A snapshot of Japan's indie scene in 2017
Inside this year's BitSummit.
Walking the BitSummit floor with James Mielke, founder of the annual indie game showcase held in Kyoto, is a fit of stops and starts. Amongst the scramble of games being packed up and booths and stages taken down, Mielke gets stopped every few seconds by developers who want to express their thanks for being included in the event, which held its fifth edition late this May.
"It was awesome, awesomer," one of the developers from Montreal-based Neonable, tells Mielke after this year's show. To which Mielke responded with a smile, "I hope that's a sincere awesomer." He was then ushered to a chair, where he sat and played a few minutes of the team's first person shooter, Bootleg Systems.
This year's BitSummit lived up to the reputation the show is building as the place in Japan to see quality titles by independent developers. Nearly 100 games were shown this year at the two-day event, which also included speeches by developers and a tournament that pitted a few attendees against developers in Battle Sports Mekuru for the Nintendo Switch.
"The fifth one was a big one for me," Mielke said. "Because it was an anniversary and I never had any idea how long I'd be able to keep coming up with ideas. It's hard work. There's always a point, just like Daniel Craig and (James) Bond, where he's like, 'I'm done with this.' But the event itself is so rewarding, when you see everybody is grateful for this event. I'm grateful they feel that way, because that's exactly why we do it.
"It's amazing to see the support, the number of people who come out to see the games. They know they're not going to see Chocobos, they know they're not going to see Dragon Quest Slimes, they know they're not going to see all the famous things that the Japanese video game industry is known for. Yet they still come. That's the most rewarding part about doing this event, and that's what keeps us going."
Those who attended this year were greeted with an event hall full of titles from developers both inside and outside Japan that covered a large array of genres.
Among some of the interesting titles on display was Lobotomy Corp, a PC game from Project Moon. The game is a management simulation with a twist. You control a team of employees working in a large jail-like factory (or factory-like jail) housing monsters, murderers, and one, apparently sentient, Fragment of the Universe. The goal is to keep them happy by assigning tasks and activities and keeping their happiness levels high.
Happy monsters create energy the factory can harvest. Unhappy monsters brutally murder employees, use mind control to make employees do the deed themselves, or simply escape ... and murder employees. Not so good for company morale, to say nothing of productivity. That's also without the employees suffering mental breakdowns of their own, which also need to be managed, by force if necessary.
The premise is simple, but things can get really hectic when you have to manage and monitor so many situations at once. "Most of the ideas came from our main director, Ji Hoon Kim," said, artist Ha Jin Rin. The idea was from (2011 film) Cabin in the Woods."
Creeping Terror, for the 3DS by Sushi Typhoon Games, was another horror title on display. This one is more straightforward, as you guide a high school girl through a darkened mine by the light of her cell phone. You pick up rocks to throw at bats, find items to unlock doors and, at least at the end of the BitSummit demo, lead a monster on a chase as you look for a place to hide. The pacing of the title is very slow, a deliberate choice in order to create a feel more aligned with Japanese horror movies.
There were plenty of quirky games on display, and one of the weirder ones was Namesuta, a mobile game by Ponos. It's essentially a horse-racing simulation, but with slugs filling the starring role. There are various types of training and food for your trusty steed, and the combinations you choose will determine how the slug performs in races.
Another cool title was Cross Code, a 2D RPG that harkened back to games such as the Secret of Mana. It comes complete with an interesting story of a blue-haired protagonist who somehow wakes up in the middle of an MMO and has to interact with the characters there to escape. She's later joined by other characters, who can join her party, and the developers at Radical Fish Games say that while the game can be completed in several hours, discovering all its secrets would take well over 40.
There were at least a few great-looking indie shooters on hand as well. Nex Machina was running on a PlayStation 4 in Sony's area and was pretty much non-stop, guns-blazing gameplay in the demo.
One game that drew big crowds was People Panic! by coconoe inc., but don't expect to be bringing this one home anytime soon. The expansive setup at BitSummit was played by holding makeshift UFOs attached to rods over a city displayed on a large interactive projection on the floor. The aim was to hold your UFO over the city and suck up as many people, and some buildings, as possible, as if Close Encounters of the Third Kind met Katamari Damacy.
Smile Game Maker, by Smileboom Co. Ltd. was more about creating your own story. True to its title, it allows players to make a game. You decide everything from characters, to landscapes, to weather effects, such as snow or lightning, and a host of other choices. Plus, no real 3D mapping knowledge is needed with the tools the game provides.
That was just a small, small smattering of the games on hand, which also included turn-based gem Research and Destroy from Implausible Industries, the platformer Iconoclasts and many others.
There was also the usual cadre of guest speakers, including Koji Igarashi who, clad in traditional samurai clothes topped off by a cowboy hat, showed the first 3D model of the character Zangetsu from his upcoming Switch title Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night.
The event attracted crowds in the thousands, and was another reminder of BitSummit's rapid growth since 2013, when developers and media were in a cramped space for the industry-only event. Since then, the size and scope of have increased with each iteration.
"What really felt great about the first show, is we were all huddled together in something like a gym in an elementary school talking about games," said John Davis, one of the organisers. "Even as the show has gotten bigger, people are still attending even if they aren't showing games. They're still attending and networking. I think we've kept that atmosphere. But I didn't imagine it would get this big."
The idea to open to the public in 2014 was a catalyst in the show's growth.
"I have to give credit to John Baez, the founder of The Behemoth, who encouraged us in the second year to make it open to the public," Mielke said. "If it wasn't for him, I don't know if we'd be a public event now. He said, 'Let's open it up to the public, let's see if people come. The only way you're ever going to know if they're going to come is if you open it up to the public.' Because John Baez encouraged us to bring it open to the public we tried it.
"We were really nervous the second year, but tons of people showed up. Then the next year, we were like let's keep it going to the public, then more people showed up. Now it's the fifth year, and I'm guessing more people have shown up than ever before."
The show attracted a diverse crowd as well, with a mixture of hardcore gamers, casual fans, people who came alone and those who brought families. From games such as Super Hot, GameTomo's first-person shooter in which time only moves when you do, to the multiplayer games on Switch consoles, there was something for almost everyone.
"We're so happy to see the families, we're so happy to see the hardcore gamers, and everything in between," Mielke said. "That's one of the things that the developers and the guest speakers are really excited about. Because they get to show their games to demographics and groups who might not ordinarily see their games."
With the fifth BitSummit done, Mielke and the rest of the organisers will soon go back to the drawing board and begin coming up with ideas to pull off a sixth edition.
"I would like to bring music back more," Mielke said. "That's kind of my goal for the next one. The only thing we need to maintain, is that whatever we do, we do it in service of the developers and the games. It's not about growing our brand or being the biggest thing we can be. It's about making sure that the games that deserve to be seen are seen."