Something About Japan: the indie verdict after Valve pitches Steam at BitSummit

On 9 March, independent game developers from across Japan decamped to the historic city of Kyoto for BitSummit, a conference designed to unite the scattered indie scene and present options for small devs to get their software into the hands of gamers across the world.

One of the highlights for most of the developers I spoke to was a presentation by Al Farnsworth and Dan Berger from Valve on the merits of the Steam platform. While Steam is ubiquitous in Europe and North America, it has yet to catch on in Japan, where PC gaming is niche and the language barrier a formidable hurdle.

But even if no gamer in Japan touches Steam, the opportunity it presents Japanese developers to take their games overseas – without any publisher to kowtow to – is obvious.

“I’m considering Steam for my next game,” said Yohei Kataoka of Crispy’s, the young loon behind PS3 cult hit Tokyo Jungle. “I was delighted Steam came to present at BitSummit. I felt like I was at E3 or Gamescom.”

“I think it’s interesting,” said Masaya Matsuura, creator of PaRappa The Rapper and top dog at NanaOn-Sha. “A lot of people are using a platform like Steam to play games – but not many Japanese people yet. Watching that presentation, I thought it might hold some possibilities for (independent developers) like us.

“Steam is more indie-friendly than the big console makers. Also, the PC environment is changing, with Windows 8 on Intel’s Ultrabook, lots of new products like that. It’s somewhere between an iPad and an Alienware-style graphics-heavy computer, and it looks like a gamer-friendly setup.”

PaRappa The Rapper creator and NanaOn-Sha boss Masaya Matsuura.

One developer at BitSummit who has firsthand experience of Steam was Takumi Naramura of Nigori, whose game La-Mulana did the rounds on Windows and WiiWare for a few years before Japanese game aggregator Playism helped to get it onto Greenlight, where Steam users vote on which games will be allowed to be sold on Steam. Developers cannot put their game on Steam without first clearing Greenlight; with Playism’s help, La-Mulana got through and is now being prepared for sale.

“Now Playism is able to offer that route for Japanese developers onto Steam, and if things go well then it could mean access to the West for Japanese developers,” said Naramura. “But the problem is that it’s very difficult to get Japanese gamers to support a campaign on Greenlight, as Steam is still not that popular among those who don’t speak English.”

Indeed, the Greenlight system is not ideal for Japanese devs: There is a risk of public failure, and Japanese companies and individuals are generally averse to losing face. Also, getting one game past Greenlight does not give a developer a fastrack route with their next game – each title must be voted through on its own merits, which makes it difficult to plan ahead.

“It would be a lot easier if Japanese publishers could make a deal to sell on Steam directly,” said Naramura. “Greenlight is problematic. La-Mulana already had a fan base overseas, and that helped us to progress to Steam. But I don’t think it’s the case that all the games that get past Greenlight are necessarily the most interesting ones.”

Takumi Naramura of La-Mulana studio Nigori.

“It’s a system without any safety net – I was surprised that such a system exists,” commented Yukio Futatsugi, the veteran Panzer Dragoon creator who is now director at independent studio Grounding Inc. “Still, it might be nice to have that open engagement with the gamer community. I’m interested. I didn’t know the ins and outs of Steam’s system before today’s presentation, but now I think I might have a project that would be just right.”

Kataoka also said that the risk of failing to clear Greenlight does not put him off from wanting to try Steam.

“It’s unavoidable that people will judge your game, so it’s just a question of whether that comes early or late in the process,” he reasoned. “It’s not worth worrying about that.”

Another popular Western route to market that is currently under-exploited in Japan is crowd-funding. Japanese consumers are not used to having a voice in the creation of a product that is being sold to them, while on the project-holder side, no one wants to be perceived as begging for money.

Moreover, Kickstarter is only available to project-holders with a US or UK bank account, while local equivalents such as Kampsite and Readyfor? are not yet well known.

Ben Judd, formerly of Capcom and now an agent with Digital Development Management, explained in a presentation that some of his US-based clients are willing to partner with Japanese developers so that they can access Kickstarter. This prospect did seem to interest some delegates.

“I’d like to try it,” said Kataoka. “I was just having a chat about it with Baiyon, who made [music for] PixelJunk 4am and Eden. We were just saying that it would be interesting to think up a good Kickstarter project together. When you go through a publisher, you have to take on board all sorts of feedback and it inevitably takes a long time. So in the case of a socially funded Kickstarter project, it’s better to make something that can only be made now, that doesn’t take a long time to make, that is part of the zeitgeist. That’s how I’d want to use it.”

Cave Story auteur Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya.

“I’m interested,” agreed Naramura. “We’ve had all sorts of problems with funding. Once we were on Steam it was fine, but before that we didn’t have any funding. I came here today from Okayama on a regular commuter train (as opposed to the more expensive but faster bullet train). Money’s really too tight to mention. I think it’s fascinating that Kickstarter lets you gather funds before you deliver the product.”

Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya, one-man developer of hit game Cave Story and now in-progress iOS game Gero Blaster, was less sure.

“If I needed to secure funds before making a game, I’d probably consider Kickstarter,” he said, cautiously. “But I have the money from Cave Story to use towards my next games. I don’t think too far into the future. Kickstarter is a great service for indies though, and I think someone will use it well. But from what I heard today it’s impossible for a Japanese resident to use Kickstarter themselves, so there are still barriers. If you could use it in Japan I’d consider it.”

You can see Dylan Cuthbert’s photography from BitSummit here.