Friday, October 3, 2014

Why the growing Japanese indie scene is good news for small western developers

By Nayan Ramachandran
(PLAYISM Marketing Manager at Active Gaming Media, Inc.)

The western indie scene has been thriving and growing for several years now, and the number of enthusiastic and talented indie developers has ballooned in size. The western gaming industry has been going through a miraculous metamorphosis throughout this entire time. Events like PAX have a huge indie presence, and many attendees attend the show just to see what new indie games are on the horizon.

Indies have enjoyed quite the renaissance in the last few years, and it’s benefitted both gamers and creators alike. The story has been quite different in Japan. While Japan has a rich hobbyist culture surrounding both comics and video games, a sense of community has never quite developed. Rather than having a heavily manicured and curated community where creators have come together for a common cause, creators have instead grown into the venues available.

The Fractured Scene

This has made for a particularly fractured community. Some developers sell a small number of physical discs at events, while others distribute their games for free online. Developers don’t communicate extensively with each other, trade programming techniques, or swap members to work on different projects.

The byproduct of this fractured and largely closed system was that no indie culture developed outside of the most hardcore of Japanese gamers. The fanbase was small, and making money in the space was difficult.

This also made it nearly impossible for western indie developers to break into Japan. Without a central digital hub like Steam to distribute games, and with physical sales being the prevailing distribution method, it was impossible to get western indie games into Japanese gamers’ hands without a physical presence in Japan and a knowledge of the Japanese language.

Many western developers and gamers didn’t even know an indie scene existed in the first place. And they were right. While plenty of “doujin” games were being developed and sold, and plenty of fans to buy them, there was no cohesive scene. There was nothing to point at and say “This is Japanese Indie gaming.”

In La-Mulana director Takumi Naramura’s GDC 2013 talk about Japanese indie gaming, he lamented the lack of community. He posited that the only way for Japanese indie games to survive in the long term would be to join together and create a “scene”. Without one, it would never move beyond its small, but admittedly rabid, fanbase. Such a fanbase could never hope to sustain the rapid growth he was already seeing in the Japanese doujin scene.

There was another reason he felt a scene was important: exporting. While Naramura loves his home country and believes its capable of amazing things, he recognized the limited market it provided in comparison to the rest of the world. With PC being the most common platform for indie games in Japan, the market was severely limited, and releasing the game worldwide was the key.

Without knowledge of overseas markets or language, though, developers would need partners. Before that would happen, they would need to build a scene, and show that a viable scene existed that would attract interested parties.

Since Naramura’s talk last year, the Japanese indie scene has changed and grown rapidly. One of the major contributors has been the Bit Summit event. Bit Summit is a yearly indie-focused game event held in Kyoto. Run by game development alum James Mielke, Bit Summit has been an incredible force in bringing developers together. The event touts an avant garde and hip motif that made it “cool” to be part of the indie developer crowd.

One Japanese developer at BitSummit suggested that the term indie, and everything it carried with it, was far “sexier” than the doujin space. Instead of being an insular hobbyist community that served its most hardcore fanbase, indie events like BitSummit welcomed one and all to a family friendly and clean environment that suggested that gaming was indeed still for everyone.

Throughout the three days of the event, 1000’s of attendees filtered into the event hall to see what “indie” had in store for them. Some who attended were not even avid gamers, but came by out of curiosity. A casual segment of players that might otherwise never come close to a doujin-centric event, due mostly to its related stigma, were drawn to the idea of indie, despite the difference being largely semantic in nature.

It was clear that image and presentation were paramount in drawing in new users.

Additionally, Nikkei, the Japanese corporation in charge of Tokyo Game Show recently started an Indie Game Corner where developers can show their games at a booth so close to greats like Namco Bandai and Sony Computer Entertainment.

Sony themselves took over the Indie Game Corner at this year’s Tokyo Game Show, paying for the booth space and offering free booths to all indies accepted. Suddenly the barrier for entry dropped, and the indie flood began.

A booth with a capacity of around 60 games received over 500 applications. There was certainly no shortage of indie developers excited to show their games to the immense TGS audience. Tokyo Game Show 2013 cited an all-time high attendance with roughly 270,000 attendees over four days, and while TGS 2014’s numbers are still not public, trends suggest that TGS 2014 put that number to shame.

Knowing that many of these attendees came solely for big budget Japanese titles, Sony strategically placed the Indie Game Corner in one of the highest traffic areas of the show: between Capcom, Square-Enix, and Sony themselves. It was a masterful stroke that forced attendees to see what indie is capable of, even if they never strayed far from their most anticipated booths.

Additionally, Sony had a number of indie titles running on PlayStation 4 and Vita prominently displayed in their own booth, allowing for fans of the PlayStation brand to happen upon titles they might not have even known about otherwise.

All of these sat below a huge banner you might have seen over the last year: “Playstation Loves Indies”. It may have sounded like Sony was playing catch up in the western space, as indie games had already taken hold, but it was a powerful statement at BitSummit and Tokyo Game Show. Sony was legitimizing indie gaming. Suddenly, indie was a real thing in Japan, and no one could deny it.

Taking advantage of early exposure

As venues for Japanese indie developers grow in number, so too do they benefit indie developers overseas. None of these events bar foreign developers from attending, and it offers a low risk option for breaking into a brand new market. Events serve as a perfect opportunity to grab mindshare early, and serve as a venue to meet potential partners for publishing opportunities in Japan.

This undeniably softens the blow for western indie and casual developers looking to break into the Japanese gaming space. Where it had once been difficult to fathom where to start, now lay a roadmap of events to attend, people to talk to, and potential partners to market your game. Japan is no longer the market mystery it once was for smaller developers.

Developers looking to release their indie or casual title in the Japanese territory should seriously consider first showing the game at at least one event to maximize mindshare prior to release. BitSummit occurs earlier in the year around February/March, and takes applications up until the previous December.

The Indie Game Corner at September’s Tokyo Game Show is only in its second year, but is shaping up to be a regular fixture. Information about participating in the Indie Game Corner is usually posted on Nikkei’s website several months before the event. The best way to find the information is to search “Tokyo Game Show” on Google. Nikkei’s website will likely be the first result.

Reducing Distribution Overhead

Digital distribution has started to take hold slowly in Japan as well. For years, the biggest problem with trying to break into the Japanese market outside of mobile was the lack of digital distribution options for Japan. Japanese gamers have always favored physical distribution over digital for most games, which significantly limits the ability for many foreign indie creators to bring their games to Japan.

While iOS and Android adoption has been healthy in Japan for quite some time, developers looking to hit other platforms as well were faced with a market that valued physical products over digital purchases, which made distribution in Japan largely impossible without a large scale publishing deal.

We have been making a reasonable amount of headway in the Japanese market with Playism, our indie-focused digital distribution platform. After three years of slowly expanding our userbase, we’ve started to find that digital distribution in the PC space is starting to slowly take hold. With Sony opening the floodgates for indie publishing on PlayStation 4 and Vita in Japan as well, the avenues open for small foreign developers to engage the Japanese audience have exploded.

Additionally, Sony has already shown that Free to Play gaming is not out of the question on the Playstation platform. Titles like Judas Code and Samurai & Dragons on Vita, and Digital Extreme’s highly popular Warframe on PlayStation 4 have shown that the console gaming crowd is accepting of a “freemium” experience, as long as the monetization is fair, and the core gameplay is fun.

Distributing in Japan

It’s good sense to partner with a distributor for foreign markets, especially for a market as unique as Japan. While it may seem more cost-effective to try and self-publish in Japan, your title will likely flounder without proper marketing support and online store visibility.

If you’re a PC developer, Steam is not the silver bullet in Japan that it is elsewhere in the world. Releasing a Japanese language version of your game on Steam without localized marketing will probably not equal the level of success you expect.

The Japanese side of the Playism store has found a lot of success with its stable of exclusive content. We’ve localized a wealth of western indie titles in Japanese, and sell them to the Japanese audience at a reasonable price. In addition, developers are able to publish through Playism with little to no risk, and Japanese specific marketing is handled by our internal marketing team.

Looking to publish on PlayStation? Unlike America and Europe, SCE Japan/Asia still requires that you be incorporated to publish your indie title. For smaller creators, this can be a problem. Playism works with Sony as a middle man to make sure getting your game on the PlayStation platform is as easy as possible.

For developers looking to develop in the mobile space, Playism provides localized marketing designed to target the region you wish to release in. Japanese marketing is a very unique beast, and simply translating English sales copy into Japanese isn’t enough. Working with a distributor with marketing experience in Japan is far less painful, and far more rewarding.

Releasing a western indie or casual title in Japan outside of the mobile space is now more a reality than it ever was before. Events have not just introduced indie gaming to the Japanese gaming audience, but these events now provide the opportunity to show off your game, no matter how small, at some of the most popular gaming events in the country, months before release.

Distribution is equally easy to follow through with indie-focused options like Playism, eliminating the headache of physical distribution overhead, and opening the possibility of publishing on multiple platforms. The future is bright for western indie and casual publishing in Japan, and it’s only going to get easier.