DISCLAIMER: The heading shot is NOT the actual Konami console discussed here, it's a bootleg Famicom which had the Konami logo put on. But it's quite amusing - taken from tietokonemuseo.net
There's been a lot of news recently about Konami: Hideo Kojima being removed from promotional materials, Silent Hills being cancelled, and the company being delisted from the NY stock exchange. There's also a YouTube video doing the rounds, where an anonymous source inside Konami claims the company wants to abandon videogames to focus on gambling activities, since they're more profitable.
There's also been a lot of discussion, with Chris Kohler of Wired declaring it the end of an era, and Erik Kain of Forbes saying it's not such a big deal. Plus innumerable other commentators across the mediasphere. I lean more towards Kain's argument; I prefer middle-tier titles anyway, and I've seen plenty of companies disintegrate and then new ones emerge from the remains.
What's fascinating about current events is when you place them in the context of Konami's history, specifically its aborted attempt to launch a games console/handheld. The company has regularly chased what appears to be the next big, more profitable venture.
For my trilogy of books, The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers, I interviewed several Konami veterans. Here I provide short excerpts from two interviews: the first conveys an image of what Konami looked liked in the early years, a place more enticing than Nintendo to work at, and also how many projects actually got canned even in the early days. The second excerpt details Konami's aborted games console. It's amazing to consider, amidst the whirlwind of recent revelations, that Konami was poised to take on Nintendo and Sega in the console wars.
Excerpt from interview with Masaaki Kukino
Games incl. Haunted Castle (arc), Asterix (arc), Silent Scope (arc)
JS: When did you want to work on games?
MK: First of all I majored in art, in my college. I went to an arts school, and at that time I majored in textile design. But I came to know that there was a company called Konami. A friend of mine talked about the company and then we went there together, and it was so much fun for me. Right away I decided that this was what I wanted to do.
JS: I read online about your textiles background.
MK: <laughs> I didn't know that was online! When I was in high school I liked painting, and at that time there were not really games yet. I came to Kyoto during my summer vacation, as a high school student. I saw a lot of traditional arts and customs, and I fell in love with the city of Kyoto - I decided I wanted to live in Kyoto. My college was interesting. The name is Seika College of Arts, and it has a manga museum. They put a lot of emphasis on manga culture, and other sub-cultures, and in that context the college has many visitors from overseas.
JS: Konami was your first choice?
MK: Yes, indeed, in the games industry Konami was my first choice. Because I was in Kyoto, the other option I thought about was Nintendo. I actually visited Nintendo, and at that time Nintendo had just launched the first generation of Famicom. So the company was not putting that much emphasis on the Famicom or the video gaming business, at all.* When I visited the company, what I saw was... I was applying for a job as a designer, and I felt that my job might be designing playing cards and hanafuda games - which are Japanese card games. So it did not look that interesting to me. I thought, this is what I will have to do if I join this company. All day long, all year long, and I don't know whether it's interesting enough for me. On the other hand, Konami's job looked much more interesting. But soon after I joined Konami, Nintendo's performance skyrocketed with the success of the Famicom! So I regretted that a little bit. <laughs>
* FC launched July 1983; that year only 9 games were released (FC1983-1994, Ohta Pub.). Nintendo still focused on producing a diverse range of toys
JS: You joined Konami the same year as Toshinari Oka* and Hideo Kojima?
MK: Ah, yes, yes, I know Hideo. He was my colleague, we joined Konami in 1986. Kojima-san is a friend of mine, and he was a planner. I worked as a graphics designer, an artist for arcade games, when he started Metal Gear 25 years ago. He talked a lot about his new plans, and what he wanted to do, and his representative title is Metal Gear. I wasn't involved with the development of Metal Gear, but I still remember how he told me his exciting plan for the first game. It's great that it's not faded, even after 25 years have passed. I remember hearing about that first version's planning, and what he wanted to do, and that's one of my best memories, from back in the day. <laughs> I think that he is a true creator.
* Programmer on Metal gear 2 Solid Snake for MSX2
JS: Did Mr Kojima ever mention Lost Warld [sic] to you?* The spelling of Warld is unusual.
MK: I don't know. I'm not cognisant of that title. But I think he probably planned the title, but it never got through for some reason. I think the title was formed in that way intentionally, because at that time there was a game for MSX called Knightmare.** So literally nightmare, but with a K at the beginning, denoting a knight. So it has a double meaning. So he probably wanted his to have a double meaning.
* Unreleased game by Kojima, prior to Metal Gear - few sources (one is the silver book that came with the ltd edition of MGS on PS1). Sometimes spelled Last Warld. Second half allegedly a portmanteau of war and world
** MSX1 (1986), vertical shooter with a knight
JS: I visited Konami's former Osaka building.
MK: You know, inside that building, Konami was the only game developer. Around in the building there were so many other businesses, like apparel companies. Big ones, like World and Tasaki. There was also a ladies lingerie manufacturer, and so on. So the people working for those companies were really highly fashionable. <laughs> On the other hand, Konami's employees were all kind of... Well, they didn't dress up quite as well. So, you know, sometimes Konami got complaints from employees of surrounding companies. <laughs>
Caption: The above map was sketched by MG2:SS programmer Toshinari Oka, depicting the programming area circa 1986 to 1989. Note the rows of HP64000 workstations, and how there are three Hard Drives kept in a separate "clean room". This floorplan existed in the building shown above, and it's where early classics like Parodious and Metal Gear were made in Osaka.
JS: Around 1994 Konami wanted to develop its own home console.
MK: I was not an insider with regards to the home division. But here is what I think - probably technology-wise, developing hardware for a home console was no problem for Konami. But when it comes to costs, in terms of developing a console that is - technologically speaking - really capable and high-capacity, and then having it make money while maintaining that high-capacity, was maybe a challenge for Konami. The other possible challenge is distribution. So probably the company had to make a comprehensive analysis of business feasibility, and opted out.
JS: How many unreleased Konami games were you involved with?
MK: I was so disappointed when I came to hear that my first ever title was not going to be released, because I worked on the game day and night, and throughout the night. Having said that, let me explain how arcade titles are developed. We have repeated SATs - Site Acceptance Tests - or location tests, and when we cannot get the presumed results, we keep amending the program. Then based on that we have to determine whether we should go on, or terminate the project. It's a hard decision to make. It applies to any time period.
JS: Between 1986 and 2002 at Konami, how many unreleased games?
MK: <laughs> I have to wonder!
JS: More than 20? More than 50?
MK: Not that many... I don't think the number is in multiples of 10 or anything, because in the case of arcade titles, the development period tended to be much longer than that for consoles or home games. Typically in the case of console games the development period for the prototype was more like two months. As opposed to arcade games, which was between six months and one year. Given that fact the number of unreleased arcade games cannot be that many. On the other hand, there are so many projects that were aborted even before getting started. So it's not something we would let outsiders know about. We had in-house evaluations of a specific project, which provided only the bare bones of the new title. Many of them came and went. The number is much higher if I include those projects.
(The unabridged Masaaki Kukino interview runs to 19 pages in Volume 1)
Excerpt from interview with Yoshitaka Murayama
Games incl. Suikoden, Suikoden II, Suikoden III
Author's note: A lot of my questions were influenced by an interview Mr Murayama did for Swedish games magazine LEVEL, specifically #41, the August 2009 issue. You don't need to have read the LEVEL interview to appreciate these, but it explains why I focused on certain topics - notably the Konami console.* When Mr Murayama started, he was assigned to create an RPG for Konami's planned system. It was an RPG about two countries at war, with childhood friends on opposing sides. Two other games were in development for the unreleased console, a fighting and a racing game. Ultimately all were scrapped and Mr Murayama was assigned to create a game for Sony's PlayStation; he was given the choice between an RPG, a baseball game, or a racer. He chose to make an RPG, posing it as a prequel to the game previously worked on. Alongside this original Suikoden were two other RPGs being developed for PlayStation, which were later scrapped so all three teams could focus on completing Suikoden.
* A partial translation of the Swedish interview is on Suikosource forums. Search for "Murayama's Reasons For Leaving"
JS: Describe when and how you joined Konami.
YM: I joined Konami as a new graduate in 1992, in the role of programmer. In my second year after joining the department I was in was put in charge of creating games for Konami's game machine, and that's when I got involved in game design. Since it was an extremely secret project inside of Konami, there were very few people involved. So even though I was close to being a new recruit, I was expected to play a very large role. The plan at first was for Konami's game machine to be a console type, and it was suggested that it have a card reader function to allow players to exchange data. The plan changed midway from a console type to a portable type game machine, and it was going to have 3D (polygon) functionality that was not common at the time.
JS: What medium were the games to be on?
YM: Since it was going to be a portable game system, the plan was to use ROM cartridges.
JS: Had the outer design and control layout been finalised? Can you draw a sketch?
YM: The designs are all lost and I'm afraid that, with my poor memory, it would be difficult. It gave the impression of a Game Boy with a somewhat high-class feel.
JS: What kind of tech specs did it have?
YM: I don't have the details, so I really can't answer, but as I mentioned before, it was a portable game machine with 3D capability.
JS: Why was the console cancelled?
YM: While it was in development, it seems that we got word of the Sony PlayStation (first generation) and we shifted our direction into providing games for it.
JS: In addition to the RPG you were working on, there was a racing and a fighting game by other teams. How far along were these, and did they evolve into other titles which were released?
YM: When the development for the game machine was cancelled, those titles were completely abandoned. Actually, at the time, I was involved in the development of an RPG and a fighting game. The fighting game had about two characters that could be operated to a degree, and the RPG had a playable opening. Since the racing game was being done by another team, my recollection is a bit vague, but I think it was about 20% along in development. None of those titles went on to completion, but the name of the hero's best friend in the RPG I was working on was later reused in Suikoden. That name was "Ted".
JS: Before they were cancelled, what were the other two RPGs being developed alongside Suikoden like?
YM: One of them was cancelled while it was still in the planning stage, so I don't remember the details. The other, I think, was an action RPG. I really don't remember much about that either.
JS: Why did you leave Konami - was it during or after Suikoden III?
YM: From the time we started development of Suikoden III, it was my plan to quit when it was completed. Much of it has to do with the tough conditions for an employee doing game development within a large Japanese corporation. I was extremely attracted to the idea of doing freelance development work. I told Konami about my intentions from an early stage and, to a certain extent, my resignation period was decided. With that schedule set already, and due to the complications of the Suikoden III development schedule going this way and that way, the result was that I left the company when the game was in its final stages of development. Suikoden was not created by myself alone, but by the entire R&D team involved. From Suikoden I~III, there were many people involved who also moved away from the project midway in the development, and I'm nothing more than one of them. However, that doesn't change the fact that Suikoden is extremely precious to me and even though I moved away from it, I never "threw it away".
JS: Do you perhaps have an anecdote no one has heard before?
YM: Hmmmm, that's a tough one. <laughs> The voice of the flying squirrel, Mukumuku, from Suikoden 2, was done by me! <laughs>
(In addition to the Yoshitaka Murayama interview, Volume 1 has interviews with the localisers of Suikoden I and Suikoden II, for 13 pages on the franchise.)
There you have it. Personal recollections which reveal that Konami has been known to cancel projects, change direction, and embark on ambitious new ventures. Key staff have left before, as with all large game companies. Indeed, several game developers over the years have tried to enter the console market, including Taito with its WoWoW system, and Namco, from which the NeGCon is tangentially related. Many high profile companies have also ceased developing games altogether over the years.
What does all this mean for Konami right now? I'm not one to speculate, but crazy stuff happens all the time in the games industry. It's fun to consider though - what if Konami had launched its console as planned?