). The great part of working with talented people is that you’re constantly learning new techniques and philosophies which you will continue to carry into the future.
I love wordplay and always have fun naming things. I came up with the names for Amorbis and Quadraxis. Amorbis is a combination of the words armor, morbid and enormous but directly includes orb (which the three creatures attach to). Quadraxis is much simpler as it’s just quadruped mixed with Axis.
I was always pushing for more interesting ways to express mundane gameplay tasks in manners that allowed for players to be surprised by the results. I came up with the idea for the statues you’d find on Bryyo with the morphball sockets in their stomachs. I always enjoyed the idea that they could do anything and you wouldn’t know until you activated them. I believe Ben Sprout built the final model and I thought they turned out great. Eventually Penny Arcade would crack a joke about them and it still makes me laugh.
That’s a tough one. Anything that gets cut ends up happening for good reason but I have some fun memories of things I really enjoyed that didn’t make the final cut. This gets me emotional just thinking about it but I worked with Andy O’Neil on mechanics and systems for Prime 2 and 3.
One of my favorite weapons in Prime 2 was the early version of the dark beam charge shot that Andy implemented. It originally generated twice as many dark globules on impact and they had a significantly larger attract range so they’d spread out and hit multiple targets quite often. It was so powerful but it was also just plain beautiful to watch. I’ve still never seen a weapon which captured the dynamic motion quite like it. No two shots ever looked the same and the way they swarmed across surfaces was super cool.
As for Prime 3 Andy and I worked on creating all kinds of unique morphball systems that made for lots of interesting gameplay scenarios. Most of these revolved around elemental infusion (Ice, fire, electricity, etc.) but in the end we focused on the electrical power which ended up becoming the phazon ball stuff. Seeing the electrical tendrils walk across surfaces while active made it super fun to roll around and connect to enemies and objects. These were really wonderful memories for me and I miss Andy dearly.
Heh. Yeah totally but it’s kinda hard to communicate. On Prime 2 I built the blue room for the first portal room in Agon Wastes, with the focussing lenses you needed to configure using the sun. I built the room with no rotation applied but Todd had placed the Sun at 23.15 degrees in the skybox so when I was done I just rotated the room and the lense contraption so that it lined up with the sun rather than rotating the skybox so the Sun aligned with the room. This created a nightmare scripting scenario for Tom Ivey later. It ended up being way harder than it needed to be and if I listen closely on a calm night I can still hear him howling in agony when he wakes from a nightmare where he’s forced to relive the traumatic event over and over again. We don’t even live in the same city anymore. Sorry Tom. ;P
Working with Nintendo was a dream come true and the relationship between the studios was part of what makes both Nintendo and Retro so unique. We were always a part of the same family. It was a collaborative process so freedom and trust were a big part of it. The Prime games are what they were because of everyone involved. If you had changed out any person in the process the games would have been different.
I think that Retro Studios is a one of a kind studio that offered up experiences unlike any other. I worked along so many uniquely talented individuals that it would have been impossible not to have absorbed new skills and philosophies. I couldn’t isolate any area of my skill-set that didn’t dramatically improve through my time there. Learning how to contort my body into a morphball and roll around the 343, Bluepoint and Playful offices has helped me find secret cubbies and get to meetings quicker. Having access to a scan visor also lets me get helpful tips when I need information on team members. Being able to shinespark helps me reach the upper floors of the office if elevators are broken down and taking the stairs would prove to take too long.
[Shinesparkers detects the sarcasm, and appreciates it]
Everyone who worked on the Prime games received framed covers that we all signed after release. The Metroid Fusion display box was special. While Tanabe-san and Tabata-san came down to visit I asked if they would take the display box back with them and have someone from the team sign it. When they returned to Texas again they brought the box back as you see it. I’m still so incredibly grateful to them for such an amazing gift.
I met Iwata-san long before the Iwata Asks and there’s no-one with a presence quite like his. I think he was an exceptional person who could talk about development, from personal experience, at an expert level. He was very easy to talk to but he also commanded respect. He is incredibly missed. The world isn’t the same without him.
I’d just love to take this time to express my love and gratitude to the creative talents at Nintendo, SPD, Rare and Retro Studios for both creating the franchises that I love and giving me the opportunities and trust to have worked on a few of them along the way. Getting to make games for a living is a gift and I’ve been incredibly lucky to have gotten a chance to work on franchises that inspired and influenced me so heavily. Thanks to all of the fans that continue to love and support the Metroid franchise. As a longtime Metroid fan I can’t wait to experience Metroid Prime 4. I also can’t wait to experience whatever Retro Studios cooks up next.
© 2021 Shinesparkers and Kynan Pearson
Special thanks to Darren and RoyboyX
Interviewed on 7th November 2021