In the video game world, we have an unfortunate tendency to divide the playing field into two sides: Japan vs "the West." And while the latter has plenty of subdivisions, Japan still looms large at the expense of its Asian neighbors who are often ignored or simply pidgeonholed into a niche category. Take Korea, for example: we know it to be technologically on par with Japan yet our collective common knowledge of video games in Korea can be summed up in one word: Starcraft.
Hence the Busan Indie Connect Festival, held for the first time this September, was created to put Korean indie games on the map while also putting indie games - foreign and domestic - into the hands of avid Korean gamers.
"Worldwide, there are not many people who know about Korea," BIC Fest director Dustin Lee said to me inside the Busan Cultural Content Complex, the site of this debut event. He explained that the indie situation in neighboring Japan was one motivation behind the festival. "Around me there are a few game developers who went to Japan and they told me ‘oh the indie scene in Japan is growing up very fast, there are many foreign people who help each other together.’ When I heard that I was very shocked, I really wanted an event like that. I wanted to invite foreign developers to Korea."
Lee was not alone in his desire to put Korea, and specifically Busan, in the spotlight. While a list of BIC Fest sponsors includes gaming heavyweights like Google and Unity, the event also drew support from municipal and national government agencies. The opening ceremony of the three-day event featured an entire line up of VIPs, all in matching custom jerseys, who assembled a logo in front of an array of cameras.
Why hold an indie game event in Busan over Seoul, Korea’s largest city? For starters, Busan is already host to Korea’s largest video game trade show, G-Star. Multiple Korean exhibitors told me that Busan has a reputation for creativity and technology. Similarly, Seoul’s size was cited as a reason not to hold an indie event there. "Seoul is just a city like Tokyo, it is crowded with many buildings," Lee said. "It doesn't give much impact."
"Busan has good nature, it's close to the sea, it has rivers, it has mountains, and it’s cheaper than Seoul," said Jake Jongwha Kim, a Busan local who heads a small team called HandMade Game. "It’s really nice to have a creative industry here."
While both Korean and visiting developers were present at the BIC Fest, I noticed that the indie devs from Busan were particularly thrilled for a chance to show their game in public as well as network with other game designers.
"In Korea there's not many festivals for indie developers and indie gamers. This is, as far as I know, the first event for indie gamers," said Somi, a solo developer who lives in Busan. He said this was his first real chance to observe how players navigate his puzzle platformer, Retsnom. "Around me there are not many people who can play my game because my job is not related to the IT industry," he said. "Game developing is a little bit hard because no one can tell me ‘your game is fun’ or not. I cannot have conviction that my game is good."
One hurdle Korean developers face is a social stigma that surrounds video games. "In Korea, games are not treated as a cultural art," said Somi. "Games are treated as an addictive harmful thing, like drugs." This is one reason Somi is reluctant to tell his coworkers at his day job that he even makes games at all.
"The Korean government, it seems like they don't like games. They just want students to focus on their studies for higher education," said Dustin Lee, although he had an explanation for why the city of Busan was willing to endorse an indie game event. "They want to promote small size companies, they want to promote and make a good success story from a small startup company," he said, "Making a success story from 2-3 person small companies is really cool for the government now."
Another hurdle facing indie devs, Korean or otherwise, is the abundance of other indie games on the market. This hurdle is one that BIC Fest only exacerbates simply by increasing visibility of Korean indie developers, thus leading to even more games competing for attention. This problem was a recurring note during the guest speakers’ presentations on the second day of the festival.
"When Steam was the walled garden, the people that were on the outside of it were frustrated that they couldn’t get in," Indie MegaBooth founder Kelly Wallick said in regards to discoverability. "And now all of the people that were on the outside of it are in, and sort of inadvertently flooded the market."
"We all know how hard it is to make a game. Even bad games are hard to make," said Marc Flury, a former Harmonix programmer who now lives in Seoul while working on his own game, Thumper. He had a different take on the abundance issue. "The fact that so many people are actually succeeding in releasing games on Steam is, like, a small miracle. Every one of them is a miracle." Instead of feeling a collective anxiety, Flury asked "shouldn’t we have a sense of pride about this?"
Whatever becomes of the games shown that week in Busan, everyone I spoke to was proud to take part in the very first BIC Fest.
"Korea is not maybe the first audience you think of as a Western game developer but if your game is big in Korea that says something," said Vlad Micu of Data Realms, visiting from The Netherlands to exhibit Planetoid Pioneers. "The amount of intel and feedback I've gathered over the past couple days made the entire trip worth it for sure."
"The best thing is there's a lot of people here from Japan and across the world," said Marc Flury on the show floor. He had high hopes for the future of the event as well as the growing community in the area. "Japan's so close, and Busan in particular is so close to Japan and Kyoto, they're already talking like maybe they'll have a game jam on a boat or something. I'd be super psyched to see stuff like that happen."
"I designed this event for the indie game developers, so I want to expand this event for the players, like a PAX," said Dustin Lee, reflecting on the event and speculating about what might become of BIC Fest. "I want to start communication between Korea and Japan and the indie communities together next year."
It's too soon to predict the future of the Busan Indie Connect Festival or speculate on the viability of an international fusion of indie communities in East Asia. But as a first-time visitor to Busan, one who does not speak Korean, I was impressed by the range of games available. And considering how crowded the show floor was on Saturday, I'd say the attendees, regardless of age, were impressed as well.
Disclosure: Accomodations in Busan were paid for by the BIC Fest organizers.