GDC 2009: Kojima on forging Metal Gear, teases 'Next MGS'

[UPDATE] Konami's star developer recaps two decades of development on signature stealth franchise in keynote address; ends by saying series will continue; full blog transcript and video inside.

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Coming Soon: Ancient Snake

SAN FRANCISCO--Last night, Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima was the toast of the industry, recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Game Developers Choice Awards. He was the focus of attention once more today when he delivered the keynote address in the "Vision" track at the 2009 Game Developers Conference.

Having pioneered the stealth action genre with the original Metal Gear--then reinvented it with Metal Gear Solid, and most recently Metal Gear Solid 4--Kojima will talk about clearing game-design hurdles with creativity. Fittingly enough, the famed designer promises to put exclamation points on his lessons with specific examples from his two full decades of developing Metal Gear games.

[10:20] Attendees are now swarming into the Moscone Center's south hall. In a topsy-turvy twist to the norm, the only people being made to wait in line at the door are members of the press. Their patience is rewarded, though, as a Konami rep is systematically escorting them to a group of seats front and center for the show.

[10:24] A voice comes over the PA telling the crowd to turn off their mobile devices and refrain from flash photography. The program is set to begin shortly.

[10:25] The usual preshow gaggle of shutterbugs and wandering rubberneckers looking for friends in the crowd is starting to thin out as people take their seats.

[10:27] Either a good chunk of the press is still recovering from last night's Game Developers Choice Awards, or Konami set aside a few too many seats for the media. There's an embarrassing amount of elbow room up front considering how tightly packed the rest of the audience is.

[10:30] Did they just turn the house music up louder? It seems like the din of the audience is keeping pace, though.

[10:30] There goes the house music, and the voice introduces GDC event director Meggan Scavio.

[10:31] Scavio takes the stage to applause and brings up the GDC Awards. She mentions Kojima winning a lifetime-achievement award at the show, and dives into his introduction.

[10:32] She says this is one of the first keynote addresses Kojima has ever given outside Japan, and introduces him to thunderous applause. KNEEL BEFORE YOUR GOD.

[10:32] Speaking through a translator, Kojima thanks everyone for attending the morning keynote and for the lifetime-achievement award.

[10:33] He's been in the industry for 20 years now, but this is his first time at GDC. In previous years, he was always busy preparing for E3 in May.

[10:34] There's also the fact that E3 has "lost its punch" over the years, and it helped that organizers called him and said they'd give him an award if he came, too.

[10:35] Kojima prefaces his speech, saying it will be a more philosophical than technical discussion of design. He also cautions that it will be a long presentation, and hopes he won't bore people. Small chance of that, with the audience hanging on every word.

[10:36] And lest anyone who attended yesterday's Nintendo keynote have any misconceptions, Kojima will not be giving out any free games. Laughter all around.

[10:36] He notes that there are no other sessions going on right now, so everybody is stuck in this keynote no matter how boring it is. More chuckles.

[10:37] Kojima talks about "revolutionary creation," something that nobody has ever done before. In other words, it's making the impossible possible.

[10:38] He shows a slide of a line, calling it a path, like a person's life or a game. Snake runs across the path, just going through his everyday life.

[10:38] But usually there are obstacles on a path. A box pops up on the path, and Snake hurdles it easily. Then Mario comes out and jumps over it. Many obstacles are simple to clear. But if the wall becomes taller (cue animation), the obstacles are more serious.

[10:40] Snake can't jump the taller obstacle, which makes the old soldier sad. Mario can jump, so he can clear the obstacle. That sets Snake to thinking as Kojima explains the difference between possible (things done before) and impossible (things not done before).

[10:42] Kojima said impossible is just an assumption made because something hasn't been done before. Snake can't jump over the wall, but maybe he could pole-vault over it. Or demolish it with weapons. Or fly over it with a balloon. Or use another box to climb over it. Or use a Looney Tunes portal to get to the other side.

[10:43] If you change the view, he says, you can see that the wall is easy to walk around also. Or maybe Snake could dig underneath it.

[10:44] Kojima then moves to talk about the barriers of impossibility that he runs into when designing games. He uses the same wall metaphor, with the height of the floor representing the level of technology in game hardware. The higher that is, the easier it is to go over the wall.

[10:45] Software technology acts like a box for Snake to stand on, but he's still not quite high enough to get over the wall. For that, he needs a ladder that Kojima calls creative game design (such as the balloon and pole-vault solutions).

[10:45] With that metaphor thoroughly strip-mined, Kojima looks back to the first Metal Gear on the MSX2 in 1985."It was quite popular back then," Kojima said of the Japanese system.

[10:47] "There was a phenomenon of Rambo," Kojima said. "First Blood Part 2 was a big hit, and combat games were big back then."

[10:48] Explaining what a combat game was in 1986, Kojima said it was 2D, and it needed a background, a player, and bunch of enemies. It also needed bullets to shoot the enemies.

[10:49] Designers also had to take account of the hardware available at the time. He shows a sample screen of Nemesis (a Gradius game) released on the MSX1 in 1986.

Nemesis' title screen.

[10:52] The game had a background of variety of sprites on top of it. The problem was that there was a limit of 32 sprites that could be displayed at any time. Also, if you displayed eight sprites horizontally, the ninth sprite would not display properly.

[10:53] He showed a clip of Nemesis, which suffered from horrible flickering of enemy sprites. He then showed the clip again in slow motion.

[10:53] "This was the actual product," Kojima said. "It's not a bug."

[10:53] The creative workaround at the time was to have the game cycle through which sprite it would drop out at any given moment, so there wasn't any one enemy that was permanently invisible to the player.

[10:53] Now he shows an example of an action game such as Metal Gear with three characters. With each character made of two sprites, that meant that Kojima could put Snake and two enemies onscreen, and have sprites remaining for no more than two bullets at a time.

[10:54] Kojima thought it was Mission: Impossible to do a traditional combat game on the system with that limitation, so he came up with a few other ideas. He thought up a combat game without fighting, which didn't work at all.

[10:55] Then he thought about a combat game about escaping, but ditched the idea because that was "totally uncool."

[10:55] Now a game about hiding, in which the player runs around and then sneaks away from enemies--Kojima thought that could work. But it wasn't really "heroic," so he needed another idea.

[10:56] Then he determined to make it an infiltration game, wherein the hiding and running around was used for an aggressive (and cooler) end. Thus, the stealth game was born.

Michael Biehn was originally cast as Solid Snake.

[10:57] As a result, Kojima wound up changing the mission from creating a combat game to creating a stealth game.

[10:59] Kojima shows a mock-up of a scene from Metal Gear, in which enemies would patrol a corridor and players would have to sneak by when the foes weren't looking. Considering that the system couldn't handle scrolling, Kojima said it wound up more like a puzzle game in which players had to go through one screen at a time, with each providing its own puzzle to solve.

[11:00] He laments that the original MSX Metal Gear was never released in America.

[11:00] "You might know the original NES Metal Gear, but that's a crap game because I didn't participate in it."

[11:02] Kojima showed a bit of original Metal Gear gameplay, and mentions the game design "ladder" that helped him achieve his mission. The infiltration concept was a big part of it, but enemies with a range of sight who acted differently once they spotted Snake helped as well. He even pointed out the now-iconic exclamation point that conveyed a guard's alert state.

[11:03] The next mission was to create a deeper stealth game. Given that hardware technology hadn't risen at all, he had to use the MSX again; it was only the obstacle in front of him that had grown taller.

Pushing the MSX2's limits.

[11:07] For Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, Kojima made guards' vision a wider cone instead of a straight line to make things a bit tougher. He also thought the one-screen-at-a-time puzzle mechanic was a bit boring, so he added a radar readout to the screen. That let players keep track of other enemies on different screens, and allowed for more difficult levels.

[11:07] After a brief technical delay, Kojima talks about adding the "evasion" phase into the game. After an enemy loses sight of Snake, the enemies will wander around looking for him, forcing players to hide and also be still. Kojima added "hearing" to the enemies in Solid Snake, so players had to be careful that their noisy actions wouldn't give them away.

[11:07] He mentions the Solid Snake game released in America, and says it was "a little crap game" because he wasn't involved in that one, either.

[11:09] The game-design ladder for the real Solid Snake was the concept of infiltration into an area, not just one screen. Adding vision and hearing to the enemies, a radar for the player, and three different states of alertness to the enemy AI also added to the game enough for Kojima to look at it as another mission accomplished.

[11:10] The next mission was to create a 3D stealth game for the MSX2, which draws some chuckles from the audience.

[11:11] This time the wall Snake comes to is a lot higher. "Probably it's quite impossible, isn't it," Kojima jokes.

[11:13] That one really was impossible, Kojima said, but four years later (1994), the PlayStation came out in Japan.

[11:13] The new hardware elevated the floor, making the wall of creating a 3D stealth game much smaller. All he had to do was change the mission to creating a 3D stealth game for the original PlayStation.

[11:15] Kojima mentions Metal Gear Solid by name and the audience applauds enthusiastically. He shows another mockup, pointing out that Snake can be cornered by enemies but would now be able to hide in a duct and look out from a first-person view to see if the coast was clear.

[11:16] Metal Gear Solid came out in September 1998 in Japan, the next month in the US, and the following February in Europe. That delay was because Kojima wanted to record the game's voice-overs in six different languages for the European market.

[11:17] Kojima takes the crowd through the in-game voices in all six languages. After the German one draws a few laughs, Kojima says, "It sounds like, 'I want to eat some sausages.'"

[11:17] The Italian version sounds to Kojima like "I want to eat some pasta."

[11:17] After an "impassioned" Spanish version, Kojima plays the "romantic" French version.

How do you say "!" in French?

[11:19] Kojima shows a clip of Metal Gear Solid and its numerous innovations. There were in-game cutscenes, camera-angle changes when Snake pressed up against the wall, the first-person binocular view, the restricted view that players deal with when sneaking through ducts, and other little touches.

[11:21] The concept "ladder" for MGS was infiltration in a 3D world. The dynamic changes in perspective and cutscenes with voice-overs were other key aspects of the game that Kojima said helped result in a completed mission.

[11:21] Time for a break. Kojima shows a Japanese Metal Gear Solid commercial with two women in different-colored dresses talking about hide and seek.

[11:21] Metal Gear Solid was a hit, so a sequel was a natural. This time the mission was to make a realistic-looking stealth game. The wall of impossibility is higher than ever before, Kojima said.

[11:22] And then, in 2000, Sony released the PlayStation 2...

Snake hides out in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.

[11:24] The PS2 raised the floor in terms of hardware power, but not as high as Kojima had expected. He decided that going after "realistic looking" wasn't doable because there were still technical hurdles, so he changed the mission to making "an immersive stealth game."

[11:26] Kojima mentions Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty by name, which curiously doesn't get any applause. He shows a mockup of the game, in which atmospheric elements such as lighting and weather actually played into the gameplay.

[11:26] He shows a clip of the MGS2 opening cinematic. It was 60fps and the development team did motion capture for the first time, "so that was why we had some pretty long cutscenes, which some of you didn't like."

[11:26] "You were supposed to laugh there."

[11:27] Kojima mentioned touches such as the lockers that could be used by Snake to hide himself or to hide unconscious enemies. Location-specific damage on enemies, shooting from a first-person view, and other "gimmicks" helped establish the design ladder that made the mission possible.

[11:29] Another mission complete for Kojima, so it's time to watch a Japanese commercial for MGS2.

[11:29] The commercial shows a pudgy, balding businessman hiding from his employees, Mega64-style, by using Snake's assortment of techniques, which drew large laughs from the audience.

[11:31] Time for another sequel. The mission this time was to create a stealth game that surpassed the previous one on the same platform, the PS2.

[11:31] With no new hardware, the team had to advance using nothing but software technology and game design. Kojima shows a grid with two axes: one runs from open to closed, the other from natural to artificial.

[11:32] Previous Metal Gear Solid games had been always in artificial environments, and usually closed ones at that.

[11:32] But no Metal Gear game had been made in a natural, open environment. That made new design challenges and dictated a number of changes.

[11:34] Kojima's team rebuilt its 3D engine to be able to handle the natural environments, so the mission was tweaked again. This time it was to create a stealth game that surpasses the previous one using a new engine. That brings us to Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.

Snake spends some quality time with a friend in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.

[11:35] This time the mockup shows Snake taking advantage of the natural setting with a new camouflage mechanic and a survival element to let players heal themselves through the environment.

[11:36] "Everyone said the cutscenes were too long in MGS2, so I made them a little shorter in MGS 3 and struck a good balance, I thought."

[11:37] "You're supposed to laugh here, guys. I'm talking about my cutscenes."

[11:37] The design ladder for Snake Eater was the combination of camouflage, food capture, a stamina gauge, and a cure system.

[11:39] Now it's time for a "special" long version of the Japanese MGS3 commercial. This time it's a businessman crawling through the jungle with an umbrella, wading through waters holding it high like a rifle, clubbing a snake to death and grilling it up, and hiding as an alligator.

[11:39] The commercial ends with the man in camouflage face paint, peeping at a woman bathing in a jungle pond.

[11:39] Although Kojima said he wanted the series to be concluded, demands for a sequel "could not be ignored."

[11:40] "That's when I came up with a plan. If I make the ultimate stealth game, I won't have to make any more."

[11:40] Now it's 2005, and Kojima said he was hearing about a new superpowerful machine that could do anything. You wouldn't even need a design ladder because the system was so powerful.

[11:43] "I don't want you to take me the wrong way," Kojima said. "It was just a rumor I had heard. But as a creator, I had limitless ideas."

[11:43] Kojima said the PS3 wound up being a great machine, but its power was not unbounded.

[11:43] That called for another mission change, this time to using the actual power of the PS3 to create a new infiltration experience. That resulted in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots.

Did you know Metal Gear Solid 4 was almost subtitled "Plaid Snake"? True story.

[11:45] The mock-up Kojima shows has Snake in the middle of a battle, picking off troops from both sides. He then replays the scenario with Snake allying himself with whichever side is winning.

[11:45] "In a war zone, the environment is always changing, so I added an element where the user could select what to do."

[11:45] He shows a clip. "It's a monster machine, so the cutscenes are monstrous as well."

[11:46] That draws chuckles, but not enough for Kojima's liking. "You're supposed to laugh even more! Come on, I'm talking about my cutscenes!" Ah, the shame-them-into-laughter technique. Not so effective.

[11:48] The game-design ladder that helped accomplish this mission was the concept of infiltration into an existing situation such as a war zone. Kojima was also proud of the dynamic battlefield-alliances mechanic, as well as Old Snake's octo-camo suit.

[11:48] Time for a Japanese MGS4 commercial, in which a player is so engrossed in the game he chooses it over his daily life, phone calls, and even a marriage proposal.

[11:49] Kojima recaps the three elements that help designers clear impossible obstacles: the hardware, software technology, and game design.

[11:51] "If I had given up [on that first mission], there wouldn't be any Metal Gear series," Kojima said. "There wouldn't be any Splinter Cell series either, I guess..."

[11:52] Kojima talks about his designer-driven game design as a throwback to those who had to deal with hardware limitations of the past. He says Japanese designers tend to have that approach, but there's a new trend that he says is popular right now, an approach more reliant on software technology.

[11:55] In the future, Kojima said he wants to use both approaches to climb the impossible wall, and shows Snake climbing the wall to "The Next MGS." Then, snake is replaced by a small figure which appears to be the sword-toting Raiden--possibly a hint of things to come.

[11:59] "I want to challenge this wall of impossibility with everyone out there in the audience today," Kojima said. He invites people geared toward that dual-design approach to visit Kojima Productions' GDC booth and perhaps join the team.

[11:59] Kojima recaps a few key themes, such as turning yesterday's impossible into today's possible by overcoming those barriers.

[11:59] "90 percent of what is considered impossible is in fact possible," Kojima said. "The other 10 percent will become possible with the passage of time and technology."

[11:59] Kojima encourages the crowd one last time to make the impossible possible, and ends his presentation as the crowd delivers hearty applause.

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