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Konami's bitter, yearlong breakup with Hideo Kojima, explained

A 30-year relationship goes down in the flames of a hundred burned bridges

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Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Hideo Kojima is one of the world's foremost game designers, the renowned creator of the Metal Gear franchise under Japanese publisher Konami. He began his career at the company in 1986, and worked on dozens of games there over the course of a tenure that ended yesterday. Kojima's departure concluded a three-decade career at Konami, putting a sad closing note on what has been a tumultuous final year in the relationship between the two.

Kojima is Konami's all-time most famous employee, and ordinarily, someone with his resume would surely have been feted by the company upon the announcement of his departure. But their split has been an acrimonious one, marked by gag orders, vague statements from Konami and insults to Kojima's legacy. How did it all go so wrong?

Let's roll back the tape.

What is Metal Gear, anyway?

Kojima, 52, got his start at Konami's division for the MSX home computer. There, he designed and directed the original Metal Gear, a stealth action game that debuted on MSX2 in 1987. The hero of Metal Gear was an operative named Solid Snake, who was sent on a mission in the year 1995 to stop the titular nuclear weapon, a bipedal tank.

Since then, Kojima and Konami have released 10 other canonical entries in the Metal Gear franchise, which exploded in popularity in 1998 with the PlayStation game Metal Gear Solid. Kojima's final one is Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, which debuted this past September to critical acclaim. The scope of the project also included a prequel, Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes, which was released in March 2014.

Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes - PAX 2012 reveal screenshot 1920
Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes

Whoa, there's a lot of history there! Just tell me about the newest games.

Kojima was flying high back in September 2012, when he unveiled Ground Zeroes during a celebration of the Metal Gear franchise's 25th anniversary in his first-ever appearance at a Penny Arcade Expo. Calling Ground Zeroes the first open-world Metal Gear title, Kojima touted the Fox Engine, the versatile technology behind the game. The Fox Engine was developed in-house at Kojima Productions, the Tokyo-based studio that Konami created in 2005 to let Kojima focus on making games rather than managing a business.

"You can use it to make an FPS, an adventure game like Uncharted or something on rails," Kojima said of the Fox Engine.

"A Silent Hill, possibly," he added, referring to Konami's long-running horror franchise. (We'll come back to that.)

The full-game follow-up to Ground Zeroes was Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, which Kojima didn't announce — well, not technically, anyway. The 2012 Spike Video Game Awards opened with the reveal of a project called The Phantom Pain, supposedly from an unknown Swedish developer named Moby Dick Studio. But the trailer contained undeniable hints that the game was actually related to the Metal Gear Solid series, and Kojima, a master of misdirection, confirmed months later that it had all been an elaborate ruse he had planned for two years.

The Phantom Pain - Solid Snake, maybe 960
A still from The Phantom Pain's 2012 reveal trailer

Seems like Konami was willing to let Kojima do his thing...

Yup. Following the release of Ground Zeroes in March 2014, Kojima Productions (aided by a Los Angeles branch that had opened in September 2013) continued work on The Phantom Pain. But Gamescom 2014 in August brought a surprise: P.T., an "interactive teaser" for PlayStation 4 from an unknown developer — stop us if you've heard this one before — named 7780s Studio.

Within hours, the great sleuthing engine that is the internet unlocked the game's secret: P.T. was a playable teaser for a new Silent Hill game from Kojima and film director Guillermo del Toro, Silent Hills, starring Norman Reedus of AMC's The Walking Dead as its protagonist. Kojima described the aim of Silent Hills as being "a game that will make you shit your pants." He had said nearly two years earlier that the head of Konami wanted him to make the next Silent Hill title, so the announcement of Silent Hills seemed like something for which everybody was on board.

That's an interesting digression, but let's get back to Metal Gear.

As you wish.

In early March 2015, Konami announced a Sept. 1 release date for Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain. At the time, Kojima said in an interview with IGN that the Metal Gear games he designed himself — Metal Gear, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, the five numbered Metal Gear Solid titles and Peace Walker — comprised a "single Metal Gear saga."

Kojima added that he was "closing the loop on that saga" with The Phantom Pain, and said that regardless of whether Konami moved forward with additional entries in the franchise, he considered The Phantom Pain to be "the last Metal Gear." (He had said that kind of thing before about previous Metal Gear titles.)

Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain
Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain

That same week, Konami announced a corporate restructuring that would take effect in mid-March. The publisher explained the changes by saying, "We are shifting our production structure to a headquarters-controlled system, in order to establish a steadfast operating base capable of responding to the rapid market changes that surround our digital entertainment business." Konami also posted a list of personnel changes set to go into effect in April.

Neither press release mentioned Kojima, who had been serving in the role of executive content officer at Konami as the director of Kojima Productions.

Well, that sounds ominous.

It does, doesn't it? If you caught those corporate announcements — and it seems nobody did at the time — you could read between the lines and surmise that Konami was trying to bury Kojima. But the company was just getting started.

In mid-March, Konami quietly removed the Kojima Productions name and "A Hideo Kojima Game" branding from its official Metal Gear website and from promotional materials for The Phantom Pain, Ground Zeroes and Metal Gear Solid: The Legacy Collection. The publisher also renamed Kojima Productions Los Angeles to Konami Los Angeles Studio. Reached for comment, Konami maintained that the company and Kojima would "continue to develop and support Metal Gear products."

Before and after

That same day, GameSpot reported a falling out between Kojima and Konami. Following "power struggles," the report said, Konami had "restricted access to corporate internet, emails, and phone calls" for senior Kojima Productions officials. The report added that Kojima and other senior staff "now essentially work as contractors, not permanent employees," with their contracts scheduled to end in December. And Kojima Productions' management team would "in all likelihood" disband once development on The Phantom Pain was complete.

One day later, Konami and Kojima published a joint statement saying that the Metal Gear creator "will remain involved throughout" the development of The Phantom Pain, although it did not comment on his employment status with the company. The statement included a quote from Kojima in which he said, "I want to reassure fans that I am 100% involved and will continue working on Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain."

At the same time, Konami said in a separate post on its website that it "has resolved to embark on production of a new 'Metal Gear' series," and put up a job listing for a position leading development on a post-Kojima Metal Gear game.

Yikes. What about Silent Hills?

Well, since you asked...

About a month later, in late April, Konami announced it would be removing P.T. from the PlayStation Store. Konami had not commented on the status of Silent Hills — remember, Kojima Productions was also working on that game along with The Phantom Pain — but the publisher had removed the studio's logo from the Silent Hills website as well as the Metal Gear site.

p.t. title screen
The title screen of P.T.

Over the subsequent weekend, Silent Hills co-director Guillermo del Toro said that the game was "not gonna happen," and actor Norman Reedus also lamented the apparent shelving of the project. A source told Polygon that Silent Hills had been effectively canceled, which Konami finally confirmed the next day in a statement that described the game as "the embryonic Silent Hills project."

It's now impossible to play P.T. unless you already have it on your PS4 — if you've deleted it, you can't re-download it from the PlayStation Store.

In an interview with IGN in May, del Toro said what "surprised" him the most about the abrupt, unceremonious end of the Silent Hills project was Konami's "scorched earth approach." He noted, "It was not a gentle and ambiguous cancellation."

Damn. Why would Konami go to these lengths?

That's a good question, and it gets to the heart of how Konami has changed as a company over the past year.

Konami undertook the aforementioned corporate restructuring this past spring because officials believed the company, under its previous organizational layout, had become unable to keep up with the rapidly shifting landscape of the game industry. Hideki Hayakawa, who became the president of Konami with the reorganization in April, brought a "mobile first" approach to the publisher.

The phrase, which Hayakawa used in a May interview with the Japanese publication Nikkei Trendy Net, caused alarm among fans of Konami's traditional games. Later that month, Konami sent a statement to Polygon saying, "We are aware that the conjecture surrounding our recent changes has prompted a great deal of anxiety, for which we apologize." The company also provided Polygon with a full translation of Nikkei Trendy Net's interview with Hayakawa, in which he clarified that the "mobile first" strategy didn't mean that Konami was completely giving up on the console, PC and handheld markets in favor of the mobile space.

Gallery Photo: Tokyo Game Show 2013 photo essay
Konami's "Family Corner" at Tokyo Game Show 2013

"Our aim is to continue to build up a comprehensive portfolio of console, arcade, and card game titles for each IP while also making the best possible use of the mobile devices that accompany our customers in their daily life, thus expanding the limits of entertainment and appealing to more and more customers," said Hayakawa. Asked about his vision of the future of gaming, Hayakawa told Nikkei Trendy Net that he believes platform distinctions will dissolve, and mobile devices will be the "driving force" in the continued growth of the market.

In Konami's statement to Polygon, the company also affirmed that the Metal Gear and Silent Hill series were still "extremely important to Konami," and said that it will "continue to produce products for both franchises." As of this time, the publisher has not announced any new Silent Hill or Metal Gear projects, or plans for any console games scheduled to be released in 2016.

All of that is to say it might be premature to suggest that Konami is getting out of the business of publishing traditional console games, and the company's portfolio still includes beloved series like Castlevania and Pro Evolution Soccer in addition to Silent Hill and Metal Gear. But it costs a lot of money to make AAA console games — reports pegged the budget for The Phantom Pain at over $80 million — and it's increasingly difficult for publishers to break even on that kind of cost. It's much cheaper to develop mobile games, and they offer a comparatively higher return on investment.

You're making me sad.

Sorry. But there's more.

Remember when Konami removed the Kojima Productions logo and the phrase "A Hideo Kojima Game" from the Metal Gear website? It was discovered in July that the same applies to the final box art for The Phantom Pain.

Let's play a game of photo hunt to catch the differences

report from Nikkei in August highlighted low morale at Konami, a result of company officials apparently turning the workplace into an Orwellian nightmare as far as the way it treats its employees. Nikkei reported that Konami was assigning game developers to menial jobs if the company no longer saw those people as useful; that cameras had been installed to monitor employee movements; and that supervisors were closely tracking lunch breaks and publicly shaming employees who were out of the office for too long.

In addition, said Nikkei's report, Konami had given Kojima Productions a generic new name: "Number 8 Production Department." The computers within that group were reportedly not connected to the internet and could communicate only with each other.

The New Yorker reported in October that Kojima left Konami's offices for the last time on Oct. 9, following a farewell party at Kojima Productions in Tokyo that one employee characterized as "a rather cheerful but also emotional goodbye." Kojima told The New Yorker he was unable to comment because of his agreement with Konami, a non-compete scheduled to expire in December. Konami denied the report the following day, saying that Kojima remained an employee of the company and that he and the Metal Gear Solid 5 team were merely "taking a long time off from work."

Konami announced in November that it had closed its Los Angeles-based studio, the company formerly known as Kojima Productions Los Angeles.

A theater inside the now-defunct Kojima Productions Los Angeles / Konami Los Angeles Studio

I'm even sadder now. But I'm also curious about what happens in December...

What happened was one final insult to Kojima from Konami. Kojima was supposed to attend The Game Awards, the Geoff Keighley-produced awards show set for Dec. 3 in Los Angeles; Kojima is listed as a member of the show's advisory board. Keighley and Kojima have worked together before — the two of them planned the reveal at the 2012 Video Game Awards of Metal Gear Solid 5 as Moby Dick Studio's The Phantom Pain.

Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain was nominated in five categories at The Game Awards 2015, and it won two awards, including Best Action/Adventure Game. Kiefer Sutherland, who voices Big Boss in the game, accepted the award on behalf of Kojima and the development team. Following the presentation of the award, Keighley gave an unrehearsed, seething-under-the-surface monologue in which he explained that Konami had prevented Kojima from attending the show.

Yesterday, Dec. 15, Nikkei reported that Kojima had officially left Konami. Not long after that report, Sony Computer Entertainment announced it had entered into an agreement with Kojima and his newly formed independent studio, also called Kojima Productions, to develop a console-exclusive game for PlayStation 4.

"Today marks a new start for me," Kojima said on Twitter, confirming his departure from Konami. "I'm committed to be involved in creative activities for as long as I live. Look forward to what's coming."

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