At his GO3 address, Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima discussed the morally provocative battlefield setting of MGS 4, also giving a fascinating history of the entire franchise and suggesting that game creators need to "upgrade your ideas
Innovation, by design or by necessity, seems to be Hideo Kojima's motto. Beginning his address to the Australian GO3 conference in English, Kojima-san started out with the standard pleasantries, complimenting the Perth area, and mentioning he was "surprised there weren't kangaroos everywhere!"
The rest of the speech would be in Japanese (translated for the audience via radio transmitted headsets), and after the language transition, Kojima said that the topic of his speech today would be "game technology evolution." Beginning with a mention that "every game has rules" - such as when you play a game of cards, he went on to describe the way many layers have been placed on top of the basic rules in modern games, such as design, sound effects, story, voice acting, music, FMV and online code.
With so much content in a modern game, we must now "collaborate with the experts in each field" (such as a musician). Eventually, he says, games will be in full collaboration with other industries, leading to "one [coherent form of] digital entertainment".
Progress Through History
Kojima said he would show us this evolution using his games (primarily the Metal Gear series) as an example. In the 80s, non-abstract action games were primarily spaceship shooting games, such as Konami's Scramble. Metal Gear subverted this standard by not being about shooting - it was about "trying to form the tension of hide and seek".
It came about because 21 years ago, Kojima was asked to make a game on the MSX home computer, a "non mainstream" platform with specs below the Famicom (NES). It was very difficult to make an action game on such a low-spec machine, and Kojima demonstrated the limited sprite capabilities of the MSX with a quick comparison - he compared the arcade version of Gradius to the pitiful MSX port.
The MSX could only display four sprites horizontally at once, and to handle Gradius it has to 'fake' eight sprites by displaying enemy ships only once every other frame, which caused them to flash on and off - "can you see the flicker", he said.
The Concepts Behind Metal Gear
So to make a combat game he had to "change the idea". He had to come up with a concept that limited the number of sprites and bullets on screen at one time. He "thought of 'The Great Escape' [movie]" and that the concept of an escape could be done. But this wasn't good enough: Kojima felt that "games need heroes" and that "no-one wants to play a character that just escapes." So he thought "why not make my main character sneak in - a stealth game, and this all added up to Metal Gear... the birth of my stealth game."
The graphics couldn't scroll, so the design had to be based on single screens - Kojima showed us a scene from the original Metal Gear (stating with humility" "I'm a little embarrassed to show you this now"), and he demonstrated the design of each screen, such that four objects would never line up horizontally. The main gameplay was about avoiding being seen by a limited number of guards or surveillance cameras (he showed a scene where snake must sneak into an elevator, joking "I'm not sure why the guards are taking a break").
When Snake was discovered, the gameplay changed to become almost a puzzle game "like Pac-Man", where Snake must avoid the guards like they were Pac-Man's ghosts. A final innovation came with the addition of an in-game story, because "there weren't any stories at that time in action games", and he thought the hide and seek game needed a story to justify why you were sneaking.
The Evolution Of Metal Gear
When asked to create a sequel for the same platform, Kojima "had the same restrictions" so "had to bring in new ideas" to keep it fresh. He said he ditched the puzzle game aspect, and went for more realism - the concept behind Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake was "how you sneak in to an area." Enemies now had a 'field of vision' rather then only seeing what was straight ahead, and while the screen still didn't scroll, the player had widened vision via a radar.
Sound was now implemented as a gameplay feature, where you could get caught, but could also distract the guards with sound. While it was still a 2D game, height was implemented so you could crawl into a duct ("what a big duct it is" joked Kojima about the on-screen example) or hide under a desk to avoid detection. He explained that basically all of the systems in Metal Gear games today were present in Metal Gear 2, back in 1990.
In a brief aside about his text adventure games Snatcher and Policenauts (where Kojima explored his cinematic ambitions, now possible because of the storage capacity of the CD-ROM), we were back on to Metal Gear. The 3D consoles allowed another level of gameplay, and Kojima wanted to create a true "3D atmosphere - hide and seek in a 3D world".
Metal Gear Solid was named for its star, but also because for the first time the environment was 3D - it had volume, and was 'solid'. To create the feeling of being in this 3D world, a three-camera system was developed. First was the traditional overhead camera, same as the 2D games, and it was complemented by the first person view, where "the player shares Snake's view". The third camera, which Kojima considers "very innovative" was the "cinematic view", where the camera pulls down when you push against a wall, and allowed for some very dramatic gameplay set pieces.
To MGS2 And Beyond
Next, Kojima detailed what he tried to achieve with Metal Gear Solid 2. DVD-ROM and the 128-bit CPU of the PS2 allowed a lot more freedom and detail graphically ("this machine was a monster high-spec machine") - but he "didn't just want to make it high polygon, make it real", instead he wanted to emphasise immersion and atmosphere, particularly with environmental effects: "MGS2's concept was 'environment'."
He said that: "In MGS1 you were just in a little box, but in MGS2, I wanted to create a sense of smell, of atmosphere, and temperature, and this was a big challenge". It was more realistic, with more environmental interaction and first person shooting, but instead of using the CPU power to make the characters more detailed, Kojima used the power to "make it almost as if you could feel the air."
He then demonstrated several of the effects in Metal Gear Solid 2, from rain to heat to wind. The game also used motion capture of real actors for the first time, which while commonplace now, was rare at the time - and with the addition of a Hollywood produced soundtrack, the 'collaboration' element of games was in full swing.
Metal Gear Solid 3 was for the same platform ("there was no Playstation 3 yet!" he joked), and much like the MSX sequel, it forced Kojima to innovate rather then just upgrade. The concept of Metal Gear was always "where do you hide", so he thought of a jungle as a "new place for Snake to hide", thus the concept of MGS3 was "Infiltration in a natural environment."
Along with the visual change, survival aspects were introduced to match the setting - so food capture, camouflage, healing and "CQC" (close quarters combat) were added. But the now-aging PS2 had trouble keeping up with the rendering of so many trees, and Kojima made the decision to drop the framerate from 60fps to 30fps (although some new effects were added, such as glare).
While playing a demo video of MGS3, Kojima was once again critical of his work ("looks more like your backyard then a jungle"), and apologised to the Australian audience that you couldn't eat koalas in the game! He explained that even more collaboration was required for this title, with extensive motion capture used for both the cutscenes and in game animations.
On Metal Gear Solid 4's Status
Finally, Kojima-san gave us a brief run down on the concept behind the work-in-progress Metal Gear Solid 4. Snake had now run out of places to hide ("we can't make Snake go to space!"). Kojima felt his team had "exhausted the concept of the space, so why not create a situation, rather then a place where Snake had to sneak in" - and he thought of a battlezone.
And so Metal Gear Solid 4's concept is "play hide and seek in a certain situation". He explained the possibilities of this battlefield setting - it confuses the player both functionally and morally, as there are two armies in battle. Not everyone is necessarily the enemy to Snake, which creates a new tension. He then showed the audience the latest (but previously revealed) trailer of the game.
Kojima concluded with a reminder that in 1986, the hardware limitation of the MSX led to the creation of Metal Gear. With technology "evolving with the hardware", you have to "upgrade your ideas." As game tech evolves, game designers "must collaborate with other professionals", and this adds together to make art through games.
The Konami veteran believes that game design will continue to evolve, and will "never stop evolving" - he finished with the simple, but positive statement that: "Games will continue to be a collaborative art, and I believe in this concept."
PalGN, one of the largest Australian consumer video game websites, which is attending the Perth, Australia-based conference as a journalistic outlet and media sponsor.]