Compared to previous iterations, the kickoff to BitSummit, the independent games festival held annually in Kyoto, was a quiet affair.

As I wandered through the doors of Kyoto’s Miyako Messe convention center on Sept. 2, I noticed that exhibitors and volunteers were still setting up stalls, with many booths unstaffed and developers instead joining online via the video chat and messaging platform Discord. It was 10 a.m., and the throng of public attendees seen in years past was noticeably absent.

Instead, a select number of developers, publishers, media and sponsors based in Japan trickled through the hall. On the main stage, emcees Ai Yokomachi and J-mon sat masked and separated by clear plastic barriers, surrounded by cameras streaming their every word.

For John Davis, who has been involved with BitSummit since 2013, holding a physical two-day event, even a scaled-down one, was worth the trouble after the online-only BitSummit in 2020.

“Last year, everyone was just sitting at their computers like they had been for the past few months,” he says. “They didn’t get to meet other developers, thank the sponsors, have drinks or any of that. That’s why we went for it this year.”

The pandemic has provided a variety of results for the games industry. While developers have seen their audience grow significantly as more people hunker down at home, the inability to physically work next to colleagues has been a major source of frustration.

“I can’t just talk to my programmer like he’s sitting next to me,” says Kyoto-based game creator Liam Edwards. “I need to schedule a meeting, present my idea, arrange the follow-up. … COVID cancels out the ability to talk spontaneously.”

BitSummit emcees Ai Yokomachi (left) and J-mon (right) practice antivirus measures while discussing the event in Kyoto’s Miyako Messe convention center. | NICK GARDNER
BitSummit emcees Ai Yokomachi (left) and J-mon (right) practice antivirus measures while discussing the event in Kyoto’s Miyako Messe convention center. | NICK GARDNER

On the other hand, being stuck at home has allowed some to explore new projects. Scott Popular, who helped put BitSummit 2019 together, says the pandemic gave him time and energy to make his retro-inspired platformer Ninjaman.

“COVID dried up a lot of my business, so I got really into my art. I started selling art pieces of Ninjaman, then doing exhibitions,” he says. “Galleries were really receptive to it because they usually don’t have video games on display. I found a programmer and just kept on going.”

While some of this year’s BitSummit attendees might hope the return of the event will help take their minds off of COVID-19, there are reminders everywhere — the most obvious of which is that the space above the hall is being used as a vaccination center for Kyotoites. And while BitSummit’s hybrid digital/physical incarnation provides some members of Japan’s indie games community a much-needed chance to network in person, others have no choice but to attend virtually. The exhibition hall feels a little empty, with only 854 physical attendees rather than the roughly 15,000 that came in 2019, but there is undeniable positive energy among those present.

“It kind of reminds me of our first two BitSummits,” Davis says. “I think everyone here is just taking the opportunity to breathe, talk and do business without the public here.”

Indeed, business is getting done: Several attendees tell me they’ve found publishers to help them put their work out, or have made connections for future projects. Not everyone is so laser-focused on professional development, though. We are, after all, at a games convention.

Tokyo-based freelance designer Wataru Nakano is something of a BitSummit icon, thanks to his penchant for experimental control systems. This year, he’s showing Boss, Blind, Brandy, a two-player game co-developed with Miyazaworks. Players physically face one another, each standing behind a set of window blinds, and hold a brandy glass fitted with an accelerometer, which they swill to build up energy. By cracking the blind open, they’ll fire an electrified stare at their opponent, lowering their health. It’s a gleefully silly experience, and the game took home BitSummit’s Innovative Outlaw Award.

It’s this sort of success that highlights the benefits of in-person showcases. “If I were showing you a game over Zoom, there just wouldn’t be the same kind of excitement,” says Edwards, whose charming 2D offering Cursed to Golf won the Excellence in Game Design Award. In it, the player must golf their way out of purgatory through 18 randomly ordered holes.

Zu Ehtisham, the Tokyo-based creator of high-speed action platformer Berserk Boy, agrees with Edwards’ sentiment. This BitSummit is Ehtisham’s first time presenting a game in person, and the chance to watch people react to, misunderstand and even break his game in ways he hadn’t expected — all in real-time no less — is a major benefit of showing at physical events. “You get real, unfiltered feedback, as opposed to someone playing it a couple of times and then writing a review afterward,” he says.

The benefits of the in-person show go beyond testing games, however. While demonstrating his game Slumhack, which follows a hacker as she makes her way through a sprawling slum in a post-pandemic world, Kamakura-based Guanpeng Chen mentions how this is an opportunity to meet big names in the industry.

“Three years ago, I met my idol, Lucas Pope (creator of Papers, Please and Return of the Obra Dinn),” he says. “You can just bump into famous developers here.”

Spotting gaming royalty is part of the fun of BitSummit. Alongside the aforementioned Pope, Nintendo’s Eiji Aonuma and maverick developer Suda51 have also been known to appear. This year, Sony Interactive Entertainment’s Shuhei Yoshida, as well as Atsushi Inaba and Hideki Kamiya of Platinum Games, graced the stage to discuss upcoming projects and weigh in on the offerings at this year’s event.

This star power is no fluke. In a little under 10 years, BitSummit has grown from an intimate gathering of indie developers to one of the most notable game shows in Japan. Not bad for what was created as an independent-focused alternative to the massive Tokyo Game Show. In fact, BitSummit is now seeing upstart rivals of its own in the form of Tokyo Sandbox and the online-only Asobu Indie Showcase.

Despite the competition, BitSummit’s commitment to an in-person event while other similar conventions have remained online has helped it retain its dominance for another year. Although it doesn’t look as if the pandemic is showing any sign of letting up soon, if the vaccination center upstairs can do its job, then the folks at BitSummit can get back to doing theirs.

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