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Gaming contest adds Dutch style to Japanese knowhow

by Michael Sheetal

UTRECHT, Netherlands From March 8 to 9 I was lucky enough to be involved as a jury member in a fresh initiative called the Japan GameJam. This new concept brings Dutch game designers into the exciting world of Japanese mobile gaming with a two day intensive game design session.

GameJam is a collaboration between the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Japan together with the NLGD Foundation and the Dutch Game Garden Foundation from the Netherlands.

The NLGD Foundation creates activities, publications and events to promote gaming as more than just games, creating far-reaching effects on many aspects of society. The Dutch Game Garden Foundation is an organization designed to “accelerate the growth of the Dutch gaming industry both nationally and internationally.”

GameJam kicked off March 8 in Utrecht with a crash course in Japanese gaming for the more than 40 participants that made up nine teams. Participants were given a quick guide to contemporary Japanese culture and how people interact with their mobile phones in Japan. They were then given approximately 31 hours to come up with a proposal for a new game.

The goal was to create a proposal for a game to celebrate the “2008-2009 Commemorative Years” between Japan and the Netherlands. The Netherlands is celebrating a 150-year diplomatic relationship this year and next year will commemorate a 400-year trade relationship with Japan. Along with such serious underpinnings, it was important for the teams to look past the typical stereotypes of windmills and clogs and look to show off something a little more progressive and with the aim of demonstrating both the creativity and innovation that Dutch game developers are capable of.

Many of the practices in Japan were new to the teams, but the possibilities seemed to trigger a number of creative ideas. The new features available on the latest range of handsets from DoCoMo that allow for various types of physical interaction such as shaking or yelling into your phone certainly got the Dutch game designers going. Many of the proposals made interesting and unique use of the features and showed a lot of promise.

On the second day, after 31 hours of brainstorming and preparation, teams were asked to present their game proposals to a jury. The jury in Utrecht consisted of Dutch game advisers, Erik van der Pluym (formally of Guerilla Games), Marinka Copier (Utrecht School of the Arts) and Jeroen Elfferich (Ex-Machina), as well as Japanese industry advisers Marc Wesseling and myself (from Ultra Super New Inc.).

Two finalists were selected on March 9 and another two finalists were added when a jury in Tokyo viewed the presentations the following day. On hand for the Tokyo jury were representatives from two of the top Japanese mobile phone game developers, Cell and Taito.

The guidelines for selection were innovation, use of technology, promotion of Dutch culture and appeal to Japanese audience. The four finalists selected were: “Water Power” from Khaeon Games; “Mizu Maze” from 3DFlash; “Trade Joy” from Ronimo; and “Happyard” from O!.

Khaeon Games’ “Water Power” entry was a fresh take on an old puzzle game concept bringing a third dimension to the interface and making use of the tilt sensor on new DoCoMo phones.

“Mizu Maze” from 3DFlash made the cut because it presented a strong Dutch image, playing with the idea of water management, something the Dutch are very skilled at and passionate about.

Ronimo actually presented two strong ideas that were widely appreciated by the jury. The game that made the cut, “Trade Joy,” is a simple trading game where Dutch and Japanese characters trade items until they all have what they want. It strongly ties into the history of the two nations as well as being simple to learn and play.

Originally the contest was intended to only have three finalists, but both the Utrecht and Japanese juries decided that “Happyard” from O! had so much potential that they deserved a wild card entry. The game integrates real world parameters with a virtual garden environment and sets the player about hunting animals for their collection.

The finalists have now been given approximately one month to fill out their proposals and work on the points that were given in feedback. They will then present their ideas again in April and one will be chosen to complete production and come to Tokyo to test and release in Japan.

It was a tough decision to cut some of the games that were presented. They all showed that the Netherlands has a strong future in gaming and certainly a strong potential in mobile gaming where the Dutch industry has only really just now scratched the surface on their potential.

One of the biggest differences in mobile gaming in Japan and the Netherlands (as well as much of Europe) is that the fast uptake of new handsets in Japan gives users many of the latest features preinstalled on their phones. The technology gap is also still wide enough to limit use of data intensive applications in Europe due to high costs and slow data bandwidth.

Some of the features that are already common in Japan are QR codes, 2-D bar codes that can be scanned as shortcuts to a Web URL or other data; cameras that are the standard rather than just the high end option; GPS, which is now mandatory; and flat rate data plans over 3G networks, which means Japanese users are using data from servers faster and cheaper than their counterparts in Europe.

Gaming on the mobile phone is already a mature market in Japan with gaming platforms such as Mobage Town having user numbers in the millions. Game development with Adobe Flash Lite, Java and Brew-based applications are also well established industries in Japan with everything from large development teams to one-man shows pushing out concepts to the masses.

Other uses for digital content in Japan also help to familiarize the Japanese public with the use of their mobile phone as an interface to more than just the telephone. The largest social networking site in Japan, Mixi, at just more than 10 million users, also has a strong mobile component and many users write their personal blog on their phone rather than their home computer.

How can developers and designers from GameJam help to take mobile gaming in some interesting new directions? It has been a promising start but we will have to wait and see how they advance in the next stage, but my guess is that a fresh approach and thinking that does not have the influences of the dominant platforms and game genres of Japan has a lot to offer.

With a close focus from the GameJam participants on the possibilities in Japan, perhaps they can also be the leaders of a fresh wave of development coming out of the Netherlands that focuses on the future of what is possible in the field of mobile gaming and not hindered by the limitations of the present European market.

Find out more about the GameJam and read notes from the teams at gamejam.nl/

Michael Sheetal is an owner/director of Tokyo-based interactive creative agency UltraSuperNew Inc. (ultrasupernew.com). He also co-organizes industry networking event Tokyo2point0 (www.tokyo2point0.net) in Tokyo each month and writes regularly about the Japanese interactive industry at The Next Web (thenextweb.org) and mikesheetal.com (mikesheetal.com).