The Full Story: Hideo Kojima and Konami

The following was first published in April 2016 and looks at the relationship between Hideo Kojima and Konami

The first of our in-depth editorials focuses on the falling out between Hideo Kojima and Konami.  It was a tale that took up the bulk of news stories in 2015 and we’ve tried to collaborate the entire saga together in one handy piece.

It’s hard to imagine now, but in late 2012 Hideo Kojima was overseeing much of Konami’s video game output.  In fact, you could go as far as to say that the Metal Gear creator ran the show at the Japanese giant.

Around the time that Mr Kojima was putting together the finishing touches to the brand new FOX Engine, he was planning to reveal ‘The Phantom Pain‘ to an unsuspecting audience at the Spike Video Game Awards.  A title which would take advantage of the new engine under the guise of Hideo Kojima, who had also just finalised a deal with Konami to take over the next Silent Hill project.  

But where did it all go wrong?  Fast forward a few years later and the relationship lay in tatters.  Konami ruthlessly withdrew Mr Kojima’s name from Metal Gear Solid V’s box art and its subsequent promotional materials in the lead-up to release.  When questioned about Kojima’s whereabouts in the aftermath of release, Konami relayed to the media that Mr Kojima was on holiday, when in actual fact he had already been released.  Having said goodbye to his team at a leaving party weeks after the game’s launch.

But at that point in 2012, it would’ve been hard to predict the outcome we see before us today.  We may never know the full story thanks to NDA’s (non-disclosure agreements) which prohibits parties from disclosing information in a company dispute.  But tracing the story from its inception, and even before that, may lead us to an idea of just how this once loved employee was let go in the most public of circumstances.

But perhaps Konami’s displeasure with Kojima and his development team started before Metal Gear Solid V was in full production.  Back in 2011 Konami, and other Japanese developers, were fighting against the tide of mobile success.  Companies like DeNA and GREE were using the free-to-play model to generate commercial success and saturate Japanese television with adverts promoting the idea that playing video games for free, was a better idea than paying a few thousand yen for the latest console title.  Fast forward to present day and mobile dominates the Japanese landscape, so much so that even Nintendo, the bastions of the console, have struck up a deal with DeNA in order to keep up with the times.

Konami made a decision to tentatively step into the potentially lucrative mobile game market in early 2010, and within months they struck gold.

Did a Japanese only mobile game kill Metal Gear?

Konami’s first mobile hits Dragon Collection and Sengoku Collection released in 2010 and helped the company to boost it’s profits by almost 80 percent.  Konami saw net profits increase year-on-year to  ¥23 billion ($288m/£178m/€222m).  A staggering amount when you consider fellow Japanese developers Sega and Capcom saw revenue fall.

Between them, Dragon Collection and Sengoku Collection boasted nine million unique users, most of which were spending money on microtransactions within both games.  The games themselves were produced with minimal cost to the publisher.  Yet they managed to draw a profit that was considerably more than the initial investment, and it’s here that Konami as a publisher of video games, began to consider it’s future in the big name, big budget console space.

Developing for consoles was becoming increasingly less appealing to companies who didn’t hold major sports licences (like EA with FIFA and Madden) or already have annual smash hits (see Activision with Call of Duty or Ubisoft with Assassin’s Creed).  Konami had to make a decision.  It’s biggest title, Metal Gear, wasn’t an annual release and by the time V made it into public hands almost a decade had passed since its last console iteration.  Likewise, Pro Evolution Soccer was also at a low ebb, losing year-on-year to FIFA and struggling to keep up thanks in part to a lack of licences.

Kojima and Konami

Mobile game Dragon Collection may have been the spark that led Konami away from big-budget titles

It’s at this point that Konami “narrowed down” it’s console development and saw mobile as a key driver of its future success.  But in contrast to Konami’s change of focus, Kojima was already close to completing the FOX Engine, a development tool that would enable Kojima Productions to produce the most graphically appealing Metal Gear to date.  It may have taken another four years for it to come to a head, but Kojima and Konami were moving in separate directions.

MGS V moves into full production, and Kojima takes hold of Silent Hills

In late 2011 the planning phase for the next Metal Gear title was almost complete, and so in early 2012 Kojima and his team started recruiting, using the slogan “Development without Borders” – a play on the “Soldiers without Borders” phrase Big Boss used in Peace Walker – to entice developers to work on the next MGS.

After teasing fans and the media alike with development pictures from an unnamed game on the FOX Engine, Kojima finally revealed Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes on August 30th, 2012.  Although at this point in time, it wasn’t clear that Ground Zeroes would end up being the prequel to The Phantom Pain.  A title that, two months later, would be revealed as a title from a new director, new studio, and new IP.

At the time of Ground Zeroes unveiling, Hideo Kojima described it as a “prequel to Project Ogre.”  Ogre being the project name for his ‘main title’ being developed on the FOX Engine.

But did Kojima mean for the two titles to be released independently of each other?  After all, The Tanker portion of MGS 2 is often referred to as the prequel to its Big Shell section.  Did Hideo and his team originally want to include both Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain on one disc?  Or, due to it’s lengthy development time, did Konami force Kojima’s hand?  Telling him to get Ground Zeroes out early in order to start recouping money lost from a long development time.  By the time Ground Zeroes hit shelves on March 28th 2014, Kojima had not released a full console title for six years.

Instead of focusing on Metal Gear and getting it out the door, Kojima ended up taking on another Konami franchise.  Just weeks after the release of Ground Zeroes at the 2014 GamesCom in Leipzig, Germany during the PlayStation conference.  A small downloadable title named P.T. was made free to download from the PlayStation Store.  The title received little fanfare at the press event, despite being shown on the stage for a few minutes.  It came and went as if it was just a bullet point of the conference.

But in actual fact, it ended up being the most talked about item at the show.

Upon completing the nerve-wrangling P.T., players were met with The Walking Dead star Norman Reedus walking down a darkly lit street.  As he ventures down the dark passage, the names of Hideo Kojima, film director Guillermo Del Toro and Silent Hills were in full view.

Amongst the development of the FOX Engine and two Metal Gear games, Kojima had taken on Konami’s other big – but dormant – franchise, Silent Hill.

It was a move that stunned most.  With Kojima positioning himself into becoming the lead developer on everything worth being interested in at Konami outside of their Pro Evolution Soccer series.

With a new engine, two Metal Gear games and taking the lead on a Silent Hill game with some serious celebrity muscle;  Kojima held all the cards, or so it seemed.

The downfall of Hideo

A year on from the release of Ground Zeroes and Hideo Kojima’s relationship with Konami turned from a minor disagreement to an irrevocable end.  Kojima’s name was removed from all forms of Metal Gear marketing.  From the upcoming Phantom Pain back to The Legacy Collection that released on PS3 a few years earlier.  Konami was trying to erase Hideo Kojima from Metal Gear, a franchise that he spent the majority of his life working on.  There was no announcement that this was happening, no long-standing rumour or leaked insider info; it just happened.  One day Kojima was there, the next, he was gone.

Two weeks prior to his name being removed from marketing he was de-listed as Executive Content Officer, a role he had held for a number of years at Konami.  The restructuring proved to be the first public mention of dissension at the Japanese publisher.  But it wasn’t until Kojima’s name removal that it was pertinently clear that something was up.

Kojima and Konami

Kojima and Konami

Spot the difference

It wasn’t just Hideo himself who was affected.  His newly formed team in Los Angeles – who were focused on Metal Gear Online – were swiftly renamed Konami Los Angeles, as opposed to Kojima Productions Los Angeles.  Konami expressed that it was part of a shift “… to a headquarters-controlled system.”  Which was in order  “…to establish a steadfast operating base capable of responding to the rapid market changes that surround our digital entertainment business.”

Reports swirled that Kojima was leaving Konami at the end of his contract in December, after the completion and release of Metal Gear Solid V.  Not only had Konami demoted Hideo Kojima to that of a contractor in order to fulfil his duties, but they had also limited his and his teams access throughout Konami.  Meaning that the man, and the team, that once helmed the companies major projects, was being micro-managed in their final months.

Kojima’s other title, Silent Hills, was rumoured to have been cancelled in the immediate aftermath of both Konami’s restructuring and their need to alter the box art of recent Metal Gear titles.  Konami refused to comment at first, only releasing a statement to confirm the Kojima remained at the company and continued to work on Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.  Conspicuous by its absence though was Silent Hills.

The worst when confirmed when on April 26th, 2015, assistant director Guillermo Del Toro informed attendees at the San Francisco Film Society that the game was cancelled.  The next day, Norman Reedus re-affirmed this through various tweets on his Twitter account.  Despite no word from Konami or Kojima, Silent Hills was as good as dead.

It took Konami just 24 hours to confirm Del Toro’s and Reedus’s comments.  The publisher confirmed that the Silent Hills project “would not be continued” but that the Silent Hill franchise “would continue.”  To date, there has been no announcement of a new game set in the Silent Hill universe.

To compound matters further, Konami also revealed that they would remove the P.T. demo from the PlayStation Store on April 29th, 2015.  Just three days after Del Toro’s admission of Silent Hills demise.

So what happened?  Were the Kojima projects too expensive?  Consider the fact that CEO Hideki Hayakawa made the follow comments a few days later:

“Our main platform will be mobiles. Following the pay-as-you-play model of games like Power pro and Winning Eleven with additional content, our games must move from selling things like “items” to selling things like “features.”

Kojima and Konami

Concept art from Kojima Productions new title

“We saw with these games that even people who buy physical games are motivated to buy extra content. The success of Power pro especially has motivated us to actively push more of our popular series onto mobile than ever before.”

“Gaming has spread to a number of platforms, but at the end of the day, the platform that is always closest to us is mobile. Mobile is where the future of gaming lies.”

“We hope that our overseas games such as MGSV and Winning Eleven continue to do well, but we are always thinking about how to push our franchises onto mobile there too.”

“With multiplatform games, there’s really no point in dividing the market into categories anymore. Mobiles will take on the new role of linking the general public to the gaming world.”

The low-risk high-reward of mobile game development seemed to ultimately win out at Konami.  Kojima Productions had spent too much time and money on development for Konami’s liking, without seeing a significant return.  Ground Zeroes was likely produced as a way of making money to fund the rest of the development cycle for The Phantom Pain.

Kojima and PlayStation

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain released on September 1st, 2015 to extremely positive press and player reactions.  It received top scores from Gamespot, IGN, Giant Bomb and even won our very own 2015 Game of the year award.  Earning itself a spot in our Best Games list in both our PS4 and Xbox One categories.

Despite years of development and confrontations with Konami, Hideo Kojima’s work was completed and well worth the time invested by him and his team.

Rumours were still rampant that Kojima had left the company though.  On October 9th, Forbes reported that the veteran game designer had left Konami, attending a leaving do at his studio in Tokyo to give his farewells to friends and colleagues.  But Konami denied this.  Explaining that Kojima-san was in actual fact on vacation, despite evidence to the contrary.  Kojima’s time at Konami had ended in an unceremonious and NDA-led fashion, with Hideo unable to work for another company until his contractor agreement expired in December 2015.

Konami even infamously stopped the Metal Gear creator from attending The Video Game Awards, hosted by Geoff Keighly.  The presenter went ad-lib during the presentation to explain that Kojima’s non-appearance was due to a specific clause in his contract, and that the Japanese publisher had stopped him from receiving the award won by The Phantom Pain.  But Konami’s days of controlling Kojima’s movements were almost at an end.

On December 15th, 2015, President and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment revealed that Hideo Kojima would be joining the PlayStation family for his first title out of Konami’s hands.  It had taken Kojima only a few months to put together a brand new Kojima Productions team and to craft a deal with Sony that allowed him to create a new IP for the PlayStation 4.  It was a move that while not unexpected, caught most off-guard with its timing.

According to Konami, Kojima’s departure from the studio doesn’t signal the end of the Metal Gear series.  With recruitment listings already active for a potential Metal Gear Solid 6.  Jobs that will need to be quickly filled though, as Hideo Kojima appears to have taken a large part of the team that helped him created Metal Gear Solid V over to his new Kojima Productions team.

After working solidly for almost three decades on one franchise, Hideo Kojima is finally free from the shackles of the world he created, even if a large rift with his ex-employers caused the fallout.  We may never know if the differences were creative or financial, but the man who created some of the greatest games of all time is about to start all over again.  Which can only be a good thing for gamers.

What do you think?  Is Kojima better off away from Konami? Is PlayStation the right place for him?  What could Konami have done differently to keep the auteur at the company?  Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.