I'm on a train to the airport as I write this, my latest trip to Japan nearly complete. I've got a lot of stray thoughts on my mind, most of which aren't quite enough to stand as an individual article, but that I want to share anyway.
Some of these items are anecdotal, others are based on conversations I had on the show. In any case, here's what I learned.
Smartphones own Japan even more than you think
This shouldn't be a surprise given how dominant smartphones have become in America; but good lord, even the outsized influence of mobile gaming in the U.S. pales compared to Japan. Its influence even extends to the game centers, where many successful mobile games have been turned into full-blown arcades, complete with screens that look like phones in portrait mode. I mean, look at this.
Puzzle & Dragons is Japan's game of choice - it's this nation's Candy Crush - with dedicated handhelds increasingly being seen as kid's stuff. Plenty of adults still play the Nintendo 3DS - I saw my share of them on the train - but the generation gap seems to be growing. I heard more than one story of teenagers getting teased because they were playing 3DS rather than on a smartphone. It'll be interesting to see what the Pokemon Go craze will look like in this country once it really gets going. Beyond that, I'll admit to being pretty demoralized by the trends I observed. At least Steam seems to be on the rise?
Batteship girls absolutely own arcades over in Japan
Sega's AM2 released Kantai Collection (KanColle) to arcades back in April, and its success is pretty obvious. A few months after its release, it merits special seating areas where people can hang out and wait to play. As with every other successful Japanese arcade game these days, it's a trading card game featuring what you might call physical DLC - cards that you use to assemble your half-lady/half-battleship fleet. It's virtually unknown here in the U.S., but it's popular enough in Japan that the machines will usually be full even on a random Thursday afternoon. Like smartphone games, trading card games have become progressively more ubiquitous, steadily taking over more and more space in Japanese arcades. I'll admit to feeling ambivalent about this trend; but if this is what it takes to keep Japanese arcades alive, then so be it.
BitSummit has attracted a lot of high-powered Japanese developers
Though they didn't necessarily have anything to show, quite a few high-powered Japanese developers were spotted at BitSummit at one point or another through the weekend. Eiji Aonuma (Zelda), Hidetaka Miyazaki (Dark Souls), Atsushi Inaba (Platinum), SWERY (D4), and Tetsuya Mizuguchi (Rez Infinite) all made appearances, as did Sony president of worldwide studios Shuhei Yoshida (sidenote: I talked briefly with Yoshida, the results of which I'll post soon). Old hands also showed up, including Yoot Saito and Kenichi Nishi, to learn from the younger developers and see the indie scene for themselves (as well as to talk about their new games). Hironobu Sakaguchi gave a talk and signed autographs.
Aonuma's presence make sense, what with Nintendo hosting a small booth on the showfloor and Kyoto being the company's backyard. Miyazaki dropped by to check out Salt & Sanctuary, which was playable on the showfloor (I didn't hear what he thought of Salt & Sanctuary, but Playism's Momodora apparently got a thumbs up from him). All told, it was a pretty impressive gathering, another sign that the Japanese industry at large has a keen interest in both western and domestic indie development.
BitSummit really needs a bigger hall
BitSummit is in kind of a weird place right now. On the one hand, it's a really busy and energetic show, which feels great when you're on the showfloor. On the other hand, it's crowded to the point of suffocating, and it's easier for smaller games to get lost in the mix. What's more, the incredible noise tends to drown out the talks on the main stage at the back of the hall, which is a shame because some really interesting speakers were on hand this year (Mizuguchi, Nishi, Sakaguchi, and Inaba were among those giving talks).
Ideally, BitSummit will have a bigger space next year, even if it comes at the risk of it seeming smaller and emptier than it should. All shows go through growing pains, though, and BitSummit's overcrowding is chronic. Time to take the next step.
Dragon Quest X is apparently still a thing in Japan.
I figured that Dragon Quest X was long dead; but nope, there are still posters with in-game item promotions at local convenience stores. Who knew?
Akihabara is gradually being taken over by non-gamer tourists
If you go to Akihabara these days, you'll probably notice that a number of game shops like Sofmap are selling haircare products and other items you wouldn't usually associate with Japan's geek capital. That's because China recently eased the requirements for visiting Japan, which has a resulted in a massive influx of tourists, many of whom have descended upon Akihabara to buy shampoo. It makes for a weird dynamic as families jostle for space with geeks heading to the district's trademark maid cafes and game shops. As long as they leave Super Potato alone, though, I'll be fine.
Japanese indie development has come a long way, but there's still a lot of work to be done
BitSummit is great for promoting western indies to Japanese gamers. Tons of great games were on display at the show, including Videoball, Salt & Sanctuary, Enter the Gungeon, and Wonder Boy III, and many of them drew big crowds. These games are well-known in the west; but they're still new in Japan, and their presence is important in creating inroads for the indie community out here. The more indies people play, the more they might be encouraged to make their own games, and so the Japanese indie community will flourish.
With that said, while Japanese indies are making major strides, they're still at something of a disadvantage even at BitSummit. As usual, Onion Games led the way with Black Bird - their third game in as many years. Tokyo Nights stood out as an interesting-looking adventure game developed by a mixed Japanese and western team, which is becoming increasingly common. There was an adorable-looking woodblock-style flash game starring a cat that shoots bullets from its tail; but as I discovered after a quick Google, it's been out for a couple years now.
As I was reminded on this trip, many of the best Japanese indies still come out of the doujin scene, where games are discovered and marketed in the west by outfits like Playism. It's much less common to find independent developers who set out with the express intention of selling their game. Still, for those who are taking that route, BitSummit is a great platform getting discovered and taking the next step. And with luck, more will follow in the footsteps of Downwell, which is the toast of the development community around here. In the meantime, there's a lot of work to be done.
The current version of Gundam Versus has a really great feature
I suppose I'd be remiss if I didn't bring up giant robots really quickly. When I interviewed Myung Kim about his arcade a few weeks ago, I was sad to hear that the Gundam Versus scene in the west is mostly dead owing to Bandai Namco's refused to port the new versions to console. He blamed the fact that it's network capable now, which makes the home version more or less redundant (which is crazy to think about, but I digress).
Actually playing Gundam Extreme Versus Maxi Boost On (which is the game's real name), though, I was delighted by the network capability. Gundam Versus is a 2v2 competitive game, and I've long had trouble getting anyone to partner up with me. With network play, which features fast and reliable matchmaking and no lag whatsoever, I had no trouble finding games. Granted, not being able to pick my unit based on what my partner was using was a bit of a drag as it resulted in a number of sub-optimal pairings, but it was nice to be able to enjoy Gundam Versus as it was meant to be played.
What a pity I won't be able to play it after I go home. Bandai Namco may one day port it to PlayStation 4, but I somehow doubt it. It feels like that ship has sailed. But it was fun while it lasted, at least.
I never got Pokemon Go working
It worked for about 30 minutes on Monday, and now the servers are just dead. Sigh.
Anyway, in case you missed it, here are my articles from BitSummit and elsewhere. Please look forward to additional articles and interviews from me on the subject of Japanese indies soon. In the meantime, I look forward to seeing what monsters have taken over San Francisco.
- A Brief Guide to BitSummit, Japan's Indie Expo
- USgamer's RPG Podcast Teams With 8-4 Play to Examine a Decade of JRPG Development
- Let's Read Unity-chan's Manga Origin Story Together
- Yoot Saito and Kenichi Nishi: Two Japanese Indie Veterans Are Back to Making Games
- God, Please Let Black Bird and Brave Yamada Come West
- You Don't Have to Be a Fan of the Original to Appreciate the Wonder Boy III Remake
- Q Games' Dead Hungry Spearheads a Busy Show for VR at BitSummit
- Atsushi Inaba: Platinum Has No Future Without Its Own IPs
- Why Japan's Most Famous Retro Game Shop Matters More Than Ever