Kojima without boundaries: The father of Metal Gear on Death Stranding and beyond

Kojima without boundaries: The father of Metal Gear on Death Stranding and beyond
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

August 8th 2016 at 11:11AM

Following his big win at this year’s Develop Awards, James Batchelor spoke to legendary developer Hideo Kojima about his new studio, his new ambitions and the changing nature of authorship

A man walks onto the stage to the sound of dramatic music, thunderous applause and the crowd chanting his name. Taking a moment to calm them down, he casually declares: “I’m back.”

Appearing at PlayStation’s E3 2016 conference was Hideo Kojima’s biggest public appearance since his departure from Konami. During the last quarter of a century, he has made his name with the flagship Metal Gear franchise, as well as other fan favourites such as Zone of the Enders and Boktai.

A month after presenting the world with his new studio’s debut title, Death Stranding, Kojima took to another stage in front of hundreds of industry figureheads as he accepted the top honour of Development Legend at our very own 2016 Develop Awards.

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Kojima was presented with his Develop Award by long-time partner and friend Mark Cenry, architect of the PlayStation 4

The accolade recognises everything Kojima has accomplished in the first 30 years of his career, and yet the buzz around his new venture makes it impossible to shake the notion that the best could be yet to come.

After spending decades working on the same franchise, Kojima is certainly savouring his newfound independence, as well as the chance to build new games brands and concepts from scratch – all in that familiar Kojima style, of course.

“There’s a lot of freedom in terms of what type of characters I can create – there are no boundaries,” he tells Develop.

“Of course, even when working with the same IP, every time I made a new game I tried to bring in new elements, new ideas. Despite the Metal Gear games all being in the same series, I was always trying new things and to deliver something new. So our approach hasn’t changed that much.”

ASSEMBLING THE TEAM

The new Kojima Productions, a fully independent studio headed up by the man himself, also gives the father of Metal Gear the chance to go back to his roots. While he won’t share the exact figure, Kojima says his budget – thanks largely to his partnership with PlayStation – is “not that limited” as he is “trying to compete with triple-A titles”.

The big difference this time around is the headcount. While developers around the world would no doubt be pounding down his door for the chance to work with Kojima, the developer has chosen to keep his staff reasonably small. In fact, he likened forming his new studio to “starting a band”.

“The teams I originally worked with for Metal Gear Solid 1 and 2 were very small,” he explains. “For MGS3 we tried to implement a somewhat ‘Westernised’ line of production and we had mixed results. Maybe the Metal Gear Solid V team got a little too big.

“This time, I wanted to create something that felt a little more hand-crafted. In that regard, it was a conscious choice I made to go back to smaller teams.”

If you put the Spielberg name or my name on a product, only fans of that author will watch or play it – and that’s not what marketing wants.

All attention is on Death Stranding. Little is known about the mysterious title beyond the fact that it stars Walking Dead actor Norman Reedus, a lot of digital whales were killed to make the surreal teaser trailer, and Kojima’s underlying ambitions for the title: that this will be as much about the connections between people as it will about combat and other typical video game fare. 

“We’re making this one game first,” he stresses. “If it turns out to be successful, we can make it a franchise. But that could us get into the cycle where you have to launch a game in that series every year or so, which would be a similar situation to where I previously was and that’s something I really don’t want to happen. 

“I’m working with people that want to make a good product. I want to focus on that, prioritise on making it something the whole team is proud of. From that, we’ll see what happens.”

That’s not to say there are no plans for a Death Stranding 2, should the market demand it – but an interesting twist is that Kojima may not head up a sequel himself.

“I’m sure Sony would want to make it a franchise,” he says. “I don’t know if I’d make the continuation of this game or not, but I definitely want to make something that if someone else wanted to make a continuation, they could make it.”

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Death Stranding, Kojima's mysterious new project, made its debut at
E3 2016 – although very little is known about the game itself

It’s hard not to imagine Death Stranding being anything but an instant success. The support for Kojima from both fans and the industry, combined with curiosity about his post-Metal Gear IP, assure the game of reasonably strong sales. The trailer said little to nothing about its structure or concept and yet hype around the title is almost palpable. Is it even possible to live up to such anticipation?

“I would be lying if I said there was no pressure,” Kojima admits. “But having these reactions from people is what keeps us going. It was definitely a very early time to be showing anything, but by showing what we did and getting the noise and reaction from fans and other people, that is what keeps us making games, keeps us going. The pressure is definitely working in a positive way for us.”

While Kojima is going back to earlier processes in terms of team size, he is only looking forward when it comes to the technology powering his future games; digitally scanning Reedus for Death Stranding and capturing his performance will take his character beyond anything seen during Solid Snake’s adventures.

“Back when I started, the hardware was very limited,” he says. “Games have evolved a lot and the level of expression you can reach has become very close to what a movie can express – and I think that will keep getting better.

“The more technology advances, the more things you can do – and technology just keeps on evolving. When I started, you used to represent a character by drawing dots, but now you can use real actors in your games. This will just keep getting better, so I think the possibilities are infinite. It’s rare to find a medium like that.”

As such, the auteur has been touring the world in search of the best games-making technology, visiting some of the biggest studios along the way. In his travels, he has learned that simply having the tools is not enough.

“The technology isn’t radically different [at different companies],” he says. “For example, let’s say Studio A has technology good enough to make a rocket that can go to the Moon. Studio B and C’s technology will be different, but you won’t find any rockets that will get you to Pluto. They’re still going to the Moon.

“So it’s not about the technology, but how you’re using it, what kind of vision you’re implementing, and the kind of people you’re working with. Using the same example, Studio A may have the technology to reach the Moon but Studio B – despite having very similar technology – somehow manages to make it all the way to Mars. Those differences were what particularly impressed me.”

I don’t know if I’d make the continuation of Death Stranding or not, but I definitely want to make something that if someone else wanted to make a continuation, they could make it.

Out of the studios he visited, Kojima found the UK’s Media Molecule to be particularly praiseworthy, championing the firm’s atmosphere of openness and collaboration. Yet, while he plans to take a few pages of out their book, he stresses that the new Kojima Productions will remain distinctly Japanese.

“Some studios and companies can feel rather military,” says Kojima. “You have a big building, you go to the higher command in their big meeting rooms and they give you orders on how things are going to work. Media Molecule felt less vertical, almost horizontal. People get together to discuss things in the lunch area. They mentioned they had this family concept and that’s how they make games – that definitely had an impact on me.

“I don’t think the way we are building our team is necessarily Westernised. One thing that we were definitely inspired by, especially when it comes to Media Molecule, is how original and unique their team and their ideas were. That was inspiring.”

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Kojima believes that his team grew to be too big for Metal Gear Solid V:
The Phantom Pain, and has scaled back for Death Stranding

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Despite being one of the biggest names in video games development, it’s no secret that Kojima had other ambitions when he started out. As he embarks on this new chapter, the developer reflects on his career and finds he has no regrets.

 “When I was young, I wanted to make a movie,” he says. “I liked to create stories, so I started writing novels when I was very young – of course, they never got published. Back then in Japan, it was very difficult to make a movie. 

“That’s when I discovered the Famicom. As I played and explored the possibilities, I thought that maybe I could tell a good story within this medium. So that’s why I started developing games.”

Looking back, he describes his plans to make movies as “almost a broken dream”, but after three decades in the games industry, it’s not one he still intends to pursue.

“I can still say making games is so fun and so difficult, and I wouldn’t ever stop,” he says.

Ironically, Kojima has become the closest thing to a movie director the games industry has. Not only are his titles rife with the influences of cinema, but the man himself has reached a similar status to iconic directors such as Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Quentin Tarantino – visionaries whose names are as well-known as their works.

When asked why the use of an author’s name is less common in our industry that that of Hollywood, he retorts that the familiar words ‘A Hideo Kojima Game’ can actually limit a title’s appeal – and even movie makers are discovering this.

“In the old days, you had an Alfred Hitchcock movie, a Carpenter movie, because there was a very strong sense of authorship,” he says. “You knew that director, and because of that you would go see his film. I don’t think that applies now as much as it used to. Of course you still have Spielberg, Cameron and people like that, but those guys are a league of their own. 

“Getting author names in front is not in line with the marketing mentality – it’s almost something that gets in the way. It’s the same situation for games: you don’t see many names on games because it gets in the way of marketing. 

“If you put the Spielberg name or my name on a product, only fans of that author will watch or play it – and that’s not what marketing wants.”

Of course, it was only prudent to secure his name for the new studio. When starting from scratch, creators need something familiar to draw in fans, to assure them that Kojima Productions is not dead and gone.

In movies, new talent is scouted and chosen to make the next Star Wars or Aliens. In future, I hope we’ll have a parallel for that in games.

“The situation we’re in is a little different,” he adds. “We’re kind of taking the approach where we want people that know us and like our games to enjoy and play them. That’s the focus.”

However, Kojima believes there will one day be a place for authorship in the games industry, and that we’re seeing this not from triple-A blockbusters but from the indie scene. One-man studios such as Her Story creator Sam Barlow and Thomas Was Alone dev Mike Bithell offer a sign of things to come.

“Hopefully we’ll see a time where indies make a name for themselves and find success, causing a big publisher to seek them out,” says Kojima. “In movies, new talent is scouted and chosen to make the next Star Wars or Aliens. In future, I hope we’ll have a parallel for that in games.”

It’s the indie ideal that Kojima is keen to explore. His new studio may have the support of an industry behemoth and aim to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the leaders of triple-A, but the small team, more open structure and a desire to remain independent should leave it free to experiment.

“That concept behind Death Stranding is something I think would be completely new to games,” Kojima teases. “I want to make a difference. I want to make the game that changes the landscape.”

This article was originally published in the August 2016 issue of Develop.

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