Japan's Indie Games Are an Untapped Resource of Cool

The entire room was packed. This has to be a fire hazard, someone said. It probably was, but no one cared. They were too busy looking at cool games they had never seen before and meeting game creators they had heard of and never heard of before.

"I had no idea there were so many indie game creators in Japan," said Ryo Agarie, a former Rare dev, as he showed me the stunning iOS game, Tengami. You know what, Ryo? You weren't the first person to say that.

This weekend, game creators flocked to Kyoto this weekend for the first BitSummit, an event spearheaded by a handful of Westerners who live in Japan and work in the country's game industry. Joining them were industry titans like Valve, Epic Games' Japan branch, and Unity.

The point of the BitSummit was simple: Get a bunch of Japan-based indie game creators in the same room with industry types and press and see what happens. The point was also long overdue.

"There are a bet set of barriers for indie game creators in Japan," James Mielke, BitSummit's lead organizer and a producer at Q-Games, told Kotaku. "They don't know who to talk to or who to contact about getting their games out there." Other organizers included Tokyo-based game localizers 8-4 and Ben Judd, a former Capcom producer and current agent at Digital Development Management.

Japan's Indie Games Are an Untapped Resource of Cool

Like most developer events, BitSummit had panels with game developers. Hidetaka "Swery" Suehiro of Deadly Premonition fame gave a talk, telling the crowd not to look back on old games and make something people haven't seen before. "You're independent, so why not be a little more creative?" asked Swery. Yohei Kataoka, Tokyo Jungle's director, talked about the Japanese aesthetic and encouraged Japanese creators to make their own games.

There were also panels that provided useful industry info. Valve, for example, gave a walkthrough of what Steam was and how to get your games on it. Unity and Epic also provided overviews for their tools. For Western game devs, this might seem rather basic—too basic. But this is exactly the kind of presentations Japan-based indie game creators wanted. They wanted to be brought up to speed. They wanted to know what tools were out there and how to get their games to the widest audience possible.

Japan doesn't only have a long history of video games; it also has a long history of indie games. In Japanese, they're called "doujin games" (同人ゲーム). "Doujin" literally means "member" or "comrade", but the word is used to refer to independently created and self-published works, whether that's games or comics. These games have been around in Japan since the 1970s.

"I've been making my own games since I was in school," said doujin game creator who goes by the moniker "HAta" and is perhaps best known for his role-playing games that can offer up to 300 hours of play. "When I was in high school, I spent more time making games than studying." According to the 36 year-old game creator, when he was a kid, there weren't that many PC games available, so he had to learn to make his own games if he wanted to play something. So far, it's worked out for him, and he's turned his bedroom programming into a full time job.

"I don't think there's a difference between doujin and independent games," Seon King from Japanese indie game distributor Nyu Media told Kotaku. The sticking point is that many foreigners don't know what "doujin" means. What's more, as King pointed out, doujin games have never had a strong distribution network in Japan, and many traditional game publishers have either ignored them or tried to squash them. Plus, it's hard to get press in Japan (and the West) to acknowledge many of these games.

Some indie game creators, however, have been incredibly pro-active. Nigoro has pushed hard to get its name out there, reaching out to foreign press, and hustling to get its action game La Mulana on WiiWare and, as of next month, Steam. Nigoro is one of Japan's most interesting indie developers and is responsible for the greatest video game about slapping ever made, Rose & Camellia.

A handful of doujin game creators have crossed over to the mainstream in Japan by going pro. And every year, there are huge doujin events where these bedroom programmers can sell their latest creations, but many of them have never hit the wide audiences that their Western, indie counterparts have, because those games are largely sold as packaged items. Thus, to the outside world, Japan doesn't seem to have an indie scene.

Yet, this weekend, an event hall was swarming with game creators, eager to learn how to get their games out there—or just eager to show people their games. And it's not just Japanese game creators. There was a noticeable number of non-Japanese creators, some of them known creators, such as Tokyo-based Voxatron designer Joseph White. Others, I had never heard of before, such as Eric Koziol, who was showing off his new (and very interesting) iOS puzzle game, Subaku, on his phone. It was a game I stumbled upon, and one my son, whom I brought along, couldn't stop playing.

There were other discoveries, like Gero Blaster for iOS. Gero Blaster, which is a run-and-gun game that stars a frog, features some of the best, and smartest, iPhone controls I've ever used was created by Daisuke "Pixel" Amaya, who toiled away for five years on Cave Story, a freeware, independent PC game released in 2004. There was Yatagarasu 4, a truly enjoyable fighter gaming that game's programmer, who doesn't even work in the game industry, knocked out in his free time after his day job.

This was what a game show should be, I thought. There was zero pretension whatsoever. There weren't even hard sells and PR bullshit that you become accustomed to—and sick of—the longer you cover gaming. Instead, it was a room full of people who made games, who only wanted the chance to meet other game creators and have people check out their games. I didn't feel grand delusions of fame or fortune. There was a purity that often feels lost in video games.

At he front of the room, two guys from Valve sat at a table. To be honest, they didn't have to be there. Plenty of game creators in the West are dying to get their games on Valve's Steam platform. But, yet, here was Valve, meeting with whoever approached their table. As I said, they didn't have to be there, but there were there for a reason: Japan has tons of independent games that never leave the country. "I think there's a bunch of good stuff in the room that deserves a wider audience," Valve's Dan Berger told Kotaku.

Moments earlier, two Japanese indie game creators—one male and one female—both had made their way to Valve's table. It was only after a developer at 8-4 had heard them worrying about whether they should even approach Valve. The attitude felt very humble, slightly shy, and incredibly Japanese. For many of the country's independent game creators, it feels like they are making video games because they want to—not as some sort of get rich quick scheme. So things like self promotion and putting oneself out there might seem more difficult for many creators, thus, making it harder to discover new and interesting game experiences.

Japan's Indie Games Are an Untapped Resource of Cool

There is an interest in getting these games out there. There is a world of Japanese games we don't know about yet. And there are indie game creators in Japan who are keen to bring their work to a larger audience. "It's amazing that we were able to get all these people out to Kyoto," said Q-Games boss Dylan Cuthbert. Amazing, sure. Wonderful, yes. About time, definitely.

(Top photo: Dylan Cuthbert | Facebook)

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