Last week we ran an interview I did with Retro Studios, makers of the “Metroid Prime” series on MTVNews.com. I couldn’t fit all the best material and left some of the more hardcore-oriented questions for today.
I wanted to know why the didn’t open this game with the traditional Samus-loses-her-powers bit.
I wanted to know why they keep ending “Prime” games with collection quests that some gamers are vocally against. I asked about their relationship with the speed-running community that strives to break their games, their thoughts on whether top-level artists really want to make Wii graphics, and why one of the game’s gesture controls wasn’t working for me.
Oh yeah, and I asked them about that supposed “Metroid Dread” reference.
I grilled ’em, people! But they were great sports, and they had a lot of smart things to say. Read on and see for yourself.
MTV: One of the most unconventional Wii controller features in “Metroid Prime” is the door-unlocking, Wii-wrist-twisting technique. What’s the story behind that feature? And why doesn’t it always work when I try it?
Mark Pacini, Game Director, “Metroid Prime 3″: “We showed it to our friends in Japan and they loved it. And I’m like, “really? Didn’t you guys already do something like this?” Because these were ideas they had been talking about it but had never done yet. They were like “Wow this feels really good.” We said. “Okay we’ll just keep doing this then.”
The in and out is based on pointer. [The Wii remote’s motion-sensing] accelerometer can’t determine in and out toward the screen. The pointer can determine how far the controller is from the screen, so if you’re doing that action and not actually pointing at the screen it won’t register. That could be what was happening is that when you actually pull and push from your body, most of the time your hand isn’t perfectly steady. It kind of wavers a bit and points at a different direction. We left the reticule indicator on the screen, although it’s faint so you could still see where you’re pointing at the screen.
For most people the distance at which they play games from a television screen, most of the time that won’t be a factor. Because you’re so far away from the TV — like six feet — that most of the time you’re going to be pointing at the screen. But if you’re playing pretty close to the TV it could be [a problem for you.]
(Note from Stephen: Pacini was correct. Since he gave me this explanation I’ve been more careful and the mechanic has worked every time.)
MTV: “Metroid Prime 3″ may have had the most voice-recording ever in a Nintendo game. How did Retro convince the traditionally text-only folks at Nintendo to allow so much voice?
Pacini: It wasn’t easy. In the very beginning we had a long discussion about the pros and cons of putting voice in the game. We didn’t want to just put voice in the game because we could do it. There were some real critical things that we wanted to try to achieve with “Metroid Prime 3,” which is the player getting a little more of a connection to the characters, the other hunters in the game.
We wanted to change up the hint system the player gets to make them feel like they’re on an adventure rather than every once in a while they get a line of text that says go over there and brings up a line of text.
We had very solid reasons why we wanted to include it. But I think one of the things that our colleagues in Japan were warning us of [is that] the process of making games for Nintendo is constant refinement. And towards the end of the project you want to continue to refine. If something isn’t working, we need to have the freedom to change it. Voice comes into the aspect. It limits the amount you can refine toward the end of the project because you have to get the audio voice done fairly early.
And I think that Nintendo are masters of polish. They polish games and they’re very well put together and they’re extremely solid games and that ’s because there is a great deal of iteration after the point where most developers would say it’s done. They’re still polishing so the issues they were bringing up is this does limit.. at the last minute we had to change several lines.”
MTV: The first two “Metroid Prime” games open with a section that robs Samus of her powers. “Prime 3″ doesn’t. Why?
Pacini: In “Prime” 1 and “Prime 2″ we were kind of going by that paradigm of “Let’s give the player some initial abilities up front to give them that ’Wow, this is interesting; I’m doing a lot of different things’ [feeling] and then let’s take them away and settle into the “Metroid Prime” core gameplay.
But in 3 we had kind of done that already. In 3 we were like, “Are we really going to take the abilities away again? What does that really prove? We’ve already done it in other games.” We were looking for a way to approach this game a little differently and make it more accessible for people. So in the beginning letting the player have the double jump and keep the double jump. It’s easier to move around the environment and it’s more fun to jump around the environment when you have the double jump we thought it might be good to give that in the beginning. As well as the morph ball. It’s fun to do that stuff. Why take it away? Especially when we’re trying to open this up a little more for an audience.
MTV: All three “Metroid Prime” games require players to collect a bunch of items scattered around the game world(s). We see this kind of late-game mission in some “Zelda” games too. Some fans are vocally against these so-called “fetch quests.” Why still include them?
Pacini: I’ll tell you the reason why the quote “fetch quests” are in there. It’s not to artificially lengthen the game. That’s not the intent. “Metroid” games — “Zelda” games as well — [are] not linear. I think that whatever is happening in our games — especially “Metroid” games — is you get to a point where you have pretty much all the abilities in the game, and we want to give the player the ability to use those for a little bit longer.
The idea of having items that you go back into the game and back into areas that you’ve already explored to find them gives you more time to use the abilities that you’ve gotten. Say for the example in “Prime” 2, you have the Annihilator Beam or the Screw Attack, things like that you find much later in the game. Having these side quests to go find these keys or artifacts, or what have you, allows you to use the Annihilator Beam [or] the Screw Attack for a longer period of time before the game is over.
What we did take into consideration for “Prime 3″ was that we understood that people necessarily didn’t like having to go back. They thought they were near the end of the game and ’oh gosh I have to go back and get extra widgets.’ …In “Prime 3″ we still felt we wanted to allow the player to use their maximum abilities for a longer period of time. But what we did is we didn’t require all of the keys to be found only need five of nine to get the items you need.
We kind of took that to heart a little bit. Obviously we want to cater to our audience and listen to them but at the same time we try to do what we feel is best for the game even though not everybody is going to be understanding of that.
MTV: “Metroid Prime”’s Tokens system reminds me of Xbox 360 Achievements, but with a twist. What’s the story behind that feature as well as the ability for players to trade token vouchers online via Wii Connect 24?
Pacini: This really came from the scan visor essentially. A lot of people like the Scan Visor. A lot of people don’t like the Scan Visor.
The challenge for me was to figure out a way to convince people that whether you want to use the Scan Visor or not you’re going to find a reason to use it and actually enjoy using it. That’s why we developed this Token system, at first strictly based around the scan visor. Every time you scan something you get a credit for it. You get immediate gratification of, “wow I got something for scanning.” And it kind of rolled off that where we hopefully gave motivation to the player to whip out the scan visor and scan lore, scan creatures, and get these credits and then roll that out to a bigger system where maybe you get some credits for doing certain things in the game.
It does echo what the Achievements do in Xbox but basically we wanted to tie it to our reward system, our unlockable system. Because In the previous games our unlockable system was mainly was mainly based on scanning. … we wanted to make it a little bit easier, well a lot easier, for people to get the unlockables in the game. So that it’s more like a collection…
[answering the part of the question about the online-traded token vouchers…]The goal was to include some WiiConnect functionality. Initially we were considering doing some sort of ranking system with Gamespy and stuff and basically I think the philosophy from Nintendo was that’s only good for a small percentage of gamers. Only the most elite gamers are really going to get the use out of that and have fun with that. So I think with that sort of philosophy we came up with a system that would hopefully propagate people using WiiConnect 24 in the simplest way. There were two main ways. One was the friend voucher system … the other was the screenshot tool [which allows players to trade screenshots online.]
MTV: Your series is beloved by speed-runners, yet your studio has tweaked at least the first “Prime” game — after its initial release — to block off some of the speed-runner’s techniques. Why? And what’s your relationship with that community?
Pacini: We definitely love that community. That sort of community really helps to keep the game going. People are playing the “Metroid Prime” games long after they have shipped. I think that it’s really interesting to see what these guys are doing and how they approach finding ways to essentially break the game. It teaches us a lot about how to construct levels. No matter how solidly you build something, somebody is going to break it.
We don’t go out of our way intentionally to block off stuff or to hinder speed-runners. But at the same time we don’t want people blatantly breaking the game. But we do put things in there. A perfect example is hypermode. Hypermode is a speedrunner’s best friend. We did design it in certain ways knowing that we have things in there saying people are going to exploit this and it’s going to make things very simple for them to go through this, and you know what, that’s okay. It’s a smaller portion of the gaming community that plays our games. That’s the sort of thing these guys will enjoy chewing on.
We don’t go out of our way to build things for them or to block them from what they enjoy doing, but at the same time we will fix things when we find it. [With] the advent of YouTube and stuff like, two weeks after the game we found all these things. [We were] saying ’Oh my god, they’re breaking the game left and right.” It’s actually kind of funny. It’s fun for us. A couple of things we’ll fix for the PAL version, we’ll fix for the Japanese version. But some of these we’ll just let go. The percentage of people who are going to find these are small, so we’ll just leave it.
MTV: Many hardcore gamers love high-end graphics. Is it safe to assume many game artists do? If so, should gamers worry that the industry’s best artists won’t want to work on the Wii, a system that doesn’t produce the visual punch of the PS3 and Xbox 360?
Todd Keller, Art Director, “Metroid Prime 3″: For me, the team here and all of us [doing] programming and design and art — rather than just a company it’s just a team of friends. We work together as artists and programmers and designers to create the best thing we can create within the limitations we’re given.
And for me, I’m so hardcore about little details and all that. I still don’t think people have made boxes right yet. It’s like: can you make the box better? Little textures, like 64 by 64s. And 256s.
I really don’t think people have paid a lot of attention to their core and where they come from as artists and to really develop their preliminary color skills and then work that into the higher resolution stuff. Instead they’re jumping right into normal maps, which I think is great. I think the technology of normal maps is awesome. I think there are a lot of beautiful games on the PS3 and the Xbox, but I think a lot of people — when they see bad stuff on those systems — it’s real bad. I don’t think they have a basic understanding of texture detail and color overall. You can do a lot with that stuff. If you look at paintings, some of the best artists out there don’t have a lot of detail, but they have awesome color. And you can get away with a lot doing that. For us, we just feel we don’t have the highest end system in the world and it would be great to work on some of those other shaders. I would love to work on some of that stuff.
But we still feel like we’re taking baby steps and are still learning as artists. And eventually we’ll see where the platforms go.
MTV: What’s the story behind the apparent reference in “Metroid Prime 3″ to “Metroid Dread,” the rumored but never-confirmed 2D game some fans hope is being made at Nintendo?
Pacini: “It’s not what you think it means… it was something that was overlooked and wasn’t in any way indicating anything about the handheld game. We know no information about the handheld games.
MTV: Are you suggesting that you got in trouble or something?
Pacini: Not at all. We actually had a fictional element of something else in the game that by a large coincidence could be read that we were giving a hint about “Metroid Dread” which was not the case. It’s a complete and utter coincidence.
Pacini: That’s all I can say on it.
MTV: That only makes me more confused. [laughing] I’ll see if I can parse what you just said to me.
Bryan Walker, Producer, Retro Studios: I think the bottom line there was [that there was] no innuendo in the reference that you’re mentioning.
Me: But you guys expected that some people would have a reaction to it. That it would be the stuff of news stories, yes?
Pacini: We didn’t think anything of it.
Walker: Purely innocuous, really.
MTV: Really? Honestly?
Walker: We’re not that clever. No conspiracy.
MTV: [pause, laughing] You’re not pulling my leg here. Definitely innocuous?