A great artist once said, "I think Japanese gaming is dead." That man is Keiji Inafune, creator of the iconic Mega Man, and one of the industry's most influential and outspoken champions. "But," he continued, "I love Japan. I want to save it." He's not alone.
Reviving Japan's vitality is the driving force behind BitSummit, the indie-centric event held last week in Kyoto, Japan, directed by industry veteran James Mielke, producer at Q-Games. Japan isn't necessarily devoid of creativity or successful games; top-tier creative at Platinum Games, and Mielke's own Q-Games, are examples of the region's modern successes. But the spectrum isn't bursting with the same vibrancy it had during the "golden" years between 1985 and 2005, when new ideas were commonplace and variety was king. The causes and factors for this shift are numerous, but at BitSummit, the biggest hurdles standing in Japan's way were finally brought to light: Japanese publishers shying away from risky (unproven) concepts, and the immature state of the Japanese indie scene.
The immature state of the scene does not refer to attitude or taste, but rather to the unsettled and disorganized connections between small developers and consumers. Where the likes of Europe and North America benefit from services such as Valve's Steam platform, with which independently developed games can efficiently reach an audience, a surprising number of independent Japanese developers peddle their games on Internet forums where marketing happens by word of mouth and games are published in downloadable zip files. It's not what most people would call an ideal situation.
It's not by choice either; these self-sacrificing developers are creating unprecedented, often niche games that major or foreign publishers won't touch for fear of meager returns and lack of mass appeal. Therefore, when these games exist on only a subsection of a little-known forum, or on a region-locked disc, what chance have they got? If outsiders don't know about a product, they'll never have the chance to support the people and ideas that went into its creation, and both will suffer as a result. Without such support, the only Japanese-developed games that have a realistic chance will come from big publishers. If new ideas are continually stifled and left to die, statements like Inafune's will continue to surface. The likes of Platinum Games, or even Inafune's Comcept, can execute only so many ideas at the end of the day.
And this is where BitSummit comes in to (hopefully) save the day. By inviting independent developers along with the likes of Valve, Epic Games, and Unity, Q-Games' Mielke is hell-bent on bridging the gaps between ideas, execution, and effective commercialization. After all, it's not that Japanese gaming is literally "dead," but without access to the same advantages enjoyed by their Western counterparts, some Japanese independents and their games will persist to float dead in the water.
As foreign attendees shuffled into BitSummit, there were a lot of nervous expressions and shy postures seen among the exhibitors. Who can blame them? Not only were they coming out of the woodwork to showcase their closely held ideas, but they were meeting with foreign media on top of the likes of the aforementioned corporate heavyweights, probably for the first time in their careers. Would we, in their shoes, feel any better about exposing our passions and opinions for judgment by influential cultural outsiders? Some may rush to incorrectly label such xenophobia as typically Japanese, but it's no different from any other person exposing himself or herself to new people in a strange setting.
Reassuringly, these nervous tells didn't last long. After keynote speeches from Valve, Epic, Unity, and Ben Judd of Digital Development Management concluded, representatives from the Western media began circling the crowded venue. Controllers landed in the sweaty hands of the so-called outsiders, unspoken barriers began to crumble, and smiles could be seen in all corners of the room. Every team of journalists had interpreters by its side, and with their help, we discovered that everyone in the room shared a common language: an appreciation for creativity, art, and fun.
It's a fact that a few of the games on display exhibited universal appeal, but it's also true that many don't, but it's OK. Striving for such wide acceptance is essentially what got us into this mess in the first place. Regardless of any game's potential to appeal to a specific or broad audience, each one was born from a passion for something, oftentimes requiring great sacrifices from its creators. Even if we hadn't seen any future million-sellers, that too would be OK. If people created games only for mass appeal and wealth, the soul and personalities would rarely, if ever, shine through. Some of the most beloved games from the past bear the fingerprints of their creators, and it's likely that future memorable games will continue that trend.
People play and create games that they love, but publishers fund games that they expect to sell and return profits. To put it another way: publishers are usually responsible for their shareholders' investments. Independents tend to develop for their personal tastes and attempt to satisfy their own desires.
Gamers typically fall in line with the sentiments of the latter group. Any game is technically capable of speaking to someone, Call of Duties of the world included. Big or small, games exist on their own merits, and are supported by those who appreciate said qualities. This is the same reason indies make games, and while Western indies have been lucky enough to find an avenue for expression and monetization, their counterparts in Japan haven't been so fortunate.
It's because of that unfortunate fact that BitSummit is critical for independent developers in Japan and the gaming industry at large. If we don't cultivate the individual, we'll miss out on opportunities for new experiences and slow down the evolution of the medium. True, the independent scene in the West is growing stronger every day, but the same should be said for all regions. We are a global industry, and therefore, what benefits one will ultimately benefit the entire group.
Again, Western developers aren't deficient in creating new experiences and inspiring future creations, but if Japanese indies can gain exposure for their games, be they tailored for universal or specific tastes, the scene and the ideas that will ultimately blossom from it can evolve even further. Not everyone has to appreciate what the developers at BitSummit had on display (though there's plenty deserving of such appreciation), but we need them to be able to express their ideas and ultimately diversify the spectrum of modern gaming. The tools are available, and it's unfortunate that we need something like BitSummit to help put A and B together, but at least it's finally happening. For this reason, BitSummit and events like it are far more important and critical for the survival of the medium than anything akin to E3 or the Tokyo Game Show.
If independents don't get their chance, we'll have to rely on major publishers to execute risky ideas and evolve the notion of what a game can be, and fat chance that will happen anytime soon.
BitSummit hasn't solved the problem overnight, but it's an incredibly meaningful step in the right direction. Waves start as ripples, and if the BitSummits of the industry can continue to interrupt the fabric of gaming, the future, not the past, could be thought of as the golden era of gaming, and we'll all be better for it.