On the surface, it's been a horrible few years for Konami.
Its big franchises have failed to light up the sales charts, not least Pro Evolution Soccer, which continues to lose market share to its big licensed rival.
Yet behind the scenes, the Metal Gear publisher has been rebuilding. Its most high profile investment has probably been its Fox Engine, a technology that will power all of its next-gen games.
But there's more. Last year, at a lavish event held at Windsor Castle, the firm launched its new European HQ, which it has moved from Germany to the UK. It's aim, says the company's European boss Shinji Hirano, is to become a bigger player in digital.
One of the purposes we moved to the UK is to have more of a merged international team,” he tells MCV. As we move further into the digital world, we are having to start communicating with all of our users. We used to have a headquarters in Frankfurt, but it's a little difficult to manage this communication from there with just German people. So now we have a more merged team and we have succesfully hired talented people in the UK.”
He adds: Our core know-how has been how to distribute the content. But now it is about how we communicate it, how we understand consumer trends, and when we see a trend we want to react quickly.”
We are putting in a lot of effort and conducting a
lot of studies in understanding what consumers
are feeling. Now we clearly know what's been going
wrong with PES, so we are working on that. The next
version is totally changed. 2014 is a transitional year
for the franchise, so expect big things.”
Shinji Hirano, Konami
Hirano discusses the importance of servicing its consumers, not just releasing a game and then moving on. It's not a particularly new conversation, it's one we've been having with its rivals for the best part of two years. But those firms have been downsizing in Europe – Konami is going the other way.
And it's not just a new office, the publisher has also opened a new development studio in Windsor, tasked with making PES a big name in Europe once again.
I cannot give details on exactly what we are doing with the UK studio, but they are working on the next [PES] project and looking at the needs of the European people,” says Hirano. It's about globalising the franchise, so that it is not just being developed by Japanese people.
We are putting in a lot of effort and conducting a lot of studies in understanding what consumers are feeling. Now we clearly know what's been going wrong with PES, so we are working on that. The next version is totally changed.
2014 is a transitional year for the franchise, so expect big things.”
Utilising a European studio to boost the Western appeal of its franchises is nothing new to Konami. Back in 2010 it handed its Castlevania franchise to Spanish studio MercurySteam, and what emerged was the actually very good Castlevania: Lords of Shadow.
A full sequel to that game launches at the end of February on 360 and PS3. Hirano admits the timing isn't ideal, particularly with so much emphasis placed on the next-gen consoles. But he hopes fans that play it will be clamouring for a Castlevania on PS4 and Xbox One.
The transition to the next-gen is a lot faster than we thought, that's why it's unfortunate we don't have a next-gen version of this title. But I want consumers to feel: ‘I want the next version on the new consoles.' That's what I want to hear.”
Not that Konami is waiting around to move to next-gen. This March marks the arrival of Metal Gear Solid V with Ground Zeroes. The game is part of an ambitious new project by series creator Hideo Kojima. It is the first part – a ‘prologue' as the developer calls it – to a new open-world take on the franchise, which will conclude with The Phantom Pain, a game unveiled during Microsoft's E3 press conference last year. Kojima says Ground Zeroes will help ease gamers into this new Metal Gear experience, yet Hirano insists that both games will be a ‘big deal' for Konami, and Ground Zeroes also marks the first time the company is launching a digital and physical game at the same time.
This is the first year we are bringing games to
next-gen. Metal Gear is not an annual franchise,
so this is the biggest year we can deliver for that.
And although I can't say certain things about
PES 2015, we are ready to make a comeback. So
as you can see, this year is going to be a
challenge for us, but a good challenge.”
Shinji Hirano, Konami
Everything Kojima Productions does sets the bar. So you are going to hear a lot of noise,” he says.
2014 ranks as one of the most important years in Konami's history.
It has spent millions setting up a new European HQ and a new developer, not to mention building a next-gen games engine. This is the year that investment has to pay off. The relaunch of PES, the belated return of Metal Gear Solid after a six-year absence (at least in terms of home console launches) and a new concerted push into digital. The pressure is on the entire business to deliver on all these fronts.
But at least it has the tools to do it.
Hirano concludes: This is the first year we are bringing games to next-gen. Metal Gear is not an annual franchise, so this is the biggest year we can deliver for that. And although I can't say certain things about PES 2015, we are ready to make a comeback. So as you can see, this year is going to be a challenge for us, but a good challenge.”