I dropped into the game shop around the corner earlier this week and honestly did something of a double take when I was confronted by a shelf full of copies of Metal Gear Survive.
I personally parted ways with the Metal Gear franchise a while back - I haven't really been into it since Metal Gear Solid 3, the high point of the series for me - but it was still quite a surprise to see a shelf loaded with copies of a Metal Gear title I hadn't even realised was on the market yet. Had I somehow managed to stick my head in the sand entirely about this game's launch? Apparently not; it's hardly scientific, but a straw poll of game-savvy friends (including one colleague whose wardrobe consists, in no small part, of Metal Gear inspired t-shirts) revealed that hardly anyone had been aware of the game's arrival.
"Metal Gear Survive is aptly named; it has arrived into a climate every bit as harsh as the zombie-infested wasteland its protagonists face"
This isn't the kind of thing that happens by accident. A publisher does not develop an expensive AAA console game, arrive at launch day and then slap its collective thigh and exclaim, "Shoot, I just knew we forgot something!" Moreover, this is unlikely to be an expression of lack of confidence in the quality of the game; the relentless mathematics behind modern game publishing mean that it's far more economical for a publisher experiencing an eleventh-hour crisis of faith about a game to cancel it entirely rather than throwing it out onto the market to die unsupported.
No, what's happened here is that, somewhere within Konami, a decision has been made that Metal Gear Survive is a game worth developing, a game worth launching - but not a game worth expending significant PR and marketing effort on. That's a highly unusual piece of decision making; but then again, Metal Gear Survive is a highly unusual game. To understand why it's so unusual, you need only look to the reviews and word of mouth that surround it; the former being largely a litany of begrudging "Well, what do you know, this doesn't really suck" admissions, the latter consisting mostly of angry highlighting of the game's flaws, omissions or issues.
Metal Gear Survive, then, is aptly named; it has arrived into a climate every bit as harsh as the zombie-infested wasteland its protagonists face. I don't know to what extent Konami understood the depth of the anger they would provoke when they publicly and harshly severed ties with Metal Gear creator and auteur Hideo Kojima; I doubt it, though, not least since there's simply no precedent for what happened there.
"Much of the goodwill - the intangible asset that makes up so much of the value of a franchise - had been stripped from the IP"
Kojima was something of a unique figure in terms of his relationship with this game series; for all its AAA status, Metal Gear was a deeply personal series of games, a playground in which Kojima explored and teased out the philosophical, creative or political ideas that intrigued him most. The very fact of his removal from the studio that bore his name and the franchise he had created was compounded by the shoddy manner in which it was carried out, deeply alienating the most devoted fans of both the creator and the franchise - a franchise whose valuable IP remained in the hands of the company they now despised.
That's a weird set of circumstances leading in to the launch of a major new game, and it created an almost impossible market position for Konami. Much of the goodwill - the intangible asset that makes up so much of the value of a franchise - had been stripped from the IP. The core fans who might have been relied upon to form the basis of strong word of mouth and pre-launch excitement were now poisoned against the very notion of this Kojima-less Metal Gear title.
Here's the calculation that I think took place within Konami; a high-profile marketing campaign for the game would actually encourage the series' core fans to push back hard, flooding the game with negative word of mouth and potentially turning legions of more casual fans (whose awareness of Kojima might have been minimal to this point) against it. The press would also not be immune to this hostility; attempting a more softly-softly campaign for the game with lots of interview opportunities for press and influencers would have quickly descended into endless questioning about Kojima.
"It's hard to see the commercial environment for the next Metal Gear game being much better than it was for this one"
So my guess is that Metal Gear Survive has launched in something of a blackout not because it was sent out to die, but because Konami feared that the more noise it made about the game, the louder the angry shouting from the games' former biggest fans would be - and the harder it would be to sell Survive to the legions of more casual players who recognised and liked the Metal Gear name.
Caught in the middle of all of this, of course, are the people who actually worked on the game - the huge number of development staff, most of them formerly Kojima Productions staff, who have poured their labours into Metal Gear Survive over the past few years. The relentless focus on Kojima as auteur and the dismissal of their work following his departure is more than slightly unfair to them; at the same time, they shouldn't be human shields protecting Konami from criticism or consequences. Metal Gear Survive should really stand or fall on its own merits, independent of the behind the scenes drama. The extent to which Kojima's input has truly defined the series' value should be judged just by looking at the relative quality of games he worked versus those which follow after his tenure. (On that front, at least, Metal Gear Survive is notably a very different and arguably far less ambitious game than anything Kojima might have made.)
The question for Konami, really, is whether this is a situation that's going to continue long-term. If Metal Gear Survive had turned out to be stunning, it might have dampened fans' anger and restored the company to some measure of good grace. As it is, it seems to be a decent but deeply flawed game, and certainly not one that makes a strong case for Konami being every bit as good at this whole Metal Gear lark even without Kojima on board. Time heals wounds, but it's hard to see the commercial environment for the next Metal Gear game being much better than it was for this one - and if the company goes all-out and decides to do a main-series title without Kojima, as distinct from this odd, zombie-focused side story, the chances are that the excrement will truly hit the fan.
So how, then, does Konami realise any value from this, what ought reasonably to be its most valuable franchise? This is all fine as a cautionary tale for other publishers wondering just how much a high-profile auteur is actually worth or how troublesome their removal might be, but the practical issue facing Konami is whether the Metal Gear franchise is going to be worth a damn without Kojima, and whether it can ever really regain the goodwill it lost over the past few years.
The answer, I suspect, is yes; Metal Gear does have value beyond its flamboyant creator. It will need, however, to be handled with kid gloves from here on in, and perhaps put to bed for a few years to allow anger and emotion around the franchise to calm down. Rushing a zombie game out the door perhaps wasn't the best way to tackle things; a hiatus followed by a very careful and respectful soft reboot, just around the time when people's nostalgia for the game has overpowered lingering ill will, may be the only path remaining now. Perhaps in five or six years' time I'll be surprised again to see a Metal Gear game on shelves. I hope this time it's a rather better surprise.