KYOTO – Despite rumors to the contrary, the Japanese independent-game scene is alive and well. Over the past weekend in Kyoto, a crowd of around 180 people, made up of game developers and the media, packed into an event hall to show off their latest self-made creations at the first BitSummit. It was also a chance for them to network and learn how they can bring their games to a global audience. In North America and Europe, indie events like this are common. In Japan, they’re not.
There is the twice-a-year Comiket (Comic Market) in Tokyo, which features some indie or dōjin games. But Comiket doesn’t provide the country’s independent game-makers the opportunity to learn about new game development software or how they can get their games on global distribution networks, such as the computer-based network Steam, from American game company Valve.
“There’s a whole hidden community here,” said BitSummit organizer James Mielke, a producer at Kyoto-based game studio Q-Games, which is best known for its PlayStation and Nintendo games. “Let’s lift the lid off of them!” And that is exactly the point of BitSummit: to shine a light on Japan’s indie gaming.
Consoles, which are closed platforms, dominate Japan. It’s difficult for independent game makers to release their games on consoles, because the console makers exert control over what appears on their machines. PCs, which are open platforms, are an easy way for indie game makers to release their creations. But, many independent Japanese PC games are still released on disc-based software, making it difficult for these titles to ever reach a wider audience. “It will change in a few years, I think,” said Houryu Samejima, a member of independent studio, Nigoro. “It’s still hard in Japan because packaged goods are still the main way things are sold.”
In the last few years, however, more and more Japanese game developers have been embracing digital platforms like Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android — as are Japanese gamers. At BitSummit, Kyoto-based indie developer Studio Pixel showed off its latest game, “Gero Blaster” — an iOS game starring a gun-wielding frog who is out to save his girlfriend, a cat.
But not every game is ideal for smartphones, so it’s important that Japanese indie computer games are able to reach larger audiences through online global-distribution platforms.
That’s why there is a growing foundation for a service like Steam to gain users in Japan as well as to promote more amazing Japanese computer games.
At BitSummit, pro game developers, such as Hidetaka “SWERY” Suehiro of “Deadly Premonition” fame and Yohei Kataoka of Tokyo Jungle fame, also gave presentations, encouraging the room full of independent game developers to be just that: independent. It was a message that struck a chord with those in attendance. Many of them developed video games in their spare time as a creative outlet. A few of them have been successful enough to do it for a living.
“Traditionally, it’s more respected to be a company employee in Japan,” said Mark MacDonald, a video game localizer at Tokyo-based firm, 8-4. “It’s harder to go independent and set up a company in Japan. So there might be some real dollars and cents reasons why some Japanese game developers are often reluctant to start up their own studio.” Yet, that doesn’t stop them from making their own games.
“Around the country, there are little game communities scattered about,” said Q-Games’ Dylan Cuthbert, a long-time game industry veteran with experience working for Nintendo and Sony. “BitSummit can help pull all these game communities together.” In short, it can help define the country’s indie scene. What’s more, it can help these creators go international.
Representatives from Unity and Epic Games, which are among the biggest names in game development, took the stage and explained how their development tech worked. Valve Software gave a walkthrough of its Steam platform, a digital game network that is incredibly popular in the West among gamers.
The language barrier, however, might hinder Japan’s indie creators from getting their games to an international audience. Japan’s big game developers, such as “Final Fantasy” creators Square Enix, can hire localizers, to help translate their games, and international PR people to promote them. Indie game creators can’t. They don’t have the money or the resources for that. BitSummit, however, gives them an opportunity to show off their games to the foreign media, often for the first time. Inside the event hall, there were tables clustered together covered with laptops and iPads running independent games. Anyone could walk up, play the game, and talk to its creator. In an age of spin-heavy video-game PR, the experience was refreshing and relaxed. Many of the game developers were just happy to network and show off their games.
If indie-game creators can get their latest games discovered, whether through the press or on digital platforms like Apple’s iOS or Valve’s Steam, gamers around the world can experience something they’ve never played before. BitSummit will help improve the chances that this kind of thing actually happens.
“This is important and should be done,” said Ben Judd, a BitSummit speaker and agent at Digital Development Management. “Japan is too big a community not to have a grass roots show.” With BitSummit, it finally does.