BitSummit, the independent game festival annually held in Kyoto, has grown rapidly in the four years since it went from being an idea in founder James Mielke’s head to a respected event that developers and fans from around the globe look forward to each summer.
One of the original goals of BitSummit was to help push Japanese indie developers into the spotlight in both their own country and abroad. The event has done this, but it has hardly been a Japanese-only affair.
“Our intention was not just to shine a light on the Japanese indie scene,” saysJohn Davis, one of many who helped usher the show into existence in 2013. “We wanted to bridge a gap between the East and the West.”
Developers came from the U.S., Seoul and a few places in between at this year’s BitSummit, which was held on July 9 and 10. Most were part of the Indie Megabooth, a program that works to help indie developers show their games at various large events.
“They’ve been really awesome to us,” says Rachel Monteleone from Grimm Bros, a multinational studio that was displaying “Dragon Fin Soup,” an action role-playing game. “We’ve done a couple of things with them, so we’re really, really excited that we got to come here.”
The BitSummit setup benefits both overseas and domestic participants. Foreign developers get to tap into another market of gaming fans and interact with like-minded Japanese. Meanwhile, the international presence helps brighten the spotlight that BitSummit shines on domestic companies while giving them the opportunity to discover more about the industry outside of Japan.
“People are becoming friends and meeting outside of just the show,” Davis says. “I would imagine there’s at least some runoff, or inspiration. I think the Japanese developers have probably looked at a lot of the quality of the Western games and used that, especially over the past few years, as a motivating factor to improve their own games.”
Davis, who currently works with Indie Megabooth, says the goal was to have 25 percent of the games at BitSummit come from outside Japan, and that expat developers in Japan were grouped with local developers, rather than given a Megabooth slot.
“Last year was the first year the Megabooth was a part of the show,” Davis says. “When you get developers from the West coming and they talk about the show, tweet about it or post pictures, I think it just raises the level of recognition and reputation. Especially since Western indie developers are such a tight-knit group. People see this and they’re like, ‘Hey, I want to come out and show my game and meet Japanese indies.’ “
There were 17 games in the Megabooth area at BitSummit this year, one of which saw the longest lines of the entire show — the PlayStation VR build of “Thumper.” Created by the studio Drool, an American two-man team of Marc Flury and Brian Gibson, “Thumper” is a “rhythm violence game” that gives players control of a metallic beetle that speeds down a futuristic rollercoaster-like track. Attacks on oncoming enemies are made by pressing buttons in synchronization with a pulsating beat.
Large crowds also formed around “Just Shapes and Beats” from Canada-based Berzerk Studio, which combines bullet-hell gameplay with musical elements and lives up to its name in chaotic fashion. Korean studio Turtle Cream displayed “6180 Moon,” a platform game that made great use of the Wii U gamepad’s screen for its floaty jumps.
“It’s a beautiful thing how we can bridge the gap,” said Bastian Zakolski, who came from Sweden with his game, “Ava Blaze,” a high-paced, quirky racer with unconventional track elements. “A lot of the Western developers here were inspired by Japanese games growing up, and now we’re here wbecause we love those games. So this really feels like us connecting.”