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the front of the former Kojima Productions Los Angeles office building in Playa Vista, California
The former Kojima Productions LA studio, seen here in late 2018.
Jonathan Castillo

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What it was like working at Kojima Productions Los Angeles

Ahead of Death Stranding’s release, former staff look back at Hideo Kojima’s short-lived LA studio

Matt Leone has written about games for three decades, focusing on behind-the-scenes coverage of the industry, including books on Final Fantasy 7 and Street Fighter 2.

On stage at the 2013 Game Developers Conference, Tom Sekine took the podium to confirm what many already knew: Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima was starting a new development studio in Los Angeles. Long-rumored, and even advertised on industry site Gamasutra, the studio had been hiring for the previous six months. But as things in the game industry often go, it hadn’t been formally announced.

“As of today, it is official,” said Sekine.

With Sekine installed as studio head, the team was in the early stages of planning Kojima Productions Los Angeles, a sister studio to Kojima Productions in Tokyo born in part from Kojima’s love of Los Angeles and the movie business.

As Sekine spoke, he described the high-level goals for the team, noting a plan to “create the highest-quality interactive entertainment” while “touching people’s emotions.”

“Our mission is [to] become the top studio in the world,” he said.

By the next line, he downplayed that claim to say “or one of the best,” and as the presentation was essentially a recruitment drive, it’s probably best not to get hung up on semantics. Still, former team members describe it as a studio that aimed high.

Konami was designing an approximately 30,000-square-foot office in Playa Vista, California, part of a campus deemed a historic landmark as the former aviation headquarters of billionaire investor/pilot/film director Howard Hughes. A soundstage across the lot had been used for movies like Titanic and Avatar. The studio would have a screening room and outdoor fire pits, with a press release for the complex touting “an ambitious long-term goal of taking the development entirely ‘off the grid,’” and the campus website advertising tenant access to a building called the “Toy Box” filled with bikes, picnic towels, and board games.

Targeting Los Angeles also meant competing for talent in the most concentrated region of name-brand AAA development staff in the world, with studios such as Sony Santa Monica, Naughty Dog, Insomniac, Respawn, Infinity Ward, Treyarch, Blizzard, Riot, and others a short drive away.

Konami and Kojima were lining up the pieces for this to be a significant long-term investment. Something that could tap into nearby Hollywood talent. Something that could do an East/West collaboration better than it had been done before. Something that would start by making Metal Gear’s multiplayer, and end up being one of the best studios in the world.

Something that, to the disappointment of many, fell apart before it got there.

Speaking to six former Kojima Productions LA employees, we recently pieced together the story of Kojima’s short-lived LA experiment, looking back at the ambition behind the studio and the challenges it faced before it came to an end.

[Ed. note: Sekine and Konami declined interview requests for this story. Kojima Productions — in its current form, unaffiliated with Konami — didn’t respond to multiple requests to participate.]

The former Kojima Productions Los Angeles office building in Playa Vista, California, with a courtyard off to the side
The former Kojima Productions LA studio, seen here in late 2018.
Jonathan Castillo

Building the studio

In its first year, Kojima Productions LA consisted of a small group working out of Konami’s U.S. headquarters in El Segundo, eight miles from its eventual home in Playa Vista.

Under Sekine’s leadership, the team planned out its future. It learned how to use the Fox Engine that Kojima Productions had been building in Tokyo. It built out the Howard Hughes office in bright colors and sunken lounge areas. It set up a flat office hierarchy. And it started work on its first project: Metal Gear Online.

For about a decade, Kojima Productions in Tokyo had been trying to make a Metal Gear multiplayer mode stick. The series had a reputation for single-player campaigns layering action movie spectacle, silly humor, and political commentary over stealth combat. Yet it was the era of every big-budget game getting a multiplayer mode, regardless of whether it seemed like a natural fit, and despite multiple attempts and modest success, the series hadn’t found its groove on that side of the fence.

This time, the theory went, Kojima Productions LA could shake things up. Western teams — especially those in the LA area — had strong track records with online shooters. And building a team of developers around the mode could let them focus on it, freeing up resources in Tokyo.

“They wanted to invest a lot of money and time into a real online game,” says a former employee who requested anonymity to speak for this story, citing concerns about blowback from Konami’s legal department. “They didn’t want to make the same mistake.”

Some in the LA developer community were skeptical. Historically, the track record of U.S./Japan studio collaborations had been spotty, with a long legacy of projects that struggled under cultural differences and communication issues.

“It happens all the time,” says Victor Rachels, a programmer who joined Kojima Productions LA following a stint on another East/West collaboration, Lost Planet 3. “Every studio I’ve been at that has a working relationship with a Japan studio […] there’s always friction between the cultures and expectations.”

Sekine had cross-cultural experience, though, coming from a business development role at Sony Santa Monica and having worked at Capcom Studio 8 — the Japanese publisher’s attempt at a California-based team — on games like Final Fight: Streetwise. And many hoped this time it would be different, pointing to the resources being put into the studio and the number of bilingual staff available to help coordinate plans.

Two of the primary reasons to be optimistic, they say, were the chance to work on the Metal Gear brand and the chance to work with Kojima. For some prospective hires, Kojima’s name was the strongest recruiting tool the studio had.

“Kojima’s one of the top masters of game design; he’s an icon, a legend,” says Mario Lavin, former lead sound designer at Kojima Productions LA, who says he was interested in working with Kojima “in any capacity” when he heard about the new studio.

As one of the game industry’s most popular figures, Kojima had a long history of directing the Metal Gear series and hadn’t shied away from the spotlight — naming his studio after himself, making public appearances, chronicling meals on his Twitter feed. And thanks to the Metal Gear series having a strong dose of social commentary and a legacy of quirky fan service, Kojima’s games had long felt more personal to fans than most big-budget action titles.

Back in Tokyo, Kojima and his team had been putting together an ambitious plan for Metal Gear Solid 5’s campaign, evolving the series to focus less on story cutscenes and more on large open environments. Kojima’s grand plan involved the Tokyo studio doing the bulk of the work on the single-player campaign and the LA studio doing the bulk of the work on Metal Gear Online, with some minor sharing between the two. Key staff such as creative director Kotaro Oki would end up overseeing Metal Gear Online from Tokyo.

“I don’t see this and the Japan office as two different studios,” Kojima said in a 2013 press Q&A, as reported by Gamasutra. “They are one studio. They aren’t rivals. I don’t want them to compete with one another — well, maybe a little. But in a productive sense. I want the two studios to work together to create the true form of Kojima Productions.”

Yet with many approvals and the bulk of the engine work being done in Tokyo, LA employees say it didn’t always feel like one big happy family.

A group of Metal Gear Online characters huddle together
Metal Gear Online

Making Metal Gear Online work

As the studio in LA started to staff up, team members experienced all sorts of different feelings about the studio’s strengths and weaknesses.

Robert Peeler, who worked as a community manager for Kojima Productions LA, says the studio “was an exciting place to work where open conversations on game development challenges and collaborative efforts between very talented teams were commonplace. Coming into such a known entity and seeing that kind of warm, receptive environment was encouraging.”

Others mention similar feelings, praising the talent, camaraderie, and resources available.

“Using the Fox Engine completely changed my life, because I learned a lot, and actually it was way more advanced than what I was imagining,” says the anonymous former staffer. “When I compare it with other games and their engines, some of the features — the Fox Engine did them several years ago and [the competition is only getting] them now.”

Yet multiple staffers mention that the LA team sometimes struggled to be effective, in part due to communication challenges working with the team in Tokyo and in part due to working with the Fox Engine. Team members point to struggles getting to grips with the engine, noting that many of the comments were in Japanese and saying it took longer than expected to understand and rework it to use in LA.

One challenge was that the design team in the LA office was initially limited in what it could do because the Fox Engine hadn’t been built for non-technical designers. Kojima Productions in Tokyo was set up for programmers to implement or change minor features themselves, while in LA the studio, like many western studios, was set up to let designers handle those tasks. Because the Fox Engine had been created in Tokyo, it didn’t include the knobs and levers necessary for designers who didn’t have a programming background to hop in and make changes. So the designers had to funnel requests through the programming team rather than putting them directly into the game itself, which caused large amounts of frustration.

“The big thing,” says Rachels, “was that people didn’t feel like they were being productive. […] You want to do work, you want to make games, and then you just can’t.”

The team also saw some of its more ambitious design ideas cut short. In the early days, the group had big plans in mind to piggyback on the large open-world scale of the single-player campaign. It experimented with ideas like a “trench run,” where players would start at one point and compete to reach a fort across the map as quickly as possible. It prototyped gameplay built around capture points with transport systems inspired by the Battlefield series. But the team hit too many roadblocks trying to pull these off, and scaled back to smaller maps with fewer game types that it would be able to focus on.

Changes like these are common in game development — they’re the sorts of things that happen behind the scenes at game studios all the time. Yet as the project went on and the LA team struggled to make progress with Metal Gear Online, the team in Tokyo stepped in to ask for changes, like moving the LA office from its flat structure to a more traditional hierarchy.

Apart from the day-to-day challenges, some in LA say they were handcuffed by a series of content decisions that were out of their control. These included a Konami login system that required players jump through hoops to start playing, a lack of dedicated servers that could have provided a more stable experience, a lack of security verification to prevent cheating, and the absence of host migration — so if the player hosting a game dropped out, the match would end instantly, splitting up players and scrapping any experience points they’d earned.

LA staff members say they pushed back on these decisions, but on each were either told the team in Tokyo would handle them or didn’t feel they were needed.

“I remember when I learned about all that stuff,” says another former employee who requested anonymity, citing a lack of approval from their current employer. “I was just like, well, this is not going to take off. It’s never going to catch fire. It’s never going to be Call of Duty. It was just those few decisions, just a couple specific but major decisions where I was like, well, this is never going to work. It just can’t.”

The final product would end up with a small, focused group of game types and maps that benefitted from features created for the single-player campaign — such as the Fulton, which players could use to strap a balloon to an enemy and launch them into the sky.

Due to the various challenges the team in LA faced, the studio ran into struggles with recruiting and retention. As staff became frustrated, some left and joined nearby studios. And as they left, word spread about the challenges present at Kojima Productions LA.

“Once people really started leaving, enough people got out there that they would talk to their friends, friends of friends, and yeah, we just couldn’t even get people in to interview,” says Rachels.

Kojima Productions LA ended up peaking at about 50 people, filling less than half of the space in the Playa Vista office. (Metal Gear Solid 5’s credits list 54 LA team names.) Though Konami had built the studio with room to grow, those there say the empty desks made the recruiting and retention challenges hit especially hard.

It also didn’t help that rumors circulated about the studio, they say — rumors that those at the studio had little control over.

The side of the former Kojima Productions LA studio
The former Kojima Productions LA studio, seen here in late 2018.
Jonathan Castillo

Security rumors

As Kojima Productions LA was figuring out its workflow process, those watching from the outside heard stories about something a bit more sinister. And, as it turns out, quite a bit less true.

Over the course of 2015, multiple outlets published articles detailing on Konami’s poor treatment of employees in Japan. In August 2015, Nikkei ran a story detailing some of the worst offenses.

Kotaku translated the highlights in an article titled “Konami is treating its staff like prisoners,” noting that Konami publicly shamed employees who spent too long at lunch, that it used security cameras to spy on its workforce, that it cut off internet access for some staff, that it gave staff rotating randomized email addresses that outsiders couldn’t guess, that it punished game developers by reassigning them to security guard and cleaning staff roles, and that it reassigned every employee who liked a specific Facebook post about a co-worker leaving the company.

While this report covered issues in Japan, LA team members say they heard a lot of talk from friends and people around the industry speculating that similar things might be happening in the LA office — such as employees using eye scanners to get in the building, and staff being locked inside all day.

According to everyone from the studio whom we spoke to for this story, Kojima Productions LA was immune to the majority of the suggestions in these rumors and the claims in the Nikkei article. They never saw anyone publicly shamed for taking long lunches, or punished with limited internet access or role reassignments.

They say that the infrastructure was there to support this sort of gossip, with security cameras and a keycard system that could track employee movement, but they didn’t see anyone abuse it in the extreme ways the Nikkei story says happened in Japan. Lavin says that his job often took him off-site to record sounds for the game, so he checked in and out at all sorts of unusual hours and never heard complaints. And, as multiple staffers point out, having cameras and a keycard system in place was hardly unique — these are the kinds of things present in game studios around the world.

(Shortly after the Playa Vista office opened, Gamasutra and Game Informer reported that the building had fingerprint scanners installed for employees to open doors, but those speaking for this story say they used keycards.)

Still, rumors persisted both inside and outside the office — sometimes played as jokes.

“I think there were meetings where [...] you’re in a meeting room and there’s a camera and microphone in the meeting room — it’s just part of the equipment or whatever — but I do remember people would go and turn it off and be like, ‘OK, now we can really talk,’” says an anonymous former employee. But, they point out, they’ve also seen that same joke played at studios that don’t have the same sorts of rumors surrounding them.

In practical terms, staff say that the more significant infrastructure issues came with what they describe as out-of-date security policies, such as having elaborate password restrictions on their machines, an office intranet that they say looked like it was built in the 1990s, and rotating randomized email addresses similar to how Nikkei reported them working at Konami Japan. Staffers would set calendar reminders to request extensions to keep their accounts, and if they forgot, they would lose access.

“It was a very 1980s feel of the type of protectiveness and surveillance over their technology, and to me it just felt very ridiculous,” says Lavin. “We weren’t really doing anything super innovative that hadn’t been done before.”

“They felt like your grandpa not knowing how to use the internet,” says another former employee.

Staff say these were mostly minor annoyances. Ultimately, they say the biggest negative impact of the various security procedures and rumors was — similar to the workflow issues — their impact on recruitment. Due to talk circulating in developer communities, the situation left a cloud hanging over the studio that added to the team’s hiring challenges.

And the rumors didn’t end up being the only other factor in the studio’s recruiting difficulties. In fact, those issues proved to be insignificant compared to the news that hit shortly before the Nikkei story in 2015. As it turned out, Hideo Kojima was leaving the studio with his name on it.

A player sits atop a horse facing off into the distance in Metal Gear Solid 5
Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain

Kojima’s long goodbye

In March 2015, fans started seeing smoke that all was not well at Kojima Productions in Tokyo.

At the beginning of the month, IGN released an interview with Kojima in which he said he considered Metal Gear Solid 5 to be “the last Metal Gear.” He’d made similar statements about Metal Gear games previously, often focused around wanting to personally move on from the series, but this time the news hit the same week Konami announced it was restructuring its development studios into a “headquarters-controlled system” and took Kojima’s name off a list of key executives. As the month went on, Konami removed the tagline “A Hideo Kojima Game” from Metal Gear marketing materials and renamed the Kojima Productions studios in Tokyo and LA — the team in Tokyo became Production Department 8, while the team in LA became Konami Los Angeles Studio.

Alongside this news, GameSpot reported on “power struggles” between Kojima and Konami, and said that Kojima planned to leave the company after finishing Metal Gear Solid 5. Kojima then announced that he would see the game through, and to date, neither Kojima nor Konami have spoken publicly about what happened behind the scenes.

“We had a big meeting with Kojima in Japan,” says a former team member. “He said, ‘I’m not leaving this company until I finish the project; I guarantee to deliver this project.’ He said that we have a really awful situation in Japan, but he promised everybody, no matter what, he was going to finish the project.”

As the news broke, many at Kojima Productions LA were left in the dark, getting their updates from news outlets covering the situation.

“That was super awkward,” says Lavin. “The messaging was like, We don’t know. We don’t know. We don’t know what’s going on. It was safe to make assumptions at that point, because you weren’t really getting direct responses anymore from Kojima and his team of producers in Japan. [...] The mood definitely changed a lot, because it was just like, OK, well, pretty much most of us are here because of Kojima.”

Kojima ended up leaving in October, though not before Konami disputed this in a confusing public statement and, according to Kojima confidant Geoff Keighley, Kojima finished his work on the game “locked in a separate room on a different floor than his development team for the final six months of development.”

Further complicating the situation for those in the LA studio, reports hit saying that Konami was moving to a “mobile first” approach as a company, which caused concern for those in an office built to develop high-end console games. Konami later clarified that “mobile first” didn’t mean the company was leaving console games behind, but employees say the situation still added to the studio feeling unstable and was another factor in the team’s ongoing recruitment and retention struggles.

The side of the former Kojima Productions LA studio
The former Kojima Productions LA studio, seen here in late 2018.
Jonathan Castillo

The incomplete legacy

Konami’s LA studio spent much of 2015 treading water.

With Kojima’s status in limbo, many staffers saw the writing on the wall and left, joining local studios like Infinity Ward and Respawn. While being in LA had given Konami a significant talent pool to hire from, it also offered plenty of open spots for those who wanted to leave. And once the Kojima news hit, the studio’s retention problem spiked.

Meanwhile, those that stayed saw Metal Gear Online through with fewer resources, and employees felt uncertain about their futures. Still, some held out hope that they could save the studio. If they could come up with a strong enough pitch for a new game and get the executive team to greenlight it, they thought, Konami might roll the dice.

“Let’s see if we can keep this thing alive,” says Lavin of his attitude at the time, noting that the LA team was doing this of its own volition to try to keep the doors open, rather than because anyone at Konami asked it to.

Team members put together a variety of concepts and gave them to Sekine to present to executives at Konami. Lavin declines to mention specific game ideas, but others confirm a handful.

There was a pitch for a new Silent Hill, one for a new Bomberman, one for a new Contra. And there were concepts that took place in the Metal Gear universe. One starred a young version of Solid Snake in a parkour-focused origin story. Another put Metal Gear characters into a multiplayer online battle area game that took place inside the character Psycho Mantis’ head, as a way to justify mashing up characters that might not fit together otherwise. Some on the team liked shooting for the moon. Others pushed for something of a smaller scope so they could prove themselves before scaling up.

But as Sekine presented pitches to Konami higher-ups, they never got much traction. Whether due to the ideas themselves or Konami’s shifting priorities, the studio didn’t get the approval to move ahead on any of them.

“I think they just wanted to wash their hands completely,” says a former staffer. “After every single pitch was like, ‘No, forget it, nope, no,’ it was just like, OK, we got it. Got it.”

“When we started seeing that whole process not really go anywhere, that was pretty much the end of that,” says Lavin.

So the team continued to churn away on Metal Gear Online, which ended up launching in October 2015 — one month after Metal Gear Solid 5.

Multiple employees say they thought the mode they created turned out well, but felt like a compromised version of what could have been. Many media outlets didn’t review it separately, and those that did were critical of how it fared in comparison to the single-player campaign.

“MGO’s fundamentals are great, and the experience it can create in the best modes is nothing short of exceptional,” wrote Rich Stanton at The Guardian. “But these are high points in what is otherwise a polished but meagre offering, a multiplayer mode that feels lacking in depth and longevity. MGSV’s singleplayer saw Kojima Productions over-deliver and leave with a bang. In such company, the LA studio’s MGO is little more than a whimper.”

With Metal Gear Online out the door, team members say it felt like it was only a matter of time before Konami came knocking to shut things down. “Most people could see it coming,” says Lavin. “We were just there for the ride at that point. At least, I was.”

On Nov. 3, 2015, Konami confirmed the news publicly in a statement citing a restructuring of its development studios into “a more centralized unit” as the reason for the closure.

“I was there until they called us all into the room, the typical layoff scene where they pull everyone into the same room, you see the monitors being shut down remotely and boxes being brought in,” says Lavin. And they were like, So Konami decided to close down [the office], so we’re like OK, yep, today’s the day.”

As Konami shut down the office, it moved development of Metal Gear Online’s future updates back to a team in Japan, where it oversaw the PC release and added features like a version of host migration that would let players keep their progress. For many players, though, it was too little, too late.

Peeler, who stayed with Konami following the LA studio’s closure, says he was “saddened” to see Kojima leave but still felt motivated to keep working. “I wanted to continue to work hard to ensure that the game he helped us create would release and be supported as long as I was able to,” he says.

Asked about the studio’s legacy, many employees speaking for this article tell a similar story.

“The legacy should be the memory that could’ve been,” says Lavin. “What could’ve been next, what should’ve been next, would’ve been great, to see where Kojima would’ve taken us next. He definitely put in a lot of love into the design of the studio itself and handpicking the people that were there. It would’ve been great to follow his vision all the way through.”

“It was an opportunity that was sad that we never got to see it fleshed out,” says Rachels. “I think Kojima would’ve done some really cool things with us, and wanted us to do cool things. The fact that he still wants to work with Westerners and the LA, Hollywood aspect of it, and you see the cool things he’s doing with other people now — the fact that that could’ve been with us is pretty disappointing.”

Despite the challenges and instability, some team members look back on their time at the studio with pride, noting that it was a chance to work with one of the biggest names in the industry on a franchise at or near its peak.

“KJPLA was a great studio with some of the best people in the industry. [...] I look back on my time there very fondly and still keep in touch with members of the team from LA and Japan, who I consider lifelong friends,” says Peeler.

“I gotta say, I’m pretty fortunate to have worked on the last Metal Gear directed by Kojima himself,” says Lavin. “So it’s a nice milestone in my career, for sure.”

After departing Konami, Hideo Kojima resurfaced with an independent studio also named Kojima Productions. Its first game, Death Stranding, features strong ties to Hollywood and uses an engine built by Guerrilla Games in Amsterdam. It’s scheduled to be released on Nov. 8, and does not feature a competitive multiplayer mode.

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