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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HikakinGames, one of Japan's more popular video makers.

Opening doors

One of the problems facing Playism at the outset was that the Japanese gaming press didn't take digita distribution seriously. Like the rest of the world, Japan has a lively online community devoted to gaming. But in comparison to the U.S., print's influence remains strong in Japan; and until very recently, they weren't covering games distributed through digital channels, including indie games.

"It was almost like a black hole of information, you couldn't get anything on it." Mizutani explains. "For five years, Playism really pushed the editors and writers at [Dengeki PlayStation] and Famitsu to start publishing and start talking about these indie games."

Enter La-Mulana, a throwback to classic gaming that was one of the original indies. Heavily influenced by an MSX platformer called Maze of Galious, it starred an Indiana Jones-like adventurer exploring a trap-filled tomb. La-Mulana was a cult favorite when it was released in 2005, but an official western release remained elusive until Playism stepped into the breach and ported the Wii remake to the PC in 2012.

La-Mulana soon became one of Playism's defining games, earning it favorable notice on both sides of the ocean. At the first BitSummit in 2013, Playism was able to make inroads with Famitsu thanks to La-Mulana, Mizutani says. "A writer at Famitsu named Yoshimura commented that he had played La-Mulana, and he thought that it was amazing, and that was our window into the magazine. That was our foot in the door."

Since then, indie gaming and digital distribution coverage has improved quite a bit. Famitsu now has an indie corner, and 17-bit's Galak-Z was able to earn a spread in Dengeki PlayStation ahead of its launch in 2015. Still, it wasn't easy getting to this point. "The games are getting recognition. That was difficult, that took some time. This is another market that's already owned by Sony and Nintendo, and it's kind of difficult breaking into that with competition from indie games."

"A writer at Famitsu named Yoshimura commented that he had played La-Mulana, and he thought that it was amazing, and that was our window into the magazine. That was our foot in the door."

While Playism has managed to break through in the mainstream media, alternative media has presented its own set of challenges. Streaming, for example, has long been the preserve of the fans, with official developer streams being practically unheard of. Playism has opted to take the lead on that front, streaming on services like Nico Nico Douga and Abema Fresh TV—a newer site where users will do everything from watch anime to play mahjong.

The problem Playism faces with their streams is that users rarely engage with the host, preferring instead to lurk and watch. "When you have events here, you're able to have more of a close relationship with the actual player, and then from there we're able to hear their opinions and see how they feel about the game. We're able to understand what they're looking for," says Shuto Sunagawa, who hosts many of Playism's streams for Japanese audience. "Whereas with streaming, you're able to get it out to a bigger audience, but it's a lot harder to see what everyone wants. A lot of people will see, but not many people will say anything."

Crypt of the Necrodancer was a success in part to community videos and streaming.

Still, streaming and video can be a useful tool for selling games in Japan. When Crypt of the Necrodancer launched last year, it was able to gain traction with Japan's gaming audiences via channels like Nico Nico. Sunagawa explains, "With Japan, it's more or less, 'Is this person famous? Are they good looking? What kind of jokes do they have when they're playing the game? You've probably seen HikakinGames before? He does more reactionary type comedy, where he'll play a simple game, but the reactions are so funny, and that's mostly what people want to see."

Sunagawa continues, "I think people like [Crypt of the Necrodancer] because it's in part a reactionary game. As you're playing, you're like, 'Oh, I messed up.' It's fun, and I think the comments are fun, and it resonates really well with Japanese people, and it did really well for the game's sales."

Changing tides

Over the past couple years, western indies have become progressively hotter commodities in Japan. Crypt of the Necrodancer was a solid hit for Spike Chunsoft, and Playism likewise saw major success with Papers, Please ("One-hundred thousand people were able to check it out, and a lot of people were streaming it and really spreading the knowledge," Mizutani recalls.) After Stardew Valley became one of Steam's biggest hits of 2016, publishers reportedly scrambled for the right to localize it for Japan.

To be sure, indie games and digital distribution in general is much more popular in Japan than it was just a couple years ago. But when they aren't on their phone, most Japanese gamers still prefer consoles to the PC. Mizutani puts it fairly bluntly: "The simple thing is that Japan is a country ruled by consoles."

And lest the importance of western indies be overstated, Japanese games also have a large presence on Playism's storefront, with games like Grasshopper Manufacture's The Silver Case and myriad other visual novels occupying space next to Victor Vran and Starr Mazer.

Still, the tide has turned a bit. Indie darlings like Papers, Please are no longer total non-starters in Japan, and platforms like Steam are more accessible than ever. It's not quite a revolution, but Playism has done its share to open the door for western indies in Japan.

Next time: What Playism has done for Japanese indies on the other side of the ocean, and what it takes to bring a game from a doujin fair to your computer.

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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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