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Inside Konami: public shaming, tyrannical management and punitive reassignment

Nikkei paints a picture of publisher not just in disarray, but dissolution

Konami, already a publisher mired in bad press, has today found itself at the centre of a maelstrom of ill-will thanks to a series of revelations about HR practices at the firm that wouldn't seem out of place in the military or a prison - practices that denigrate, demoralise and dehumanise the people working there.

Revelations from the Nikkei last night reveal a corporate culture where employees are treated almost like inmates, with little to no respect for personal achievement or autonomy. They show a viciously unwelcome side to a business that will likely lose it even more fans than the cancellation of Silent Hill or the departure of Hideo Kojima.

That things have been increasingly unsettled at Konami has been open knowledge for some time. The firm's most talented developers, producers and directors have been streaming out of the company's doors for years, either by choice or after confrontations with management. Key projects have been cancelled or farmed out as licences. The company has delisted itself from the NYSE.

As Rob Fahey put it in his extensive editorial, the major contributing factor is a simple and obvious one. "This is what happens when a console publisher no longer finds the console game business to be worth its time and investment. After thirty years in the console business (Konami started publishing on the NES in 1985), the negative news around Konami this month is a consequence of it lurching out of the industry that made its name - and knocking over a few flowerpots on the way out."

"Low-cost and high-revenue mobile hits like Dragon Collection, Professional Baseball Dream Nine and Crows X Worst are a much bigger draw for a company once considered a irreducible pillar of longform Japanese video game culture"

With the latest, and what could well be the last, Metal Gear Solid hugely over budget at $80 million and rising, low-cost and high-revenue mobile hits like Dragon Collection, Professional Baseball Dream Nine and Crows X Worst are a much bigger draw for a company once considered a irreducible pillar of longform Japanese video game culture. Nonetheless, it's abundantly clear that there's absolutely nothing wrong with a sensibly managed shift to digital, mobile or more casual titles. Not only has Konami been open about that shift, a 147 per cent rise in profits in the company's May financials show that it's defintely working at the bottom line, too.

Whatever is happening inside the company's boardrooms, it's not hurting profits. The headlines you'll be reading today aren't about margins or markets, they're about people.

The original article is in Japanese, and limited to the Nikkei's subscribers (although a free account can access up to ten articles), but several sources have translated many of the key points contained within, presumably sourced from a disgruntled employee who could take no more. Reading the translations such as this Twitter feed, from US based localisation worker Thomas James, or the translations sourced by Kotaku, the bizarrely Orwellian nature of daily life as a Konami employee becomes readily apparent, a shift that is not necessarily recent, but has no doubt contributed to the exodus of talent from the publisher.

Not everyone is convinced of Konami's commitment to a post-Kojima Metal Gear Solid.

Not everyone is convinced of Konami's commitment to a post-Kojima Metal Gear Solid.

In the report, it's claimed that the computers in many departments of the company (including the former Kojima Productions, now renamed Number 8 Production Department) are not connected to the internet, in order to focus employees attentions. Email addresses for many staff are formed of random strings of letters and numbers, which are regularly reshuffled and redistributed, allegedly so as to prevent headhunting by external agencies. Lunch breaks are monitored by clocking in and out, with anyone who transgresses strict time limits being named and shamed in internal communications to other staff. Security cameras monitor corridors and public spaces to keep track of staff movements, 'encouraging' efficiency rather than unnecessary socialisation. Draconian measures all, but sadly not unprecedented.

In the days following my graduation, when I had little luxury in the choices I made about my employment, I worked in offices where nearly all of these measures were in place, at least to some extent. A restriction to intranet rather than full outside access was certainly not uncommon, and I've had more than one job with lunchtime clocking in and out. Anyone who lives in the UK is used to being monitored by silently swivelling cameras pretty much 24/7, and major office buildings are no exception. In one particularly soul-destroying position, toilet breaks were monitored by a malevolently unpleasant boss, who kept a handy spreadsheet of employee's ablution habits, with team wide emails upbraiding those who were felt to be possessed of poor bladder or bowel control. Konami is not alone in these practices.

"Whatever your stance on the ethical nature of these choices - and I would hope that it is clear that I find them despicable - they are objectively terrible business decisions"

However, please don't take that as any kind of endorsement. Whatever your stance on the ethical nature of these choices - and I would hope that it is clear that I find them despicable - they are objectively terrible business decisions. A culture of employee mistrust breeds only resentment, crushing productivity and creating an overwhelming aura of mutual loathing. The stasi-esque use of public shaming divides teams and marginalises people, generating a backstabbing narrative a million miles removed from that of healthy competitiveness. And if you discover your boss has a column on a spreadsheet for how often he thinks you're defecating every day...well, you can imagine.

My point is, that these outdated, irrational, paranoid behaviours are always going to make your company an awful place to work, but it is the final dreadful ace up Konami's sleeve that really beggars belief. According to the Nikkei's sources - sources which have been anonymously corroborated elsewhere - employees who disappoint or are deemed to have underperformed are reassigned to what can only be described as punishment duties. Talented composers, programmers and other well trained specialists are plucked from their hard-earned positions and redeployed as workers in Konami's pachinko factories, as office security guards or as janitors on garbage duty at the firm's fitness clubs. This is the corporate equivalent of being put on latrine duty for insubordination.

Ironically, it's been reported that some people have, in that most innately human of fashions, managed to adapt to these new conditions, flourishing in new roles initially deemed as punishments by rising so far as to become departmental heads. Sadly, for most it is simply another turn on the thumbscrew. Konami's mobile business may be flourishing, along with the fitness clubs being tended by vastly overqualified custodial staff, but surely this is not an environment where anyone with choices would choose to remain. If Konami's oligarchy of familial directors keeps squeezing the sponge in this way, they'll soon find that they have no talent left at all, and not even the glowing supernovae of mobile development can sustain a company with no good employees.

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Latest comments (14)

Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 4 years ago
I can confirm the email addresses issue. I was finalizing a deal with the Japanese division, and their legal dept reps email started bouncing. It took weeks to get a message passed and to reconnect after the switch. I even have some cards from the Kojima productions guys. They're cool and look like a razor blade. Unfortunately right after I got back they had another purge and they became nearly useless. Oh well, still cool to look at :)

I will also add that I've had great experiences with the people working at Konami in the process. They were a big help, a pleasure to deal with and hats off
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Christophe Danguien games developer 4 years ago
To best honest, some of the practices are used every where....so why would it be shocking because it's Konami !? Monitoring toilet breaks...it's clearly taking it too far though
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Renaud Charpentier Game Director, The Creative Assembly4 years ago
The most blooming tech companies, from Google to Facebook, don't operate like that, at all; if you want the best out of clever people you must empower them and trust them. Easy guideline to follow: judge people on what they achieve, not how they spend their time.

Good design, code and art are cheaper in the end than shoddy work you have to scrap or kill; but you need positive leadership to achieve that, not punitive micro-management.
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Show all comments (14)
While I do not approve of these practices, I have seen too many companies in the industry institute this kind of behavior and not only survive but prosper. Fahey's points are valid, but just because a company is evil doesn't mean it won't make money, as the article admits grudgingly.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 4 years ago
The human threshold to both exhibit and tolerate sociopathic behavior never ceases to amaze. The Stanford prison experiment is a cautionary tale, not the latest trend in business consulting.
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Naseer Alkhouri Smooth Operator, Raw Fury4 years ago
If a company would treat me like this, I'd be out of the door in an hour. Employment is about mutual respect in my opinion.
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Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game4 years ago
Unfortunately this is pretty standard in the lower paid factory jobs I've worked in. Even in unskilled work it doesn't help, as you retain people who don't give a crap, and people get so low they start taking the mick.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 4 years ago
@John Byrd: Hmm. Just because a company CAN treat people like dirt and make a mint, doesn't mean one SHOULD. What comes around goes around at some point and not even a mega-profit can cover that up once those big rocks start rolling downhill.
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Igor Galochkin Game Programmer 4 years ago
At one of companies I worked for, at the start of each day the computer at my desk would greet me with a message that everything i do here belongs to the company. Not sure if that's a standard message in the US (?) or the legal people were just too cautious and insisted on having it to avoid any potential intellectual property right disputes etc.
Anyway, it was depressing to me because it basically told me that this work I do for money only and nothing else. It also conveyed lack of trust and general disrespect.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Igor Galochkin on 4th August 2015 11:08pm

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Payton Liu Production Support Analyst, IBM China4 years ago
Insecurity at its worst, I would say. Anyone or any companies have such grave rules lack self-confident and leadership, and some serious trusting issues. Though I didn't experience such control myself, I witnessed one at my work place.

A few years ago, there was a particular manager who watch his team's every move when he's in office. While all my office's managers usually keep a comfortable distance with their employees, he's the only one sit right behind his employees. (I was sitting right behind him, along with my teammates.) I would call him a "little brother" (Big Brother doesn't show up personally), who spent whole day watching, checking, talking, and writing emails to his team. A one on one talk with him is soul crashing experience (one of my teammates who once worked in that team said), and it was incredibly hard to ask his permission for leave of absence (being it illness, vacation, etc.). My co-worker once showed his archived mails with that manager, some 100+ mails per month, whereas my manager only have 1 or 2 mails with me monthly at most. The whole team had a very unhealthy environment, resulted in constant errors with simple works and frequent customer complaints, no one really care about the job. The situation was so bad that sub leaders (shift leaders) all quit the job together in protest, but it took another couple of years for upper management to fire him. (which shows big companies, especially IBM big, are slow at action.)

I heard Konami is still run by the same family that created it decades ago, and the Japanese family business culture doesn't help the situation either. Unfortunately for the people still working there, but I don't see a bright future in Konami. Maybe they can make some quick cash with mobile rush, but in the end, they will rely on the gambling parts of the business.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Payton Liu on 5th August 2015 4:02am

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Dan Wood Visual Effects Artist 4 years ago
That seems a bit of a thin argument - other industries treat their staff even crappier, so we should count our blessings?
From places I've worked before now, I find that it can just as often be other employees complicit in creating an atmosphere where you feel guilty for doing anything but working flat out for 8+ hours per day. There will always be a workaholic who's knuckling down more than you, and getting vocally irate about others being lazy.
Really, that's just unnecessary peer-pressure reinforcing the whole "maximum efficiency" falacy that a lot of big business strives endlessly to impose. This idea that you're somehow being unprofessional if you aren't being a good little robot and churning out the requisite quota day after day.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again... creative work doesn't function under those conditions. If you create an atmosphere where "productivity" trumps all else, and make people feel lazy for not buying into it, then you end up with a factory, not a studio of artists.
The joke is, productivity will ultimately suffer, and ever larger sums will be expended on more and more layers of management in an attempt to keep the lazy workforce on track... when all you need to do is give people freedom, trust, and personal investment in their work, and they'll barely need managing!
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Carlos Brandão Director, Game Rental4 years ago
Its hard to believe that companys still have this old-retro culture in the 21st century. These barriers will not promote inovation and it doesnt make sense for a studio of artists.
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@Michael Agree it can be really grating if you're one of very few people on a team who are working well but in my experience it's usually the large majority who work hard with a tiny few people who slack off. Some ppl work very hard and keep quiet, nobody knows about them. Others, the finger-pointing type, squawk how hard they work as soon as the bosses are in orbit. As for Bloomberg, anyone who works 10 hours a day, 6 days a week for somebody else better be the happiest motherfucker alive or their opinion isn't worth listening to.

In defence of smokers, government regulations recommend a 5-10 minute break from PC's every 50-60 minutes. (http://www.nidirect.gov.uk/safe-computer-use) Anyone who works in an office has every right to make their day as legally pleasant as possible. Maybe you should kick back occasionally yourself :P
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Richard Pygott Level Designer 4 years ago
The company i work for has this ethos -;

People, Service, Profit

Look after your people and they will deliver exceptional service which results in a healthy profit. This also retains staff so that retrain costs and new employee costs are low and also keeps the knowledge within the business.

Companies like Konami could learn alot from that, and would be even more profitable if they operated as such.
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