Before Ryan Payton became assistant producer at Konami's Kojima Productions studio in Tokyo, he was living in Osaka where he was studying Japanese. He was also making a living writing about games for publications such as XBN, EGM, and 1UP. While he enjoyed writing about games, Payton hoped to one day be involved in the creation of a game.
We caught up with former assistant producer, Ryan Payton, to talk about his experiences with Kojima Productions.
How did the opportunity to work at Konami come up?
Kojima Productions assistant producer, Ryan Payton (RP): I flew out to Los Angeles to cover E3 2005 as a freelance writer. My hope was that I would be able to write enough articles to cover my travel expenses. While roaming the show floor, I got a phone call from my editor who said he couldn't make it to his interview appointment with Kojima Productions director, Hideo Kojima, to discuss Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence, and asked if I could cover for him. Having just finished MGS 3, I was the perfect guy to throw Hideo some hardcore questions about Subsistence.
What stood out for you from that initial meeting?
RP: The interview went well, much in part to Hideo's incredible translator, Aki Saito. As somebody who can understand Japanese game celebrities' answers before they're translated, I remember being deeply impressed by Aki's talent. Long story short, I got to talking to Aki after the interview. I asked him why he's such a badass translator, and then our conversation transitioned into Japanese. Hideo overheard this and then look at me as if he'd seen white ghost. "Why is this foreigner speaking Japanese, in an Osaka accent no less?" he asked. He would later ask me to come in for a job interview.
How did the job interview go?
RP: I thought the interview process went well, but I was informed that, unfortunately, I had failed my interview. Thinking I was a shoe-in for the role, this was discouraging news. I decided to pack my bags, return to the Portland area and seek out a new job in America. Now settled back in America with a brand new car and only a week into a budding World of Warcraft habit, I received an email from Konami that they had changed their minds and wanted me to come and work ASAP. Do Toyota dealerships take returns?
I'm guessing they must have, as you soon found yourself back in Japan. Having been offered the job at Konami, what were your initial expectations of it?
RP: Being my first job in the development side of the games industry, I really didn't know what to expect. I remember feeling intimidated by the 'coolness' of Kojima Productions, such as the clothes the team wore, their luxurious Roppongi Hills office space, and the air of elitism. I remember being excited to be even a small part of it.
Also being my first job in a Japanese company, I knew I was in store for a lot of unfamiliar things. I knew if I came into the company with an open mind and willingness to do anything, something good would happen. I was committed to pulling the same long hours as my colleagues, which meant many late nights.
What do you feel got you the job at Kojima Productions?
RP: I think they saw potential in me. I wasn't the best translator of the group of candidates, and I lacked formal working experience in Japan, but I think they were impressed with my deep passion for the Metal Gear Solid series and my demeanour during the interview process, where I was careful to be persistent but not annoying.
How were those initial months at Konami?
RP: I remember my first months at Konami well. It was an incredible learning experience. I remember going home every night exhausted by the sheer amount of data that was being flowed internally at Kojima Productions and abroad to our colleagues overseas. It was also a cultural adjustment, as I tried to embrace the "salaryman" lifestyle by commuting via the subway and getting crammed like sardines every morning and night in the subway car.
How did you adjust to the work environment in Japan?
RP: Typical to a lot of foreigners who start working in Japan, it's easy to discover inefficiencies in the way work gets done. Early on, I fulfilled my American stereotype by speaking my mind and trying to fix things, and running into a lot of resistance along the way. I credit Ken Imaizumi for helping move me into a position that was better suited for my talents and outspoken personality.
Did you experience any workplace culture shock while you were there?
RP: Despite thinking I understood the Japanese mind, I was getting culture shocked on a daily basis. Most of it stemmed from the way business got done. The processes in place were typical for a major Japanese company like Konami, but for a foreigner like me who tries to understand exactly how things work and come together, it required a thorough re-education.
How did you manage to overcome it?
RP: A lot of foreigners suffer from the added stress of trying to navigate the seniority structure of Japanese business and society. For whatever reason, I decided not to lose sleep over perfectly following the rigid cultural structures. Instead, I would talk to anybody I needed to about important issues, regardless of the pecking order. I'm sure I ruffled a few feathers, but this approach allowed me to get deeply entrenched into the team.
What was the first game you had the chance to work on after joining Konami?
RP: I was lucky enough to be a part of five major product launches, and each one was a unique and thrilling experience. Joining the company while the team was putting the finishing touches on Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence was awe-inspiring. Just walking across the office space and seeing the entire team bug-checking the game felt magical. I knew I was in a special place.
Another big release by Konami at the time was Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops for Sony's PlayStation Portable. What was it like to work on it?
RP: Development on Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops was some of the most memorable. I remember feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work still remaining to get the game out on store shelves by the end of 2006. The team was exhausted, but they all knew they had a good game buried underneath all the unfinished work. This leads to one of my big breaks: Noriaki Okamura, the lead on Portable Ops, encouraged me to get more hands-on with the game and apply my youthful energy to the battle-worn team. I took up the challenge, along with the audio director, Akihiko Honda, and put everything I had into helping make the game better.
Could you describe what a typical work day was like back then?
RP: Once my daily work was done at about 9pm, Honda and I would play through the entire game and discuss ways to make it better. We'd include that into a report and send it to the team by the time they woke up in the morning. I'd go home and sleep for a few hours, then do it all over again. Meanwhile, during the day time, I worked with Konami America to adjust the release schedule, giving the team more time to finish the game. After over a decade of dreaming about what it would be like to work on a video game, I was finally doing it. It was an incredible thrill, and the hard work paid off as Hideo and the rest of the team leaders gave me an elevated role on MGS 4.
Due to the success of the Metal Gear Solid series, Hideo Kojima has practically become a household name. What was it like to work with him?
RP: I had the privilege of working with him on a regular basis. He was gracious and receptive to my ideas and approach to work. We also travelled together quite a bit, which allowed us to talk more in-depth about the game.
The Japanese corporate world tends to have a dry and rigid image to it, no doubt due to the timeless "salaryman" image, but what were your experiences when working with your Japanese co-workers at Konami?
RP: The team at Konami may be technically classified as "salaryman," and many of them will call themselves this, but I remember feeling that these guys were too "cool" to be classified as salarymen. From the clothes they wore to the movies they were into, this challenged my definition of what a "salaryman" was.
You concluded your time at Konami in 2008 following the launch of Metal Gear Solid 4. What prompted you to leave the company?
RP: After completing MGS 4, I had a long vacation waiting for me. I promised myself that I would think deeply about whether or not I would continue on at Konami and work on the next title. I was tired and honestly frustrated with the state of Japanese game design. I felt helpless as I watched great Japanese franchises stumble, and feeling powerless to stop the downward descent. Then, a few weeks into my vacation, my mother was diagnosed with cancer, which instantly made my decision to quit and return to America. I often think back on how strange the timing of all that was.
Three years on, what do you miss most about living and working with Konami?
RP: Upon moving back to America, I was overwhelmed by this sense of loneliness that I couldn't explain at first. I soon realized that it was because I missed my Kojima Productions family. We had gone through war together on our many projects, and I had formed a strong bond with dozens of them. I still miss them greatly. Since quitting, I've made a point of hanging out with all of them every year around Tokyo Game Show time.
Do you foresee yourself ever getting involved in the Japanese video game industry again in future?
RP: I still haven't given up on Japan, and playing games like Dark Souls and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword remind me that Japan still has a lot to offer to the world. But Japan needs a lot of help in becoming relevant to the gaming world again. If I can have a part in helping launch a Japanese comeback, I would jump at the chance.
For more information about Ryan Payton's current venture, the independent video game company Camouflaj, go to: www.camouflaj.com.
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