Burning Bridges: Japanese Game Creator Resignations

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is getting released worldwide very soon, and the excitement can be felt everywhere. This is to be creator Hideo Kojima‘s greatest production, and his last Metal Gear title; however, the game itself isn’t the only thing making the news. As most who follow the game industry know, Kojima and his employer of nearly 30 years, Konami, are in the middle of what can rather accurately be called a “messy breakup”: it is clear Kojima is leaving Konami, yet the reasons and the goings-on behind the scenes are largely obscured as of right now.

Konami & Hideo Kojima - the messiest breakup in the video game industry?

Konami & Hideo Kojima – the messiest breakup in the history of the video game industry?

We will surely get the details on what happened in the months to come, and I know many are beyond curious to find out what Kojima himself has to say about the whole affair, of which he has spoken practically nothing. Until that time, however, all we can do is guess. We have very little information to run with in this specific case, but we do have more high profile breakups in the Japanese video game industry, with which to mirror Kojima’s case.

Two such cases come to mind from the last five years: Keiji Inafune leaving his long-time employer Capcom in 2010, and Koji Igarashi leaving Konami more recently in 2014. Going further back into the beginning of the millennium, Shinji Mikami was forced to leave Capcom after disagreements between the two regarding Resident Evil 4 – including Kojima, that’s four such episodes within two Japanese companies in just over the last decade. And that’s only counting the high-profile ones; there certainly must have been less famous cases as well. I can only speak for myself, but I find that extremely interesting.

So I went in and did some light research, focusing on the cases of Inafune and Igarashi as the most recent and more controversial ones, in an attempt to get some context to why Kojima might be leaving Konami.

The Rockman: Keiji Inafune & Capcom

Keiji Inafune joined Capcom in 1987 as a graphic designer, and eventually became known primarily for the Mega Man series. He is also credited with games such as Dead Rising and Lost Planet. He officially left Capcom in November 2010, after 23 years of employment. His departure received a fair amount of media coverage, and was arguably one of the more controversial ones.

As the general theme of Inafune’s resignation was his dissatisfaction with the Japanese game industry. He saw its practices as a system do encourage conformity and focus on monetary gain, while trivializing creativity, risk-taking and innovation. In Japan, it is common that companies commit to employ people for life – as long as they walk the line, their next paycheck is in the mail. Thus, striking out to do something new is foolish, because it could jeopardize the security. Therefore, there is little to no point in working hard, as the pay remains the same even if you don’t.

It is worth noting that this has always been the case in Japan. That said, it is only recently that it has started to have an effect on the industry. The reason is the emergence of competition, and the fact that gamers have grown more sophisticated and harder to please. As western game developers began driving the industry forward, the audience’s expectations rose, and the Japanese creators couldn’t catch up. Paralyzed by the security of the next paycheck and overwhelmed by the ever-improving competition, the Japanese game industry arguably entered a perpetual state of underperformance.

Keiji Inafune & Mega Man

Keiji Inafune & Mega Man

Inafune was the head of development at Capcom, and thus was at the top of his respective ladder. Therefore, the best he could hope of his career at Capcom was to retain that position – the only direction to go from there would be down. In his position, the drawback in the Japanese game industry became painfully clear: if he played it safe and didn’t push any boundaries, that seat would be his to keep; on the other hand, if he tried to innovate, expand or take risks, he couldn’t achieve any personal gain, but he would risk being demoted. Furthermore, his apathy was encouraged by the fact that a game that performs well is often credited to the IP or the company, while a failure is blamed on the individual in charge.

Inafune began resenting his job, and decided to see if there was still a place for actual creators in the market. He resigned his post at Capcom and began doing his own thing, wanting to sell a game attached to his own name, rather than that of Capcom. He recently made the news with his new title, Mighty No. 9, a crowdfunded game in the vein of Mega Man which met its funding goal withing two days.

It is worth noting that back in 2009, the year before his departure, Inafune made a statement about the Japanese game industry, saying it was “finished”. This upset a lot of people back then, but now in 2015, it is more obvious to everyone what he meant: Capcom, Konami and Nintendo, three of the biggest game companies in Japan, are all in various degrees of trouble – if not in an overall sense, then at least regarding their position in the global game industry.

The Vampire Killer: Koji Igarashi & Konami

“Iga”, as he is commonly known, was hired by Konami in 1990 as a a programmer. He is best known for the Castlevania series from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night onwards, and he is credited with developing the metroidvania-style Castlevania titles; for that reason, these games are sometimes described as Igavania games.

Iga was the mastermind behind the Castlevania series for over a dozen titles, and that was a job he loved to do. As far as I know, he never had concerns about getting tired of making that game, and arguably the audience also enjoyed the games. The sales weren’t always astonishing, but mostly good enough to justify the making of the next game. However, after some disappointing releases in the franchise, Konami decided to reinvent the franchise, and handed over Iga’s duties to another well-known Konami employee, Hideo Kojima, as they outsourced the Castlevania reboot to MercurySteam.

From the golden days of games like Castlevania and Contra, Konami has become a very different company altogether. They have always had their spoons in many a soup, but until a few years ago, their business model regarding video games had remained largely unchanged. Now, however, they had struck major success in the mobile gaming space, and viewed that as the wave of the future.

Iga the gothic cowboy in his element.

Iga the gothic cowboy in his element.

With Konami’s changed approach to gaming, Iga wasn’t given opportunities to work on console games, which was what he wanted to do. Obviously wanting to do his job, however, he tried out the mobile thing, which didn’t work out well for him. As an outsider, I can imagine the claustrophobic feeling Iga must have had at Konami, having his own project taken away and not really getting the chance to grasp anything else.

There was a ray of hope for Igarashi, however: he saw Keiji Inafune’s Kickstarter project, Mighty No. 9, become a hit, and he realized there was a chance to make something on his own outside of Konami. He was also encouraged by fan feedback, advising him to get back to traditional games, even if it meant doing it on his own.

Iga began an independent project on his own, now titled Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. Before attempting crowdfunding, however, he offered his concept to a wide array of different publishers, all of which turned him down. So he decided to use Kickstarter to gauge whether or not his game would in fact be relevant, or if the publishers had been right in assuming there is no demand for an Igavania game. Bloodstained became the highest-funded game on Kickstarter at the time of its campaign.

The Big Shell: Hideo Kojima, Konami & Metal Gear

Coming back to the current issue, it is anyone’s guess how much Kojima’s case has in common with these two, if anything. Considering his bravado and status as an innovator, it’s hard to imagine Kojima would be in bad terms with Konami because he didn’t have enough creative freedom, as was arguably the case with both Igarashi and Inafune. It’s only an outsider’s observation, but I believe it’s safe to assume that Kojima has had plenty of freedom, especially in comparison with most Japanese creators.

It is important to also remember that with such small amount of information on the matter, it is just an assumption that Kojima is the one that has been pushed around. In fact, I find it entirely possible – even likely – that Kojima himself overstepped his boundaries and Konami finally snapped back, whether the issue was money, deadlines or something different entirely. As much as I love Kojima, I wouldn’t be surprised if he simply went too far with his demands on his employer.

Another theory I could come up with is the situation of the Metal Gear series. I got to thinking about it, and came to the conclusion that there might be something there. Kojima has claimed he’s leaving the series after pretty much every release in the franchise (he wasn’t even supposed to make a sequel to the very first game, until Konami went ahead and made one without him – that’s when he made the “canonical” one to override Konami’s sequel). However, I thought it might be entirely possible that this time he was serious about it; Konami, on the other hand, might have responded that the Metal Gear franchise is not over, whether or not Kojima approves that. After all, they own the series.

This last one is my favorite theory on the situation. It makes sense to me in a lot of ways – Konami is in the money making business, and Metal Gear must be their biggest franchise at the moment. Now that its popularity is sky-high, it would be senseless to stop making those games – from a business standpoint. Kojima, on the other hand, is a creator, and probably views Metal Gear through the eyes of an artist rather than a businessman. To him, it might be that the story is done, and he has finished what he started as far back as 1987.

In this scenario, the situation might be such that Konami would openly inform Kojima they will keep making Metal Gear games. Kojima may have threatened to leave if that was the case, but Konami wouldn’t relent – they would rather keep the game series which would keep making them a fortune, even without Kojima, rather than keep the creator who, as far as I know, might just be a troublemaker to begin with, and who refuses to make the games that would make the most money. The conflict is clear and makes a lot of sense to me.

We will see if I’m right about this after Kojima’s side of the story is heard. But even now, even without much actual information, I believe we’re looking at one of the biggest behind-the-scenes -events in recent memory, regarding the video game industry.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to comment, and check back next Sunday for my thoughts on Nintendo franchises I grew up with, and how I feel about them now that I’m all grown up.

Sources: Kotaku.comKinda FunnyPolygon.comEurogamer.netIGN.com


3 thoughts on “Burning Bridges: Japanese Game Creator Resignations

  1. Nice article, very informative and enjoyable.

    Since the start of it and I was thinking that it had to be the Artists vision of Kojima Vs. the Company’s bottom line of Konami. Konami might be thinking of changing the series and using the name as they step away from gaming. I haven’t really been a fan of the series but it is interesting to see how things will be in the next months.

  2. Pingback: Fall from Grace: How Konami Stumbles Out of the Video Game Industry | JJ Gee: A Gamer's Blog

  3. Pingback: Harmony of Despair: How Konami Stumbles Out of the Video Game Industry | JJ Gee: A Gamer's Blog

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