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Infiltrating Kojima Productions: Ryan Payton Talks Metal Gear Solid 4

Metal Gear Solid 4 is one of the most significant video games of 2008 -- but what design decisions and artistic sensibilities are going into the game? Gamasutra talks to Kojima Productions' Ryan Payton about the political and design-based underpinnings of MGS4.

At last month's Tokyo Game Show, no game was more high profile than Konami's Metal Gear Solid 4. The flagship title for the PlayStation 3 made its playable debut on the show floor to the tune of over 50 kiosks -- but lines were still incredibly long for the title, which is one of the most awaited next-gen games.

But behind the hype, what design decisions and artistic sensibilities are going into the construction of the game? Gamasutra spoke to Ryan Payton, assistant producer at Kojima Productions in Tokyo, and discuss design and narrative decisions of the series has taken, the significance of the title, and just what an American developer can bring to the table in Japan.

We've heard that there has been some debate as to whether or not to do a tutorial in the game. With the new controls, you guys do a "briefing" before you let gamers play the TGS demo. So what do you think about that?

Ryan Payton: Yeah, obviously it's a tough balance, because on the one hand we're expanding Snake's skill set -- giving him new moves, giving him new weapons to mess with -- but we're also trying to make the controls easier, and more user-friendly. So on one hand we're adding to the skill set, but we're also trying to make it easier. That's a tough balance to do.

So what we're doing here at Tokyo Game Show is: we've got the booth, and we're herding everybody into a briefing room where they have to sit down and listen to this guy go over this description of how the controls have changed since Metal Gear Solid 3. And, maybe, how the controls have changed since they played the first game. A lot of people have only played Metal Gear Solid, for example, and not been revisiting the series. So we're just making sure that everybody's on the same page before they pick up the controllers.

That's one of my jobs, that's why I'm doing these things here -- I'm talking to press, and doing a little bit of an explanation before I give them rein over the game. Because it's Metal Gear, you expect to play it a certain way. You expect for the camera to to be that bird's-eye view camera, you expect to shoot just from first person, without being able to move. But in MGS4, we have the auto-aim option, and we also have an over-the-shoulder camera where it's more like Gears of War style; where you can move around while shooting, and you can move around while in first-person view. So, there's a lot of changes, obviously, and we're trying our best to make sure everybody's on the same page before they pick up the game.

tgs_2007_054.jpg

How do you communicate it, though, to the players who don't have the chance to come to TGS, or don't have the chance to read what the press is going to portray of this demo?

RP: That's a good question. At TGS we have the luxury of sitting people down and explaining it to them, but in the retail version of MGS4, that is not the beginning of where you play -- here on the Tokyo Game Show demo. It actually walks you through the controls a little bit more; it's more of a step-by-step process. There's a lot of gameplay from before this demo, that you've seen from the Tokyo Game Show presentation.

So, yeah, that's definitely a concern. We've taken a lot of what we're calling "Real Time Codec", where Otacon will -- like he just did [in the demo] while you're watching this -- without having to go into that Codec screen, he'll just talk into your earpiece and give you advice about "here, this where you can crawl under", and "times have changed, this is how the battlefield works now", basically how you're going to do your stealth mission this time. I've recorded a lot of lines with Otacon, explaining the controls. We're definitely aware at the studio that we need to get everybody on the same page about the gameplay. So everybody will have a really good time and get to the end, because it's pretty exciting.

Brandon Sheffield: I personally haven't played Metal Gear Solid 2. It was so complicated to me that my girlfriend made me turn off the PS2 because I was getting really frustrated. Because, you know, there are a lot of buttons that do different things contextually. Do you think there is a solution to that in the future?

RP: Absolutely. And, if MGS4 is the future, absolutely. One thing that we're doing with the game, that I talked about before, is that -- you know, with Metal Gear Solid 2, for example: if you're going to knock on the wall to attract guards, that's with the circle button, but if you want to go up a ladder, that's with triangle. And all that stuff doesn't make a lot of sense. So everything now is focused onto an action button, which is the triangle button on the PlayStation 3 controller, and it's all contextualized. If you walk up to a ladder, an icon with the triangle button appears, obviously telling you that you can go up the ladder with the triangle button.


BS: It's kind of ironic to have to explain simple controls to people. It's kind of the opposite of the usual scenario.

RP: Well it's also maybe our own fault, because this is a sequel of a sequel of a sequel, and people come into the game with expectations. So, if this was a totally new IP, I think they would go into it with a fresh slate, and I think they would work with us. "OK, so this is how you press up against a wall," or, "This is how you shoot," but here everybody goes into the game expecting that you just run up against a wall to latch onto it, whereas this time you have to push the triangle button.

Those little icons are reminiscent of Gears of War.

RP: Absolutely. I mean, we've played a lot of Gears.

BS: And they're useful.

RP: They're very useful.

Speaking of auto-aim -- before we started the demo, you said it was because Japanese gamers prefer auto-aim, but the Western play style is over-the-shoulder. Can you go into that? How did that develop?

RP: Yeah, it's a tough balance! Obviously, we have about 99% Japanese men and women in our team, and sometimes it feels like 99 against one -- since there are two control schemes. The whole process has been about re-looking at the game, and deciding what needs to stay, what needs to be revised. So, really there were no "sacred cows" as far as the control scheme was concerned.

One thing that I did was put an Xbox 360 in an area of the studio where there's a lot of foot traffic, and I also have a PS3 there, and I'll bring in western-developed games. I'll be playing them, or I'll just have it on and running through the intro, to be repeating on the title menu. People will pick it up and play it, and so now we have a lot of Gears fans, and people are playing Bioshock. So people are checking out games that they wouldn't normally check out, and they're getting ideas and inspiration as far as, "OK, this is how things can work for us; this is what we like."

So, obviously, the first-person perspective is something that the Japanese have a hard time with, because they actually get a lot of motion sickness -- we obviously aren't making Metal Gear Solid a first-person shooter, but we're also moving the camera closer to the action by having it right above Snake's shoulder. What I've found is that my Japanese colleagues will play Gears of War every weekend for three months, but they'll play Halo for maybe a day or two and they'll get sick from motion sickness. So I think there's something about being able to see the character; something about that view that really works well for Japanese. And works well for Americans, too.

mgs4_1.jpg

It's also been well-liked in America. SOCOM -- which is really popular -- made the decision to use a third-person perspective. And that's, to my understanding, because it's better received by the PlayStation 2 user base.

RP: I keep referring to Gears of War, but this is something that kind of originated with Resident Evil 4, which was developed by Japanese. This over-the-shoulder view. Obviously the Gears of War guys, they've refined it, and I think we've got a pretty cool system here where you can actually swap the camera between Snake's left and right shoulder by clicking in the R3 button. And that's something really cool; depending on if you're going around a corner, you can snap that and switch perspectives.

 


When you entered Kojima Productions, you started off as interpreter, and perhaps Kojima's helper, but you've definitely moved into a more prominent role in game development. Can you talk about why you think that is? Do you think that they needed somebody like that, or did you have to fight your way in?

RP: I think a lot of it was luck and timing, in how I got into production in the first place. I expressed interest, and I bumped into Mr. Kojima right around the time that they needed somebody to do some kind of PR work, and be that liaison between the studio and Konami U.S. And so, at the time, that's what I was doing -- I was doing PR work, I was helping them with interviews, translations.

And then my division was going through some changes. I was in a division called "Global Strategy", and that team was transferred into a larger whole within Konami. So it wasn't a Kojima Productions-only division; it was melded into a bigger Global Strategy group within all of Konami Japan. So it was at that point that I had to decide, am I going to go to this Global Strategy group within all of Konami Japan, or am I going to stay within Kojima Productions and work on Metal Gear as a developer? And, obviously, it was decided that I'm going to be a developer, and I'm going to be on the creative side. I've expressed interest. I've thrown a lot of game pitches to Mr. Kojima when I had some free time.

lunar_k.jpgYou first worked on the DS title Lunar Knights, right?

RP: And I worked on Lunar Knights, right. Helping them localize that, and [working on] some of the gameplay, too. But really, my first big project was [Metal Gear Solid] Portable Ops. There is a lot of Ryan Payton in Portable Ops, as far as game design is concerned. Changing up the Metal Gear formula to make it seem a little more fresh.

Even before you were involved, Metal Gear was popular in the West -- it's one of the few Japanese series that really has that sort of appeal -- but I think that people expect more now. Is that why you've been working on the controls and stuff?

RP: Yeah, and it's not just me who's really adamant about making the game a little bit more international, it's also my boss, who is a producer of MGS4. His name is Ken Imaizumi, and he spent over a decade in the U.S. -- going to art school, and he was also at Konami U.S. as a developer and as a producer.

So, he came on to the Metal Gear Solid 3 team just to help out, and now he's the executive producer of MGS4. He and I really have this idea that it's time to bring this series to the next level, and I think that's what we're doing with MGS4.

Between MGS2 and MGS3, the popularity of the series fell off in the U.S. Why do you think that is?

RP: I think it's a couple reasons. I think it's hard to deny that MGS2 came out at the perfect time. That it came out a year after the PlayStation 2 had launched, there were systems on the store shelves that you could buy, there was a lot of interest in the system, and at it was still lacking a killer app that you could use to show off to your friends. "Look what my new PlayStation 2 can do!"

By the time [Metal Gear Solid 3:] Snake Eater had rolled around, there were all these rumors about PlayStation 3, and I think it was around the time the Xbox 360 was being announced. I think "next-gen" was kind of in the air at that time, and Snake Eater kind-of got lost in the shuffle. Especially at that Christmas season, where we were competing against Half-Life 2, San Andreas, Metroid Prime 3, Halo 2... That was a tough Christmas. Especially for a game like Snake Eater, that really requires the player to invest about three or four hours of time before you get to the real meat of the game. That's a hard bargain when you've got a really instant-action game like Half-Life 2, or GTA, or Halo 2 waiting for you.

Speaking of which... we didn't see the very beginning of the game in this demo. Is that something that you've addressed?

RP: Oh, the long cinematics?

Yeah.

RP: Yeah, that was the plan at the very beginning. Mr. Kojima understands that fans -- well, not fans, since fans probably enjoy the long cinematics -- but people criticized the game for having long cinematics. The original plan for MGS4 was to shorten those, but as the story got bigger and bigger, and as we had to fill in more and more information -- because this really is the last story of Solid Snake -- the cutscenes are pretty much what you expect from a Metal Gear game now.

But not the initial load-in? Not the four hours...

RP: [laughs] Yeah, I think the opening of Snake Eater is a little excessive, and I think we've addressed that. In Snake Eater, it has a great beginning: you jump out of a plane into a HALO dive, into the jungles of Russia. That's very cool; it's got this great opening. But then they throw you into the middle of a jungle with no weapon, with absolutely nothing, and then your first objective is to find your backpack hanging up in a tree. That's not something that's really going to get your casual gamer excited. So for MGS4, we've got a great opening, and when you first start to play there is going to be a lot more action. It's going to get people right into the heat of things.

 


Sony announced the DualShock 3 yesterday [at TGS], and obviously you are already supporting it. It seems that Sony has been using this game at the TGS as "the DualShock 3 title," to show it off. There's also a history with MGS; with MGS1 and the original DualShock. Did Kojima Productions influence the decision to introduce DualShock 3?

RP: I think Sony has always wanted to have rumble in their controllers, and for obvious reasons there was a problem that prevented them from having it at launch. We're really happy that they were able to get it into the controller just in time for us to be able to support it in the game, because if the implementation was just a few months later, it wouldn't have made it in time for MGS4.

This will be the premiere DualShock 3 supporting game coming out within the next six months. Gran Turismo 5 is, I'm sure, going to be impressive, but we've got some things that I can't talk about that people are going to really dig. What's funny about the DualShock, though, I realized yesterday when some writers came in and I just placed the controller in their hands and had them play MGS4; for some reason it took them like ten or fifteen minutes to realize that the game had rumble. They would stop and say, "Oh! This -- you've got the DualShock 3!" And it's funny because you don't really realize it unless it's not there.

It's something you don't really notice until it's gone.

RP: Yeah, basically. It's hard to appreciate, because you're not always thinking about it -- but when there is a big explosion and it doesn't rumble, then you notice. So it's kind of an interesting thing that people are so accustomed to it now.

Something about this game that seems Japanese or, at least different, to, say, GRAW -- is its sense of humor. What do you think about that?

RP: Humor is very important for Metal Gear. Without it, without Hideo's signature humor, it wouldn't feel like a Metal Gear game. That's the thing that I tried to address with Portable Ops -- it was an issue of timing. I thought there was a lack of humor, and a lack of jokes, and the quirky details that make a Metal Gear game. We did have a few of them, but I just didn't feel it was enough.

And, thankfully, with MGS4 we're taking the time to implement these things that gamers appreciate. Because this is a war game, but we kind of take a step back, and throw in a few jokes here and there. That's just what Metal Gear is all about. It's about Snake vomiting, and we have a character who's got a lot of problems with diarrhea. Some of this is potty humor, but, like I said, it's Metal Gear. I think people would be upset if it wasn't there.

But at the same time, what we know of the story is very serious. The whole "private military corporations" thing is something that not a lot of people know about, but is really seriously relevant right now in the real world. Can you talk about that story element?

RP: Sure. Yeah, this is the first time for a Metal Gear game that the subjects have been very relevant to the time that it was being released.

mgs4_e32007_cap00.jpg

Yeah, "genetically engineered soldiers" was not really that relevant.

RP: No. [laughs] Or, like, the nuclear threats based on MGS1: that was more of a Cold War thing that they brought back. And then, with Snake Eater, we literally went back to the Cold War. But with MGS4, we've been doing a lot of research on what's going on recently. Recent conflicts in Rwanda, Afghanistan, Iraq, where real private military companies are being used to fight wars.

And obviously there's that whole issue with Blackwater, and that controversy. This is becoming a very relevant issue. It's tough for the writers, and guys like me, who are involved with the story, because new information is coming in almost on a daily basis. We were literally days away from finalizing MGS4 story, and the text, and going to record it, and Hideo comes by our desks and says, "Did you see the news on NHK today? We've got to put that in there too. Make some kind of reference to that in the story." And we've done that. So it's very up-to-the-minute in the story, and we've been keeping watch of what's going on in the world.


Have you heard anything about Army of Two? Because their game's also about PMCs.

RP: I've heard it's about the private military companies, but that's pretty much all I've heard. I've seen a trailer or two, but...

We have an interview on the site with one of the developers, and he's candid about the fact that he's genuinely disturbed by the PMCs. Without going too much into the angle, and without spoiling the story, what's the MGS attitude towards it?

RP: Yeah, it's definitely not a positive story. It's not any PR for the PMCs. But then again, the story of Metal Gear has never been about glorifying war. Even though it's been a military game, there has always been a villain; there's always been an issue of morality. Whether it's private military companies, or tyrannical governments like, for example, the old Soviet Union. Or it's sometimes also critical of the United States as well. So, in that sense: sure. Are we being critical of the PMCs? Yeah we are, but we've always been pretty critical of war.

There's certainly an uptake of political content in games. Not just these two, but BlackSite Area 51, and --

RP: David Jaffe's canceled Heartland.

Heartland, right. What do you think about that? I mean, obviously, politics are deeply contentious right now in the world, but previously no matter how contentious the politics were, they would never be picked up in games.

RP: I think it's because stories are becoming more and more important to games. And what we have in our Tokyo Game Show pamphlet is an interview with Mr. Kojima, where he talks about how this whole idea of putting a story in an action game was a really radical idea at the time, twenty years ago, when he was making [the original] Metal Gear. But now it seems like, if you have an action game, you need that. For example, Devil May Cry 4, I saw a trailer for it, and it's surprising that they've got a lot of story elements in it. It almost seems weird not to have an action game with a story, so I think it's kind of a general progression of the action genre. To build off of that foundation of why you're fighting, and to help reinforce the goals that the player has to achieve.

But at the same time, the politics are becoming more sophisticated. Do you think it's because the audience is becoming more sophisticated?

RP: I think there's definitely that. We look back at previous Metal Gear games, and it's kind of like when you look back at your old writing and you're kind of embarrassed by it. "Yeah, I was very young at that time, and very naive." I think everybody on the team has grown up; I've grown up. I think we're becoming more sophisticated over time. And it's funny, because this is such a young industry, we don't really talk about game designers retiring. This is like -- whereas, in the movie industry, there is definitely that issue. But this is definitely a young group of guys that are getting older, such as Mr. Kojima, and I think they're getting more affluent.

I want to ask about the pressure that the title's under. I don't think you can overstate it. In some sense it feels like it's the only thing on the show floor.

RP: [laughs] Yeah! I was just walking the show floor for the first time today, and I had like 90 minutes to check out everything, and... yeah, it seems like the industry is moving more toward these private events, rather than the big game shows. Where each publisher is holding their own event, and having private showings where they can control the message. I can understand why they do that. And I know it's not the answer to your question, but...

I kind of observed that as well: that MGS4 has the biggest presence at Tokyo Game Show. Maybe because we have almost fifty PlayStation 3s running the title, with huge lines, so we can get as many people playing the game as possible. But the game is definitely under a lot of pressure, because the way things are turning out, this could be the first "must have" PlayStation 3 title on store shelves. Or, if not the first, then the second or the third. So, in that sense, there's a lot relying on it. People at Sony know that, and we've got literally 200 guys working on this title, day and night, making sure that it's perfect.

pops.jpgDoes Kojima Productions have that many, or are you being lent staff?

RP: We have that many in our group right now. We have over 200.

So have people joined the team as the project got rolling?

RP: Yeah, we've been just beefing up the team as we got deeper and deeper into development. And then maybe after the game is finished, we'll get a little bit leaner and meaner, but right now we've got over 200 people working on it.

So did the Portable Ops guys come over after that?

RP: Yeah, we stole a lot of guys from Portable Ops. Mr. Okamura -- who was the producer of Portable Ops -- we stole his whole team. And the Lunar Knights team has been integrated into the Metal Gear team. Now, with that said, we have two major teams, and that's MGS4 and Metal Gear Online. Two teams within Kojima Productions, sharing the same technology but totally different products, and totally different SKUs, the way they're thinking about it.

And the Metal Gear Online Starter Pack will be included with MGS4, but the game will ship later?

RP: Yeah, that's the way things are working out with the release dates and schedules. From the get-go we were planning to have these titles as two different products. This is Metal Gear Online, and this is Metal Gear Solid 4. And just because of release dates, and how [gold] master-up dates have shifted, the games are going to be done around the same time. So it made sense to throw something into Metal Gear Solid 4, to at least give people a taste of what Metal Gear Online's going to be all about.

 


At the time when Metal Gear Solid first came out, I didn't think that ultimately a military game out of Japan is, in a sense, almost weird. As a genre -- as much as it is a genre -- these days it's totally dominated by western developers. And online games are as well, for that matter. So what's it like trying to work in that space? To work in Japan and keep it satisfying for all the audiences?

RP: It's tough, because on the one hand we have so many military nuts in the studio, that with every Metal Gear, they get a little bit more freedom to do what they've always dreamt of doing. Which is what they're doing with MGS4 -- more guns, more realism, more references to real military tactics. They love all that stuff, and they want to have as much free rein as possible. But we also have to try to bring it back to making it fun, and making it a game. For example, we're having an issue right now with the Stryker.

The large, eight-wheeled tank?

RP: Yeah, it's a very mobile tank, and it's pretty fast. So we've got a turret on top of that Stryker, and a lot of gamers at TGS were throwing grenades at the turret, trying to take out that and the Stryker with grenades. And it doesn't faze the Stryker, no matter how many grenades you throw at it.

But later on, if you get the RPG7, or use the Javelin, you can launch an RPG at it and it'll blow up. So there's this issue -- that's actual military realism. The guys on the team say, "No, of course you can't take out a Stryker with a grenade, dummy! Everybody knows that!" But really, not everybody knows that; that's military knowledge that we either have to teach to the player, or shift the game to go in line with what players expect, as far as what you can be able to blow up and what you can't.

snake.jpg

You've talked about the influence that Gears of War has had, a little bit, and the fact that you're there. What do you bring to the table, as a Westerner, to help develop this game in Japan?

RP: Definitely it's a different perspective. It's a very Western perspective that I don't shy away from, and as I've gotten older I have realized... well, maybe it doesn't have to do with age. As time has gone on, I've come to appreciate Western game design more and more. And I find myself, now that I'm living in Japan, I'm playing more and more western games than I'd played before. Whereas before, when I was living in the States, in high school and college, I was playing only Japanese games.

So it's been kind of a weird change and transformation, into really appreciating western game design. And then integrating some of these things into Metal Gear has become an onus on my shoulders because that's something that Mr. Kojima expects to bring this game more to an international audience.

I don't really feel the pressure! I'm pretty confident in my abilities, and Portable Ops was a really great proving ground. Not only for gameplay, but for presentation, for localization, for voiceover directing -- it was a really good experience. And I'm really lucky that I had that game to work on before I jumped into MGS4. Things would've been totally different.

It can't be overstated how important this game is for PlayStation 3, I think, and it's like a proof-of-concept for the system, almost.

RP: Yeah. I'm not sure what else I can say about it... I think it's a proof-of-concept not only for PlayStation 3, but for "next-gen" gaming as a whole. I don't think I'm the only one who's disappointed in the sales of next-gen consoles --

Even the 360 sales, you're disappointed in?

RP: Absolutely. I think overall they had loftier expectations for the 360. And so I think Metal Gear Solid 4 could really be a big turning point for next-gen gaming as a whole. Of course we have the next-gen sound, we have the next-gen graphics, but it really is about the next-gen gameplay that's going get people excited. And get them to throw down 300, 400, 500 dollars for a new console. So yeah, that's a big burden, because a lot of games aren't pushing that. They're putting in the next-gen graphics, next-gen sound, but the gameplay's staying the same. And that's a problem.

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