If there was one story that fascinated most of the games business throughout 2016, it was the ongoing saga of Konami and its most famous and successful game creator, Hideo Kojima. The story had it all; a legendary and mercurial auteur going head-to-head with instantly unlikeable besuited bean-counters who took over his publisher; a commercially successful and critically acclaimed game largely scrubbed of his name, and another hugely anticipated title summarily cancelled; topped off with the daft, Iraqi Information Minister style antics of Konami's PR department, who insisted that he was merely on holiday despite minor evidence like, oh, pictures of his leaving party being all over the Internet.
Kojima's story wasn't just about Kojima and Konami, though; to many it's been emblematic of a wider struggle, between publishing executives obsessed with the mobile gaming gold-rush and an old guard of revered game designers pushing back on the predations of F2P. That's a vast and almost insulting over-simplification, of course, but it's a good story, a great framing narrative; whether it's actually true or not, it's enthralling.
Kojima's story has a happy ending, at least. Seemingly within hours of finishing whatever gardening leave Konami had placed him on, he had announced an independent studio that's working on a PS4 (and probably PC) title, with Sony apparently bankrolling the game, albeit not the studio itself. It's going to be a big change of scenery for Kojima, who has spent his entire career to date inside a giant publisher; I can't help but recall the theory that many creators produce their best work under constraint, and wonder what Kojima will achieve when faced with the tough realities of an independent studio's budget and deadline demands.
"If you're at Sony, with 30 million customers to satisfy and tens of millions more you hope to attract, your heart sinks into your boots every time you see a publisher turning its focus from AAA to mobile or a top developer pinning its future on something other than console"
Hideo Kojima is back making a console game, and all's right with the world. Just in time for Christmas, too; a little more growth on Andrew House's beard and a few cans of spray snow, and they could have made a festive thing of the announcement video. We're still not getting Silent Hills, of course, and what happens to the Metal Gear franchise from here on out is a somewhat disquieting question, but Kojima, at least, is back where he belongs and doing what he does so very well... And nowhere, I suspect, are people happier about that fact than at Sony Computer Entertainment.
Sony aren't just happy because they've got console exclusivity on Kojima's first post-Konami game; I'd imagine that they're happy, and relieved, that such a confirmed purveyor of big, bombastic, blockbuster games has gone straight back to working on console titles. It could have gone differently. Kojima is 52 years old and has decades of working on videogames behind him; he's a man who's also clearly fascinated by film, and downright obsessed with literature, and given the grim experience he's had with Konami in the past year or two, washing his hands of games and trying out something else must have been at the back of his mind. (Editor's note: he's apparently considering film as well but games remain the primary focus)
The potential loss of a single acclaimed game creator from the industry might not seem like much - but think about Sony's position. The company has just sold over 30 million PlayStation 4 consoles to consumers around the world, and is still selling them at a rate of knots; a rate faster even than the all-conquering PS2 managed. Sony's own top executives have admitted to not being entirely sure why their console has sold so fast, which hints at the incredible pressure they must now feel to deliver on the promise of their platform. To sustain such a meteoric sales rate and to satisfy such an unexpectedly large customer base, they need to deliver hit software - regularly, consistently releasing games across a wide range of genres and styles that satisfy large swathes of their market.
Problem - the big, expensive, risky development projects that produce the kind of game PS4 customers expect aren't exactly flavour of the month with game publishers right now. Konami has essentially bowed out of that market entirely; other publishers will probably follow, and many of those who still have skin in the console AAA game are unquestionably distracted by the lure of the mobile market. Making a AAA game has never been more expensive, and years of "death of console" predictions have taken a toll, even if the PS4's sales have shown them to be reactionary and overblown. If you're at Sony, with 30 million customers to satisfy and tens of millions more you hope to attract, your heart sinks into your boots every time you see a publisher turning its focus from AAA to mobile or a top developer pinning its future on something other than console. The cancellation of a huge, high-profile project like Silent Hills, and the subsequent reticence of Guillermo del Toro to involve himself with games, was a slap in the face for fans of the franchise, but was equally a gut-punch for Sony - another huge, high-profile AAA game off the slate.
I don't pretend to know what transpired between Sony and Kojima when it became clear that he was leaving Konami, but I'd wager that Sony's primary goal was simply to ensure that he and his team stayed in AAA console game development, with securing PS4 exclusivity being an (admittedly close) second place. Moreover, I think that the speed with which Sony moved to support Kojima and secure funding for his first project gives a pretty clear indicator of how Sony is going to change - is going to have to change - in the coming years. The pressures I alluded to above, created by the combination of a rapidly growing installed base and a slightly uncertain future for AAA development at some third-party publishers, are going to combine to push Sony to closer and closer involvement in the development of games for their own consoles.
"Kojima's happy Christmas feels like only the beginning of a much larger story... the PS4 and Xbox One may be the era in which first-party exclusives reassert themselves, out of simple necessity"
Already, Sony is a much bigger player in software on PlayStation than it was in the past. Its own studios have always been a big part of its strategy, certainly - remember how important WipEout was to the first PlayStation, for example - but compared to the likes of Nintendo, Sony's first-party strategy was only a small fraction of the broader world of software on sale. That's gradually ramped up to the point where on PS4, Sony first-party or Sony-published titles are a huge part of the console's ecosystem - and as the company takes up the slack from publishers dialling down their exposure to console games and AAA development, we can expect that trend to accelerate dramatically, not to slow down. Building great first-party games and cultivating strong second-party relationships with key developers is going to be an even bigger part of Sony's formula for success in future, simply because it needs to be; the single biggest risk to PlayStation right now is under-delivering on software because of third parties failing to commit sufficiently to the platform (and to consoles in general), and the only way Sony can truly effectively manage that risk is to step in and do more of the job themselves.
Will Sony ever reach the position Nintendo is in, where third parties are only bit players on its platforms? Not in the near future, although the potential is there more long-term - and remember that Sony is no stranger to content production, with movie and music studios being part of the company's corporate bread and butter, so a move to being the primary producer of content for its own platforms actually wouldn't sit that uncomfortably with it. By and large, though, Sony is likely to combine a strong effort at encouraging third-party publishing with a stronger push into first- and second-party games; the two aren't mutually exclusive, even if they may create slightly awkward conflicts at times. It doesn't want third parties to go away, but if they aren't pulling their weight, it's not adverse to throwing its weight behind studios and projects to make sure that PlayStation stays fresh, relevant and fed with a steady stream of AAA software.
Kojima's happy Christmas, then, feels like only the beginning of a much larger story. Honestly, I'm not sure where else he could have gone for funding for a large-scale AAA title, at least within Japan; and he's probably not going to be the last game creator or studio to find themselves turning to Sony to support the creation of a style of game which, despite its proven commercial potential, is just too expensive and too risky to be attractive to a lot of the companies who used to fund this kind of creative venture. Much the same calculation, of course, applies equally to Microsoft, but it hasn't yet demonstrated the same willingness to throw money and resources at ensuring the Xbox One's software supply - though I suspect that it will, when the time comes. As the end of this generation looms, several years down the line, we may end up with a very unusual console software landscape; if the PS3 and 360 were the era dominated by cross-platform releases, the PS4 and Xbox One may be the era in which first-party exclusives reassert themselves, out of simple necessity.