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Expat Game Dev Story: Inside Japan's Foreign Game Development Community and the Growth of Japanese Indies

There are more western developers than ever in Japan, and they're doing everything they can to help Japan's indie community succeed overseas.

Profile by Kat Bailey, .

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Nayan Ramachandran is living the dream. As the senior marketing manager at Playism, an Osaka-based startup engaged in everything from localization to software testing, he gets to live in Japan and work in the industry he loves - his dream job coming out of college. He's won the proverbial nerd lottery.

"When I was in college, I absolutely loved games, anime, and manga," he remembers. "I was thinking, 'I would love to live in Japan one day.' For a long time I couldn't figure out how to do that. I found out I could teach if I wanted to. Right out of college I moved to Japan to teach."

Ramachandran eventually graduated into copywriting, and a few years later, found himself at Playism as a localizer - a goal of his since first reading an English language copy of Megami Tensei. Now he wears one of many hats for Playism, Kickstarter collaboration being one example. I was introduced to him as a kind of facilitator - the guy you need to know if you want to build connections with Japan's gaming community.

He's one member of a tightly knit community of foreign video game professionals in Japan, many of whom have settled down and started families in their adopted country. Based primarily in the Osaka and Kyoto region, but with a presence in Tokyo as well, they are both making their own games and bridging the gap between Japanese indie developers and the west.

I've been following this community for some time now, mostly through 8-4 - a localization studio comprised of former journalists who are best-known for their popular podcast. I've long been struck by their love of Japanese culture and games, which has bonded together a diverse community, and I've wanted to delve deeper into their unique relationship with their new home. I finally got my chance over the summer, when I traveled to Japan to cover BitSummit, giving me an opportunity to finally meet and interview several of them for the first time.

What I found was a community that has built strong ties to Japanese indie development over the past few years, whether as indie developers themselves or as business people, localizers, or organizers. This relationship was born out of Japan's deep ties to the beginning of gaming, and it's getting stronger by the year.

Hanging out at BitSummit.

The Kyoto Triangle

In one way or another, foreigners have been working with Japanese game developers for a long time now. But if the current group has any one seminal moment, it may have been in the summer of 1990, when a small British studio called Argonaut was invited to Kyoto to show Nintendo how they had managed to produce 3D graphics on the Game Boy. Among that group was an 18-year-old Dylan Cuthbert, who had joined Argonaut the year before as a programmer. The story should be a familiar one for Nintendo fans: Nintendo was impressed, Argonaut was given a contract, and the Super FX chip was born.

Dylan Cuthbert.

Cuthbert wound up staying in Japan over the next several years to work on games like X and Star Fox; and in that time, Kyoto left its mark on him. The ancient capital is very different from Tokyo, which is vast, sprawling, and at times, faceless and intimidating. Kyoto in some ways can be compared to Boston, a much more contained and traditional city that mixes equal parts old and new.

"In general, I find that the people in Kyoto are much more down to earth than the people in Tokyo. They're much more relaxed. They're much more friendly, at least. It also comes from the student influx," Cuthbert tells me over a conference table at Q-Games, which sits in a small alley in the heart of Kyoto's business district. "We have all the big univerisities here, so we have a massive student population. It's part of the town, I guess, which adds a lot of the flexibility for the dynamic nature of the town."

Cuthbert has been in Kyoto since 2001, where he runs Q Games - one part of the Kyoto Triangle of independent studios run by foreigners. He has also spent time in the U.S. and Tokyo, but Kyoto is home for him. His love for the city is evident whenever it comes up in conversation, particularly when it's compared directly to Tokyo.

At one point he says of Japan's commercial hub, "You can say you live in Tokyo, but it's very difficult to meetup because everything is so far away from each other. I lived there for three years, and the main thing I disliked about it was that it was very difficult to get people to go and have an izakaya drinkup, because they all have to catch the last train back. It's such a long commute in the first place that they're all tired at the end of it. In Kyoto, three times a week we'd be out drinking, eating, etc. Then you'd go home and crash."

Cuthbert's presence in Kyoto has slowly but surely drawn in more game development; but when he first arrived, there was virtually nothing, he says. "People would be like, 'What are you doing here?' And we would say, 'We're doing our own game for PSN,' and they had no idea what we were talking about. But over the years people sort of slowly gravitated toward Kyoto, and a lot of that was because of the games we were developing. In some way sit put Kyoto a bit on the map. People said, 'They're making games in Kyoto, and it's such a nice place to live.'"

The year after Cuthbert established Q-Games, his friend Giles Goddard - another Argonaut alum - established Vitei, which its best known for its work on Steel Diver for the Nintendo 3DS. Just recently, Jake Kazdal moved to Kyoto to open a branch of 17-Bit Studios, creators of Galak-Z. Kazdal partly credits Cuthbert for the decision, "Dylan and Giles are both old friends of mine. Dylan has been telling me how great Kyoto is for years. He's like, “F*ck Tokyo, you've got to come down here." He’s one of the main reasons we came down to give it a real legitimate look. But between Dylan’s studio, which has probably 20 foreigners, Giles has got 10 or 15. There’s a big non-Japanese game developer community here in Kyoto. Arguably, bigger than Tokyo even. In terms of actual production and developers, especially."

"People would be like, 'What are you doing here?' And we would say, 'We're doing our own game for PSN,' and they had no idea what we were talking about."

On Kazdal's presence in Japan, Cuthbert says, "You know how communicative he is. The best thing about [him moving to Japan] was that he has a very strong connnection to Seattle, which has a vibrant and exciting indie scene. He kind of brought that connection with him, and that brought over even more interest."

The presence of studios like Q Games in Kyoto has created a kind of family atmosphere among game developers. Everyone knows everyone, and there are regular get-togethers at local establishments for drinks, gossip, and networking. Developers who are passing through are also welcomed with open arms, indie developers attending events like BitSummit having become a staple.

BitSummit, as it happens, is another idea that Cuthbert had a hand in developing. Now three years old, the event has slowly grown into a popular attraction for both foreign and Japanese independent game developers. Beginning with 40 developers in what amounted to a high school gym it's first year, it swiftly jumped to 120 exhibitors in its second. At the most recent event, the Indie Megabooth put in an appearance, giving Japanese developers an opportunity to mingle with their western counterparts.

The genesis of BitSummit came about when Cuthbert, Shinra spokesperson and former journalist James Mielke, and handful of others were traveling for the Tokyo Game Show. He remembers Mielke asking of the show, "Where's the indie scene? Why aren't there indie people at the Tokyo Game Show?"

Cuthbert continues, "We sort of thought about that, and realized that the Tokyo Game Show is kind of the publisher based show. Just loads of big publishers showing their big games. It's not really an outlet for that kind of creativity. So that's why Mielke said, 'Well, why don't we do a little event?' And the first event was pretty small. Then Mielke used his ex-press contacts and stuff to bring people over and get it all talked about."

Even now, Cuthbert continues to work tirelessly on behalf of independent game development in Japan. Goddard, for his part, has started Vitei Backroom - a kind of studio within a studio responsible for Fractures, a lovely little puzzle game shown at BitSummit in which a traveler has to unite disparate elements from different worlds to progress.

But while Cuthbert is both a forerunner and a leading figure within the community in Japan, he's certainly not the only one working on the behalf of the indie community there. There are plenty of others, and their influences has grown over the past few years.

A little bit of history in the front area at Q Games.

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Comments 11

  • Avatar for VotesForCows #1 VotesForCows 2 years ago
    Hey, this was fantastic to read. I've been a fan of the unique sensibilities (over-generalised, but still there maybe) of Japanese games for decades. Wonderful to see some positive reporting for a change.
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  • Avatar for mr-faramir #2 mr-faramir 2 years ago
    thats good to hear if japanese indie scene was doing great. but, I think when people worrying about japanese games I think most of them refering to japanese AAA and mid tier games developer... (my opinion of course, I apologize if I'm wrong)

    now some japanese publisher was doing good though Spike chunsoft and level5 (more new IP?), Koei, Bamco, From software (umm... more warrior, one piece/naruto, souls game?) and many more

    from many gaming forum people worried about this thing in regard of japanese games:
    - Sega, now depending more on their western studios and IP (totalwar, Aliens, football manager) and always avoid localizing their japanese made games
    -konami, so... their continuing MGS without kojima... and more PES
    -Square enix, solid western games lineup (deus ex, just cause, and confusing hitman episode) and high profile japanese games (Final Fantasy with its supporter and hater)
    -Capcom, will releaseing you know... more monster hunter (still doing great) and resident evil.
    -kickstarter of the spiritual successor of some legendary games (with of course its pros/cons and supporter/hater)

    thats all I can get at some games forum at the moment.
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  • Avatar for Marcusen #3 Marcusen 2 years ago
    Great article Kat! Reading your BitSummit'15 articles I was left craving for more, and now I see that you've been saving the best for last ;-)
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  • Avatar for mobichan #4 mobichan 2 years ago
    Excellent article Kat. Out of curiosity, did you hear much about the kinds of games Japanese indies are interested in creating? The doujin scene has long held the usual anime tropes and game styles as the focus of their efforts. Is the "indie" scene there more of that direction or is it actually trying to cover new ground? I am also curious if you will be doing any coverage of these games and not the ones made by westerners that already get coverage at other shows. After all, shows like BitSummit are probably the only place right now to even get an idea of what the Japanese indies are doing.
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #5 Kat.Bailey 2 years ago
    @mobichan Thanks.

    I have some more coverage here: http://www.usgamer.net/archive?tag=bitsummit

    Japanese indies really like retro, much like their western counterparts (see: Back in 1995). Anime tropes definitely figure in at points, though I'm not sure how you would categorize Brave Yamada. I saw a lot of shoot 'em ups.
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  • Avatar for Elliot-Gay #6 Elliot-Gay 2 years ago
    Good read!

    As somebody who has followed the doujin game scene for more than a decade, I find that one of the most difficult walls to overcome is that a lot of these creators don't believe their stuff is good enough to even consider charging for.

    I follow a series of creators who make games using various versions of RPG Maker, for example, and they create some really lovely 2-5 hour horror/mystery/adventure games that I'd gladly pay cash for. For them, it makes more sense to release these things for free without asking for any money beyond paypal donations. It doesn't even register that what they make is totally good enough to ask cash for.

    Like you said, for so long a lot of these folks did this as a kind of fun hobby in addition to their day job. Playism has done a great job of going to these kinds of people and convincing them they can sell their stuff, but they definitely can't do it alone. Stuff like Steam's poor poor support for Japanese markets and the like really needs to get better.Edited October 2015 by Elliot-Gay
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  • Avatar for mobichan #7 mobichan 2 years ago
    @Kat.Bailey Thanks for the link, Kat. I did read those way back when, but only saw a couple games that were from Japanese devs. Any chance you will do a game roundup type of article listing out the games with screens or videos?
    @Elliot-Gay Sometimes you just want the widest range of people to play your work. I also didn't want to charge money for a long time with my games for this reason. It wasn't about whether I felt the games had enough worth (they obviously have some worth if I spent the time creating them). But you need to consider there is a certain expectation involved with a game that has a price tag. And if a player can't justify the cost, then you lose out on an audience that otherwise might have loved your work. Hell, just getting people to download a free game exe can be a hurdle with a good chunk of people. ^_^
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  • Avatar for Elliot-Gay #8 Elliot-Gay 2 years ago
    @mobichan I certainly don't disagree with you, but again, the issue is not so much that the mindset is "if I release this for free, the chances of somebody playing it goes up" so much as it's that they don't even consider charging as an option. It doesn't even come to mind.

    And a lot of that is just built into how these groups engage with the internet and communities on it, etc.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #9 SatelliteOfLove 2 years ago
    Fuck yeah, La Mulana 2!
    @Kat.Bailey

    There was a relatively large number of non-bog-standard-New-Tens-kawaii-girls aesthetics in that latest bitsummit trailer, too. It's good this expanded scope, as it provides that kind of refuge for something else than the warped perception of "what sells" over there.
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #10 Kuni-Nino 2 years ago
    Exceptional work Kat. An insightful read to say the least. I had no idea there were so many projects going on in Japan to foster the indie scene.
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  • Avatar for helpfulmole #11 helpfulmole 2 years ago
    Fact: The boys from Q Games and 17-Bit can't hold their liquor.
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