So it’s definitely looking as if Hideo Kojima, famed creator of the Metal Gear Solid franchise and not much else (Boktai anyone?) has fallen out with Konami and will be leaving the company. Taking matters to the pettiest level possible, Konami has also removed his name from the box of the upcoming Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, a game designed and headed almost entirely by Kojima. This is notable for a couple of reasons, not the least being the fact that Konami was one of the first companies to sell a game on the back of a creator, much like movies and books often do, and are now walking back from that practice.
If you have ever looked at a bookshelf lately (they were the things we used to hold books before Kindles) it is legitimately difficult to tell what the names of books are as the titles are often overwhelmed by the humungous size of the author’s name. Stephen King, John Grisham, James Patterson – it almost doesn’t matter what the book is called or what the subject matter is. The selling point is the authors.
Movies have sold themselves on the backs of their movie stars as well. Prominent directors also get sizable, if a disproportionate amount of credit. Only relatively recently, say from Star Wars onwards, have films been sold on the back of franchises or licensed properties instead. It is auteurship. Creators are recognized and become brands in and of themselves. Those brands can then be harnessed to sell future products with a minimal amount of communication to consumers. People will ask you if you have seen the latest Tom Cruise movie and not if you saw the awesome science-fiction movie about exo-suit warriors that relive the same day over again. Even comic books often sell themselves on the back of an author/artist creative team – hell it is pretty much how Image Comics was created.
How is it then that this has never happened with videogames? Where are the auteurs?
There are few game designers that anyone but an avid gamer could name. Shigero Miyamoto? You and some of your videogame playing friends may know him, but the average Joe doesn’t have a clue. When Nintendo launched Pikmin, one of the first new Miyamoto franchises in years, they advertised his involvement to the faithful, but not to the general public. There was no “PIKMIN: A SHIGERO MIYAMOTO JOINT” splattered across the box. To be fair, this is often against the overall Nintendo philosophy. They tend to be focused on ideas and a sense of play. They wanted you to know how Pikmin worked, not who made it.
Design Quest: So you want to be a Game Designer?
In the nascent days of computer gaming, I was into the games of Sierra On-Line. As a child, I thought this was an enormous company, rivaling the size of Hollywood but in truth it was only a small handful of developers pioneering what are now known as adventure games. The company was run by a husband and wife team, recent award winners Ken and Roberta Williams. Inspiring themselves from books, Roberta herself originally intended to be an author, and films, the Williams attempted to make their lead game developers into celebrities. Roberta was the first. When Roberta’s King’s Quest (a new version of which is releasing soon) hit it big, every subsequent Roberta Williams game launched on the strength of her name. Games like Phantasmagoria or the Laura Bow mysteries even had her photo on the back of the box.
Space Quest took it one step further with the developers branding themselves as “The Two Guys from Andromeda” and literally putting themselves into the game. Space Quest 3 actually involves saving them from an evil empire not so subtly spoofing Microsoft. Al Lowe was another example with his Leisure Suit Larry series being a huge success. When it came time to launch a new property – Freddy Pharkas Frontier Pharmacist (yes that’s a real game, look it up) – it was sold on the back of Lowe’s name and his now trademarked humour. Al Lowe’s face was always on the game boxes as well.
Why not Celebrate the Creators?
More than even books or movies, videogames are tied to licenses and franchises. The cost of developing a triple A videogame is huge and the appetite for risk-taking is minimal. Business interests have never been more closely tied to video games than they are right now with companies like Activision, Electronic Arts and Ubisoft often listening to investors instead of gamers.
Recently, Assassin’s Creed creator Patrice Desilets broke his silence and provided his view on his firing by Ubisoft. In a nutshell, following the successful release of Assassin’s Creed 2, Desilets left Ubisoft to join THQ. When THQ folded, many of its teams and assets were bought by, ironically enough, Ubisoft. This included Desilets team. Shortly thereafter, he was fired with Ubisoft keeping the assets of the game he and his team had been working on for THQ. Lawsuits are now going back and forth and his detailed interview in the current issue of Game Informer is well worth the read. The reason things did not work with Ubisoft is because Desilets saw himself as a game designer and creator. He had revived the Prince of Persia series with Sands of Time and conceptualized and launched what is now Ubisoft’s biggest cash cow in Assassin’s Creed. He wanted the freedom to create and design with minimal interference. While that is not the same as wanting your name on the box, like Kojima desperately seems to, it is tied into building your personal brand.
Giant companies would prefer not to allow creators to become known and loved because any temporary increase in sales related to highlighting a celebrity creator is counterbalanced by the growing risk that they leave or – worse yet – start publicly slagging the company. Even the amicable departure of a high-profile designer can hurt a brand. When Cliff Bleszinski left Epic, the interest in his cornerstone franchise Gears of War dropped considerably. When he left, he took a lot of the enthusiasm with him, and that is pretty much a best case departure scenario.
That isn’t to say that companies won’t take advantage of a designer’s name recognition. Jordan Mechner was the original creator of 1989’s Prince of Persia. He pretty made the entire original game himself, from design to programming. When Ubisoft purchased the series and sought to relaunch it, they brought in Mechner to consult on it. Mechner’s involvement was highlighted in interviews and marketing materials. There was little to no risk in doing this as it added interest and credibility to the game and Mechner was not going to remain a long term employee of Ubisoft anyway.
Sometimes long-time company loyalty mitigates the risk for big companies as well. When Shenmue originally launched for the Sega Dreamcast, creator Yu Suzuki’s role was prominently highlighted but he had been with developer Sega for years before and was considered a safe investment. His name was still not included on the front of the game box.
Kickstart the Indy 500
One of the main criticisms levelled at having a lead designer plaster their name across a new game is that there are literally hundreds of people involved in development. It is no longer the 80s where one person can make a triple A game. The same can also be said of movies. There are many other developers like Desilets feeling chaffed by the studio model and they are increasingly forming small independent companies to make small innovative games. This is also the way that new creative voices, like Braid and the Witness’ Jonathan Blow, are getting noticed.
Kickstarter is also a boon for creators who can harness their cult status or limited fame to ask knowledgeable gamers to fund independent projects. Chris Roberts, the creator of the Wing Commander series, and Star Citizen is a prime example of that. He continues to set records in fundraising. Yu Suzuki is now doing the same for a sequel to Shenmue although that is not without controversy. Will companies start taking notice of this and start highlighting creators? I think that remains doubtful as it is easy to point to Star Citizen’s proof of concept, or Shenmue’s cult status as reasons for their success.
Hideo and Seek
Let us end as we began, with Hideo Kojima. While I have always felt he is somewhat of an overrated and egotistical designer, he is about as famous as they come in the gaming community. That is still not very famous mind you. He is not necessarily an ultra-rich millionaire who can ride off into the sunset, nor would he want to end his career with this Konami debacle. His last, cancelled project, Silent Hills, and how he was to work with film auteur Guillermo del Toro. Well the two are apparently not done yet and when visionary meets visionary, who knows what will result?
Should game creators and developers get more credit or attention? Or is it refreshing that video games remain the only medium still sold on ideas and concepts and not on people’s names? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org or hit us up on the Twitter @exmpodcast.