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Inside Japan’s Growing Indie Game Scene

When Shinnosuke Ohashi attended his first BitSummit in Kyoto back in 2015, he was enamored by the atmosphere and excitement of the indie community in Japan. Having not experienced the same enthusiasm in 10 years at a large company, he knew he had to become a member of the slowly growing community of Japanese indie game developers.

Ohashi had spent the majority of his career as a programmer working at Nd Cube, a Nintendo-owned subsidiary that works on games like “Mario Party” and “Animal Crossing.” He decided to leave and create his own one-man studio, Game or Die, where he is currently working on “SamuraiJET,” a side-scrolling rogue-like game where players take the persona of a jetpack-clad Samurai. His reason to go independent was similar to most indie devs out there.

“At a big company, you’re only one part of this big vision, a piece in a puzzle,” Ohashi told Variety. “It’s the opposite in indie development; you get to see your own ideas realized in a way that you never could at a studio.”

It was one game in particular that inspired Ohashi during his 2015 visit to the annual gathering of Japanese developers in Kyoto. “‘Downwell,’” he said with a huge smile. “Definitely ‘Downwell.’”

“Downwell,” developed by Ojiro Fumoto, is a rare example of a popular, independently developed Japanese game. For the longest time, the independent game development scene in Japan has been overshadowed by the AAA studios in the country.

Cultural pressures to stay in salaried positions and a general lack of video game awareness have worsened the risks of independent development, stifling the community’s growth in Japan. But now, as indie gaming expo BitSummit enters its sixth year, change is starting to move a little faster for indie developers in the land of the rising sun.

Japan has been a powerhouse in the games industry, especially between 1980 and 2000, with companies like Nintendo, Sega, Capcom, and Square Enix producing internationally recognized franchises that have gone on to influence countless indie projects in other parts of the world. “I tend to visit universities and talk to programming students who are looking to go into game design,” Ohashi said. “Joining a company like Nintendo has always been their end game.”

It’s not unusual for game development students in the United States to want to join Blizzard or Naughty Dog after college, but many Japanese students didn’t see creating their own games as an option at all. “Japan has always been about stable jobs and a stable income, supporting your family at all times,” said Akira Mitsuhashi, a former developer at Level-5 who now works on his own titles like “StarONE: Origins.” “It’s beginning to change, it’s a process that’s continuing with a few important things happening just recently.”

A few of those important things include Steam allowing purchases to be made in Yen, the Japanese currency; Kickstarter becoming available in Japan late last year; and the Japanese government encouraging companies to be more relaxed about their employees working side jobs and freelancing outside work hours.

“Historically, full-time employees couldn’t have any work outside their full-time job,” Mitsuhashi said. “There is also a social pressure to not leave, but lately those both have changed — it’s almost incentivized to be an indie developer, even though the government hasn’t made any concrete actions like providing sponsorships.”

That inability to have commercial side projects outside of a career led to the dominance of doujin, or hobbyist work, in Japan. Many game developers in the region consider themselves hobbyists rather than independent developers. Becoming indie is widely considered making games as a career while doujin creators work on passion projects without trying to make a living off of them.

“I started out as a hobbyist while working at an old software company making stuff for the Apple Pippin,” said Riki Iwasaki, a manga artist and creator of “8bit Music Power Final,” a chiptune music album that is played on emulated Famicom hardware. “I left once I was able to get a sponsor for my project creating games for my own modded hardware.”

Iwasaki, along with nearly every other developer Variety spoke with, emphasized how difficult it was to receive funding for independent projects in Japan, even more so than other parts of the world. “I had a very specialized product where the company producing similar hardware provided funding,” he said. “Most games would have a very difficult time finding any type of support, even if they’re able to stand out.”

Iwasaki still believes that the indie scene in Japan is primed for growth. “It’s getting lively,” he said. “Prices are lower and the ease of being able to download games on all consoles, including the Switch, makes it easier to distribute and sell them.”

Most of the developers and publishers Variety spoke to believe that the Japanese indie scene will start to grow faster now that game creation and distribution tools are better and easier to access and indie development is becoming standard in other parts of the world. “Indie development as a career is far from the huge, career-killing risk it used to be,” said James Mielke, one of the original founders of BitSummit. “Now it’s a lot more sustainable, you still have to be careful but we’re starting to see more Japanese developers leave their full-time salaried positions to make games.”

The quality of Japanese indies has also increased during the six-year lifetime of BitSummit. “We’ve seen a huge change in last six years with the quality and frequency of Japanese indie games making their way overseas,” Mielke said. “There’s no way you’d see games like Ace of Seafood releasing outside Japan before all this.”

BitSummit started in Kyoto in the Summer of 2012, where is was a private event open only to local Japanese developers. It opened its doors to international developers a year later and increased its efforts to bring in speakers and industry leaders. “One thing we focus on is having our speakers be people that can help Japanese developers,” Mielke said. “Before our show, a lot of developers didn’t know about Steam as a platform, Unreal or Unity as a middleware, or Kickstarter as a crowdfunding platform.”

“We exposed them to all that and put them in the same room with those people,” Mielke added. “Now if you want to use Steam or want to get your game on a console, you can talk to representatives from Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony, or whoever you might need.”

Although BitSummit is a small show compared to other international conventions like the Tokyo Game Show, it has been a reliable resource for indie developers in Japan. The number of applications for exhibitor booths the show receives has grown to over 200. “It’s been a while, but indie game development has only just started to exist in a bigger way within Japan,” Ohashi said. “Awareness is low — my mom only just learned what Kickstarter was a few weeks ago — but it’s increasing.”

While the Japanese indie scene isn’t new, it has only recently developed into a tighter community. It’s been a slow, meandering process that has been hampered by a culture whose values are difficult to change.

“There has been plenty of things that have held back Japanese indie development,” said Hidetaka “SWERY” Suehiro, CEO of White Owls Inc and one of the creators of “The Good Life.” “We don’t really have a PC culture; few of the developers speak English, making localization more challenging; and not a lot of people know about the indie world. A director of a big game company here didn’t even know what PAX was until last year.”

Suehiro and Ohashi mentioned that, while all these new tools are setting up Japanese indie development for success, change to actually incorporate them may be slow. “The Japanese government has made some progress in letting people do more on the side,” Suehiro said. “But there are still plenty of people and companies that are hesitant to allow that; it might not happen as quickly as people hope.” Ohashi also talked about how platforms like Kickstarter won’t immediately succeed in the country since “there isn’t a huge culture of making investments in Japan,” Ohashi said. “Most aren’t comfortable making investments if there isn’t a clear reward.”

But both agreed that they didn’t think problems like those would remain and that they were headed towards a more indie-friendly culture in Japan. “Small changes are happening all over the place,” Suehiro said. “You can feel the energy grow each year [at BitSummit.]”

And efforts by BitSummit and other small community efforts across Japan have given to a rise of a more independently focused mindset for Japanese game developers, especially the ones that are just getting started. “Lately, I’ve talked to more programming students and I’ve started to notice a change,” Ohashi said. “Several of them have told me that they want to be indie developers now, and that’s cool.”

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