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.
PC titles still largely fly under the radar in Japan, but the scene is evolving. Events like BitSummit are bringing PC indies further into the spotlight, and developers are beginning to realize there is a real market for their games, even if it isn't in Japan.
"Steam is metamorphosing the PC environment for Japanese games and Japanese developers," said Australian game designer Santana Mishara. The games have always been here, with Comiket and people making their own fan games. They've always been here, but there's never been a way to get them out to people. That is changing."
The influx of Western developers living and working in Japan and interacting with Japanese developers at game shows is another positive for an industry still growing and trying to carve out a place for itself.
"I think games like Crypts of the NecroDancer work very well in Japan," says Japan-based developer Matthieu Guillemot of Little Big MMO, which is developing Gangs of Space. "It's a pure Western game, but it comes to Japan, it has some success and it shows Japanese players and Japanese developers that you can do a very good game with just a few people. I think it will have an effect on new people who will become indie."
Japanese Indie Games To Watch
Back In 1995 - Throw the warped code out
If you have a taste for retro games but are tired of pixel art, take a look at Back In 1995. The game is Takaaki Ichijo's homage to 90's PlayStation action titles. The build he showed off at BitSummit used a modern controller, but no action was mapped to the analog sticks because, "there were no analog sticks in 1995!" The game plays and mostly looks like the original Silent Hill (sans the fog), though it's more action than survival horror.
JumpGun - TeamHiropon
You can't jump (on your own at least) but everything else can in this puzzler from Japanese developers TeamHiropon. The goal is to get from one side of the map to the exit on the other side, by shooting obstacles to make them jump and running underneath. Vertical movement is achieved by shooting at a mirror and then shooting the bullet that ricochets back as the maps get more difficult.
Downwell - moppin
Downwell is a fun, simple, and challenging vertical shooter in which you spend most of the game falling and shooting the obstacles and enemies below you. There isn't much beyond that, but it works.
Kappa Namooooon - SKT
Turning back an army of Kappas is a workout. At BitSummit, you slipped on a pair of gloves and thrust open-palmed at the screen to repel an army one of Japan's most famous traditional yokai (monsters) in a game that was popular with the crowd.
Forget Me Not: My Organic Garden - CAVYHOUSE
The story helps make this title by doujin team CAVYHOUSE There's not much in the way of pure action, but the premise is interesting. You are the proprietress of a special greenhouse and tasked with seeding, watering and maintaining a garden that sprouts human organs instead of plants. These organs are then harvested and sold to needing customers.