Why Gaming Needs More Events Like BitSummit

BitSummit represents a sea change in the making for the Japanese indie scene, but supporting their creativity is a critical step for the industry as a whole.

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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.

Discussion

33 comments
Kiigora_LoP
Kiigora_LoP

Indie developers need less attention, if anything.

IanNottinghamX
IanNottinghamX

Lets be clear here Western developers have not made many really ground breaking games this generation on consoles. PC is different story cause it has a stronger indie scene. But every other console action game that has been released since 2006 is a Gears of War playstyle clone,rip off ,post apocalyptic 3rd person or first person shooter with muddy brown turd graphics and a thousand cutscene quicktime events....yet the writer almost makes it sound like everything made by western developers is sooo original and everything made by Japanese developers isnt...lets fffffffffricking be fair here.

Ladiesman17
Ladiesman17

They should do more videos and uploaded it on YouTube, 

I enjoy watching Live Events like DICE or CES.


Unfallen_Satan
Unfallen_Satan

I wholeheartedly share the sentiment of this article and deeply respect all indie devs for their sacrifices in pursuit of their passion. At the same time, I am becoming confused about indie gaming. In Japan, for example, is indie gaming more like Doujinshi where amature artists want to share their visions with others, especially like minded enthusiasts, or more similar to venture capitalism where young professionals seek an opportunity to demonstrate their worth, thus securing financial success? The venues for one is not necessarily appropriate for the other. This is a dilemma faced by all artists. While social and economic forces sort out this dilemma, all of us might think about what kind of future we want as gamers.

As a starting thought: as great as BitSummit is, how many average gamers actually pay close attention to trade shows, even big ones like E3 or TGS? How can those who pay attention make the rest of us aware of worthwhile participants? And how should they decide which ones are worthwhile?

obsequies
obsequies

thanks for an interesting article

Jamie-L
Jamie-L

Excellent article, Mr. Brown.

mithund
mithund

Damn, some of those games look really good!

zombiedriveby
zombiedriveby

I remember when Keiji said that ..I was glancing through a mag and had to actually do a double take...but , anything that helps them get more than Zelda and Mario than to sell more than a few copies is very welcome...might have to break out the old nes and snes tonight....oh ,wait....can't...Endgame is out 


suplax
suplax

Totally support events like BitSummit , i'm tired of the same recycled games over and over again. Down with Call of Duty , Mass Effect , Assassins Creed , etc... Any event that support and approve the creation of actually "New" games is a must to not let the gaming industry burn.

ferrarimanf355
ferrarimanf355

Yes, but this was headed by the guy who wasted an EGM cover story on the mediocre-at-best Watchmen game, so his tastemaking abilities are laughable at best. 

I mentioned elsewhere that James is like the Guy Fieri of game development- too full of himself to be anything but a self-parody, yet unaware of that fact. That he actually dyed his hair blonde unironically just reinforces that. 

Dude's such a faker. Let me know when someone who isn't the next Derek Smart organizes an event like this.

King9999
King9999

I hope more events like Bit Summit pop up and expose the Japanese indie scene to the rest of the world.  If there are more games like Cave Story out there, we should know about them.

I recognized Rokko Chan in the video.  Fun game, and great music.

jon2435
jon2435

I like some of the niche titles that come out of Japan, like Harvest Moon and Rune Factory.  Those aren't indie, but it's as close as I've gotten to Japan's indie scene.  More new ideas equals more chances to find that gem of a game.  New ideas are something the major publishers don't, or can't, want.

Mega_Loser
Mega_Loser

i thought pc gaming in japan pretty much doesn't exist, i'm not sure if tablets receive an equal amount of abandon.

Mega_Loser
Mega_Loser

good good. i was feeling lonely.

-Schou
-Schou

Yes. One comment right here!

Mega_Loser
Mega_Loser

i see no comments, is there comments in here?

GamerNerdTalk
GamerNerdTalk

@IanNottinghamX False.There is Vanquish and that game was incredible, and it was really nothing like Gears of War. Or you could make the claim that all third person shooting games copied Resident Evil 4, which the Gears of War creators borrowed heavily from. 

Do your Homework

LtReviews
LtReviews

@IanNottinghamX 

Please don't turn this into a Japanese vs Western debate.

The point the writer is trying to make is that Japan has a large indie game scene much like the United States, however they haven't had the same mainstream success. It's not a matter of who has indie devs and who doesn't- it's which developers are finding mainstream success.

As you pointed out, PC is the biggest venue for indie developers because it is easy to develop games for- it does not require you to work with complex Sony coding, frustrating Microsoft Store integration, or harsh publishing requirements from Nintendo.

In Japan, two out of the big three console makers are based there- Sony and Nintendo. It was also the home for Sega's headquarters, and they made consoles for a long time.

The only console making company with a headquarters in the United States is Microsoft, and still they are better known for their work with computers.

So naturally, if we established- larger PC gaming community = larger indie developer success rate, OF COURSE Japan indie developers are going to have trouble getting exposure.

Stop making it look like the writer is bemoaning a lack of indie devs in Japan- he is not. He is bemoaning their lack of exposure and the first step in fixing that.

LtReviews
LtReviews

@Unfallen_Satan  

I think indie developers are driven by both unique vision/enthusiasm AND a financial venture capital spirit. Both tend to go hand in hand after all, and if an indie developer for some reason isn't motivated by eventually getting their product to a large audience willing to buy it, doing so certainly won't somehow hamper their original motivations. Indie devs who aren't in it to secure financial success can still get it as a happy bonus to expressive pursuits.

 And I think the prupose of BitSummit isn't to directly draw consumers to be aware of the developers, as you are right, most gamers don't pay close attention to trade shows. I think the purpose is the reverse, to make the developers aware of the consumers. Especially by showing Japanese indie devs that their games can have a more universal appeal than they initially thought.

SythisTaru
SythisTaru

@suplax Mass Effect was a trilogy from the start. What if Tolkein wrote Fellowship of the Ring and thing decided he wanted to just make something completely new instead of finishing his trilogy?

jamesmielke
jamesmielke

@suplax We'll do our best to expand and improve the event going forward. Stay tuned for more coverage coming from Gamespot.

dinosaur-123
dinosaur-123

@suplax how is Mass Effect recycled  ?

uncle5555
uncle5555

@ferrarimanf355What an ignorant comment.  

Milkman (James' EGM handle) has ALWAYS been a huge supporter of Japanese gaming.  He was one of, if not the best editors on EGM, Sam Kennedy being another one I respected) and his preferred taste in games always showed he knew what was shit and what was good.  So I say take your personal vendetta and shove it somewhere.  

If not for James and some forward thinking westerners who live (nice to see Ben Judd is still alive ;-) and work in Japan this event would not have happened.  I knew some of the games shown, many of the names mentioned (as you all should but probably don't, for shame) and wish them nothing but success pulling this off.  

I know he has a small crew, but I'd love to see Bitsummit have a central hub for these things, there were many games shown that I still don't know the names of (in the official video and the one above) that I am interested in and know nothing about.  So if possible please rectify this (as most sites mentioned Studio Pixel's new game and nothing else, which makes me sad) and give people a place to go to find out about these wonderful games.

For the record I hope Playism was there to help the indie devs shop their wares.  And I'm glad La Mulana and Gunhound EX were featured.  Games like those and many of the others DESERVE full exposure on sites like this and on the major platforms so as many people as possible can play them.  I do have a selfish wish and that is to see Studio Pixel's new game on PC (or similar platform) as it's mentioned being on IOS right now I won't be able to play it, and I'd assume many others as well, but I digress. 

James good luck and I hope your efforts bear fruit and make great strides and big successes for these developers.  

P.S. Also thank you for remembering Eno-san, he will be sorely missed.


IanNottinghamX
IanNottinghamX

@GamerNerdTalkUm Vanquish was made by Platinum games no? last I checked thats a Japanese developer...so your homework is lacking...

IanNottinghamX
IanNottinghamX

@LtReviews His whole article gives the impression that Japanese developers are doing less than or are creating weaker work than the Western developers. Even though that isnt the point of the article he practically says it in his opinions...All Im saying is REALITY CHECK!. What Western games really stand up in truth to the microscope when most are cash-ins like Call of duty, Halo and Assassins Creed. Not to mention all of the 3rd person shooter Gears of war rip offs....thats my point..people need to stop making Western developers out to be so fantastic at making games because they are far from being at that point yet...they have a long way to go....

ferrarimanf355
ferrarimanf355

@uncle5555 Saying that he was one of the best editors of EGM is kinda laughable. Dan "Shoe" Hsu was so much better, at least he didn't waste an EGM cover story on "ZOMG THE JAPANESE GAME INDUSTRY IS DYING" when it really isn't the case (it really isn't dying, IMHO, and honestly, I do agree with Phil Fish's comments on Japanese games even though he could have worded it better), and basically hating on almost anything that's remotely popular as a way of tastemaking.

Dude's like the Danica Patrick of game development- all hype, no substance.

LtReviews
LtReviews

@suplax @dinosaur-123  

Mass Effect has only 3 games in the series... That is hardly "recycled". And you may not remember, but in 2007 (only 5 years ago) when ME1 came out that blend of action that happened in real time, with pause-and-plan RPG ability systems was quite unique.


Please do not lump a game in with CoD, which has had twice as many releases as Mass Effect in the same time span, and say they are both "recycled"