Hideo Kojima is a man painfully aware of his own mortality. In fact, it’s the first thing the Metal Gear Solid creator points out to us when we meet.
It’s not often we kick off an interview with one of games development’s many 40-something men with a reminder of the end that awaits us all. Just like it’s not often that a famed game designer spends three years of his life working on a game that, essentially, charts the demise of a gaming icon as he too comes to terms with old age.
“Someone asked me earlier if I’d consider making a smaller game now that I’ve finished a project as massive as Metal Gear Solid 4,” he smiles. “My answer is that, personally, I’d love to work on a smaller project. But, thinking about the time I have left to survive, I’d rather spend that time working on bigger projects.”
He’s similarly focused when asked if he’d consider making a game with a retro aesthetic. “No, not interested at all. I don’t want to demean these games, it’s just that I think I have a different role: to create new things, using the latest technology, that haven’t been seen before. And I’m pretty happy with that role.”
Although that role sounds similar to what his PlayStation epics have been doing for years now, certain aspects are definitely different. Often described as an auteur – he insists on being called ‘kantoku’ in Japanese, which means ‘director’ (with film connotations) – Kojima is a man whose eye for gaming expands past simply mechanics and design.
And yet, like many of the ‘old’ creatives in the industry, he now finds himself in an increasingly business-focused position; typified conveniently with his recent promotion to the schizophrenic-sounding ‘managing director, operating officer and studio head’.
Is one of the world’s most visionary game designers becoming a paper-pusher?
“I’m still in charge of Kojima Productions, and my responsibility is still creating games that people love,” he reassures us. “But, you know, I’ve been going to other studios, and thinking about how we can make Kojima Productions a more global studio. If anything’s changed, maybe I have a little bit more responsibility to pass all of the success that Kojima Productions has enjoyed to the other Konami global studios – from engines and technology, to management techniques and the way we make games. So it’s about taking our expertise to all of the teams at Konami, helping the ‘base’ of the company rise alongside Kojima Productions.”
The studio tour, he explains, was a quiet affair last year – with MGS4 done, Kojima visited various US studios including Infinity Ward. Although inter-studio cooperation isn’t exactly rare, for a Japanese studio head to visit foreign studios and attempt to absorb their practices caused a quiet stir.
“I thought that it was about time that I maybe saw other studios outside of Japan,” he asserts. “There was a surprising amount of differences between what I saw and how we do things at Kojima Productions.
“What I’m thinking now is, okay, if we want to be a global studio, how do we do that? What things do we need to take? There are some good things we should copy, but some other things we shouldn’t. I’m thinking about what steps we should take in order to become a bigger, more global studio – that’s my focus at the moment.
“It’s about looking at the places where we think that Kojima Productions is losing against our competitors and doing something about that – that’s the motivation for the tour, really. It’s not just about technology either – it’s about marketing, business, the whole thing. How they manage within the team. We tried to see, absorb and learn all of this.”
HOW THE WEST HAS WON
The idea of competing with the West is a prevalent one throughout much of the Japanese industry of late. Be it luminaries from Capcom or Square Enix, there’s been a realisation that, in many areas, Japan’s best can feel as if they’re second fiddle to the work done by teams in North America and Europe. And while Kojima is quick to admit that he shares their concern, rather than seeing it as a negative, he feels it opens the potential for collaborations – opportunities for companies with different practices to come together and work on something that wouldn’t be possible alone.
“Yeah, I’ve definitely thought about it, and I’d love to,” he says when we ask if he’d work with any of the studios he visited. “I have no idea of when, though.
“There are many great development companies outside of Japan, and I think they’ve all got their own special ways. If I collaborated with them, I wouldn’t want to say ‘you should create this way, or use this colour, or program this like this’. I want these production studios to do what they do best, and that’s what I hope to do with them in the future.”
The strive to rebuild Kojima Productions isn't borne from just a sense of competitiveness: it's clear that he was, to a certain degree, uncomfortable with the scale of the production of Metal Gear Solid 4.
"The PlayStation 3, being a next-generation machine, meant that the amount of content we had to create was excessive. It wasn't easy. At its peak, there were 200 people working for me on MGS4. The way I look at it is being 200 people versus me. The most difficult thing about that was trying to keep everyone on the same page."
And, of course, big teams means big costs. It’s easy to pidgeonhole Kojima Productions as the Metal Gear studio, but it has a number of other series under its belt; from the balletic robot fighting of Zone of the Enders to the solar-powered action RPG Boktai via the three-strong Kabutore! stock/foreign currency exchange games. With those spiralling costs, and his desire to personally move on from the Metal Gear series, does that make Kojima more risk-averse when trying out new IP?
“We have to think that the industry that we’re in is a hit industry. You’ve got to love risk. In the past, it was odd, because any game we released was a gradual hit – everyone thought that was easy. But now it’s as normal as any other industry – talented producers and creators are needed. You’ve got to think about worth: games that are worth it sell, and those that aren’t don’t. It’s as simple as that.
“When technology gets better, costs go down. But then, if you try and do something new, costs are going to go up a bit. I don’t think it can continue limitlessly, but think of a Hollywood movie: if you want to do something really high-spec, then you have to think about a high cost. But it won’t go limitlessly, because it’s all set now basically.
“I think in the near future it’ll be like Holywood – there’ll be someone who funds, and a creator. In the past the person who funded was the developer or the publisher, but I think in the future they’ll be a clear distinction between those who fund and those who create.”
Of course, we can’t end an interview with Hideo Kojima without asking about Metal Gear. Repeatedly, he has tried to leave the development of the game to one of his hand-picked protoges. And yet every time he ends up taking over due to fan pressure – or, possibly, due to the obsessive need for control that tends to follow auteurs around.
Kojima is unusually candid when asked if he feels a pressure to continue Metal Gear even after the retirement of Solid Snake. “Yeah, there’s absolutely pressure there. Maybe if I quit Konami that pressure might be a bit better, but since Konami handles the business side of our operations, yeah, there’s definitely a demand to continue a series as successful as Metal Gear.”
So perhaps that is the space for a Western studio to help with – be it with remakes, like the Twin Snakes partnership with Silicon Knights, or on a new title? Maybe he can’t let go just yet. “I think that Metal Gear, well, that’s…” he pauses, carefully chosing his words.
“I think that what you might expect from a Metal Gear might only be possible from Kojima Productions, rather than leaving it to an outside studio to produce a satisfactory product. But, then again, if I got an offer saying a company wanted to do it, maybe!”