Harmony of Despair: How Konami Stumbles Out of the Video Game Industry

Many of my favorite games and franchises are products of the well-known Japanese game developer, Konami. At a certain point in time, I even considered myself a Konami fan. However, some recent developments and revelations look like they will result in me withdrawing my affection for them, as well as them being pushed out of the greater video game market scene – partly voluntarily, partly consequentially.

I’ve been a gamer all my life, but I didn’t really pay any attention to the politics and economics behind the games until a much more adult age. I may have noticed if two separate games I played had the same logo pop up at the beginning, but I never gave that much more thought. Once I began putting more thought to it, however, I realized there were developers whose output constantly piqued my interest more than that of others.

One of these more memorable developers was – you guessed it – Konami. They were responsible for a plethora of great games, among which were two of my favorite game series, Castlevania and Metal Gear. I also loved Contra, and was aware of how big a deal Silent Hill was, even though I didn’t really get into it myself (I was a Resident Evil kid, you see). Even before I was aware of all the stuff that went on in the industry beyond the end product, I began to recognize the Konami logo as a seal of quality. And rightfully so, I would argue.

More recently, however, Konami has become something of a demon in the eyes of most core gamers. It is not necessarily the result of any single cause, but a combination of events that have ended up showing the company in less than favorable light. The most recent and widely speculated one is, of course, the case surrounding the departure of veteran creator Hideo Kojima from Konami’s employment, with so far very little confirmed information regarding the issue.

I’ve constantly been eager to note that until we get first-hand information on what happened, we can’t really be certain Konami is even to blame for the situation. For all we know, the reason for the split could be the fact that Kojima himself has become impossible to work with – it’s not even a very far-fetched idea to assume that a brilliant writer and director isn’t the most easy-going person in the world, since we see that in Hollywood all the time. But that’s not what’s important in relation to the topic at hand; what is, however, is the fact that while Kojima might well be to blame, no one really cares, because Konami has already failed in winning the public over. The way they have handled the publication of everything regarding Kojima’s departure simply doesn’t even remotely convince people that they aren’t a soulless, financially obsessed machine that doesn’t value artistic expression or the opinion of the consumers. There just isn’t anything to make anyone believe otherwise.

The Idle IP

As I said, the Kojima case is simply the tip of the iceberg. The deterioration of Konami started as far back as years ago – around 2010 at the latest. Whether or not the company was headed in a bad direction before that is debatable, but since then, the trend has been obvious. 2010 saw the release of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, which was the first game in a reboot trilogy that, while a good set of games in my opinion, didn’t quite measure up to what I would have expected from a franchise that was arguably one of the bigger reasons this company was as popular as it was. Furthermore, Konami wasn’t even involved in the trilogy’s development in any proper way, instead outsourcing it to MercurySteam and acting as a publisher only. Since the release of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2, the last game in the trilogy, the Castlevania front has been quiet, and there are no signs indicating that Konami intends to do anything with this pure gold IP that they own, which a lot of developers would kill for.

Another hugely popular Konami franchise is Contra. I can’t call myself a veteran of the series, but I love the ones I’ve played, and I know they are some of the best action games of their time. So if it’s so great, where are the new Contra games? Well, the last entry in the series is Hard Corps: Uprising from 2011, which I understand is a little bit more of a spinoff than an actual entry. Before that, there was Contra ReBirth in 2009, which in turn was more of a classic Contra game. So that’s 6 years ago, and even counting Hard Corps, 4 years. No rumblings about a new entry in the series.

Silent Hill has received a bit more notoriety regarding the handling of its more recent incarnations. While at some point it appeared that Silent Hills would in fact be an honest attempt from Konami to remain relevant in the core video game scene, last spring it turned out to be nothing but wishful thinking. On the surface, it appears that Hideo Kojima’s departure was the reason for the cancellation of Silent Hills as well, since he was supposed to be co-directing it with Guillermo del Toro, but if Konami really had no choice but to scrap the whole game after one of its two directors was no longer available, I think it speaks pretty loudly about how shaky the company’s investment in the game was in the first place.

Konami resembles a dragon lying on top of a pile of treasure: they have IP of immeasurable worth, and they're not doing anything with it.

Konami resembles a dragon lying on top of a pile of treasure: they have IP of immeasurable worth, and they’re not doing anything with it.

Finally, you have Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, which admittedly is a contrary statement to Konami ignoring their IP. This game was fairly expensive to make ($80 million, according to a report by Nikkei.com), it took a lot of time, and has regularly been in the headlines since it was first announced, showing that Konami has put some significant resources into marketing it. However, it is rather easy to put the publisher down by saying that Metal Gear is arguably their biggest franchise, there was constantly a phenomenal demand for this game (promising a good deal of profit for the product), and the series still had its original creator at the helm, even if his personal passion for his creation dwindled as far back as 10 years ago. So this was a very safe investment for Konami, and they would have had to make the game at some point anyway.

Considering the amount of people who would buy the next Metal Gear game no matter what, there must be a considerable profit margin there, since Konami already has planned future entries in the series. Either that, or they plan on carrying the franchise over solely into the mobile space. Whatever the case, Metal Gear is the exception to the rule about Konami’s treatment of their intellectual property, and it’s clear that the same is unlikely to happen with any other franchise.

All of this is likely to be old news to most people reading this. Those that follow the video game industry, and especially if they pay attention to Japan or Konami in particular, would be familiar with the fact that Konami has distanced itself from the bulk of the core video game market, instead leaning towards mobile gaming, where the profit margins are potentially much bigger, and the payoff requires significantly less effort and monetary investment. But there’s more to the downfall of Konami, and it doesn’t solely relate to games, but rather the company itself – or rather its employees.

The Internal Ordeal

An article by Kotaku explored some disturbing claims by current and former employees about the working conditions that Konami puts them under. Not only are their movements under constant supervision through an internal system of surveillance cameras and time cards, but unsatisfactory performance or behavior results in public shaming of the employee in question through announcing their names throughout the company. Punitive measures can also include reassigning an employee into jobs such as cleanup or working in a slot-machine factory, regardless of their status or time within the company.

All those cameras in the Metal Gear series are starting to make a lot of sense now, huh?

All those cameras in the Metal Gear series are starting to make a lot of sense now, huh?

The article I mentioned delves a little bit deeper into the conditions that employees face every day working for Konami. What I’m focusing on, though, is the fact that Konami is reportedly running short on talented creators, who in turn are vital to actually creating games to bring in profit. Whether the unbearable working conditions within the company are the direct reason for this or simply an exacerbating factor is debatable, but the truth is that Konami is unlikely to fix the problem of too little talent anytime soon. The fact that Konami is increasingly interested in the “low effort, high payoff” model of the mobile gaming scene is starting to make more and more sense.

What’s also interesting about this is that Hideo Kojima, arguably the greatest talent in Konami’s ranks, is not only the mastermind behind the Metal Gear series, but was also slated to co-direct Silent Hills, and he was even involved with MercurySteam’s Castlevania: Lords of Shadow as a producer. It might be reading too much into it, but it does look like Konami just can’t make a triple-A game without Kojima. After he’s gone, who do they have left? Remember that Kojima is just the latest big-name creator that leaves the company, following Koji Igarashi who is credited with creating many of the Castlevania games since Symphony of the Night, as well as Akira Sakuma and Akari Uchida, who are comparably notable especially in Japan. As Kotaku’s article notes, these are just the names we know – who knows how many less famous employees has Konami smoked out?

There’s no question that Konami is on their way out of the core video game scene; they have practically stated so themselves, and it wouldn’t take a genius to figure it out anyway. The details and the amount of time it will take until they’re nothing but a memory will remain unknown for now, but the way I see it, they’re not going out with a bang or a whimper, but rather a series of thuds and clanks, as they trip over their own feet trying to change the focus of their company. Instead of making a graceful shift from core games to mobile games or whatever their new agenda is, they’ve already made a huge mess by driving out their internal talent, alienating their fanbase and disgracing their name in the industry. While they currently are probably a very profitable company in other areas, infamy such as this is hard to live down even if it comes from a different scene altogether. What’s more, if Konami really is as inhospitable as a workplace as the aforementioned article describes, they’re in deep trouble with any future undertaking, whatever it may be. I’m certain Konami is one company we won’t be hearing good things about in a long time – if ever again.


2 thoughts on “Harmony of Despair: How Konami Stumbles Out of the Video Game Industry

    • Indeed. This will be one of those stories we’ll be telling our grandchildren, who in the middle of their holographic video games wonder about a logo they may have seen in the boxes of our old games: “What’s a Konami?”

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