Amid a faltering mainstream industry, Kyoto-based indie game festival BitSummit has its best year ever
BitSummit shows how Japan’s indies are finding their voice
The phrase has been repeated enough that it’s now a cliché, but Akihabara isn’t what it used to be. While many in the west still perhaps imagine it as a honeypot for Japanese games, a terrible sense of ennui can wash over a visitor when they step out of the station. Every arcade’s UFO machines are full of only anime idol figures. Every corner is choked with maids touting their cafe with an aggression that outpaces what you’d see in even Kabukicho. And the places you find – dingy retro arcades, even landmarks like Super Potato – feel like mausoleums. Places lamenting something that feels like it’s been lost forever.
Yet, after a couple of hours on the Shinkansen, hope is found in Kyoto for two days a year, in the form of BitSummit.
Kyoto might not seem like the right place for it – after all, it’s a relaxed city steeped in Japan’s past through its concentration of Shinto shrines. But it’s here that Japan’s independent scene can be found. The base of the likes of Q-Games, 17bit and more, it’s the Toronto to Tokyo’s New York, or Austin to Los Angeles – a pocket of indie creativity in an unexpected place. Indeed, it’s Q-Games veterans that kicked off the first BitSummit, with one-time creative director James Mielke pushing against both media ignorance and local scepticism in his quest to raise global prominence of the Japanese indie scene.
“I always really thought that the indie scene owed a lot to creators like Daisuke Amaya [ Cave Story],” he tells us. “But when I started to explore why Japanese indies weren’t getting respect, I would ask the media and they’d say things like, ‘Oh, we don’t really know about the Japanese scene’. I took this to Dylan [Cuthbert, founder of Q-Games] and said, ‘You know what, as one of the more prominent Japanese developers, we have the cultural cachet to create an event that people take seriously.
“I knew we’d be greeted with scepticism from other Japanese developers, because the industry was very insular, and when we started reaching out to people we’d hear, ‘Why should I care? What is this going to do for me?’ But we started reaching out to developers and media who were friends, then took that to sponsors, then in turn we showed the media and sponsors to other developers and said, ‘These are the people who are going to be playing your games, and it’s going to be great for the industry.’”
And it’s worked. Reaching 5,000 attendees and with a line that stretches the length of Kyoto’s Miyako Messe convention centre before opening, BitSummit 2015 sees booths from Sony, Microsoft, Oculus and even a large contingent of western indies in the form of an Indie Megabooth. But it’s the Japanese developers that impress in their new, strident and genuinely personal projects, often debuting at BitSummit.
Take Yoshiro Kimura ( Little King’s Story, Chulip), whose BitSummit reveal Brave Yamada-kun is the strange tale of a depressed game developer who loses his grip on reality while trying to make his dream retro RPG project in his spare time.
“A long, long time ago I worked at Square, but unlike [protagonist] Yamada I’ve been independent for a long time,” Kimura says. “The climate here in Japan isn’t so conducive overall to independent developers. But thanks to events like this I feel like I’ve been given additional chances to realise my own dreams as a developer. Despite the harsh times, this event reminds me it’s OK to make the game I really want to make, despite the pressure I feel around me.”
Other developers are more pessimistic. Nanmo is the developer of TorqueL, a unique “two bar extending platform game” with a Jet Set Willy- esque hero (he swears the resemblance is coincidental). He quit his job at Sega to work on his game after hitting upon the idea while playing with a physics engine. “Just considering the amount of money it cost to come here [from Tokyo], I don’t know if I’ll ever see that back,” he says. “I’m happy to be making something I truly want to be making. But I have to worry about having enough money to do that – now I have another full-time job, and I’m trying to see this more like a hobby. However, it’s possible in the long term BitSummit will offer some reward.”
While there are some ways for developers in Japan to gain access to tax breaks and grants, this kind of support remains largely unexplored. “I’ve made some attempts to get some money that way,” Nanmo laments, “but it’s not been successful. While there are some organisations that can help, when it comes to big amounts, you need to be a big company.”
Despite these challenges and, in Nanmo’s case, attempts to talk themselves down as mere hobbyists, most Japanese indie developers do now see themselves as distinctly separate from ‘doujinsoft’ (or amateur) game makers.
“Despite the harsh times, this event reminds me that it’s OK to make the game I really want to make”
“The triple-A industry has seen a very steep decline. It’s here that you can see some of the new lifeblood”
Mielke argues that it’s the exposure to the wider indie universe over the past few years that has opened up Japanese indies to the possibilities in front of them.
“Japanese indies were once satisfied with going to events such as Comiket where they’d print up 500 copies of their game, without realising there were platforms like Steam,” he says. “We don’t accept doujin games and developers don’t want to associate themselves with the term as they see them as amateur games, lifting sprites from commercial games or featuring adult content. They’re trying to offer a higher level of quality than that.”
It’s something Takaaki Ichijo, developer of the Silent Hill- inspired Back
In 1995, agrees with. “I saw myself being a doujin maker, the kind that would be at Comiket,” he says. “But now I know that wouldn’t be a good idea. People who go to those events value a certain kind of style and content, and I don’t think they’d be interested in this kind of game.”
His game’s style caused some confusion when it was announced in April, with some outlets reporting that the game was developed in the west.
“When you think of typical Japanese games you think of cutesy girls, so I suppose I’m in a minority [working] against that stereotype,” he says. “But us indies are on the rise. The amount of people who came [to BitSummit] exceeded my expectations, and this was the perfect opportunity to show that this is a Japanese game.”
There’s inherent tension in being a Japanese indie, demonstrated by Ichijo’s experience: are you creating games for the Japanese audience, or a global one? For many, it’s not clear cut. A developer such as Pygmy Studio shows off Bokosuka Wars 2, a sequel to an (obscure in the west) Famicom simulation RPG from 32 years ago that’s purely for the Japanese audience. Other developers hold that the Japanese audience, in unspecified terms, is just different from the rest of the world. Even western-influenced developers based in Japan, such as Australian Matt Fielding, have to take this into consideration.
“I’m the only developer [on action adventure Exile’s End], but through [publisher] Marvelous I’ve managed to get help from Keiji Yamagishi, the original composer of Ninja Gaiden, to do all the music,” he says. “And I’ve got cutscenes and some of the in-game art done by a veteran of the 16bit era in Japan too – someone who worked on an unreleased
Ninja Gaiden for the Mega Drive.” “We’re doing a Japanese version on release, and I’m hoping it’s popular in Japan. The influences for me are
maybe a little bit different than they’re used to here, but thanks to the artwork and music being more familiar, I hope it will have the right level of appeal.”
The attendees at BitSummit – adults, children and families, few if any who seem to fit otaku stereotypes – remain blissfully unaware of these subtle plays for their affections and respond with glee to the games on offer universally. They even take to the Indie Megabooth, where it’s not just flashy draws such as Crypt Of The
NecroDancer that attract the crowds, but other offerings such as Sentris and Videoball that remain busy all day.
The audience is there in Japan for indie games, be they western-styled or not. The question only remains if the momentum of events such as BitSummit can be maintained.
“The Japanese indie community is getting healthier and healthier,” Mielke says. “Partly because of what we’ve done, and partly because of other indie events that have risen up. The triple-A industry [here] has seen a very, very steep decline, so it’s [in indies] that you can see some of the new lifeblood.
“I’ve always maintained that the next Miyamoto is going to come out of Japan’s indie games scene. It’s here that the real creativity can be found.”
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT The attention-grabbing booth samurai for BushidoRideHD; BitSummit founder and Shinra Technologies comms director James Mielke addresses the audience; it wouldn’t be a gaming event in 2015 without Oculus Rift