This is the second part of our two-part feature on Playism. Want to read more? Check out Part 1.
Comiket can be a brutal experience. Billed as the world's largest dōjinshi or hobbyist market, it is held in the middle of August-traditionally the hottest and most humid month of the year in Tokyo. It's here that Dan Stern wades into the mass of hobbyists, artists, fans, and cosplayers in search of the next Playism release.
A former teacher who grew up in Tampa, Florida, Stern now heads developer relations for Playism, on top of the various other hats that he wears for the small team. One of his duties is heading to Comiket in August and December, where he hunts for new games and meets up with his myriad contacts.
"The first word that comes to mind is hot," Stern tells me over a table in one of Playism's austere conference rooms. "I'm not sure how much you know about the event already, but it's tons of people."
These biannual trips to Comiket are one part of a process intended to unearth and localize hidden gems that can be sold both at home and abroad. Most of the games that Playism finds-like One Way Heroics, a quirky roguelike-aren't terribly well-known outside of Playism's well-defined niche, but they have nevertheless earned the company a vocal and appreciative fanbase. Their name has become synonymous with interesting twists on popular Japanese genres-visual novels, roguelikes, and shoot 'em ups among them.
Following on from our look at how Playism is encouraging the growth of western indies in Japan, here's how they're helping previously unknown Japanese games (and western games, too) make their way into the hands of gamers.
The first thing you notice when you go to Comiket is that there's no power. Hobbyists who want to show their games have to bring massive battery packs to run their setups. They also have to compete for space with all kinds of other media, with Comiket playing host to everything from music to anime to comics. Especially comics.
The venue is intensely crowded at all times. In order to circumvent the long lines, Stern uses his contacts at the event to obtain an exhibitor pass so he can get in early. Once there, he walks the floor looking for any game that catches his eye, particularly those with high quality art. "I love really good sprite work, which is one of the reasons I like Momodora so much."
Stern particularly favors games with strange and interesting concepts. He mentions Astebreed, a mecha shoot 'em up released in 2014. "I wasn't around when we started working with Naru-san to do Astebreed, but I love its camera work. Sometimes it's side-scrolling left to the right, sometimes it's vertical scrolling, sometimes it's over the shoulder. But it's never confusing. You're never like, 'Oh, I thought I had to point this way to shoot, or do this thing.' It's very fluid. Clearly the game is really well-made. It took a lot of work and talent. That's the number one thing that I'm working for: people who are making the thing that they want to make, something that's particular to them, something that expresses their own originality, and that's also made with expert craftsmanship."
Not all the games Stern has signed come from Comiket, of course. The aforementioned Momodora, for example, was an established series long before he came along. A Metroidvania-like action game, Momodora's developers were on the fourth game in the series when Stern helped sign them to Playism. Stern found them through Twitter, which led him to dig deeper into the series.
To his surprise, he found that Momodora was actually available natively in English, and that it was being made by a developer from Brazil called themselves Rdein. "I showed it to Josh [Weatherford] and Nayan [Ramachandran] and they were like, 'Oh, of course, Momodora 3. We know all about that. We're already talking to Rdein and everything.' And I'm like, 'Oh, OK, what's the deal? We should do Momodora 3.' And they told me that he wanted to focus at that time on doing the new game, because he was disappointed in some of the negative reviews he got on Momodora 3. Which is pretty funny, because there were, like, I don't know, ten negative reviews and hundreds of really positive reviews. Everybody loves the game except for a couple people. And he took that to heart. He cares a lot about what he's making. He's a really passionate dude."
Aside from Momodora, Stern has scouted games like Memento-a retro horror RPG that has recently led him down the rabbit hole of 16-bit horror, which was prevalent in Japan during the Super Nintendo era. He also mentions LiEat, which features a girl who eats lies, and also happens to be a dragon. LiEat in particular has done very well for Playism, neatly fitting within the niche of Japanese enthusiasts the company has managed to build. It even captured the attention of one of his friends, which Stern found slightly surreal. "I noticed that my friend was playing it. I messaged her and I was like, 'Hey, I see you're paying LiEat.' She's like, 'Yeah, I just bought it.' And I was like, it was crazy to me, because it's not uncommon for us to give keys to friends. It's not that weird to try sharing what we do with people that we know. And that wasn't the case. To her, this was just a cool game that she saw on Steam and wanted. It made the world seem a lot smaller for a moment."
Stern himself has a passion for the Super Nintendo era, particularly the Japanese RPGs of that era. He even admits that he 'embarrassed' himself a bit around Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi at BitSummit. "I went to Sakaguchi because I had no choice. My body was just doing it, and I couldn't control myself. Then my mouth started moving, and I was like, 'Hi.' And I'm sure he saw this coming, but I was like, 'I played your game when I was a kid, and Final Fantasy VI changed the way I think about video games.' I talked about how I didn't know that Nintendo was Japanese, and I didn't understand. Because I was playing Atari, too, and Intellivision, and they were just video games. They weren't cultural things to me. But when I played FFVI, and you hit the intro where the MagiTek armor is walking and the credits scroll, I was like, 'Where are all these names from? Is this Japanese? Wait, this game is Japanese.' And then from there, because I was curious, I started thinking about it more often and reading more about it."
Stern's early experiences with Final Fantasy VI were partly what led him to study Japanese, which was where he met Josh Weatherford, who would go on to become one of Playism's founding members. The two became good friends, which was what led Weatherford to reach out to Stern about a position at Playism. Weatherford left for Comcept not long after, leaving his duties in Stern's hands.
The past couple years have been a learning experience as Stern has steadily become more comfortable scouting games. One lesson he has had to internalize is that he needs to find games that fit with Playism's audience and not just his own interests. "My first year, I was doing a lot of research, and I was like, what are we looking for? How do I choose games to create a consistent brand? I was choosing games that I like, things that I think are cool, and I wasn't asking myself what I think is a very important question: What does Playism want? I should have been treating Playism as a living thinking thing that has its own likes and preferences and stuff."
But while it's been a process, Stern is still proud of games he's helped to sign like Read Only Memories and Starr Mazer-both of which he feels have strong identities. He also likes the feeling of being able to help talented developers find their audience and make bigger and better things. "I think the two [games] I'm most proud of right now are probably Momodora and LiEat. Both of those have done really well. I think we'll get to see the developers able to do more things. Maybe it won't be in the next couple months, but in the next couple years, yeah."