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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.

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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