BitSummit brings together the good, the bad and the weird of Japan’s indie scene

Kira Kira Star Night is a new indie NES game directed by Japanese comic artist Riki.

Now in its second year, BitSummit saw a major increase in size and attendance when it was held in Kyoto in March. Previously a one-day, business-only event, this year’s show was held over three days at the Miyako Messe convention centre, with over 100 developers, live music and presentations. The first of two public days drew 1,000 curious punters, from the hardcore to families with young children. And although Kyoto giant Nintendo was conspicuous by its absence, financial supporters included Sony, Microsoft and the prefectural government.

“Since last year’s BitSummit, a lot of us have come to realise that we are in fact part of an indie scene,” says Takumi Naramura of Nigoro, whose platform-adventure sequel La-Mulana 2 was recently crowdfunded on Kickstarter. “Many developers heard about last year’s BitSummit and made the effort to get involved this year.”

The nature of that realisation might seem surprising to western indies, whose culture of cooperation and idea sharing has fostered a boom in the scene over the past half-decade. In Japan, even the notion of a ‘scene’ is new and the idea of sharing was, until recently, absurd.

“It’s more fun for me than Tokyo Game Show, because of all the different types of games you get to see,” says Dylan Cuthbert, whose Kyoto company Q-Games was involved in the event’s production. Many of those games have already secured an international release. Some, like La-Mulana 2 and Keiji Inafune’s Mighty No.9, raised funds directly from fans, while others have taken advantage of Sony’s increased hunger for indie games, such as puzzler TorqueL and mecha remake Assault Suit Leynos (Target Earth). Small mainstream publishers continue to find their own route to market, such as O-Two with its cute 3DS kitty runner Mew Mew Train. Online platforms such as Flash game repository Moritapo Game Lounge and global store Playism had booths showcasing multiple titles. For the smaller developers, it was a rare opportunity to watch their peers and members of the public play their games.

Professor Sakamoto’s live Famicom tunes soundtracked the event.

“When you’re making a fighting game, it is extremely useful to have the opportunity to watch people play for balance tuning,” says Masahiro Onoguchi, creator of moddable 3D fighting engine EF-12, recently Greenlit for Steam. “Some very skilled players gave me their feedback yesterday and I was able to immediately implement their suggestions last night.”

Around half the games on show were made by hobbyists. Many felt like tech demos or proof-of-concept pieces with rudimentary gameplay, or straight copies of classic titles. Inafune might have noticed his own work in Rokko Chan, King Soukutu’s Mega Man homage.

That’s not to say these micro-indie games were bad – 2D Fantasista’s Flock is a relaxing ambient bullet-heaven shooter for PS4, while madcap Flash platformer Shippo Neko and a game called ChChoCoooCoCo (which uses a pump-nozzle shampoo bottle as its controller) raised smiles. This was different to the kind of spectacle you find at strait-laced TGS, and with a Japanese sensibility lacking at GDC.

Still, games with the depth of Journey or the conceptual complexity of Gone Home were scarce. The exceptions were usually games made by Japan-based studios with largely western staff, such as Q-Games’ Nom Nom Galaxy. There were also few women developers, and those who were there tended to be touting visual novels, or were in supporting roles, such as The Girl And The Robot illustrator Ayaka Nakamura.

Prize-winning Crazy Taxi clone The Modern Zombie Taxi Driver was one of many games that reprised old playstyles.

Naramura was one of several devs to say that Japan’s indie scene is trailing the west’s by a couple of years, and organiser James Mielke says this was why he invited western indies such as The Behemoth and Metanet Software to show off Castle Crashers and N++. “I think Japanese developers can take away a lot from being exposed to those games,” he says. “[They] will see something like Overgrowth, N++ or Galak-Z and think, ‘Wow, I can add an extra layer of narrative or a cool new mechanic; I can do something different’. It might take a few years, but I think we’ll get there.”

Inafune, who announced a new 3DS game at BitSummit – Inti Creates’ Azure Striker Gunvolt, on which he is executive producer – tells us he believes that the simple mix of western and Japanese organisers was a key factor behind the show’s success, and a reason so many Japanese developers were willing to risk the not-insignificant investment to attend. “Having Mielke in charge gives it an international feeling,” Inafune says. “It’s a good thing Japan can borrow strength from westerners to put on an event like this together. I was surprised by the scale of everyone’s ambition.”

Sony and Microsoft’s sponsorship helped, with each platform holder’s booth showcasing their commitment to indies. “We’ve been chatting with developers to find titles our customers might enjoy,” Akinari Ito from Sony’s developer relations told us. Xbox One is still unreleased in Japan, but some devs, recognising Xbox’s overseas audience and tempted by free devkits, signed up for ID@Xbox. Microsoft’s program manager Hidekatsu Matsuyama is happy to see the initiative work here: “We’d like to help Japanese developers to be successful all over the world. And to make Xbox One a success in Japan, we need Japanese content, so we need their help.”

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