BitSummit; the secret world of independent Japanese game development and supporting its future
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As this is my first blog on Gamasutra, I’d like to cut to the chase by saying that this entry is about an event that I --with a lot of help from my coworkers and friends-- have started called BitSummit. It is a gathering designed to support Japanese independent game developers, attract International media, provide a showcase for new games, and bring in some of the best technology providers in the industry. It’s going to be awesome. If you’d like to read the TLDR Version, just skip to the final paragraph. For everyone else with enough snacks to hold them over for the duration, read on.
I have been, in some form or fashion, professionally involved with video games for around 15 years now. At once it feels like it’s gone by in a flash and at others it feels like an eternity of console launches, industry events, and changing fortunes. I have, specifically, Space Invaders, Pong, and my uncle Kaoru to blame for this.
I honestly don’t remember which happened into my life first --Space Invaders or Pong-- but I think it was Space Invaders. All I recall is the flock of kids huddled around this giant cabinet at a local department store, and when I managed to see what all the fuss was about, with rows of quarters lined up on the marquee, I was amazed. This was a real turning point for me. Every time I watch some movie from the 80s --like WarGames, Terminator 2, or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off-- where someone’s playing a game in an arcade, I get flashback goosebumps.
The modern gamer can’t possibly fathom --no matter how many Halos or Final Fantasy CG spectacles are seared into their brains these days-- what sort of impact seeing that lone ship huddled beneath its rapidly-disintegrating barriers had on me. A quarter (25 cents), back in those days, held a unique kind of aura, because that single coin would grant you entrance to 5-10 minutes of pixelated nirvana, one play at a time.
It was around that time, then, that my dad bought a Pong ‘console’ from Radio Shack, and hooked it up to our TV using those old UHF connectors. You couldn’t tear me away from that thing. Don’t get between a kid and his new Pong machine! Back and forth with the white ball. That never got old, until it did, and stuff like Atari, Intellivision, and Colecovision, and eventually the NES came along and kicked Pong’s ass with color, interchangeable games (thanks, cartridges!) and superior graphics.
But it was my uncle Kaoru who took my infatuation to the next level. Living in Japan, he was able to send me the newest handheld video games to me for my birthday and Christmas. Back in those days, the United States was at least a couple years behind whatever was happening in Japan. So I was the king of my elementary school class, always carrying at least one or two of the latest Nintendo Game & Watches, dedicated Pac-Man handhelds or, for good measure, a new Casio digital watch in my backpack. Those were the days.
Fast-forward to now. Western developers have, in many ways, seized the ‘crown’ from Japan’s fading video game industry --which, while not entirely accurate, is certainly a popular notion. I could go all day on the topic of what Japan does better than the West, and what the West does better than Japan, but that’s not really relevant. This isn’t a war, a battle, or even a rivalry, really. Everyone just wants to make good games. What is interesting to me --having spent the past handful of years working at a couple of Japan’s boutique independent dev teams-- is how powerful the independent development scene has become, particularly in the West.
The sheer quantity and quality of independent games coming out of the West is staggering, and it’s good stuff, too. Games like Sword & Sworcery, Braid, Dyad, Sound Shapes, Super Hexagon, Fez, Where Is My Heart?, ASYNC Corp, Dear Esther, Hotline Miami, Castle Crashers, and so many others are grabbing the very same headlines that were usually reserved for the triple-A blockbusters of old. But what these independent games may lack in manpower and budget, they more than make up for in inspiration, innovation, and heart. I mean, could you imagine EA publishing something called Keyboard Drumset Fucking Werewolf? The sheer energy of some of these independent games reminds of when I first popped the batteries in those old handheld video games from Japan. “Indie” game development is, in my opinion, helping gamers rediscover the magic of gaming that years of sequel-flogging, genre-chasing, graphic overload have all but hammered out of us.
I recall an analogy about the movie industry I once read somewhere, that said something like --to paraphrase-- “Star Wars changed Hollywood forever, because once Star Wars came out, every Hollywood action film since has needed to be a blockbuster.” Imagine how many digitized CG armies we see in at least a dozen films each year, and consider how many of those since Lord of the Rings has actually impressed you. Hundreds and hundreds of people are required to put scenes like that together, despite the fact that you will never scrutinize the finer details. Increasingly, we look to smaller-budget movies, which still push all the right buttons. We don’t really need a John Carter when we’ve got a District 9 or a Troll Hunter. So too it is with games. What we’ve grown too accustomed to with the triple-A Q4 über-releases, we look at with fresh eyes each time a new independent, buzz-worthy game is released. With independent games we can still be surprised.
So, the rising, endlessly inventive tide of Western indie gaming made me think: What about Japan? Each year since I began traveling to Japan, first as a journalist, and then later having moved here as a game developer, I find the enthusiasm by the media for things like Tokyo Game Show waning in a remarkably consistent downward arc. That’s a shame, too. The typical, tangible, aching drone that follows TGS is about how “the show floor was half-filled by free-to-play Farmville clones” or “TGS isn’t what it used to be.” This media fatigue might be partly a result of the show quality itself, partly because most of the editors making the trek have been here and done that all before, and possibly a result of this being the last major show of the year. By the time TGS rolls around, people are just tired, having already covered the gauntlet of multiple GDCs, PAXes, Comic-Cons, DICEs, CESes, GamesComs, pre-E3 events, and of course E3 itself.
But TGS has always focused on the big publishers --the Capcoms, SEGAs, Konamis, Bandai Namcos, Square Enixes, etc.-- and the spotlight for Japan’s dedicated independent gaming scene has never hit a global scale the way it has in the West, with events like Indiecade and the Independent Games Festival. In fact, when I casually and unofficially polled my friends at various indie developers in the States, Canada, and Europe, most of them were actually unaware that independent development even really exists in Japan, between the towering behemoths of the traditional console publishers, and the new breed of social gaming publishers like GREE and Mobage. This is when I recognized a need.
Japan has some wonderful independent developers. You are probably aware of Cave Story, that amazing platforming jewel created by Daisuke Amaya (aka Pixel), which in my opinion is as influential and important as a modern, independently developed game can be. (The term “indie,” by the way, is not favored in Japan --although “independent” is fine. It’s because the term “indie,” in Japan, usually comes across negatively, as “amateur.”)
But there are so many more examples of that kind of dedication and craft here in Japan, and I’d really like to show the world what it’s all about. And that’s why I started the BitSummit project. BitSummit is designed as an annual event, held in the absolutely beautiful city of Kyoto, with the aim of bringing small Japanese development studios together with the Western media, cool technology providers, and platform holders to see if we can’t build some meaningful relationships and elevate this thing. The more cool games you see, the more interested you are, the more likely you are to try these games out. In order to play them, you’ve got to know about them. That’s where BitSummit comes in.
The factors holding the average band of independent Japanese developers back from greater global exposure are predictable: language, time difference, contacts, and to a lesser extent, fear of the unknown. Who would the average developer here reach out to overseas? I can imagine it must be a daunting prospect, so most devs would probably just make the game they want to make, and hope it finds a fanbase with the domestic crowd. But why should their options be so limited? And, on the flipside, I’m sure there are plenty of enthusiastic gamers in North America, Europe, and South America, who would love to know about these games, too.
BitSummit is something of a labor of love. It’s a non-profit that relies on the generosity of its sponsors to host an event designed to stimulate a sense of community between developers, to shake things up and get the word out, and to help them bridge the gap between East and West. BitSummit allows us to get the right people in the same room to help them do that. While I can’t name all of the summit’s participants at this moment, I can say that one of the big requests from the developers here was to meet someone from Valve, so they could learn more about the Steam platform, and how to navigate the somewhat complex (to a Japanese developer) Greenlight process. So one of the first calls I made was to Valve, and they graciously agreed to travel to Kyoto to meet the assembled devs.
Another one of the big benefactors of the event is Epic Games Japan, who will give a presentation about the Unreal 4 Engine. You might not necessarily associate things that power games like Gears of War with “independent,” but like many tools, it’s all in how you use it. Whether a developer feels this is something that is useful for him is up to the individual, but it is something that could be interesting to them, and Epic will be there to answer any questions a developer may have. In fact, Epic has been particularly enthusiastic about BitSummit, because they recognize how important it is to support the independent scene here.
Fortunately, the response has been very strong. We’ve got confirmations from small ‘doujin’ developer collectives, who create really wonderful things --for the love of games-- to slightly larger, more established independent studios, who are responsible for some of the most iconic Japanese games around (does the name Parappa sound familiar?). Old friend Akira Yamaoka plans to attend, as well as new developer Black Tower (an exciting new team formed by ex-Acquire developers that specializes in fantasy-based action-RPGs), and we’re excited to see them and what they're cooking up. Not everyone will fall strictly into the programmer, artist, or designer categories, either. Brainstorm, the sound team behind the Lumines soundtracks is attending, as are other audio-focused developers, because we want to encourage and invite everyone involved with the culture of independent game development to BitSummit.
Professor Sakamoto whips up an 8-bit chiptune storm. Yes, that is a Famicom.
On the topic of music, we have a special guest attending: Professor Sakamoto. This electronic composer has become quite well-known in Japan for performing cabaret style shows, wearing a Nintendo Famicom helmet on his head. A member of the audience usually plugs a cartridge in and plays the game on a giant screen, while Sakamoto performs the music and sound effects live. Not only will he perform an interactive show for BitSummit attendees, but this is also a great chance for the media to meet and interview him. He has a number of great videos up on Youtube. I encourage you to discover him if you don’t already know his work.
Since our goal is to keep BitSummit as accessible and effortless an event to attend as possible, we’ve made attendance to the event for all the developers and media free. This is possible thanks to the generosity of our sponsors, present and future both, and every last cent is going into the event and for the benefit of the developers. We’re creating special, BitSummit-branded 8GB USB wristbands that function as proof of entry to the event, and as digital press kits featuring assets (screenshots, movies, demos, whatever) from any developer interested in providing materials. We’re also working with popular, Kyoto-based clothes maker, King of Games, to create a special, commemorative, BitSummit-exclusive t-shirt for attendees. Hardcore Nintendo fans and gamers may know King of Games for their high-quality Nintendo-themed t-shirts. They’ll also be attending BitSummit, with some of their finest wares on offer. I’m personally pretty excited about this last bit for completely nerdy reasons.
For the media who make the trip to see us before this year’s wave of PAXes and GDCs begins, we’re planning to take people around to see the coolest sights of Kyoto, and take a day-after trip down to Den Den Town in Osaka, which if I’m being honest, kicks the pants off of Akihabara (at its peak no less). Den Den Town is vintage gaming nerdvana, folks. It’s a place any gamer could die happily, surrounded by all of the things we ever fell in love with Japanese games for in the first place.
Thankfully, all of the major North American gaming websites have signed on to attend and support BitSummit, and we’re very grateful for that camaraderie. Plus, the amount of positive feedback that has come to us from friends at Western indie developers like Capybara Games, 17-Bit Games, and Supergiant Games has also been really heartwarming. I feel confident we’re doing the right thing here.
Of course, it would be remiss of me to not mention Q-Games --which is my full-time place of employment-- because when I pitched the idea of BitSummit to Dylan Cuthbert (president of Q-Games) he supported the idea and let me run with it. As an independent developer ourselves, we find ourselves in a fortunate position to have such strong contacts with both the Japanese and Western media, but we realize not every developer here is so fortunate. So we’re doing what we can to help change that. Thanks for that, Dylan.
It’s been a hectic past few months, as I have been doing most of this with the help of a few close co-workers who volunteered their time and support, my wife (an ex-KOEI veteran) who is helping me with event coordination, Active Gaming Media, a company that represents many independent developers, the crew at 8-4, Ltd. (multipurpose game localizers/publishers/event throwers extraordinaire), the invaluable Ben Judd (ex-Capcom veteran) and his company, DDM, and an old friend formerly of 1UP.com, who helped me get the BitSummit website together.
The final thanks goes to the Western media outlets, who have embraced and supported this idea as it came to fruition. This includes the upstanding Simon Carless and Kris Graft, of Gamasutra/UBM, who were excited about the creation of BitSummit and what it represents, with Simon personally encouraging me to blog about the evolution of BitSummit here on Gamasutra. So here I am. You’ll undoubtedly see me flog more reveals and insights about BitSummit in the upcoming month, and I hope you’ll join me in welcoming all the cool stuff that will hopefully emerge from this event. This is a rare opportunity to do something really memorable on the independent scene, and I’m really looking forward to March 9th.
TLDR Version: BitSummit - A cool Japanese independent gaming event arriving in one month (March 9th), featuring neat stuff from cool developers you may or may not have seen before. The website will continue to evolve; so bookmark it for updates. You’ll wish you had the t-shirt.