Independently made video games, a term that can be stretched to include titles made by midsize game developers, a group of enthusiasts or just a lone programming hobbyist, have become hugely popular in North America and Europe.
Often low budget with quirky visuals and even quirkier gameplay, independent — or indie — games have become popular as an alternative to the cinematic sheen of blockbuster titles.
But in Japan, once considered to be in the vanguard of video game innovation, the indie bug has been slow to catch on. “It’s often said we’re two or three years behind” the North American scene, said Takumi Naramura, one of the people at the forefront of efforts to bring Japanese indie games up to speed.
Naramura is head of Nigoro, the video game development division of Nara Prefecture-based Asterizm Co. The four members of Nigoro rarely meet in person — they are scattered across the country and work together via the Internet.
Their titles include the cult hit “La-Mulana” — an old-school 2-D side-scrolling game released for Nintendo Co.’s Wii home gaming console in 2011 and for home computers the next year.
While there are many small-scale game development teams like Nigoro in Japan, they have yet to gain wide recognition either at home or abroad. “La-Mulana” is one of the few titles that has found success overseas, although moderate by global standards.
But things could change in 2014.
Dissatisfied with the current state of the Japanese indie game scene, this year developers rallied with a view to instigating some positive changes. The industry “finally showed some life this year,” Naramura said.
He described how developers came out in full force at BitSummit, a one-day convention held in Kyoto in March, to show foreign media what Japan’s budding scene has to offer. The event was a roaring success and the second BitSummit, scheduled for March 7 to 9, will take place at a larger venue.
In September, the Tokyo Game Show, the largest annual convention for video games in the country, set up an area dedicated to indie games for the first time. At the end of the four-day event, Naramura and his fellow indie developers threw a party to kick off Indie Stream, a social networking site for indie game creators to share ideas and band together in promoting their scene.
The initiative taken with BitSummit and Indie Stream may prove increasingly crucial as many Japanese indie developers believe the key to success lies in penetrating the international market.
“The population size (in Japan) is nothing compared with North America. A game being in the spotlight or being surrounded by hype happens on a completely different scale,” Naramura said.
“In terms of how many copies we need to sell to make this work as a business, we knew from the start that it was impossible to only sell our games in Japan.”
However, most small-scale developers here lack the manpower, financial means or language skills to take their products to an international audience. The problem is not a matter of quality, but means of promotion, Naramura said.
“It’s difficult for us to visit North America often to show off our wares. We do our best to self-promote but you can’t expect real results from just that.”
To make “La-Mulana” more accessible to overseas players, Nigoro enlisted the help of Active Gaming Media Inc., a company that specializes in localizing indie games for foreign audiences. AGM’s online platform Playism is gaining popularity as a showcase for foreign indie games to Japanese gamers, and they hope to replicate that success by taking indie games that have been produced here overseas.
“Gamers abroad have high expectations of Japanese games, but the indie titles weren’t reaching foreign gamers until now,” said Shunji Mizutani of AGM. “Most aren’t even aware that a Japanese scene exists.”
Along with Nigoro’s Naramura, Mizutani and the Playism team cohosted the party for Indie Stream, the networking site for indie developers.
Through Playism, “La-Mulana” was able to gain recognition in North America and Europe after being accepted by major U.S. game developer Valve Corp., whose Steam platform is the main field of competition for indie video games globally.
The recent surge in the popularity of indie games has been helped in no small part by Steam, which allows gamers to buy, play and share indie fare. Steam carries more than 1,800 titles and is available in 237 countries and 21 languages, according to the Steam website.Platforms such as Steam and Apple Inc.’s App Store provide indie developers who lack the distribution means of a major publisher with an easy way to take their games to consumers. But they will soon find competition from another industry giant.
Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.’s PlayStation 4 home gaming console, which was released in North America and Europe in November and which will be sold in Japan from Feb. 22, was being praised even before its release as having a more developer-friendly design than its predecessors.
While this has succeeded in making indie developers scramble to make games for the console, SCE has also recently gained a reputation for actively seeking out innovative indie games to release through its various PlayStation platforms.
SCE Japan Asia, a subsidiary of SCE, in July created a developer relations section to more closely deal with game creators, according to Akinari Ito, an account manager in the section.
Ito serves as a liaison between SCE and indie developers, encouraging the most talented to make the leap to the PlayStation from PCs. He said SCE is prepared to throw strong support behind promising indie games, including cooperating on promotional campaigns.
“We want to shine a light on entertaining and original games and make sure they see the light of day,” he said. “If a developer is serious about putting their game on a console, we’re definitely willing to get in touch with them.”
With developers making more effort to make themselves known to an international audience and a big name like PlayStation lending support, the Japanese indie game scene seems set to finally burst onto the global stage. But can it follow through?
“On many fronts, 2013 was an exciting year for indie games,” said SCE’s Ito. “But a lot of that came from their popularity abroad. From now on, whether indie games truly catch on in Japan is up to the gamers.”