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Kojima's departure is the end of an era for Japanese development

Not all publishers will handle the mobile transition as badly as Konami - but they're all headed in the same direction eventually

Hideo Kojima has left the building. The New Yorker has confirmed that the famous game creator's last day at Konami has come and gone, with a farewell party attended by colleagues from within and without the country - but not, notably, by Konami's top brass. Only a couple of months after his latest game, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, clocked up the most commercially successful opening day's sales of any media product in 2015, Kojima has left a studio facing shutdown - its extraordinary technology effectively abandoned, its talent scattered, seemingly unwanted, by a company whose abusive and aggressive treatment of its staff has now entered the annals of industry legend.

It's not exaggerating to say that an era came to a close as Kojima walked out the door of the studio that bore his name for the last time. For all of Konami's the-lady-doth-protest-too-much claims that it's not abandoning the console market, actions matter far more than PR-moderated words, and shutting down your most famous studio, severing ties with your most successful creator in the process, is an action that shouts from the rooftops. Still, there's some truth to Konami's statements; it's unlikely to abandon the console versions of Winning Eleven / Pro Evolution Soccer, or of Power Pro Baseball, any time soon, though more and more of the firm's focus will be on the mobile incarnations of those franchises. The big, expensive, risky and crowd-pleasing AAA titles, though? Those are dead in the water. Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill (whose reincarnation, with acclaimed horror director Guillermo del Toro teaming up with Kojima at the helm, is a casualty of this change of focus), Suikoden, Castlevania, Contra... Any AAA title in those franchises from now on will almost certainly be the result of a licensing deal, not a Konami game.

"The big, expensive, risky and crowd-pleasing AAA titles, though? Those are dead in the water"

One can criticise the company endlessly for how this transition has been handled; Konami has shown nigh-on endless disrespect and contempt for its creative staff and, Kojima himself aside, for talented, loyal workers who have stuck by the firm for years if not decades. It richly deserves every brickbat it's getting for how unprofessionally and unpleasantly it's dealt with the present situation. It's much, much harder to criticise the company for the broader strokes of the decisions being made. Mobile games based on F2P models are enormous in Japan, not just with casual players but with the core audience that used to consume console games. The transition to the "mid-core" that mobile companies talk about in western territories is a reality in Japan, and has been for years; impressively deep, complex and involved games boast startling player numbers and vastly higher revenue-per-user figures than most western mobile games could even dream of. Konami, like a lot of other companies, probably expects that western markets will follow the same path, and sees a focus on Japan's mobile space today as a reasonable long-term strategy that will position it well for tomorrow's mobile space in the west.

Mobile is the right business to be in if you're a major publisher in Japan right now. It's where the audience has gone, it's where the revenues are coming from, and almost all of the cost of a mobile hit is marketing, not development. Look at this from a business perspective; if you want to develop a game on the scale of Metal Gear Solid V, you have to sink tens of millions of dollars (the oft-cited figure for MGSV is $80 million) into it before it's even ready to be promoted and sold to consumers. That's an enormous, terrifying risk profile; while the studio next door is working on mobile games that cost a fraction of that money to get ready for launch, with the bulk of the spend being in marketing and post-launch development, which can be stemmed rapidly if the game is underperforming badly. Sure, mobile games are risky as all hell and nobody really knows what the parameters for success and failure are just yet, but with the time and money taken to make a Metal Gear Solid, you can throw ten, twenty or thirty mobile games at the wall and see which one sticks. The logic is compelling, whether you like the outcome or not.

"Other Japanese publishers are perhaps being more circumspect about their transitions, but don't kid yourself; those transitions are happening"

Here's what nobody, honestly, wants to hear - that logic isn't just compelling for Konami. Other Japanese publishers are perhaps being more circumspect about their transitions, but don't kid yourself; those transitions are happening, and Konami will not be the last of the famous old publishers to excuse itself and slip away from the console market entirely. When Square Enix surveys the tortured, vastly expensive and time-consuming development process of its still-unfinished white elephant Final Fantasy XV, and then looks at the startling success it's enjoyed with games like Final Fantasy Record Keeper or Heavenstrike Rivals on mobile, what thoughts do you think run through the heads of its executives and managers? Do you think Sega hasn't noticed that its classic franchises are mostly critically eviscerated when they turn up as AAA console releases, but perform very solidly as mobile titles? Has Namco Bandai, a firm increasingly tightly focused on delivering tie-in videogames for Bandai's media franchises, not noticed the disparity between costs and earnings on its console games as against its mobile titles? And haven't all of these, and others besides, looked across from their TGS stands to see the gigantic, expensive, airship-adorned stands of games like mobile RPG GranBlue Fantasy and thought, "we're in the wrong line of work"?

Kojima isn't the first significant Japanese developer to walk out of a publisher that no longer wants his kind of game - but he's the most significant thus far, and he's certainly not going to be the last. The change that's sweeping through the Japanese industry now is accelerating as traditional game companies react to the emergence of upstarts grabbing huge slices of market share; DeNA and Gree were only the first wave, followed now by the likes of GungHo, CyGames, Mixi and Colopl. If you're an executive at a Japanese publisher right now, you probably feel like your company is already behind the curve. You've studied plenty of cases in business school in which dominant companies who appeared unassailable ended up disappearing entirely as newcomers took the lion's share of an emerging market whose importance wasn't recognised by the old firms until it was too late. You go home every evening (probably around midnight - it's a Japanese company, after all) and eat your microwave dinner in front of TV shows whose ad breaks are packed with expensive commercials for mobile games from companies that hadn't even appeared on your radar until a year or two ago, and none from the companies you'd always considered the "key players" in the industry. You're more than a little bit scared, and you really, really want your company to be up to speed in mobile, like, yesterday - even if that means bulldozing what you're doing on console in the process.

"Still, it will be a very long time before there's a mobile Metal Gear Solid or a mobile Silent Hill; some experiences just don't make sense in the context of mobile gaming"

This is not entirely a bleak picture for fans of console-style games. Japanese mobile games really are pushing more and more towards mid-core and even hardcore experiences which, though the monetisation model may be a little uncomfortable, are very satisfying for most gamers; the evolution of those kinds of games in the coming years will be interesting to watch. Still, it will be a very long time before there's a mobile Metal Gear Solid or a mobile Silent Hill; some experiences just don't make sense in the context of mobile gaming, and there is a great deal of justification to the fears of gamers that this kind of game is threatened by the transition we're seeing right now.

I would offer up two potential silver linings. The first is that not all companies are in a position to break away from console (and PC) development quite as dramatically as Konami has done. Sega, for example, is tied to those markets not least by its significant (and very successful) investments in overseas development studios, many of which have come about under the auspices of the firm's overseas offices. Square Enix is in a similar position due to its ownership of the old Eidos studios and franchises, along with other western properties. Besides, despite the seemingly permanent state of crisis surrounding Final Fantasy XV, the firm likely recognises that the Final Fantasy franchise requires occasional major, high-profile console releases to keep it relevant, even if much of its profit is found in nostalgic retreads of past glories. Capcom, meanwhile, is deeply wedded to console development - it's a much smaller company than the others and perhaps more content to stick to what it knows and does well, even if console ends up as a (large) niche market. (Having said that, if a mobile version of Monster Hunter springs to the top of the App Store charts, all bets are probably off.)

"Hideo Kojima left Konami because he wants to make a style of game that doesn't fit on mobile F2P - and that's, in the long run, probably a good thing"

The other silver lining is perhaps more substantial and less like cold comfort. Hideo Kojima left Konami because he wants to make a style of game that doesn't fit on mobile F2P - and that's, in the long run, probably a good thing. He joins a slow but steady exodus of talent from major Japanese studios over the past five years or more. The kind of games which people like Kojima - deeply involved with and influenced by literature, film and critical theory - want to make don't fit with publishers terribly well any more, but that doesn't mean those people have to stop making those games. It just means they have to find a new place to make them and a new way to fund them. Kojima's non-compete with Konami supposedly ends in a few months and then I suspect we'll hear more about what he plans; but plenty of former star developers from publishers' internal studios have ended up creating their own independent studios and funding themselves either through publisher deals or, more recently, through crowdfunding. Konami's never likely to make another game like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, but that doesn't stop Koji Igarashi from putting Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night on Kickstarter. Sega knocked Shenmue on the head, but a combination of Sony and Kickstarter has sent Yu Suzuki back to work on the franchise. Keiji Inafune also combined crowdfunding money with publisher funding for Mighty No. 9. Perhaps the most famous and successful of all breakaways from the traditional publishing world, though, is of a very different kind; Platinum Games, which has worked with many of the world's top publishers in recent years while retaining its independence, is largely made up of veterans of Capcom's internal studios.

Whichever of those avenues Kojima ends up following - the project-funding style approach of combining crowdfunding and publisher investment, or the Platinum Games approach of founding a studio and working for multiple publishers - there is no question of him walking away from making the kind of games he loves. Not every developer has his sway, of course, and many will probably end up working on mobile titles regardless of personal preference - but the creation of Japanese-style console and PC games isn't about to end just because publishers are falling over themselves to transition to mobile. As long as the creators want to make this kind of game, and enough consumers are willing to pay for them (or even to fund their development), there's a market and its demands will be filled. The words "A Hideo Kojima Game" will never appear on the front of a Konami title again; but they'll appear somewhere, and that's what's truly important in the final analysis.

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Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.

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