Major gaming companies are likely to dominate the headlines at this weekend’s Tokyo Game Show (TGS), along with the promise of future releases that have budgets reaching into the millions.
Matthieu Guillemot of Japan-based independent studio Little Big MMO will also be at the event with “Gangs of Space,” a massively multiplayer online game. It won the Excellence in Game Design Award in March, during the BitSummit game convention in Kyoto, despite having a budget of considerably less than a million and a development team of just two people, Guillemot and a co-creator who goes by the name Joris. Guillemot will be one of many developers at TGS jockeying for attention in the event’s Indie Game Area.
“Tokyo Game Show is a nice opportunity to reach a big audience for pretty cheap for us,” Guillemot says. “We live close, and this year Sony is sponsoring the Indie Area. It just costs us some days of preparation. It’s very cheap for such a big opportunity.”
This is the second consecutive year TGS has set aside space for independent developers.
“I think it says a lot about the relevance of indie gaming in Japan, and how the industry at large views indie games as a viable path for aspiring and veteran creators,” says Nayan Ramachandran, marketing manager at Playism, a company that, among other things, helps indie developers with issues like marketing and localization. “The dōjin (do-it-yourself) scene in Japan has always been a more hobbyist-focused cottage industry, but it has always been around. It’s awesome to see that the Japanese gaming industry is starting to take these creators seriously and is including them in the most famous gaming show in Japan.”
The booths of independent game developers were located in the main hall for the two TGS business days last year, but were moved to a different spot during the days open to the general public. This year, indies will remain in the main hall, and that could lead to greater exposure.
Sony’s sponsorship should turn out to be another boost. The company is also covering exhibition expenses for independent developers. Last year, exhibitions cost ¥21,000 for one public day and ¥31,500 for both. All four days (which includes the two days reserved for those in the gaming industry) ran a cool ¥99,705. This year, Sony is picking up the tab.
The company’s eagerness to help is indicative of the evolution indie games have seen over the past several years, spurred by breakout titles such as the hugely popular sandbox game “Minecraft.” Sony, Microsoft and other companies have all jumped on the bandwagon and, even if their intentions aren’t entirely altruistic, their actions have brought more attention to indie games.
“Indies have all the buzz right now,” says industry veteran James Mielke. “They have the hip credibility. If you get all those guys on your system, even if they don’t sell as much or bring in as much money as a new ‘Call of Duty’ or ‘Halo,’ you’re still getting people talking about your system. Right now, for example, there are two dozen awesome indie games that I’ll play regularly on my PS Vita. That’s made me really happy to own a Vita.”
Last year, TGS attracted a record four-day crowd of 270,197, up from 223,753 in 2012 and 222,668 in 2011. The sheer number of attendees gives indie developers a chance to gain a lot of attention, if they can get noticed.
“Most people, players and press and everyone, they go there for the big games, the Konamis and Segas,” Guillemot says. “Will they stop by and look at the indie games and write stuff about indie games? I’m still not sure. I hope.”
This is a major challenge for indie developers who’ll be vying for attention as the major companies soak up the limelight. It’s yeoman’s work for small teams that lack armies of PR people. Playism last year lent a hand to the indies it works with.
“We also brought media over to their booths to check out the games and made sure that they got the exposure they deserved,” Ramachandran says. “We’re doing something similar this year.”
To some extent, the TGS interest in indies might be a byproduct of BitSummit’s success. Mielke, former editor-in-chief of Electronic Gaming Monthly and 1up.com, and a former producer at Q Entertainment, Q-Games and Turbo Studios, started BitSummit in 2013 to help bring Japan’s fractured indie community closer together. He found success despite some developers’ wariness of the unknown, and the event was a hit the second time around, earlier this year.
“Big shows including indie stuff isn’t exactly new, so I can’t take any credit for it,” Mielke says, “but in regards to TGS, it’s not a coincidence. I don’t think it was necessarily BitSummit that caused them to implement an indie-focused area, but after BitSummit 1, TGS guys did come to us and basically took notes for an hour.
“Initially, I was kind of turned off by the whole thing because they were just looking for a way to cash in on the buzz. It’s like somebody on the business side heard the word ‘indie’ a lot and decided, ‘Well, we should have that.’ Eventually the suits that we talked to sort of got filtered out and they actually started bringing in people who knew what they were talking about, and partnering with people like Sony and Unity (Games), and they really started approaching it in the right way.
“However it starts off doesn’t really matter. What really matters is where it goes. I think they’re really starting to get the right attitude toward it. They have the right people behind it.”