As a young video-game designer working for Konami, Hideo Kojima was handed what seemed an impossible task: create a shoot-'em-up game with only three combatants and little gun play. Kojima didn't think that would fly, but home computers back then were too primitive to handle the heavy data-crunching required to do more.
So Kojima improvised. One of his first thoughts was to have players control a commando who would sneak out of a POW camp, but all the running and hiding seemed cowardly. His next thought: What about having a commando go the opposite way and infiltrate enemy territory? "It would still be a hide-and-seek game, but I would create tension by adding a story to go with it," recalls Kojima.
Released in 1987, the game, Metal Gear, was an original: a combat game without much combat. Kojima became a star. Metal Gear and its sequels created a whole genre of so-called stealth games. Over the years, Kojima has redefined the conventional wisdom by designing games with complex storylines that rival movies, tackling issues such as nuclear war and nanotechnology. On Mar. 25, Kojima received one of the industry's top honors for lifetime achievement at the Game Developers Choice Awards in San Francisco.
Seven Metal Gear Games
At 45, Kojima seems at the height of his creativity. His seven-game Metal Gear series has sold 26.5 million copies worldwide. (The industry considers any game whose sales exceed 1 million a hit.) The latest, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots for Sony's (SNE) PlayStation 3 console, is a romp through a 3D urban battlefield and focuses on the story of a clone commando. Within a month of its launch last June, Metal Gear Solid 4 had sold nearly 1 million units globally, at a list price of $49.99, demonstrating the strength of Kojima's brand.
"Nobody has successfully managed to imitate Kojima's unique combination of storytelling and stealth-action game play," says Jonty Barnes, director of production at Kirkland (Wash.)-based Bungie, creator of the Halo games.
As a teen in Kawanishi in western Japan, Kojima's obsessions were movies, Japanese manga comics, and novels. But while in college—he won't say where—he played a video game that would influence his career choice: Super Mario Bros., developed by Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto. "I saw the future," Kojima says, about the experience. "If it weren't for Miyamoto-san I wouldn't be where I am."
Kojima entered the industry long before games had 3D computer graphics, orchestral soundtracks, and motion-sensing handheld controllers. The first Metal Gear didn't even have sound effects. "It ended up being more like a puzzle action game," he says.
Kojima adopted filmmaking techniques for his games as console technology advanced. In Metal Gear Solid, the third game in the series, Kojima used storyboards and miniatures made from Lego blocks to help programmers visualize how scenes should look—a technique he learned from watching a documentary about James Cameron's Terminator 2 movie. To knit together separate episodes within a game, Kojima inserted mini-movies, known as cut scenes, some up to an hour long. For Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, he outfitted human actors in motion-capture bodysuits to create characters with more natural movements. His latest game has split-screens that show cut scenes as gamers play.
But the core of a Kojima game is its story. When he introduces features, they help reinforce the antiwar tone of the series. For instance, he penalized players who preferred run-and-gun tactics to stealth and came up with psychological and stress gauges to show the toll on the body and mind. Analysts and gamers have marveled at Kojima's ability to write plots that are as complex as his game's make-believe worlds. "Kojima was the first in the industry to produce a body of work that plays out like a story, with a beginning and end, which is still rare," says Hirokazu Hamamura, CEO of Tokyo-based market researcher Enterbrain. "He sees games as the crystallization of ideas, not just about creating moving images."
Kojima calls himself a designer, but avoids comparing his work to art. The goal, he says, is to "make players feel the environment inside the games." One model for his work: Disneyland (DIS). "Inside the park you can't separate yourself from the fantasy," he says. "At Disneyland you never go 'backstage'—even when you're in the bathroom."
Despite all the praise, critics—and even some fans—have found his warnings about war and cloning too preachy and his cut scenes too long. "The philosophical waxing goes a little bit overboard toward the end of the game," Frank Caron wrote last year in an otherwise positive review of Metal Gear Solid 4 on Web site Ars Technica. Kojima's rebuttal? "Games shouldn't only be fun," he says. "They should teach or spark an interest in other things."
Over the years, as his production team and budget have ballooned, Kojima has fought for control of the creative process. It hasn't been easy: His first Metal Gear game involved only a couple dozen people. Metal Gear Solid 4 had a staff of 200. In 2005 he set up his own studio, Kojima Productions, inside Konami, so he could have the final word on design, planning, production, and marketing. "I won't make games with senseless violence," he says. "There has to be a reason for it, such as war."
Lately, the kind of big-budget games Kojima is known for have come under fire, as the economy has soured and multimillion-dollar development costs have run ahead of the industry's annual double-digit revenue gains. Even so, Kojima hints that a new Metal Gear Solid game for living-room consoles is in the works. At the same time, he has released low-cost games that cater to the explosion of portable gizmos such as Apple's (AAPL) iPhone and iPod Touch.
And he holds out hope of one day directing a full-length film. "Making a game is very similar to making a movie," he says. "It would be ideal if I could spend two years on a game and then the next two on a movie."
View a slide show of the best-selling computer and console games in the U.S. since 1995.