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BitSummit 2016: The future's bright for Japanese indies

Sakaguchi, VR, and a game about scissors.

The first BitSummit, in 2013, was an experiment. Let's put a bunch of Japanese indie developers in a room and mix in media and representatives from the wider industry, and see what happens. The second BitSummit refined the model, and the show hit its stride in the third year.

The celebration of all things indie descended upon Kyoto for the fourth time last weekend. The sheer scope of the show, despite occupying roughly the same physical space in Kyoto's Miyako Messe as last year, was an indicator of both the growing stature of the event and the renewed energy of Japan's indie community beginning to manifest itself.

Developers from all walks filled the event hall with the sights and sounds of titles as varied as their creators. There were games that would look right at home in the halls of one of the major publishers, alongside ambitious offerings that had a mix of classic, swashbuckling indie flair. At one booth, a developer named Takahiro Miyazawa made a giant pair of scissors to use as the controller for his game, while those playing Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, did so with the famed Koji Igarashi sitting beside them giving out instructions.

"It's a really great atmosphere," said Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of Final Fantasy and part of an all-star roster of guests that included Tetsuya Mizuguchi, Goichi Suda, Yoot Saito and others. "It reminds me of when I started making games."

As usual, there were big-name sponsors, but the one that garnered the most attention from fans, at least when news of its participation broke, was easily Nintendo.

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James Mielke plays Black Bird by Onion Games.

"We just kept having conversations and this year they decided to come onboard, which is really cool because they don't even attend Tokyo Game Show, but they are attending BitSummit as an onboard sponsor," said BitSummit founder and creative director James Mielke. "They're the first booth you saw when you came in, which is very welcoming to the families and kids that come."

Nintendo had 13 games at BitSummit flying under the 'Nindies' banner.

"Almost all the games were made by Japanese developers," said Seiji Boku, a member of Nintendo's Overseas Technical Support Group. "And we want other developers to use the Wii U and 3DS to develop software."

Coming to BitSummit may see the company taking an even more active role in the indie scene in Japan.

"We're trying to create an atmosphere where developers can easily make games," Boku said. "We updated the Nintendo Developer Portal on July 7. It used to be only for developers who were part of a company, but now individual developers are able to register." Also hard to miss at BitSummit were the wealth of titles using virtual reality. From Thumper, a 'rhythm violence' game that will be available at the launch of PlayStation VR, to Dead Hungry, a Q-Games title that tasked players with making burgers for the dead and won the Popular Selection Award (chosen by fans), there were VR titles all over the place.

Some came with massive setups, such as The Gunner of Dragoon, where a headset and a mechanized saddle were used to create the effect of flying on the back of a dragon, and VR Cycling, which utilized a full-sized bicycle.

"It's because it's a new frontier, and indies always go to the new frontier, because they're the most flexible and most dynamic of all developers," said Q-Games president Dylan Cuthbert. "Big companies can only do these kind of lower risk, bigger titles and they can't really jump onto new things. So I think that's why you'll begin to see lots more, even better, ideas and even more crazy stuff."

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Koji Igarashi watches attentively as someone plays Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night.

The amount of activity on the show floor, and the number of fans who lined up before the doors opened and crowded the space, show BitSummit has become a major stop on the industry calendar.

The increased attention has given Japanese indies more time in the limelight and more opportunities to get their games to different platforms. The community, once scattered, is also coming together more, trading ideas and gleaning inspiration from each other. The Japanese indie scene has also gotten a Western infusion from expat-led studios such as Q-Games, 17-Bit and many others. There isn't the type of community that exists in the West yet, but things are better than they were four years ago.

"It's been, I think, a pretty positive force in bringing everyone together," said John Davis, who helped get BitSummit off the ground in 2013. "Now we have Tokyo Indies and Kyoto Indies. They're run by expats, but you go in there and there are tons of Japanese indie guys working on stuff and showing their concepts. I think that over the past four years, this show has been really an encouragement for everyone. You kind of realize, 'Hey, I can do this.' So you see some really weird games, and people have been kind of been bolstered by people doing these other types of weird or strange things."

Being able to come together is an especially important experience for developers in spots where the community isn't as robust as in Tokyo or Kyoto.

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"I make my games in Sapporo, and it's really difficult to find people to work with," said Yu Takahashi, who brought his game, Man with No Name, to Kyoto. If there are people, I can't find them, so there are no friends or rivals to bounce ideas off. So I'm really glad to find other people here at BitSummit. Even though this event is really, really special, the community still feels a little closed."

The scene is not perfect in Japan and a lot of barriers, both cultural and otherwise, still remain.

But increased access to some of the industries leading companies such as Sony, Microsoft and, this year, Nintendo, has made a difference for many. Mielke recalled one story, that could be an example for others, about a developer who was able to take advantage of this newfound avenue.

"He told me that he couldn't even pay the rent with what they were making from games," Mielke said. "They had to continue their normal 9-to-5 jobs and do the games on the side. That developer, we had to pay for their bus fare down from Tokyo because it was too hard to get here.

"Since BitSummit, since the connections they've made with the platform holders, since they've been able to streamline the process with the technology partners that have sponsored BitSummit like Unity and Unreal, they've been able to just develop games for a living. They're now able to do that full-time because of the exposure they've gotten by publishing on Steam and PlayStation 4. It's changed their lives."

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