Ken Dirnberger (interview)

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Ken Dirnberger is the former president of Konami of America. The interview was conducted by Billscat-socks in 2016.


1. Can you explain how you got your start in Konami?

I got my start in Konami when I retired from the Air Force after 30 years of service. My Japanese wife is a Japanese-English conference interpreter. One of her regular clients was Mr. Kozuki, who started, owned, and managed the company in Japan. When I was stationed in Japan, I met and got to know Mr. Kozuki, who offered me the position of Konami, America President when I retired from the Air Force in January, 1995.

2. What were your general duties throughout your time there?

In the beginning, I was in charge of Konami marketing and sales in the U.S. and throughout the Americas, including Canada, Central America, and South America. At that time, all the games were developed in Japan and those that were marketable in the U.S. were then shipped and sold here. After a couple of years, I started another Konami company, called Konami Computer Entertainment Center (KCEC), which had the responsibility of developing games here in the U.S. The intent was to design games more specifically for the taste of American gamers.

3. What was the company like when you got there, and what did you do once you were there to change things around?

Morale in the company was very low when I arrived. Several managers had left and things were in a bit of a turmoil. There were two main issues: the arcade business was rapidly declining in the States -- arcades were closing everywhere -- and Konami's desktop consumer games, such as those for Nintendo's NES system, were also declining in popularity. "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" was the last big Konami hit and games being produced in Japan no longer fit the taste of American gamers. Konami had been one of the top companies in the U.S. in the '80s and very early 90's with games that had a Japanese "anime" design; however, by the mid 90's competitors were producing games with a more "western" style that Americans liked better. The Konami warehouse was filled with games that had been purchased from Japan, but didn't sell. The first thing I did was hire an American to direct the consumer side of the business and reorganized the entire company into a structure more fitting for the environment that existed at that time. For example, there was a strong marketing department in the consumer side, but the Coin-op Director did almost all of the marketing himself for the arcade business. I made the marketing department responsible for supporting both sides of the business. That's just an example. In addition, I had both the Consumer and Coin-op Directors conduct off-site meetings to get their teams working together on goals and objectives and ideas to meet those goals and objectives. The other initiative was to have successful Konami game developers in Japan come to the U.S. to see the kinds of games, and the style of the games, that were becoming more successful so they could understand what we were asking them to produce for the U.S. market. Following this, I had both Consumer and Coin-op produce lists of ideas for games that they wanted the developers to produce for this market. This effort had a measure of success because Mr. Kozuki directed his staff in Japan to be more supportive of the U.S. market with the new team in place and the new effort underway. However, the company found it increasingly hard to develop both styles -- anime for the Japanese market and more Western-looking characters for the U.S. market. That eventually led to a decision to develop the 2nd company that I mentioned earlier, Konami Computer Entertainment Center (KCEC) in order to develop games here for the U.S. market.

4. Can you name some specific projects you worked with? How did you oversee those projects? I noticed online that you have credits as the producer of some of Konami's games.

Specific projects: Now you are getting into the area where my memory fails after 15-16 years of being totally away from the business. I'll be talking to someone tomorrow who worked for me in Konami, America and who will be able to recall some of the games better. If you want, I can send you a few titles later that we (he and I) might be able to come up with together. I can picture some of the games mentally, but just can't recall the exact titles. I'm pretty sure the games where I'm listed as "producer" were some of those that we created "in-house" after KCEC was formed, such as the "In the Zone" basketball game which was the only reasonably successful one. Yes, as president of KCEC, I did have more direct involvement in the development and production of the games produced here. In the Air Force, I commanded multiple teams of "techies" in the computer and communications business, so I basically did the same in KCEC. I'm not technical myself, but I held frequent meetings with team managers in KCEC to monitor progress, provide guidance, and help them out when needed. I also communicated daily with Japan and brought in expert assistance when needed.

5. What was the process like for picking games from Japan to bring overseas?

As far as the process for picking games produced in Japan, I would send my managers and "techies" to Japan several times a year to visit the game developers and actually see the games as they were being developed. For those games that had potential for the U.S. market, we would then provide inputs to help make the games more U.S.-friendly and would review samples and provide feedback continuously until the games were completed. Sometimes our inputs were accepted, but very often they weren't because they still had to keep the games focused primarily on the Japan market. Once the games were completed in Japan, we would purchase the number we thought we could sell in this market. Of course, there was always a lot of pressure from headquarters to purchase more, which often led to disagreement and hard feelings. Again, this is what led to the creation of KCEC to "create games for America by Americans."

6. One of my favorite titles that Konami brought over here from Japan was the Goemon series, localized under the title Mystical Ninja. The first Nintendo 64 game in the series was localized for the US market in 1998. Do you remember being involved with this one? It is a very Japanese series, which makes it interesting that it got a chance over here.

The Goemon/Mystical Ninja series rings a bell, but I don't remember it very well. It was probably one of those titles that we simply brought over from Japan and marketed here without a lot of involvement in the development stage. Sometime we would give the Japanese anime games a try, especially if pushed by HQ in Japan.

7. You might remember this better once speaking with your friend, but can you recall any specific titles for which input from the US side actually was accepted by the Japanese developers? Just off-hand, due to their more US characters and settings, I would imagine a couple of these games to be Silent Hill and Metal Gear Solid for the Playstation.

You hit one of the titles that we definitely had a hand in developing -- the Metal Gear series -- which was early in my time at Konami. This is one where the developers actually came to the U.S. to visit our gamers and we also sent some of our staff to Japan to provide advice during the game development. Another was the dance genre, such as "Dance, Dance Revolution." I don't remember "Silent Hill" at all, but there was a "Silent Scope" arcade/coin-op game that was developed here in KCEC, not in Japan, but Japan purchased some of them from us and marketed them there. I sent an email to my friend to see if he remembers others. If he replies, I'll pass the information along.

8. I'm interested in the localization and testing process of games during their development. You mentioned samples of Japanese games were often reviewed during a game's development. Once it was decided that a Japanese game would be localized for the US market, would the localization process ever begin while a game is still in the middle of development? I once heard that Nintendo for example would be regularly sent files of new builds for localization teams to look over.

The answer to your question about the localization process is "yes." Headquarters would send us a list of titles that they were either considering or had begun developing in Japan, along with a synopsis of the type of game (genre) and their concept of game play. They would also indicate whether or not they thought it could work for the U.S. market. If we were interested in a title, we would ask them to send samples once the development was far enough along that we could do a better evaluation. We would then exchange frequent correspondence with the development team in an effort to get the team to include our ideas. As I mentioned earlier, if we felt that the game showed good promise for the U.S. market, we would then send some of our people there to provide more "hands-on" assistance, as long as the team was willing to listen to our ideas.

9. Regarding KCEC, I have seen this abbreviation also referenced as Konami Computer Entertainment Chicago. Are these both the same? Also, did KCEC end up as a moderate success, or did games developed in Japan mostly dominate sales which lead to its demise?

Yes, KCEC was Konami Computer Entertainment Chicago -- my mistake -- must have been moving too fast and didn't check what I was writing.

10. I know Konami's main offices are not even in the Illinois area anymore. At the time of your departure, was the company on its way to its now Los Angeles offices? What sort of state was the company in when you left, was it undergoing a complete restructuring with the new generation of gaming consoles?

I was involved in the move to the San Jose area of California. We decided to make the move because we couldn't find enough good game designers and programmers here in the Chicago area to develop quality games in KCEC. Once the kids graduated from school with their degrees, they headed to California where they knew the best jobs were. As a result, our efforts to develop games in KCEC did not achieve the level of success that we had hoped for. In addition, nearly all the video game companies were located in California, with the exception of those focused primarily in the arcade/coin-op business. Konami saw that the arcade business was dying and the industry was moving to new consoles, computer-based games, and internet. So there was no longer a strong justification for having the company in Chicago in order to be close to the console cabinet manufacturing centers. Once the move was completed, I retired from the company rather than move to California -- family, age, and salary cuts were the primary considerations. I haven't kept up with the company after the move to California, but I know it was down-sized considerably and I think it gave up on the idea of developing games in-house. Any other thoughts regarding the current state of the company would be pure speculation on my part, so I'd rather not venture into that area.

11. Do you recall any participation in consumer trade shows, such as E3? If you have any memories about the whole process behind those things, any specific events during them etc., I'd love to hear it.

Yes, we participated heavily in trade shows, including E3. I guess my clearest memory was that we constructed a very large and expensive showroom/booth that we took to each of the major trade shows. HQ was critical about the expense, but it gave Konami a good boost at the time and HQ also had it shipped to Japan for use in their trade shows. We also hired some fairly well-known personalities, like Luci Riccardo (Lucille's daughter) to participate in our booth. On another occasion in Los Angeles, Michael Jackson came by and played some of our games. We never found out if it was really Michael Jackson or one of his many doubles, but we do think it was him. When the trade shows were in LA, and even now in Vegas, there were always several famous personalities that you could see. Michael Andretti used to come to some of the arcade shows with his race cars, for example.

12. Were samples sent from Japan often destroyed once they served their purpose? Or did the company hold onto previous development builds of games for an archive of any sort? This question also applies to what Konami did with any demonstration cartridges/CDs once an event such as E3 was over. I'm curious if the company put any historical value into past game builds by keeping records, or if they saw them as irrelevant once the final product was complete. I know companies like Sega used to keep huge archives of all of their game builds in a Quality Assurance archive for future reference. I wondered if Konami ever did the same.

Regarding samples, those that were developed in Japan were strictly controlled by HQ. My recollection is that we used to have to ship them all back to Japan for safe-keeping and archiving. I'm pretty sure that if they were to be destroyed, HQ would tell us if they wanted them destroyed locally, with confirmation of destruction, or shipped back to Japan for destruction. That wasn't something I was really involved in. It was something that HQ worked out directly with Japanese managers in the company. Of course, in KCEC, we kept control of our locally developed samples, although there weren't that many by the time we moved everything to California.

I did hear from my friend. He was on the arcade/coin-op side of the company. Here's his input regarding your #6:

Since that was a release for the Japan market, I only vaguely remember that it was a big deal because it had been a long time since the first Goemon game was released for the West.

Both X-Men and Lethal Enforcers were clearly developed for the US market. Very few other games targeted the US or European markets, such as Run N Gun and Lethal Enforcers 2: The Gunslingers.

Although they failed, Five A Side Soccer and Ultra Hockey, released as the first 2 games in the Ultra Sports console cabinet, did include many suggestions from the US office. We recommended that realism be sacrificed for faster game play, the inclusion of many oddly shaped game fields, and even the console cabinet style. We promised big sales if the development team followed our recommendations and I think the poor actual sales spelled the end of market-specific game development. From that point on, our input was limited to finding errors and editing the English voiceover and text.

The notable exception was Fisherman's Bait, for which we again made big forecasts. R&D took our suggestions for the types of fish to be caught and the design of the fishing reel joystick. When HQ couldn't make a reel that was robust enough for the US market, we had Happ Controls design one and submit it to the team for approval.

A few games included changes we suggested, such as removal of some "hidden" risque images in Silent Scope and extra lights and mirrored metal on Dance Dance Revolution but, as the output from Japan moved to driving and other simulators (Wave Shark, Hang Pilot, GTI Club) then to all the music-based simulators, it became clear that the R&D teams would focus on making games they understood and which appealed to Japanese players.