Trouble brewing at Retro Studios. Rocky development for Wii U project.


People have asked me what is going on with Retro Studios.  As far as game projects, I have no idea.  But I have heard one thing about Retro Studios.  Nintendo has been in panic mode over the studio for the last year, and it’s had a negative effect on Retro Studio’s current Wii U project.  Retro’s Wii U project is far along in development, but it had a rocky development road throughout the process which forced Nintendo to fly a few employees from NST out to Austin, Texas to make sure Retro’s project stays on track and reaches completion.  Major gaps in positions and staff has caused delays and frustrations throughout the development process.  If Metroid Prime 1 taught us anything, Nintendo will stick with Retro through thick and thin to finish it a project they strongly believe in.

Nintendo is currently rebuilding and restructuring Retro Studios after losing a majority of the core talent responsible for creating the Metroid Prime trilogy, as well as 2 out of the 3 senior designers of Donkey Kong Country Returns.  But if most of Nintendo’s Donkey Kong Country Returns staff is still on board with Retro, what’s Nintendo worried about?

Well, Nintendo is preparing themselves for more senior talent to leave Retro Studios after Retro’s Wii U game is completed.  Older Retro Studios talent is preparing to jump ship, and Nintendo is hoping that recruiting new blood will reinvigorate the studio.  Retro Studios is going through a transitional period, and Nintendo is going into damage control to help them get through it.  In other words,  today’s Retro Studios is not the same company it was during the “Prime” days.  For years, Nintendo taught Retro how to think and develop games like Nintendo.  But with Retro’s core group of senior members leaving, and brand new employees entering, this changes the entire culture and philosophy inside of the company.  This means Retro is starting to forget how to “think and develop like Nintendo” which is making things tougher on Nintendo overall.

Speaking with an id software employee, their company has been receiving resumes and applications from current and former Retro Studios employees within the last year.  “Yeah, we receive resumes from Retro employees.  From what I understand, Retro Studios is bleeding away talent.”  On top of this, I’ve heard rumblings about some Retro Studios employees considering a jump over to Bioware Austin after their obligations to the Wii U project are complete.

This Wii U project will be created by a “New Retro”…a Retro that is a shadow of its older self, but it will still come out with a quality product thanks to supervision by Nintendo. It will be created without the majority of the top designers and top engineers responsible for the Metroid Prime trilogy.  It will be created without two of the three key designers (as well as one senior engineer) behind the genius level design of Donkey Kong Country Returns.    There are still Retro Studios members with the company, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot.  Many old Rareware employees (including tons of Banjo-Kazooie staff) still currently work at Rare, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t changed as a company.

As you know, in 2008,  these three key staff members from the Metroid Prime trilogy left Retro Studios to form their own studio, Armature Studios:

Mark Pacini – Design director (Entire Metroid Prime trilogy).
Todd Keller – Art director (Entire Metroid Prime trilogy).
Jack Mathews – Principle technology engineer (Entire Metroid Prime trilogy)

From what I’ve been told, after the Metroid Prime trilogy, Nintendo saw the loss of senior developers as an act of “protesting” against Nintendo. As soon as Prime was finished, Nintendo seeked out another developer to work on Metroid to send a message to those employees who walked out on Retro that  “no designer or engineer is bigger than Metroid”.  Many employees who stayed with Retro thought it would be disrespectful to work on a Metroid Prime 4 one year after so many “Prime” designers/engineers/artists who made the trilogy successful either left the company or were laid off. 

Editor’s note:  Retro didn’t act out in protest. Nintendo just viewed mass amounts of talent leaving as an act of protest.  Retro had no reason to protest.  I wanted to clear this up.

Other employees that left after or during the Metroid Prime trilogy include:

    • Karl Deckard – Senior Designer of Metroid Prime 1, 2, and 3.  (Left Retro to work at Sucker Punch)
    • Jason Behr – Designer of Metroid Prime.  Senior designer on Metroid Prime 2: Echoes  (Now works with 343 on Halo 4.)
    • Andy O’ Neil –  Technical Lead Engineer and principal engineer on Metroid Prime and Metroid Prime 2: Echoes .  (He left Retro to become president of Bluepoint Games)
    • Marco Thrush – Senior Software Engineer on Metroid Prime 1, 2, and 3.  (Left Retro to work at Bluepoint Games.)
    • Steve McCrea – Engineering and Senior Engineering on Metroid Prime 1, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption   (He is now the Senior AI Engineer at Armature Studio)
    • David “Zoid” Kirsh – Senior engineer on Metroid Prime 1, 2, and 3.  Zoid is responsible for the data streaming that takes place when you travel from one section of the world to the next.   Also responsible for the Queen Parasite boss encased in a giant cylindrical shield.   David “Zoid” Kirsh worked on Quake games with ID before joining Retro Studios.   (Zoid Kirsh left Retro Studios after the Metroid Prime trilogy and he now works for Valve on network interaction in multiplayer games. He also works on in-game action such as rule systems and scripting solutions for player interactivity.)
    • Paul Tozour – Senior engineer for Retro Studios from July 2003 to June 2008.  According to his resume, he worked on extensive gameplay, AI, and tools development for Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, and two other projects.  One of the projects was most likely Donkey Kong Country Returns.
      His responsibilities included extensive AI development on dozens of creature AI systems and boss encounters.  Also designed and built an extensive real-time artificial intelligence (AI) diagnostic and debugging tool set, a collision abstraction system, an attachment management system, and refactored path finding systems for flying and jumping creatures.  Rewrote the internal in-game diagnostic menu system to be hierarchical and use the Wii remote.  He also mentored several engineers in AI development.
    • Alejandro Roura – Environment artist and full-time Animator for Metroid Prime 1, 2, and 3.  Worked as an animator and environment artist for Retro Studios from 2000 to 2007.  (Now works as animator at Crystal Dynamics. Probably working on “Tomb Raider”.)
    • Frank Lafaente -Engineering Director on all three Metroid Prime games.  (Currently, Frank is a Director of Gameplay programming at Insomniac Games.)
    • Kai Martin –  Software engineer on all three Metroid Prime games.  (Currently working as a V.P. – Development at Thomas TradeWeb)
    • Chip Sbrogna – One of 4 level designers on Metroid Prime 2: Echoes.  Now works at Sixense Studios creating DLC for Valve’s Portal 2.
    • Ben Sprout – Artist on Metroid Prime 2 and Metroid Prime 3.  (Currently works at Guerilla Games.  His last two games were Killzone 2 and Killzone 3.)
    • Aaron de Orive – Lead writer/Story consultant for Metroid Prime 3: Corruption.
    • Cliff Young – World Artist for Metroid Prime 3: Corruption.
    • Bobby Pavlock – A level designer on Metroid Prime 3: Corruption who left Retro to work at Gearbox and then became Sr. Designer at Armature Studio.
    • Todd Simmons – Audio contractor for Metroid Prime 2 and 3.
    • Ilya Nazaou  – Artist for Metroid Prime 3 who now works for Bethesda.  See his amazing artwork here:
    • Tom Papadatos – Senior Artist on Metroid Prime 1  (Now Lead Character Artist at Disney Interactive Studios)
    • James H. Dargie – Senior Artist and designer on Metroid Prime 1 (He is now currently Studio Art Director at Sony Computer Entertainment America)
    • Ian Olsen – Character artist for Metroid Prime 3
    • Sonny Santa Maria – Contract Animation for Metroid Prime 3 (Left Retro to work at companies like Sony and Sega).
    • Michael Cheng – Level Designer for Metroid Prime 2 from Aug 2003 – May 2005 (Left Retro and became lead level designer at Sony and LucasArts.  Then became lead game designer at Electronic arts.)
    • Amanda Rubright –  Game and Level designer on Metroid Prime 1 between 2001 through 2003.  (After MP1, she left to work for companies like Ubisoft and Junction Point.)
    • Tony Giovannini – Was a level designer for Metroid Prime 1.
    • Nate Purkeypile – World Artist and Cinematics Scripter on Metroid Prime 3.  (Currently a Senior World Artist at Bethesda Softworks)

  • With major staff members gone, it was up to other senior staff members to step up to the plate including: Kynan Pearson, Mike Wikan, and Tom Ivey.  They were senior designers on the Metroid Prime trilogy that would soon team up to design Donkey Kong Country Returns .   Kynan Pearson was responsible for the amazing level design in Donkey Kong Country Returns.  Mike Wikan. was in charge of the enemies and bosses.  Tom Ivey was in charge of the game’s mechanics. Kynan Pearson and Mike Wikan both ended up leaving the company after Donkey Kong Country Returns was completed.  Kynan Pearson would go on to work on “Halo 4″ while Mike Witkan would go on to work for id software.  To better summarize, two out of the three designers responsible for DK Country Return’s genius level design and game play are no longer with the company.  According to Rezbit: Mike Wikan was the only one out of the three to have been around for Metroid Prime 1.

Note:  Significant portions of staff were lost and gained between MP1 and MP2 and between MP2 and MP3.

  • After Donkey Kong Country Returns, other staff members that left Retro Studios included:
    • Mike Miller (Senior Engineering)
    • Monty Goulet (Sound Scripter for Donkey Kong Country Returns)
    • Chris Torres (Contract Animation)
    • Nick McBride (Contract Animation)
    • Mark Brady (Contract Art) – Environment artist who created models, textures, and other assets for DKC Returns
    • Michael Witt (Contract Art)
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Always running from Nintendo's ninjas.
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16 Responses to Trouble brewing at Retro Studios. Rocky development for Wii U project.

  1. Great research. This is the kind of journalism gaming needs. Please stay independent though, the likes of IGN would ruin what you’re doing here.

  2. Pingback: Retro Studios pulled new Wii U title from conference - Nintendo 3DS Forums

  3. Some great research here, I love this kind of stuff.
    If this really is true, then it furthers that Retro is the new Rare for Nintendo xD

  4. Shaan Ali Khan says:

    …This doesn’t sound good at all. I mean talent within studios always changes, it’s the nature of the industry. But to hear about this heavy of a restructuring… *shrug*

  5. Pingback: Retro Studios Going Through Some Hard Times Behind The Scenes? | Nintendo Connect

  6. Pingback: Rumor: Nintendo having issues with Retro Studios | Gimme Gimme Games

  7. You’ve done some really fantastic research into this. I sincerely hope (as we wrote in our article about this very topic) that this information is somehow not as bad as it seems. But I do think that even with this much talent leaving that Nintendo will fill the voids well. That’s what made them a leader in the industry.

  8. Tomba says:

    I have a few questions and suspicions regarding this information if anyone would care to strike up a conversation about it. Especially Emily herself … ?

  9. Pingback: Trouble at Retro Studios? | Nintendo Culture

  10. hobobobo says:

    I’m not so sure about this. When the Prime leads left everyone was crying “The sky is falling! Retro is doomed!” and then they came out with DKCR, which was awesome. In spite of some more peeps leaving I’m sure the studio is still full of talent. This industry likes to slap one designer on the face of every game, but in reality every project is a collaboration and a team effort. Besides, we all know Nintendo calls the big shots anyway.

    The article is thorough, which I do appreciate.

    • Retro had some trouble through development like they usually do with most of their projects. But Retro is not in any immediate danger. Just a little trouble. After all, you’re dealing with technology, people, budgets, and time to complete a project. You can’t expect things to go smoothly all of the time.

      Especially when transitioning to a brand new console with a touchscreen controller.

  11. [NiVeK] says:

    I remember reading an interview with the sound designer Scott Petersen, and he said they had some of Metroid Prime 3 already done for the Gamecube, then Nintendo came and rained allover them with the news that they have to start all over again in order to release Prime 3 on the Wii. It’s must extremely frustrating working on games, especially if it’s a huge title, and even more so if it’s Nintendo. I hope these are just rumors!!

  12. Pingback: DK Vine » Retro Studios: Coming Apart from the Inside?

  13. TheWord says:

    lol at thinking this isn’t what Retro are all about.
    Retro’s always had trouble keeping staff, and projects on schedule for some reason.
    It’s probably something in the water in Austin.

  14. Guy says:

    This is fantastic journalism. Don’t ever get bought by the likes of IGN or Gamestop.

  15. cents says:

    what happened? why did you stop?

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