BitSummit 2015: Is There A Future For PC Games In Japan?

BitSummit has inarguably helped reinvigorate the indie game scene in Japan.

A successful introduction in 2013 begat a larger event in 2014, and the third BitSummit, held at Kyoto’s Miyako Messe this past weekend, was even bigger still. Developers from inside and outside Japan came together with fans, international media and large companies such as Sony, Microsoft and Steam, to show off some of the best Japan’s indie scene had to offer. And for the first time, it looked as if the PC might have a future within the landscape of Japanese game development.

“Truthfully, PC gaming in Japan just isn’t really a thing. It just never really has been, except for the weird erotic sex games and stuff like that,” said Jake Kazdal of Osaka/Seattle-based 17-Bit. “It’s just never been a big mass market thing here. It’s always been the consoles, and now mobile is huge.

“But people are starting to realize, ‘hey we can sell these games, there is a massive PC market in the rest of the world.’ So you’re starting to see people come together and put stuff together. It’s growing. Look around. A couple of years ago, this wouldn’t have been a thing.”

The “this” he’s referring to is BitSummit, the indie game festival created by former Electronic Gaming Monthly editor James Mielke.

A big, enthusiastic crowd, large enough that it almost became a challenge to pass through some of the gaming areas, packed the event floor for the two-day celebration of all things indie.

There were a crop of quality titles from Japanese developers, such as La Mulana 2 and Downwell, and from international teams, such as 17-Bit’s procedural space shooter Galak-Z and Assault Android Cactus, a fun bullet-hellish throwback to classic Treasure games.

One well-lit area housed Oculus Rift demos, and in another, attendees used a pair of dance pads to keep up with the beat of roguelike rhythm game Crypt of the NecroDancer.

BitSummit has shined a bright light on Japanese indies these past three years. While the show still focuses heavily on PlayStation exclusives and famed console game designers such as Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the presence of PC games is increasing. That’s unusual in Japan, a country where console games dominate.

“Events like this really help to promote indie developers,” said Triangle Services’ Toshiaki Fujino, a veteran of the Japanese indie scene. “Platforms like Steam make it really easy for indie developers to release their games. So I think the indie scene is definitely going to grow and become bigger.”

The PC indie scene has had a hard time taking root in Japan for a myriad of reasons. One is simply the tendency by many Japanese consumers to compartmentalize the things they buy. Generally, consoles are bought for gaming, and computers for work or the internet.

“It’s just consoles were kind of what it was always,” said Playism Marketing Manager Nayan Ramachandran. “People never really considered PCs to be a gaming platform. Like visual novels and ero-kei were basically what was played on PC. So not a lot of people have powerful PCs in Japan, or didn’t before. Not a lot of people were upgrading their PCs to make them great for gaming.”

Recent years have given indie developers more ways to work around this particular restriction.

“PC is going to get better from now on,” says Takaaki Ichijo, a developer from Throw the warped code out. “The reason why is the number of Steam users is growing and getting closer to the number of people who own PS4s.

“It’s said that in Japan there aren’t many people who play PC games. There is a PC in every home, but they aren’t really built for gaming. I think cloud gaming is going to be major, because there will be various games that can be played on almost any kind of computer. That way, it will be easier for people to access and play.”

Even if PC games become easier for the public to find, developers still face the stigma that surround indies in Japan — that they are “amateur” and not always looked upon in a favorable light. The Japanese market will take a chance on almost anything, no matter how weird the premise, so long as it passed through the halls of a big, familiar (re: safe) major distributor.

As awareness of Japanese indies, and the quality of many of the titles, is raised, those walls may soon be torn down. For PC indies it’s, ironically, the the growing acceptance of indie games by the big console makers, Sony and Microsoft, that could help signal a paradigm shift.

“We’ve started to find that the fact the PS4 is actually far easier to develop for, it’s far closer to a regular PC, has really kickstarted the indie scene,” Ramachandran said. “Consoles will always be really, really big in Japan. The fact that it’s easy to get from PC to PS4 means that so many indies have this outlet to finally release their game on a major console and see people play it.

“That’s actually legitimizing PC development for indies.”

On page two, five Japanese indie games to watch.

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15 Comments

  1. TimRobbins says:

    I don’t understand why japanese devs don’t see how lucrative Steam has been in the rest of the world. I would be drooling to fund english translation for my games to get them up on the Steam storefront, even if my games wouldn’t make a huge splash at home.

    • LTK says:

      If your entire gaming network is Japanese, how are you planning to get on Steam in the first place? A developer who doesn’t speak English is hardly going to run a succesful Greenlight campaign.

    • Scumbag says:

      As strange as this may sound Japan is mostly still a physical media nation. While stuff like MP3s and whatnot have finally caught on, games and magazines are still preferred to be in physical copies. That and Japan’s obscene internal pricing system.

    • DanMan says:

      If there aren’t enough gamers in your country, you’d need to translate it. That can be a problem, if you’re on a miniscule budget, because you’ll have to hire someone who probably doesn’t care how little you’re getting out of it. They just want to get paid.

    • Unsheep says:

      Steam is only lucrative if you make a GOOD mainstream game, for each success there are dozens of flops.

      Releasing indie games through PlayStation is most likely easier and more efficient. Plus they have more or less a guaranteed consumer base with the marketing and promotional power that Sony has in Japan. Through PSN they would cover both their home-market as well as the foreign ones, so PSN fulfills the same function as Steam. Using only Steam the Japanese developers would loose their domestic market. Some would accept this, most would probably not.

  2. ChrisGWaine says:

    Is it down to the language barrier that most of the people spoken for this piece seem to be non-Japanese? Or a reflection of this being more of foreign driven thing?

  3. Chicago Ted says:

    needs more touhou
    god I’m awful at touhou

    • pepperfez says:

      Since Touhou is everything at this point, there’s surely some Touhou you’re good at.

  4. RealityJones says:

    It’s bizarre and laughable (and sad) that the Japanese have willingly missed out so badly on PC gaming. If it was me, I wouldn’t ever want to miss a large chunk of possibly great games I could play. The whole lame argument that “well it’s too big of a device, size-wise, for where they live” just sounds ridiculous and like nothing more than a weird excuse.

  5. frightlever says:

    Of course there’s a future for PC gaming in Japan – just look at the quality ports Koei is turning out.

  6. TheAngriestHobo says:

    “Assault Android Cactus” is such a wonderfully Japanese name, I can’t even. At least, not until they release Super Assault Android Punch Heart Romance Cactus Superb next year.

    • purpledoggames says:

      And yet that one’s being made in Brisbane, Australia. But yes, with awesome Japanese sensibilities, and naming convention.

  7. Unsheep says:

    Just as most Western gamers don’t care about 80% of all Japanese games, its only logical to assume that Japanese gamers feel the same way about Western games and are thus only interested in 20% of them.

    • ChrisGWaine says:

      It’s more asymmetrical than that. Japanese interest in Western games is much lower than Western interest in Japanese games.

      • Unsheep says:

        Yes, based on what I’ve read the majority of Western triple-a games are more or less flops in Japan, only a few seem to get through. The Western games that seem most popular in Japan are those that look VERY Western: the Last of Us, Call of Duty, Skyrim etc.