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A Retrospective: The Story of Retro Studios

Nintendo Purchases Retro

Around the time of the GameCube's launch, Retro began to experience several key changes that would ultimately shape its future for the next few years. The first and most important change for Retro was its purchase by Nintendo, which reclassified the company as a first party developer and division of Nintendo. On May 2, 2002, Nintendo secured $1 million worth of Retro Studios stock from founder and then president Jeff Spangenberg, effectively making Nintendo the majority holder of the development house's stock. Though Nintendo officially stated that Jeff Spangenberg sold his shares and left the company to "pursue new business interests," it is widely believed that Nintendo forced Jeff from his position.

We tried for three months to interview Spangenberg about his departure from Retro Studios, but our repeated requests were denied.

According to employees that were around during Jeff Spangenberg's rule, Jeff had a habit of being absent. Numerous reports that were published between late 2000 and early 2002 also indicate that Jeff did very little in the way of overseeing the production of Retro's projects. Rather, he delegated, allege insiders. Due to his excessive absences, projects went largely without supervision beyond the project leaders, and communication between Retro and Nintendo began to break down. Reportedly, Jeff was "passing the buck" as were other key management leaders. This, say sources, kept many teams in the dark and Nintendo constantly confused about progress. With little discussion going on, projects allegedly suffered and tempers began to hit a boiling point.

In the summer of 2001, photos and reports began to surface around the Net which spotlighted Spangenberg's after hours lifestyle. Images of him in hot tubs with half-naked women appeared on a website registered to a Retro Studios mailing address. The site, along with the photographs, disappeared quickly once word of its existence was publicized on game industry forums.

A disturbing sense of suspicion befell Retro in the closing months of 2000 and early days of 2001. To further elaborate on this, we would like to share with you the unedited feelings of one ex-employee who wishes to remain nameless.

"Over time I became amazed at the sense of paranoia that permeated everything at Retro. There were security cameras mounted every twenty feet in our halls, and it was common knowledge that they were for keeping track of the employees rather than protecting against anyone breaking in. Apparently the network administrator had to provide a daily sheet detailing the Internet use of every employee." Our source continues, "We were micromanaged on little things like how long we took for lunch. Retro had made a big point of hiring seasoned industry veterans to work there, but there was a major drawback to that: they had a company full of people who knew they could get better jobs elsewhere, and they often did. The common line was that employees were 'not staying at Retro in droves'. It was not uncommon to have new employees leave two or three weeks after starting. It honestly felt a little like living in a communist block country: you kind of didn't know who to trust, who would rat on you, that sort of thing."

The story only gets more interesting, as our source recalls, "They had also hired quite a few egos - we had several guys who could not abide competition and would torpedo any potential employee who they thought might upstage them, at least until the rest of us pointed out that trend and the head of the art department stopped consulting them. The feeling of the place was secretive and paranoid - not at all good for creative output. The work areas were almost all in a walled-off, black painted interior part of the building where no natural light could reach. All-in-all not a pleasant place to spend your time." He continues, "And there were indeed issues with the higher-ups, including people who used company computer hardware to run porn websites out of their home and others who embezzled hundreds of thousands from the company and fled the country. It's no wonder that Nintendo was able to purchase Retro for the ridiculous price of one million - I'm amazed they wanted it at all. I guess at that point they were in so far they needed to get something out of it."

Not long after photos of Spangenberg posing with beautiful women surfaced on the Internet, Nintendo bought-out Retro Studios from the founder by purchasing his majority holding stock shares for $1 million. With this, Jeff left his position at Retro and went on to pursue "other business interests." Today, Jeff Spangenberg is Founder and President of TopHeavy Studios in Austin, Texas.

With Jeff removed from the presidency, Vice-President of Product Development, Steve Barcia, became president. Barcia had been with Retro since the very beginning and held his position as V.P. of Product Development for three years. Like Spangenberg, Steve Barcia declined to comment on the topic with N-Sider. Steve Barcia is now employed at EA Canada in Vancouver where he oversees the production on the Def Jam series.

One hurdle that still persisted was the continued development of what some development insiders deemed a stalled project, an ambitious but problematic RPG called Raven Blade. Many have called the title unrealistically large in design, and Matt Casamassina of IGNcube recently stated the original design document was several hundred pages long! Some former Retro Studios employees believe that money and resources were wasted on the project, which showed only marginal improvements on a week-by-week basis.

With continuing development problems, Nintendo made the bold step of purging Retro's management of "outsiders" to Nintendo. And with that, Steve Barcia was removed from office on April 11, 2003 and current president Michael Kelbaugh was sworn in. According to the press release, Kelbaugh is a veteran of Nintendo of America, having worked at the company's US headquarters for 15 years. Most recently, he was a director of Nintendo's business development group. Prior to that position, Kelbaugh worked as product tester at NOA on Earthbound, Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest, GoldenEye 007, and many other games.

At the time of publishing this article, Retro has released the highly successful Metroid Prime and its much-anticipated sequel, Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, both to critical and financial success. Today, Retro Studios is widely respected by gamers for its compelling software and a soughtafter studio to work for due to its work environment and acknowledged talent.

According to one of our sources, "... I've heard that things have really turned around there. I still have a couple of friends there, and they say it is night and day different from the old days. They agree that the complete replacement of the upper management probably has a lot to do with that, and I'm glad to hear they're happy there."


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