Intellectual property law. Just three little words, a mere twenty three letters, that inspire a bleak and foreboding chill in even the most fearless of creative professionals. When an individual artist, say a painter or musician, produces work for the sake of expression, creator ownership is pretty clearly defined (for the most part). Throw in collaborators, contracts and a corner office of suits and the lines blur so quickly, it's easy to forget they were even there. Many creative industries have formed guilds and unions to protect artists and their work. Earlier this year, both Jurassic World and Ant-Man found themselves in arbitration when disputes arose with the Writers Guild of America regarding screenplay and story credits. While these films are certainly high profile, it’s the guild-deprived video game industry that lays claim to 2015’s most contentious controversy. Konami Entertainment appears to be absolutely hellbent on wiping Hideo Kojima’s name from the billion dollar franchise he’s spent the last 30 odd years building for them.
Hideo Kojima is one of gaming’s most iconic creators. He originally joined Konami in 1986 as a game designer and planner for their MSX home computer division. Like so many creative geniuses before him, Kojima went through the obligatory ‘misunderstood and frequently rejected’ period. Due to his lack of technical expertise, Kojima’s gameplay ideas were frequently shot down and his first game, Lost Warld (not a typo), was dropped by Konami prior to completion. His next assignment was to create a military action game, initially titled Intruder. Inspired by The Great Escape, Kojima decided to focus gameplay on stealth and avoiding combat. This was a hard departure from the run/jump/shoot mechanics commonly found in action titles. As the first playable build began to take shape, his team began to realize the game’s potential impact. “From then on,” Kojima said in an episode of G4 Icons, “development went really smooth.” The game was released in 1987 on the MSX2 under its official title, Metal Gear. It’s unexpected approach to action and dramatic storytelling proved hugely popular in Japan.
(left) Metal Gear was ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System for a North American release in 1988. This version suffered drastic changes at the hands of a separate localization team. (right) Kojima developed a direct sequel, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, released in 1990.
My relationship with Kojima’s franchise began on the Sony Playstation in 1998. Metal Gear Solid may have been the third game in the series, but it was the first to feature polygon graphics and 3D environments. I vividly remember the game’s opening sequence: infiltrating a docking area in an Alaskan military base. As I guided Solid Snake, the game’s protagonist, down narrow hallways and past unsuspecting guards, opening credits faded in and out of view as if I were wandering through a feature film. I silently entered a freight elevator and the game initiated a cutscene sequence of Snake standing heroically as the game’s title appeared above him. I was in complete and utter awe. There wasn’t a single game in history that had ever looked or felt like this before. With its bold, cinematic flair, complex characters and genre defining gameplay, Metal Gear Solid proved, more than any game before it, that video games were a legitimate storytelling platform. It's impact on me extended far beyond the gaming experience. Over the years, Hideo Kojima and series Art Director Yoji Shinkawa have informed my approach to design, illustration, writing, marketing and, above all, presentation.
This may not look like much by today's standards, but in 1998, Metal Gear Solid changed gaming forever with its cinematic presentation.
This fall, 28 years after the original Metal Gear’s debut, Konami will be releasing the seventh official sequel in the franchise (there are approximately 32 Metal Gear games if you count all of the remakes, remasters and non-canon spin-offs, which I don’t). The new entry, who's story began in the prologue release Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes, is already earning universal acclaim. After a hands on preview in May, IGN said it’s “shaping up to be the most polished open world stealth game I’ve played.” Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is truly Hideo Kojima’s masterpiece.
Metal Gear timeline designed by yours truly. illustrations by series Art Director, Yoji Shinkawa, except Metal Gear by Unknown and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake by Yoshiyuki Takani. Very respectfully used without permission (my admiration for Shinkawa outweighs all the series' massive, nuke loaded robots combined.)
And yet, in March 2015, seemingly out of nowhere, Konami removed all mention of Hideo Kojima and Kojima Productions from the Metal Gear portal website, going so far as to remove the banner “a Hideo Kojima game” from promotional materials for both Metal Gear Solid 5 and the Metal Gear Solid: The Legacy Collection.
- Snake, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
Box art for the Playstation 4 edition of Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain with Hideo Kojima's name (left) and without (right).
Kojima had developed Metal Gear games under a number of different Konami departments throughout the series’ production. Before work began on Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Konami merged several of its subsidiaries, including Kojima’s team, Konami Computer Entertainment Japan, under a new, internal studio simply called, Kojima Productions. This relieved Kojima of many business end responsibilities and allowed him to focus all of his attention on game development.
Shortly after removing his name from all things Metal Gear, Konami announced that they were cancelling the upcoming Silent Hills game being developed by Kojima and filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro. This lead to a wave of rumors and speculation about Kojima’s employment status and fears for Metal Gear’s future. Theories ran rampant that Konami was abandoning the high production costs of console gaming for the booming world of pay to play mobile games. In late May, Konami released a statement apologizing for “any anxiety” they’d caused, reaffirmed their commitment to console gaming and assured everyone that Kojima would see production of The Phantom Pain through to release.
Promotional imagery for the now canceled Silent Hills.
Konami’s half-hearted public apology did little to deter the waves of internet speculation regarding their relationship. “It’s complicated” doesn’t even begin to cover it. In the months since, every gaming site has been snapping up any shred of information regarding this ongoing controversy. YouTuber Super Bunnyhop released a video full of anonymous sources (responsibly put into context) that Konami founder Kagemasa Kozuki was more interested in casino gaming machines than next gen consoles. The video also delves into Kozuki’s interest in loosening Japan’s strict gambling laws to make the industry even more profitable. Konami actually petitioned YouTube to remove the video over copyright violations, but YouTube found no such violation and has since put it back up.
This past week, The Codec Podcast co-host Clayton Daly posted a revealing interview with former Metal Gear Solid composer, Rika Muranaka. In it, Muranaka cited a lack of profit sharing and over inflated budgets as the reason for the split. Expect a lot more of these “my father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate” sourced write ups while we wait for Konami and/or Kojima to offer up some official clarity on the matter (which will no doubt be after these two tie up any legal loose ends).
- Solid Snake, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
Obviously, the Metal Gear franchise is legally and rightfully Konami’s property. They can do whatever they want with it, even if that means spitting on its creator, one of gaming's biggest icons, in the process. Any games Kojima has created over the course of his near three decades of employment, were done so for Konami with Konami resources. Still, its more than a bit disheartening to see distributors treat their lead developers as if they were entry level designers with replaceable skills, rather than as authors whose unique sense of style and voice are essential for generating these games in the first place.
If there is one thing that Hideo Kojima is famous for, it’s his unique style and voice. His games paradoxically vacillate between almost vaudevillian humor and extremely tragic characters caught up in world shattering events. The humor often breaks the forth wall to offer up meta commentaries on gaming, entertainment and the information age. There are even theories that Kojima had dropped hints about his impending split with Konami in 2014's Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes. Many of the more serious characters and events serve as damning critiques on war, politics and greed. Like authors Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, Kojima’s work has always possessed a strong prophetic tendency, even going all the way back to the 1988 original. The Metal Gear games have managed, in very relevant terms and intricate detail, to accurately depict the social impact of private military contractors, drone warfare, the Patriot Act and the global economy’s reliance on perpetual military conflict.
So while Konami may have provided the resources for Metal Gear, its massive popularity clearly stems from the creativity of it's intensely unique author. The vitriolic reaction Konami has stirred in fans will likely cost them future sales, if they choose to remain in the console market. Hopefully the gaming industry will eventually follow Hollywood's example and form a guild to ensure designers and developers always get the credit they deserve.
THE KOJIMA PARADOX
Metal Gear Solid 5 upholds the series tradition of tackling heavy topics such as child soldiers (top left) and black site prisons (top right). Kojima's oddball sense of humor peppers the gloom with welcomed levity. For example, the protagonist and his new wolf companion sport matching eye patches (bottom left) while stuffed animals can be used to distract guards. (bottom right).
Despite the slap in the face of having "a Hideo Kojima game" removed, dissolving Kojima Productions and removing of its logo was likely something Kojima himself negotiated for. As Reddit user MGShothot wisely pointed out, any future studio Kojima might open would benefit greatly from the use of his name, something he wouldn’t be able to do if it were owned and in use as a Konami subsidiary. This also protects Kojima from any future reprisals from Konami, were they so vindictive as to, say, launch copyright suits at Kojima any time he utters his own name. Maybe that sounds over the top, but keep in mind, Konami was short sighted enough to demand an anonymously sourced YouTube video be taken down, which significantly bolstered its otherwise questionable credibility.
Its a sad thing to watch an almost 30 year relationship end on such awful terms, especially around such an incredible franchise. The Konami/Kojima controversy stands as a tremendous learning experience for all creative professionals. It doesn’t matter if you’re a game designer, pastry chef or clarinet player, it is absolutely imperative that we all know the rights afforded to both ourselves and our work. We must be able to read and understand our contracts, lest we end up like The Beatles, fighting to get our own catalog back over the course of decades. While we’ll meet tons of wonderful, well intentioned people over the course of our careers, ugly situations like this can happen to anyone. People are people, beholden to their own fragile emotions and egos. We all hope for the best, but it remains our responsibility as creators to be prepared, know what our options are and always conduct ourselves in a professional manner, especially in the face of conflict.
- Ocelot, Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain
Kojima had a history of claiming each Metal Gear game would be his last, but like his notoriously resilient characters, the series would always rise from the dead. With each new sequel, Kojima would bring us something new and revolutionary in gaming. He challenged our expectations of what a sequel could be with Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, took stealth survival to shockingly realistic heights in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater and put one of the series’ biggest games, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, on Sony’s smallest system, the PSP. If the early reception for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is any indication, the series is about to re-invent stealth gameplay all over again. Only this time, Kojima is almost assuredly done with the series, barring some miracle buyout of the franchise. If nothing else, the last few months can at least serve as a learning tool for anyone in a creative profession. Clients may come and go, but your name stays with you. It carries with it your reputation and stands for you in your absence. Your name is your brand and people will only treat it with respect and credibility when you do. It's very likely Kojima has at least managed to secure his name for future use. The Kojima name carries a legacy that has inspired generations of gamers and creators alike. I'll gladly follow Hideo Kojima into any future missions he undertakes... just as soon as I'm done pouring an unforgivable number of hours into Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain.