Konami looks to the future, and it's not the future longtime fans want
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Remember that interview with Konami Digital Entertainment president Hideki Hayakawa that stirred up a hornet's nest recently?
A number of sites reported on excerpts of a Q&A with Nikkei Trendy, a Japanese publication -- and these caused quite a stir; they suggested that the company was shifting away from console games and toward mobile titles.
Coming on the heels of rumors of Hideo Kojima's incipient departure from the company, the cancellation of his Silent Hills project, and the delisting of the P.T. demo from PSN, this news didn't go down well at all with players used to the company's strong console output for the last several decades.
Konami has decided that fan freakouts require a response, and this week sent the press a sanitized-for-your-protection statement that assures them that Metal Gear Solid and Silent Hill aren't dead, which went public this morning. But it's not a walk-back at all, either.
The company also provided Gamasutra with a full, translated copy of the Nikkei Trendy interview, and it's full of discussions of the company's plan for a mobile push in Japan and the West both.
Like many Japanese companies, Konami is running gleefully towards mobile games; it's true. Unlike, say, Namco Bandai, which is doing the same, or Capcom, which desperately wants to but can't quite seem to get it right, that's happening with a marked decrease in console game projects.
Hayakawa was the executive producer of Dragon Collection, which was a massive mobile hit for the company a few years back; I know from talking to a former, high-profile Konami staffer (off the record, but when he was still at the company) that the game was the company's bread and butter at the time -- it was responsible for a huge amount of its profits. Konami decided to go mobile in a big way then and there -- which Hayakawa himself says in the Nikkei Trendy Q&A.
With Hayakawa in charge, that's what's happening.
And that "former" high-profile staffer? Well, think about it: There have been a huge number of defections of veteran Konami staff lately. Even if we assume (contrary to appearances) that everything's okay and Hideo Kojima is staying with Konami, the publisher lost Koji "IGA" Igarashi (who worked on mobile games for a couple of years after management took the Castlevania franchise away from him, and who now is finding massive Kickstarter success), Akari Uchida, Tak Fujii, David Cox (notable because he's the guy who took over the Castlevania franchise) and doubtless many more I can't name quite so quickly.
And nobody ever seems to spare a thought for Hudson Soft, that stalwart of the industry which gave us the Bomberman series and the TurboGrafx-16, among many other lovely memories, and which Konami completed a takeover of in 2011.
It's my understanding that whatever Hudson staffers remained with the company were moved onto mobile games. The Bomberman IP went fallow. I'm really not sure what happened to the people who worked at the company. (This is what happened to its longtime HQ.) This is industry transition writ large and in stark effect.
Konami sent us (and other outlets) a fluffy statement (which Kotaku's Patrick Klepek has torn to shreds very effectively) that says things like:
"We would also like to take this opportunity to state that the Metal Gear and Silent Hill series, both beloved by countless fans around the globe, are also extremely important to Konami. We have nurtured them with care over many years since their inception, and will continue to produce products for both franchises, but we are not currently at a stage where we can announce the path these future titles will take."
This doesn't do a thing to explain what's really happening with these IPs; it doesn't mention any other classic Konami IPs (Castlevania? Contra?) and it does the opposite of making things with Kojima sound like they're hunky dory: there's no plan in place for the future of the Metal Gear IP!
"Konami will continue to embrace the challenge of creating entertainment content via different platforms; across not only mobile platforms, but for home consoles, arcade units, and cards, to meet the changing needs of the times."
Castlevania and Contra aren't going concerns, and likely (from the company's perspective) have already failed to "meet the changing needs of the times." If and when when Kojima leaves Konami, there will still be plenty of people in place to make Metal Gear games, and an audience for them. A producer will be promoted. (As Wired's Chris Kohler forcibly argued, the era of big-name Japanese devs is drawing to a close.)
There will still be interest in the IP from players. After all, people kept buying Call of Duty after Vince Zampella and Jason West left Infinity Ward. Hell, Infinity Ward is just one team of many that's working on the franchise.
It's clear that this is the story of a company in transition; for those of us who grew up with Konami being an absolute force in the console game space, it's jarring. When you look back at every era, from the NES up to the PlayStation 2, the company simply dominated the landscape with high quality games. Its output for the original PlayStation is sickening in its quality.
And that's not to say that nothing of value was produced last gen too; pretty much everybody struggled to get good games out at the same volume as before, and many did much worse, so any stumbles were hardly conspicuous.
Last year, Konami's E3 booth was for Metal Gear Solid V and nothing else. Literally. The writing was on the wall then.
Leaving aside the games that Hayakawa cited as examples of Konami's penchant for innovation over the last several decades, the only games he really spoke optimistically about -- the ones that have an assured future outside the mobile space -- are Pro Evolution Soccer and Powerful Pro Baseball, both long-running, reliable, and repeatable sports titles.
And conversation around them mostly focused on how the company can get console gamers to shell out for microtransactions. (Powerful Pro also recently had a succesful mobile version, which Hayakawa also trumpeted.)
Nikkei is a business publication -- it's Japan's Wall Street Journal -- and this kind of talk is standard fare in that context. If, instead of reporting on Destiny and Hearthstone, the enthusiast press focused in on what Bobby Kotick had to say to investors, they'd likely be freaking out about Activision Blizzard, too.
He seems most excited about Call of Duty Online for China, of late. That's easy enough to ignore from when there's a totally different Call of Duty for the Xbox every year. In other words, that company is still keeping its established fans satisfied, and it hasn't had any high-profile dust-ups with its big-name developers since the Infinity Ward thing a few years ago -- which ultimately got us Titanfall, after all, so all's well that ends well (for the shooter fans.)
Everybody is changing business directions all the time, following the wind. And maybe because of that, something weird is going on with one of Konami's big name employees -- one of the last it has left.
It's the two in concert that has become conspicuous.
"The reorganization process has entailed repositioning our production studios, shifting our game development to a more centralized production division system," the statement reads in part; in Hayakawa's interview with Nikkei Trendy, he speaks in metaphors that bespeak a desire for centralization, rather than specialization, of development teams:
"Until now, our organization has been structured in such a way that individual production studios would focus on particular genres, to carve out deeper niches once a certain type of game proved to be a hit. In a way, this was like a shopping avenue lined with individual stores, each working on improving only their own product value and range."
"So if our business to date has operated like a string of individual stores, then this revised approach makes us a major department store. With all of our 'stores' under one roof ... I want us to focus on what the customer usage trends for Konami games are, and be able to tell precisely what customers want from moment to moment, such as which parts they are most interested in, whether they are playing multiple titles, and which platform they spend the most time playing on."
Craftsmanship-driven auteurs and creatives who are single-IP obessesives? No, thanks. Please bring me generalists who are happy to focus on consumer-friendly hits and drop everything to move to the next trend as soon as our KPIs start to irretrievably tank.
It's smart business for today's mobile market.
Every business, even the creative ones, seeks regimentation and safety as much as possible. Konami wants to stick to the formula, but tweak and adapt it as needed, when needed. It'll work. Maybe not tomorrow, but certainly today.
This is how Hayakawa sees Konami, and by extension the games business:
"When I first engaged in the development of Dragon Collection in September 2010, I strongly felt that mobile devices would soon become the major game platforms, and that our business would depend on running an 'operation-driven' model that would allow us to stay abreast of changing customer usage trends and swiftly evolve our games to suit them."
Tomorrow, though? Let's hope that this new structure allows for new ideas -- the kind Hayakawa trumpets.
"I believe all of our hits have been the product of revolutionary innovation," he says, before citing as an example Tokimeki Memorial, which created the romance simulation genre. Well, Igarashi was the lead writer on the original game, and Uchida shepherded the franchise (and its successor, Love Plus) for years. And where are they now? Who are their successors, creatively speaking?
The truth is that a guy who talks like Hayakawa is the guy that the investors want; he's the guy the business press wants to listen to. And for a company whose console business is spiraling the drain, in a country where the console business itself is rapidly contracting as mobile explodes, he's the right guy.
But he's probably not the right guy for Hideo Kojima, and the people who care about his games. And that's what we're seeing, and no PR statement can mask that. In the end, I'm not even sure what Konami thought releasing a statement like this would accomplish.
But that's what happens when you have a legacy customer base that you want to keep on the hook, but that you don't really truly understand. Konami isn't leaving the console business, at least not soon. There's still gold in those hills. But a different kind of thinking than what brought its franchises to prominence is now pervading the company, regardless of what it says.
This is a shifting industry.