Kojima on the Death of Creativity – Is He Right?
Written Friday, January 06, 2012 By Lee BradleyView author's profile
“There’s not really a strong demand for anything else, and that’s why [original ideas] stop being made.”
"The famed Metal Gear creator's words riled gamers this week"
This week the revered creator of the Metal Gear series, Hideo Kojima, made reference to a couple of this console generation's most depressing talking points: the perceived death of creativity in games and Japan's increasing struggle to remain relevant.
We'll no doubt return to the latter subject at a later date, but it's worth taking a more detailed look at Kojima's comments on innovation. Is it really as bad as he says? Are we, as gamers, killing creativity? Or is Kojima just looking in the wrong places?
Speaking in a recent interview, Kojima took Japan's increasing struggle to compete with the West as the launching point for a discussion on how the industry has changed for the worse in recent years. Development of his first titles, he said, was “very different to today’s games. Now there’s a lot of pressure – back then it was very free”.
“It’s much more competitive now,” he continued. “If you look at triple-A titles on a worldwide scale there’s maybe only ten really big games that get gamers’ attention, and I’m not sure how Japan can compete on that level.”
This yearning for a more free, more experimental time is common among developers. Last year, Ninja Theory co-founder Tameem Antoniades joined the growing ranks of devs expressing the same concern. “There’s this stranglehold that the AAA retail model has which I think is just crushing innovation and access to creative content,” he told GI.biz.
“If you’re paying that much [to develop] a game, you don’t want to take chances. You want everything to be there, all the feature sets. You want it to be a known experience, guaranteed fun. That’s not healthy.”
"Portal is a successful franchise that oozes creativity"
At odds with his contemporaries' concerns, however, Kojima's issue is not with bloated development budgets, but instead with the tastes of mainstream gamers. He believes there's just no demand for creativity.
“It’s more consumer demand – right now, consumers are happy with what they have. First-person shooters sell like crazy, so there’s not really a strong demand for anything else, and that’s why [original ideas] stop being made.
“People are satisfied with making minor upgrades and tweaking things here and there – as long as that’s the landscape, it will keep on happening. I don’t see a problem necessarily, but at the same time it is nice to see new things come.”
There is evidence, however, to suggest that Kojima may not be looking far enough afield. While first-person shooters (particularly military ones) are clearly the dominant genre, there is room elsewhere for successful, creative work.
Let's start with the most obvious example first: Portal. Here was a game – a short, astoundingly innovative puzzler built upon a University experiment, that captured the imagination of gamers worldwide. Over four million of them at retail, to be specific. And that's not counting digital downloads. Meanwhile, Portal 2 reached 3 million people within just two months of release.
"Heavy Rain is another example of innovation in recent years"
And then what about Heavy Rain? Like it or loathe it, there is simply no other studio striving to create the kind of experiences Quantic Dream specialise in. That game sold around 1.5 million copies, far in excess of expectations. Indeed, it blew MAG's lifetime sales out of the water in just one week. And that's an FPS.
Or what about LA Noire, the LittleBigPlanet series, Dark Souls or Bayonetta? All bought something new to their respective genres, all sported big budgets, all sold well. None are first person shooters.
There are exceptions then, but it's hard to argue that the general outlook is fantastic. The list of big-budget, creative failures is far longer than the list of heroic successes. Mirror's Edge, Vanquish, Enslaved, Shadows of the Damned – all struggled to make much of an impact, despite their unique outlooks.
Instead, the biggest flaw in Kojima's argument comes from an ignorance of how other mediums operate. You don't go to your local multiplex expecting Transformers: Dark of the Moon to redefine cinema. You don't go and see We Will Rock You because it breathes new life into the theatre. Nor do you wander into Waterstone's and grab Katie Price's latest book thinking it's going to win a Pulitzer.
No. Instead, people do all these things because they expect excitement, entertainment and titillation. That's what the first-person-shooters Kojima refers to do. They provide entertainment to as broad an audience as possible. They're not in the business of true creativity and that's fine. The real creativity goes on in the peripheries of a culture. The videogame industry is no exception.
"Ever wanted to be God & deform the Earth? From Dust lets you"
Kojima comes closest to the truth when he talks of digitally distributed titles. “Maybe for new ideas, the way to do it is by releasing things via online services first and then seeing how people react to that,” he said.
There's plenty of evidence to back this up. Unique, expressive, digitally distributed games not afraid of being different are making their mark. Braid, Limbo, Super Meat Boy, Bastion, From Dust, Rock of Ages, Echochrome, Eufloria and Flower all represent the pinnacle of the medium's creativity. And they're making an increased impact on people's wallets too.
Bastion recently recorded a landmark of 500,000 sales, a remarkable figure for a small, downloadable title with an almost non-existent marketing budget. It hasn't even been out for six months. Super Meat Boy, meanwhile, has racked up over a million. Such success would have seemed ludicrous just a few years ago.
Yet the best example of a truly creative, innovative experience forcing its way into the hearts, minds and game collections of the mainstream hasn't even made it to home consoles yet. I'm talking, of course, about Minecraft.
The free-form sandbox building game created (initially) by just one man with an idea has shifted over 4.5 million copies. That's not far off Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, an amount it achieved without console bundles or multi-million dollar marketing budgets to back it up. It did so merely through the power of its creativity.
The freedom Kojima enjoyed early in his career is still out there and the right games with the right ideas will sell. He just has to look a little harder.