If ever you needed confirmation that you should never take time off in today's demanding working world, Konami's decision to shut down its Los Angeles studio underscores the point. All while the studio's head was, we're told, on vacation.
Konami opened its L.A. studio—built on the skeleton of a home formerly belonging to eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes—barely more than two years ago. At the time, it was Kojima Productions L.A., and its purpose seemed clear right from the opening ceremony: It would be a way to bring American talent into the increasingly international Metal Gear development process without forcing several dozen people to relocate to another country. At the same time, it would offer studio head Hideo Kojima a convenient staging ground for what seemed an inevitable attempt to woo Hollywood talent and, one assumes, work out the fine points of a Metal Gear film franchise. KPLA's state-of-the art offices were impressive both from a technology standpoint and fascinating from the perspective of history: During the studio's brief life, I attended several trailer screenings and question-and-answer panels in the adjunct theater, which probably wasn't the infamous personal screening room that Hughes locked himself into, naked and unbathed, for nearly half a year... but who knows, maybe it was.
Despite the strategic value of the studio—not to mention the extraordinary amount of cash publisher Konami presumably sank into the facility's purchase and facelift—the company announced yesterday that it was unceremoniously shutting down the location, laying off roughly three dozen staff members in the process. While hardly unsurprising given the recent tumult surrounding Kojima Productions, the immediacy (and the pre-Christmas timing of the move) seemed particularly brutal... especially in light of Konami's continued insistence that Kojima hasn't left the company (despite all evidence to the contrary) and is merely "on vacation." The apparent fiction around Kojima's employment status comes off a bit like a harried mother telling her kids that Daddy went "on a trip" rather than admitting he ran off to Aruba with his cute young coworker, and this latest turn of events strains its credibility even further.
Granted, Kojima Productions L.A. had recently been renamed Konami Los Angeles Studio as a way to distance the facility from the estranged designer, but even so the entire purpose of the team there had been to develop and support Metal Gear Online. As the publisher talks (in vague terms) about the grandeur of its future plans for the Metal Gear franchise, it's become increasingly clear that whatever that future entails, it will have little to do with Metal Gear as Kojima envisioned it. It also calls into question whether or not Konami intends to treat Metal Gear Online as a living online product with full, proper updates; while the publisher hasn't been shy about monetizing the game (for example, with its controversial F.O.B. system), the termination of the core group responsible for its creation makes significant long-term updates seem unlikely.
On the plus side, the studio's shutdown means the drama surrounding the systematic dismantling of Kojima's mini-empire within Konami should be approaching its final chapter. The whole affair has been an ugly process, with vague denials of a conflict even as the man's name vanished from marketing materials—and as the high-profile Silent Hills project was canceled with such vigor that even its demo (the enigmatic P.T.) thoroughly erased itself from existence. Kojima will undoubtedly have little trouble finding interested publishers with which to collaborate on future projects—once he returns from vacation, of course—but that will be cold comfort for his newly unemployed L.A. team.
While it's tempting to read all of this as a dire sign of the times for the games industry, it's become clear over the past few months that the friction between Kojima and his (by all but official accounts) former employers is less a symptom of the industry's travails and instead has more to do with the peculiarities of Konami itself. Layoffs, power struggles, and estranged talent have become par for the course for video gaming, but even the most fractious rifts don't result in the protracted, public, and apparently duplicitous chain of events that have played out in this case. Gamers have a tendency to presume spite as a motivation for unpopular acts by publishers, though in nearly every case layoffs, cancelations, and others choices that run counter to fan expectations result from a dispassionate, clinical pursuit of profits. According to numerous insider accounts, however, Kojima's departure from Konami has everything to do with spite: Not spite directed at customers, but rather at Kojima. We'll never be able to fully determine the truth of these claims, but ultimately I suspect the demise of Kojima Productions doesn't mean there's no place for auteur designers in video games. Rather, it means there's no place for auteur designers at Konami.
While I'll be sorry to see the effective end of the Metal Gear series—long a personal favorite—and I'm even more disappointed to see so many people who worked on it cut loose, I'm sure I'm not alone in being eager to see the turbulence and uncertainty around the franchise and its creator put to rest once and for all. It certainly hasn't been one of gaming's prouder moments.