In­de­pen­dence day

Amid a fal­ter­ing main­stream in­dus­try, Ky­oto-based in­die game fes­ti­val BitSum­mit has its best year ever

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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

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