As I fly back to San Francisco following an eventful weekend in Japan, I find that my mind is still on BitSummit, which wrapped on Sunday.
The third annual BitSummit was in many ways the show's most successful year yet. Attendance appeared solid, there was a nice array of old and new games, and additions like the Indie Megabooth were greeted with enthusiasm. After the show was finished, reviews from developers and organizers were extremely positive.
Look around, though, and you realize just how tiny indie game development in Japan is. Even among the Japanese developers, many of the best efforts came from established studios like Vitei, Q Games, and 17-bit, all of which are run by foreigners. But even still, it's a step forward. Just a few years ago, indie development as we know it was practically non-existent in Japan, being almost entirely limited to the dojinshi or hobbyist market. There are any number of reasons for that, and at the risk of oversimplifying things, here are just a few factors.
A lack of distribution platforms: Steam has long been the home of indie development, but it only recently began supporting Japanese currency. PSN remains a niche platform. Puzzle & Dragons and GREE own mobile gaming. Put simply, there haven't been many channels for indie development to flourish in Japan, particularly with post-PS2 consoles struggling so hard to get a foothold.
The dominance of dojinshi culture: Japanese gamers have been making and selling their own games for a very long time, mostly in the form of what we might consider a mod or homebrew. Developers have occasionally struggled to see the difference between hobbyist development and actual indie development, where the goal is to make and sell an original product. Even now, there's still some confusion in Japan over the difference.
A tendency for developers to gravitate toward job security: As 17-BIT's Jake Kazdal pointed out to me, there's no shortage of entrepeneurial spirit in Japan. You'll find mom and pop shops on practically every corner there. But for a very long time now, game development has been seen as a corporate venture. And while the culture of lifetime employment is mostly gone, there is a tremendous amount of social pressure to find a "real job" and hold it.
That's a basic overview. Structurally, the Japanese market hasn't been kind to indie development, and popular indie games from the west have rarely had much distribution there.
But there are signs that things are changing.
Following the collapse of triple-A development in Japan, many developers are taking stock of their options are realizing that they don't want to make monetization engines. And so we have developers like Yoshiro Kimura, who previously worked on Little King's Story and No More Heroes, and is now working on the wonderfully strange Brave Yamada. Developers who would much rather go their own way.
When it comes to nostalgia projects, Kickstarter has also been a boon for Japanese indie development, offering notable developers like Yu Suzuki and Koji Igarashi a platform to make the games they want. With such projects, and more unique efforts like Back in 1995, Japanese game development is regaining its creative voice on the global stage.
The Next Stage
Though BitSummit remains quite small by the standards of the typical game exhibition, I contains signs that some of the barriers I noted above are starting to give way.
With Steam now available, and the PlayStation 4 slowly gaining a foothold, western indies like Assault Android Cactus and Hotline Miami and Japanese indies like Airship Q have a solid platform in Japan. Twitch recently opened an office in Japan, giving Japanese indies a chance to gain exposure in countries like the U.S. And as Japanese developers see their compatriots strike out on their own and experience success, they are being inspired to follow in their footsteps.
There's still a lot of room for growth, of course. In the words of Moppin, an oft-cited Japanese indie developer who was picked up by Devolver Digital, Japanese indie development is still "a baby," and its showed at BitSummit. There were a handful of really cool looking original Japanese indies on display at the show; but of them all, only Moppin's Downwell seems primed to become a real breakout hit.
But if BitSummit demonstrated anything, there's a foundation in place for Japanese indie development to succeed. Compared to the success indies have enjoyed in the west, progress in Japan is painfully slow. But then you consider the alternative. And when you realize how far indies have come in the past couple years, you realize that BitSummit 2015 has indeed been a roaring success.