Hideo Kojima doesn't make too many public appearances, but on Wednesday night at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts, the Metal Gear Solid director and Kojima Productions head gave a 90-minute talk encompassing his childhood, evolution into game development, his vision for the future, and footage of the studio's new multiplatform Fox Engine at work.
During the Gamasutra-attended event, Kojima discussed his childhood spent as a latchkey kid and his love for homemade 8mm films and short story writing. (One hand-written tale called "Survival Battle" detailed a Battle Royale-like scenario in which teenage participants competed to add 10 years to their lives). He even described a near-death experience while dangling off a bridge to avoid a speeding train.
While Kojima had a flair for the creative, he attended university to study economics. He had a tough time fitting in.
"Most of my classmates wanted to go to some brokerage firm or bank. Within that crowd, I was the oddball who wanted to make movies," he said, "I'm envious of you at USC, who have colleagues with visions. I wish I had that back then."
In the mid-1980s, he discovered the Famicom, and cited Super Mario Bros., Xevious, and Japan-only adventure game The Portopia Serial Murder Case as games that heavily influenced his decision to become a game designer.
"[Back then], video games were limited, but I felt great potential. They were digital and interactive and new. It was an unexplored medium that inspired me to get into the industry."
Kojima said that he has such a hands-on approach to every element of Kojima Productions games that he considers himself a rarity in that regard. "In that sense, you could say a game creator, like a master chef, is the auteur of the game," he explained. "If you go to a restaurant after the master chef has changed, the experience could be different. It's the same with game designers. If they leave, the entire experience could be affected."
Kojima expanded on that idea when asked by games journalist moderator Geoff Keighley exactly when he'd really quit making Metal Gear Solid games (the designer has said a handful of times in the past that he would stop heading up games in the series, but continues). He claims that he wants the series to continue, even beyond his demise. Although he wants to make more games than Metal Gear, he says that when he's handed off projects to others on the team, they "never really work out, and I end up getting sucked back in," he said, smiling.
He explained that the upcoming Metal Gear Solid: Rising allows another member of the team to develop a title without the pressures of captaining a numeric sequel. "But of course, I want to take the canon series and give it to someone else. Anyone in the audience want it?" He and the audience laughed as only a smattering of hands raised.
That provided a transition point for Kojima to pivot to his most important announcement of the evening: new footage of the Fox Engine, which he initially revealed during E3 2011. All news media were barred from filming or photography as he showed off a ten minute video showing off what the new engine will do. Kojima repeated at least twice that the 2010-dated tech demo in no way reflected Fox's current progress, and that the demo didn't represent an actual Metal Gear game in development.
The clip started with a demonstration of how quickly an experienced designer can lay down hills, then layer in grass, snow, worn-in trails, and foliage. Objects can be added, scaled, and rotated in real time, as he showed by implementing a few boulders, downsizing them, and sinking them into the terrain. Kojima claimed that an highly experienced level designer could likely use Fox to build a full-on jungle stage that looks quite good in 30 minutes or so.
Fox Engine also utilizes built-in collision detection, which the clip demonstrated by spawning a Big Boss-like character and attempting to sink him into the ground. His knees bent as the mouse attempted to push him down. Within the video, an enemy PMC guard spawned near Big Boss, and Kojima explained that within a few clicks, a developer can craft the AI's paths of patrol.
According to the footage, on-the-fly adjustments can be made while characters are moving around in the environment. Within the video, the designer spawned a boulder to obstruct the guard's path and while tinkering with it, the guard climbed the rock and jumped off it before it was permanently cast into the ground. If objects, such as bridges or watchtowers spawn, enemy AI will immediately interact with them.
That interaction applies to weapons as well. The designer in the video spawned Big Boss a turret, then gave the enemy PMCs a Stryker APC vehicle. Four of the five guards instantly ran to the Stryker and used it for cover. The footage could be best described as resembling what Metal Gear Solid 4 would look like with Peace Walker's lush tropical stages. His ideal vision, he explained, is to allow designers to create stages without leaning on programmers.
"What I really want to do some day in the future, is provide this to USC for students to design stages and use the best ones as DLC for a future game," he said. "One of the members of the Kojima Productions tool team is a graduate of USC. It'd be nice to give something back to the campus."
Although details are still being finalized, Konami's U.S. arm appears to be interested in implementing the Fox Engine into the USC curriculum, as the publisher announced it will be sponsoring a game development course at college in the near future.
Doing The "Impossible"
Kojima's indefatigable approach to development is well-documented. When prompted about his daily work schedule, he revealed that between his three responsibilities as creative, technical and business manager of the studio, he averages four hours of sleep per night. That answer dovetailed into moderator Keighley's follow up question about work-life balance, which he admitted is a sore spot for him, though his children are proud of his work and glad to have his undivided attention on weekends.
He was also asked what was at the root of the disconnect between the Japanese gaming market and the Western market. Kojima believes that the limits of games during the 80s and 90s created certain abstractions like silent films. Because today's technology not only allows language, but specific cultural elements, he said the industry has reached its "talkie era."
While Japanese games featuring high school girls and "beautiful-looking guys" as protagonists are the rage now, he believes that "you couldn't express those cultural specifics in games back then, so you had Mario and a turtle, and it was universally understood... I'm not so concerned with setting my games in Japan. I came from a background that was more diverse in entertainment. I don't make games for high school girls, instead -- quite the opposite -- I make games featuring old men."
When asked about his vision for gaming in the next five years, he joked "maybe Call of Duty 10, or maybe my next game will be out by then, too." He's a firm believer that consoles will extend further than in past years, and that's thanks to cloud architecture and the methods that entertainment will integrate with that technology. He also believes that as the research and development improve, and augmented reality becomes mainstream, it will have a profound effect on our everyday lives for the better.
Kojima adamantly recommended to the student audience that they fight for whatever creative vision they believe in and to try to change the office culture wherever they might land. "I think many of the things we think of as impossible can become possible. The reason people say 'it's impossible' is because no one's done it," he said.
"If you're creative, you'll make it happen. I think it's by doing things no one has done before that gives you credibility and respect as a creator and people believe in you. Back in the day, they said man would never walk on the moon. Whatever you have in you mind, it can be done."