It's 11pm in Japan when I reach Josh Weatherford via Skype, but he's nevertheless energetic and talkative as he recounts his time at Playism. He has a lot to say about the project, which he played a large role in building from the ground up. Granted, not all of his memories are positive. When I ask what prompted him to move on to Comcept, he replies obliquely, "Let's just say that I was butting heads with some of the top brass at AGM, and was also... I don't want to go into too many details, it's not a fun story. I didn't leave on the best terms; but yeah, I was basically just butting heads with some of the upper management just on how much support we were getting."
Weatherford was one of the project's founding members, working with Shunji Mizutani and a handful of others to help lay the groundwork for what was to come. Weatherford had originally been brought in to localize manga projects and mobile phone games before moving to the newly-created Playism initiative. According to Weatherford, the project was the brainchild of a man named Justin Potts, who left the company just as it was about to launch.
"I think it was a family, I think his in-laws had a family business somewhere. It had something to do with organic farming. It was completely different from the game industry," Weatherford says. "But he left the company, and though we were on different teams, we were pretty good friends, and he knew I was into indie games and stuff like that. So we'd often go to lunch together. He knew that I knew about the industry in general, so when he left, he basically nominated me to take his position, which was content acquisition. I stayed around for about five and a half years building it up before I left."
Along with Mizutani and Dan Levine, who has since moved onto Capcom, Weatherford worked to make good on the project's vision of bringing western indies to Japan through Playism's website. Initially, he says, Japan's aversion to digital distribution made it difficult to get a foothold. Weatherford pushed for Playism to focus on established platforms like Steam instead of their own proprietary site, similar to Devolver Digital's strategy. "In the end, it was probably good we didn't because [Devolver Digital] got a foothold here as a brand for digital distribution, and Playism is fairly well known, even though it's PC."
He continues, "But yeah, a lot of the strategies from that second year on were used whenever I was either the overall, I can't remember the title, manager position, and then later director. It was basically coming up with things like doing Steam publishing, branching out to places like GOG, Humble Bundle, PlayStation Network, console publishing that is now probably the backbone to what they're doing, as far as I understand."
Playism's big break was La-Mulana, which Weatherford played a key role in acquiring. When Nicalis unceremoniously canceled the western release of the Wiiware remake, Weatherford quickly got in touch with Nigoro about a PC release. "We basically decided that deal over beers and kushikatsu in the middle of downtown Osaka. So, I've always been good friends with the Nigoro guys since then. They were definitely a backbone of our English launch. Most people don't know about it, because it was such a small site back then, but we had little... not games, but basically, we were using their sprite animations to pretty up the site during the launch. So they've always had a special place in my heart as a indie game developer."
In the years following Playism's launch, the project continued to grow, prompting AGM to add backend and customer support infrastructure for the platform. The team also grew and shrunk as members came and went, whether because their visa was up or for some other reason. The success of Demon's Souls earned AGM a good deal of favorable notice within the industry, which also helped grow the company from fewer than a dozen employees to around 60 or 70.
Weatherford became Playism's director in 2014 and began planning for the initiative's future, in the process bringing aboard Dan Stern and other new team members. And then, not long after, he left. Weatherford cites his frustration over differences with management regarding Playism's spending, "There was a couple things where funding was getting cut on certain event expenditures, which were kind of our lifeline to the rest of the world. Because Japan, outside of BitSummit, we just don't have that indie community, so you really have to get out there and meet developers."
Weatherford also wanted to get more into game development. "I had always wanted to be on that side, and I'd been trying to start up internal teams at Playism, it just wasn't going that well. Just wasn't getting through to the funding to start it. So, that was probably the biggest, I don't want to say, motivation, to move to the production side of things from publishing. It's been a good time, learning game design and how to create game design documents, and all the dos and don'ts of that."
Bridges responded on the first point, "There were challenges. That's something that every company goes through. But in the unique Japanese scene, where the indies were still rising, we were against an uphill battle. Even at BitSummit it's not easy to reach international audiences or meet teams from around the world which is a major reason we pushed hard to get our games out there. It's lucky that the internet is a vast thing which connects the world. It gave us a way to build and grow. But we knew that if we wanted to go further, we had to continue developing our physical presence as well."
"We built relations online and originally with Josh and Nayan we pushed forward until we were setting up booths at events. We ran two successful booths at PAX East this way and since then we have done PAX three more times, BitSummit four times, TGS twice, GDC twice, PlayStation Experience once as well as a variety of other events. Most recently we had a very successful booth at PAX West, and looking at that I think we're making great headway on representing games both in Japan and overseas."
And as it happens, AGM also recently dipped its toe into game development. In late August, the company launched a Kickstarter project for Astro Boy: Edge of Time—a digital CCG based on the work of Osamu Tezuka. But the project fell well short of its funding target, and the Kickstarter was canceled in mid-September. The team is currently seeking alternate avenues of funding.
But with Weatherford having long since moved on, his lasting memory is of the events Playism would hold in downtown Osaka, where team members would mingle with developers, fans, and platform holders over drinks well into the night. "It was a straight Japanese nomikai: start off drinking and end drinking. No long speeches, no sponsors getting up and driveling on about their new tech. It was just fans coming and hanging with their favorite developers and shooting the shit, basically, and I always loved that event."
"We had this one Let's Player, Coppeli. He's not very famous or anything, but his whole thing is he plays games with his feet. Like, he has a joystick, like an arcade stick, and he would play games with his feet. And we sat there and watched him speedrun I think the last third or so of La-Mulana using his feet, and it was just a bunch of drunk Japanese people watching this gamer who for some reason plays games with his feet. He'll play fighting games, anything."
And just..." Weatherford pauses for a moment of reflection, "...those kinds of interactions always last."
My lasting impression of Playism is of a team from many different backgrounds and countries coming together to help developers find an audience. It hasn't always been easy; but in an extremely competitive market, they've managed to build a functional niche that caters to a passionate fanbase.
It's hard to say how long it will in an ever-shifting gaming landscape. But for now, Playism seems to have a business model that works.
In the meantime, there's always the pleasure of bringing disparate developers together. One of Stern's defining moments at Playism was getting Dark Souls creator Hidetaka Miyazaki to play Momodora. Stern is a huge fan of Bloodborne; and when he heard that Miyazaki was at BitSummit, he was determined to get him to play his game. Finally, he got the developers of Salt & Sanctuary to give him a hand.
Ultimately, Stern didn't get a chance to see Miyazaki play, but he did get to meet him (Momodora's developers were awestruck to be in the presence of the genre's master, Stern says). And the report that followed after Miyazaki played was more than enough. "Apparently when he played, he died, like a lot. I was like, 'Yeah. Revenge. So sweet.' Then I was thinking, 'Oh, I guess it's appropriate. He's killed all of us like thousands of times.'"
He smiles, "I think that's something that's going to stick out for a really long time."