Three unusual things happened to former Metroid Prime designer Mark Pacini in 2009: He received high praise he didn't seek, saw a somewhat depressing game box and figured out that gaming in 2011 "is going to kind of suck."
Pacini spoke to Kotaku a couple of weeks ago from his office in Austin, Texas where it was briefly snowing. Pacini works on secret projects these days for his game development company Armature, a start-up formed by him and fellow former colleagues from Nintendo-owned Retro Studios. His known work is the Metroid Prime Trilogy, developed by Retro and a team from Nintendo's Japan offices and released on the Nintendo GameCube and Wii from 2002 through 2007.
Aramture's work remained secret in 2009, but the company's fortunes and return of the Metroid Prime series to the public eye with the Wii release of series compilation Metroid Prime: Trilogy allowed Pacini some professional and personal intersections with the gaming mainstream.
One of the bigger surprises for Pacini in 2009 was an ABC News story that aired online through ABCNews.com in October. In it, IGN's Michael Thomsen, who described the classic Orson Welles movie Citizen Kane's "symbiotic partner in the world of video games" to be that Metroid Prime trilogy Pacini worked on. "Orson Welles was using cinematography to express something very personal and human," Thomsen explained in the piece. "It wasn't just functional anymore. It was actually tied to a specific meaning about people aging, people dying, people not living up to their full potential. " The Prime games' presentation of a sole human warrior Samus Aran exploring dark and lonely worlds makes it a similarly exceptional work in its medium, the ABC piece argued. The game and the movie both dwell deeply into their protagonists' exploration for truth buried in the past.
While the Metroid Prime games are among the best-reviewed video games ever made, Pacini was surprised by the comparison. He wasn't interviewed for the ABC piece. It was sent to him by a friend. "I found out about it like everyone else did. Somebody sent an e-mail out saying, 'Look at this.' It was a WTF sort of thing… I honestly had a similar reaction to everyone else. It's flattering, and it's great, but I didn't get the comparison at all."
Pacini considers the Prime trilogy's achievement differently and in the context of both gaming's past and that of the formerly 2D pre-Prime Metroid series. "If I could say anything about Prime in terms of what I would think it would mean, I think we pushed the first-person genre a little bit and I think we were able to redefine a franchise in a positive light, bringing a game from 2D to 3D that wasn't expected. And thankfully it turned out OK."
As for that "Citizen Kane of Games" title, Pacini said he thinks that's the kind of thing that works for non-gamers. "For me, when I talk about games with my friends, we never compare games to movies," he said. "We compare games to games… I think if you're trying to describe games to someone who doesn't play, then movies are the perfect analogy. You say, 'Hey, it's like Terminator' or whatever and they get it. That comparison works more for people who don't speak the language of games." He's never heard a game developer say they hoped to make a Citizen Kane of video games.
Metroid Prime returned to Pacini's life in another way this year with the late summer release of the Wii compilation disc Metroid Prime Trilogy from Pacini's former co-workers at Retro and Nintendo. Fans often celebrate the opportunity to have a few favorite games in one package. But for a creator like Pacini that happiness was tempered by a bit of a sting.
"We thought it was awesome to see the games played with the Wii controls and, hopefully, have people pick it up who hadn't played it before. But it was also almost sad looking at this one box. This is eight years of my life in one box. ... I was really proud of my role that I played in it and the people I met and got to work with all those years. And then everything gets summed up in this little box."
The experience got Pacini thinking about years. Echoing something that BioShock lead creator Ken Levine said on a panel I co-hosted earlier this year, Pacini said that Trilogy compilation got him thinking about the amount of years he has left and the amount of games he has in them. "It's very eye-opening and at this point in my career, I really want to make sure that everything I work on is cool or important to me, because I don't have that many left in me. "
That said, Pacini can't talk about the games that he does have left in him, which is too bad for those who would like to know what the lead designer of three of gaming's best reviewed games is up to next. It sounds like part of the reason Armature's work remains secret is because Pacini, who loves the creative side of game development, has had to recently be more involved in the business side of things. He said he welcomed the opportunity to learn a new side of the industry, but that in 2009, the lessons were not that pleasant.
Working on the business side of things, he explained, exposed him to the state of the industry in '09. For those who have missed Kotaku's many stories about lay-offs and lowered sales, the news here is that that state is not good. " The industry got real shook up," Pacini said, referring to the many lay-offs. "There's a lot of things happening in terms of how projects get green-lit now. I hope you like games that are Blank of Blank 3 or Blank of Blank 7, because that's all that's going to be coming out for years. If it's not an established franchise or something that's sold already, publishers are a lot less likely to spend money on it and, I think, rightfully so since everyone is cutting back."
Here's what Pacini sees in his crystal ball: "I think 2010 is going to be awesome for games but 2011 is going to kind of suck. In 2011, you're going to see the results of what happened in 2009. You're going to see a lot of sequels, a lot of me-too products as a lot of cutbacks. Publishers are squeezing the number of new [intellectual properties] they're doing per year to a very small number."
Armature does have a future, Pacini happily notes. He seemed eager to elaborate more. But he can't. So leave it at that and cross your fingers that if gaming can be any better in the future, Mark Pacini will have something to do with it — even if he's no Orson Welles.
[Story images are from the Wii's Metroid Prime Trilogy]