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Opinion: Konami Undervalues Personality-Driven Game Direction

The internal struggle between Konami and producer Hideo Kojima claimed its first real victim this morning, with the announcement that his horror series reboot "Silent Hills" has been canceled. It shouldn't come as a surprise given persistent reports of an internal power struggle at the company, but it doesn't bode well for the future of its video game business. Today's decision to delist from the New York Stock Exchange further cements it as a company in flux, and the breakneck pace of all the changes may be too much for it to bear. Though Konami has diversified its business, video games are still a vital part. If the company continues to undervalue its most public faces, it could pay the price.

It's hard to fault Konami for this mindset. Its arrival on the video game scene occurred during a time that personalities were not widely known and video games were products that came from companies, not creators. With the exception of a handful of classic names, most players didn't know or think about who was behind their favorite releases. Who but the most knowledgeable video game historian can recall the director of Contra or Bomberman?

In the late 1990s, we began to see a change. In fact, it came partly from within Konami itself. The original Metal Gear proudly and cinematically branded itself as "A Hideo Kojima Game." As the creator explained in 2010, this self-branding was very much in the style of a film auteur. He only places it on games that he himself plans, writes, and directs. He wants the audience to know that he is ultimately responsible for everything the game is. Love or hate the series, Kojima has since made an indelible mark on it, and it is tied to his identity.

Partly inspired by Kojima's example, we are now firmly living in the era of the celebrity game developer. Classic names like Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto and Ron Gilbert have been joined by more recent ones like Ken Levine, Markus "Notch" Persson, and Suda51. Each one infuses a piece of the director's personality and credibility into the game itself. Just as movie buffs examine the arc of works from a film director, gamers can see the progression of game concepts from a director. And, just like film directors, they require a certain amount of latitude, as counterbalance to the worth that their unique persona brings to a project.

Konami doesn't seem to value that contribution. For a studio that helped found this modern era, even going so far as to give special and prominent branding to Kojima's studio, its recent moves indicate a confounding willingness to let go of its golden geese. Just as Gears of War suffered after creator Cliff Bleszinski departed, Konami stands to lose when it bleeds recognizable talent.

For a studio that helped found this modern era, Konami's recent moves indicate a confounding willingness to let go of its golden geese

The Castlevania series had languished for years before Dave Cox revived it, producing and directing both the reboot and its sequel, respectively. He left the company last year, leaving Castlevania yet again dangling in the wind. Earlier this year we heard that Kojima himself will be leaving after Metal Gear Solid 5, and the news has been surrounded by oddly-phrased non-denials. Kojima himself vouches for the integrity of Metal Gear Solid 5, but he seems to have no ties to the company. One foot is already out the door.

All that brings us to today, and the cancellation of Silent Hills. This is another series that has laid dormant, and the reboot was exciting for fans. The striking and creative PT demo that kicked off the promotional cycle, the partnership with Guillermo Del Toro, the involvement and likeness of Walking Dead actor Norman Reedus--everything seemed primed to breathe new life into Silent Hill. The cancellation all but confirms Kojima's departure, as the reports have always said he would be stepping away after MGS5. And so another series falls.

It would be oversimple to say that Konami isn't interested in making games. While it has diversified its portfolio to a much greater extent than many companies--operating everything from slot machines to health clubs in its native Japan--it is still moving aggressively into the mobile business, and will no doubt continue to produce regular iterations of Pro Evolution Soccer. No doubt after Kojima is gone, Metal Gear will continue. The difference is that PES and its mobile games aren't driven by the kinds of strong personalities that it takes to put their own mark on a game as a director. And who knows what Metal Gear looks like without Kojima steering the ship?

All of this is strange, considering that Metal Gear has been such a boon to the company. Even as much as it has diversified, it has MGS to thank for the lion's share of profits in some of the latest quarters. (Its slots are seeing greater growth lately, in part because their game releases have grown so sparse.) The company appears to have decided that it is franchises, not personalities, that make for successful games. Metal Gear is a moneymaker, but perhaps it will be just as much of one under new direction.

Or perhaps not. Konami is making a sizable gamble by assuming that one of its most reliable profit-drivers will be just fine without the man who defined it. The willingness to take that gamble may be based on an outdated notion, one the company itself changed, that gamers don't pay much attention to the credits. If Konami continues down this path, it may be unpleasantly surprised to find how much we actually do.

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