The Story of Playism, Part 1: The Slow Rise of Indies in Japan

The Story of Playism, Part 1: The Slow Rise of Indies in Japan

COVER STORY: Playism's rise reflects a changing tide in Japan.

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This is the first part of our two-part look at Playism. Want to read more? You can find Part 2 here.

I'm walking up the escalator at Kyoto's Miyako Messe, and Playism marketing manager Shuto Sunagawa is showing me his rather extensive library of Steam games on his mobile phone.

"I don't really like the super famous games," he says. "Fallout is a little too popular nowadays, for example. It's like, 'Oh, I don't want to play super popular games.' But I like Hyper Light Drifter, and Hearthstone is fun, too."

Playism's Japanese storefront.

Sunagawa's tastes stand out because PC gaming remains something of a niche pursuit in Japan. As recently as 2013, Steam only offered about 105 of its then-1700 or so games in Japan, and its storefront was entirely in English. But times are changing; and at 22, Sunagawa is part of a new generation of Japanese gamers who are embracing digital platforms—an audience that Playism is aggressively targeting as they continue to build up their platform amid the growth of online distribution in Japan.

It's a side of the publisher that western fans might not be familiar with. Playism is usually associated with the likes of One Way Heroics —indie games that appeal to those with a strong taste for Japanese games. But over in Japan, they're known for games like Papers, Please as much as visual novels like Mad Father.

"People are really starting to come around to [western indies]," Playism publishing director Shunji Mizutani told me when I set out to profile Playism back in July. "So, at first it was difficult, but now we have such a wide, diverse amount of games that it's a lot easier to have the Japanese people get interested in it."

That dichotomy is what ended up drawing me to Playism. In the west, they are the purveyor of interesting niche games like Starr Mazer. In Japan, they are localizing games like Neverending Nightmares for release on PlayStation 4 and Vita while evangelizing for digital distribution. Ultimately, the goal is the same—sell games on a digital platform—but the audiences are very different.

Here's a look at both sides of that coin, the challenges arising from marketing to very different markets, and the tiny team that makes it all happen.

Machinarium, one of Playism's first western releases in Japan.

Unique challenges

Playism got its start in 2011 as a division of Active Gaming Media—an Osaka-based company that provides localization services for video games. At the time, indie game development was exploding in western territories, but was virtually unknown in Japan. Playism's goal was to introduce western-developed indie games via the company's digital distribution platform—a bold vision given how little traction digital distribution had achieved to that point.

Josh Weatherford was one of Playism's earliest members, and he remembers how challenging it was to get the attention of Japanese gamers and the press in the early going. "During that time it was pretty tough just because it was still PS3-era, so digital distribution was still very slowly catching on. It was starting to catch on more in America and Europe, obviously, but over here it was weird. The pricing's still bad here, it's usually more expensive to buy digital stuff, and all kinds of stuff like that."

"Very slow catching on" is something of an understatement: In 2011, Steam wasn't even really available in Japanese; the platform was presented in English, and so were the bulk of its games. The PS3, meanwhile, was only just beginning to see decent sales, and the Xbox 360 was a total non-starter.

It was the culmination of a series of trends that had begun back in the 1980s, when the Famicom began to overtake PC gaming in Japan. The dominance of console gaming made it much more difficult for online gaming to get a foothold there, as did the market's preference for the single-player RPG genre. Online gaming was further set back by the PlayStation 3's early struggle to gain a foothold in Japan, which in turn slowed the adoption of online platforms like PSN.

As if that wasn't enough, indie games were also slow to take off in Japan. What development existed was mostly the purview of hobbyists—developers who went to the office by day and worked on their personal projects by night. These games were in turn shown at comic markets, usually for free.

By themselves, all of these factors made for an unfavorable market for Playism. But the biggest problem of all was that Japan simply didn't like western games very much. Mizutani remembers the pushback Playism received when they were first getting started. "Up until [2011], Western games, at least in the mindset of Japanese people, had always been considered to be shooting games or war games. So a lot of people were kind of apprehensive. It's a very different market and it's a very different scene for a lot of Japanese people. A lot of it has to do with war, blood and stuff."

Playism responded by making Machinarium and SpaceChem their inaugural releases—two popular games from the west that have little to do with blood or war. But a handful of western indies wasn't going to change Japan's gaming landscape overnight, and Playism knew it. Ultimately, it was a Japanese indie that helped Playism gain the traction it needed to get noticed.

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Kat Bailey

Editor in Chief

Kat Bailey is a former freelance writer and contributor to publications including 1UP, IGN, GameSpot, GamesRadar, and EGM. Her fondest memories as a journalist are at GamePro, where she hosted RolePlayer's Realm and had legal access to the term "Protip." She is USgamer's resident mecha enthusiast, Pokemon Master, and Minnesota Vikings nut (skol).

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