Konami, Like Atari, Is Risking its Legacy in Striving for Longevity
'Silent Hills' canned, Kojima on the way out, and mobile gaming on the horizon: are the company's casualties worth its future profits?
When the news came through, over the weekend just gone, that Konami's focus going forward would be on the mobile gaming market, I didn't know whether to sigh or cry (only to tweet: "fucked it"). Something like this had been anticipated: the corporation's recent handling of its relationship with Metal Gear Solid director Hideo Kojima has been nothing short of outright hostile, and the subsequent cancellation of Silent Hills – Kojima and Guillermo del Toro's Silent Hill series reboot – got even the most optimistic gamer to thinking: they really are pulling the plug, aren't they? Shit.
Nevertheless, until recently, how crazy would you have to be to seriously think that a company with the history of Konami, with its great many iconic series – Castlevania, Silent Hill, Metal Gear Solid, Contra, Pro Evolution Soccer/Winning Eleven (the list does go on) – would choose to withdraw from "traditional" games making. A screw loose wouldn't come close – you'd be shedding entire sheets of cladding. But here we are.
Having set up shop in the late 1960s in Osaka, and now headquartered in Tokyo, Konami grew as a presence in the arcades through the late 1970s and early '80s. Frogger was one of theirs, likewise Track & Field and the superb side-scrolling beat 'em up take on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Dance Dance Revolution is a Konami series, and in terms of home-market releases the company's gone beyond conversions of its own arcade hits to deliver quirky cult classic Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon and the awesome Mega Drive platformer Rocket Knight Adventures. If you grew up on gaming in the 1980s and '90s, you grew up on Konami.
"Our main platform will be mobiles," is what Konami executive Hideki Hayakawa has now said, albeit as translated by a NeoGAF user from the original Nikkei Trendy Net interview, here (and in Japanese, obviously). And not just that – Konami's approach to going mobile will be aggressive, in line with popular freemium titles like Clash of Clans and Game of War, as well as their own Power Pro baseball games, which Hayakawa referenced directly: "Following the pay-as-you-play model of games like Power Pro and Winning Eleven with additional content, our games must move from selling things like 'items' to selling things like 'features'."
Which all sounds... horrible, basically. Hayakawa's statement that "mobile is where the future of gaming lies" might not be enough just now to confirm Konami's complete withdrawal from the console market, but the signs certainly point towards that fate. The company's very public falling out with Kojima sends the message that Konami are done with games makers, in the traditional sense, and are more interested in games marketers. They need the lucre, regardless of whether or not the love comes with it.
They know what prized assets they're sitting on, yet are apparently comfortable to turn a blind eye to them. While the most recent game to bear the Castlevania name wasn't exactly amazing, the new Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night project from Koji Igarashi, who has credits on several franchise entries, provides evidence that the playing public would bite Konami's hand off for more of that classic side-on gothic gameplay. Bloodstained has made over $2 million on Kickstarter at the time of writing, more than four times its goal. "The spirit of this genre lives on in the hearts of others," comments Igarashi in his pitch video – though seemingly not at Konami, where Castlevania laid its roots in 1986.
Mobile is a relatively new market for Konami, albeit an area they've been steadily growing (they're not going into this blindly), and it'll be interesting to see how they fare if the company's core ambitions lie there. Part of me wishes them well, as it'd be a disaster for a company of such amazing legacy to completely fade away from relevance in contemporary gaming. Nostalgia has to be parked when there are more than just a handful of jobs on the line, and if Konami's change in strategy keeps it competitive, albeit in a different section of the gaming industry, then anyone assessing the move objectively will consider it a success.
Konami is also active in the gambling machine scene, with its department president, Thomas A Jingoli, also the president of the Association of Gaming Equipment Manufacturers, which makes another report to have come out over the weekend all the more interesting. A change to the law in Nevada – you know, where some small town called Las Vegas can be found – has opened the way for "skill-based" gambling machines to be introduced. This essentially means that more typically video game-y content can factor into whether or not the punter turns a profit on their betting.
An excerpt from the official statement from AGEM reads: "...true skill-based gaming, arcade-game elements, hybrid games and other unique features and technologies [will feature on] the casino floor for the first time... If you're particularly skilled at shooting down enemy planes in the bonus round or outracing your friends in a road rally, you could boost your payback to 98 percent, with the blended overall payback selected by operators falling somewhere in the middle. For the first time, players will know they can have a material financial impact on the outcome of the game." You can already picture a raft of Konami characters being forced into fancier versions of one-armed bandits for the sake of five minutes' "gameplay".
To those of us who grew up in the West with the arcade hits and 16bit-era originals, who came to understand Konami as a superpower developer from the mystical Far East, it might be shocking to learn that, actually, the company's revenue's not been dominated by its gaming activity for some time. It owns casinos and health clubs, and has made a tremendous profit from designing and manufacturing pachislot and pachinko machines since 1992, making a Snatcher sequel about as likely as your mum becoming a CounterStrike champion in her 60s. At least through Konami, as who knows what Kojima will do when operating independently, and which of his old creations he'll be able to recover access to, like Double Fine's Tim Schafer has previous LucasArts projects.
Konami's failure to assure Metal Gear fans that everything was peachy while the Kojima's-about-to-jump-ship rumours were hitting their stormiest peak speaks might speak volumes about the company line on its creative talents. That they're assets, not artists, is one way you might have read official statements which seemed to prioritise the rebranding of Twitter accounts above the employment status of their greatest-ever designer/director. It's all dangerously close to how another old giant of gaming has been treating one of its own alumni.
Atari – you know: Missile Command, Asteroids, Gauntlet, Breakout and Escape from the Planet of the Robot Monsters – revealed its gambling ambitions throughout 2014, finally launching its Atari Casino website in November. The company's CEO Fred Chesnais made it clear that the past was just that, and that on top of its business in taking real money off online punters, Atari was "more than a software brand... it's a hardware brand". "Hardware" in this instance didn't mean the development of a new console – he meant merchandise bearing the Atari brand, any tat that could be sold to those loyal to the logo. "A generational brand," is how Chesnais referred to Atari, "a lifestyle brand".
Jeff Minter doesn't see Atari as a "lifestyle brand" – the designer of Tempest 2000 for Atari's Jaguar console considers the company an "undead corpse" of its former self, having been blocked from porting his Vita hit TxK to other platforms on account of it being (okay, more than) a bit like Tempest 2000. He's called them "copyright trolls", pointing out that clones of Tempest 2000 are readily available, and yet Atari isn't coming down on those developers. It makes you wonder what Kojima's private thoughts must be on Konami. Perhaps this whole Quiet doll thing is his way of sabotaging the Metal Gear Solid V campaign?
Remember when Kojima would tweet pictures of his lunch, rather than slightly pervy dolls? You just might be into MUNCHIES.
There's plenty of precedent in place when it comes to the fates of games companies reluctant to progress, or that attempt to do so with poorly realised strategies, or simply too many crap games. They die. Sometimes quietly, gracefully, with our sympathies; and sometimes with a muted bang at the end of a build-up of overpoweringly depressing magnitude, as was the case with THQ. For Konami, and Atari, to survive, they feel they have to change – past glories cannot guarantee longevity. Having Metal Gear Solid in your locker clearly isn't enough to secure Konami's future, as they see it.
Wired's Matt Kamen perhaps nails this sea change best with the headline, "Konami: 'traditional' games just aren't worth the effort". It really does seem, as Silent Hills is scrapped, Kojima hung out to dry and the minimum-costs, maximum-profits mobile model embraced, that a several-times-crowned champion of arcade and console gaming is ditching its legacy because, basically, making games is too bloody hard in 2015. It takes absolutely ages, and then some shithead reviewer might give the end result a 4/10, knocking your Metascore below 70 and several heads from their shoulders in the process. It's much easier not to do a new Castlevania – but a Simon Belmont-starring endless runner with microtransaction perks and timed-release upgrades? That might keep the shareholders from sighing while I'm crying, just a little.
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