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"Digital Games Expo 2013" – an indie games expo in Tokyo, Japan

Simon Lundström
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WHAT'S UP WITH THE JAPANESE INDIE SCENE?
A little personal report from the indie game fair "Digital Games Expo 2013" in Tokyo, Japan.

It seems a lot of people agree on that the Japanese commercial gaming scene is coming to an end, but I don't know enough of the background to do anything but guess why this is so. I've heard some say that the Japanese big developpers, with the success during the 80s and 90s, have used flawed hiring policies, focusing on employing highly educated people straight out of Tokyo University, instead of mildly educated gamers. Some even claim that being a gamer has been a no-no, that it will work against you because companies don't want to employ nerds.

Super-famous ZUN, creator of the immensely popular indie games Project Shrine Maiden series, doesn't believe that is the problem. His theory is instead that Japanese companies have focused too much on how to market the games; first via huge ad campaigns, which raised the costs too much, and then when when internet started spreading, it's gradually turned into how to stealth market. All this has shifted the focus away from the games, to games marketting per se, changing the way of thought from "what game would be fun" to "what game would a lot of people buy?".

I can't but guess that there is a bit of truth in both theories. There is also the fact that that no one denies: the generation shift that causes a lot of problems in Japan: Here, you don't play games when you pass 30 years of age. Or at least, you're not supposed to. Once you get married and have kids, gaming is something you should put behind you. This does of course cause a problem to the market; if it's not socially acceptable for a father to sit down with his PS3, what happens is that the former gamers turn to quick games playable on the commuter trains; which adds to the growing generation used to carrying their computer in their pocket. It's said Gung-ho are selling more copies of Puzzle & Dragons each month than Capcom's lifetime sales of hits like Street Fighter IV.

Whatever the reasons, Japanese game developpers for consoles and PC are having a harder time now than two decades ago and the games we see from Japan aren't by a long shot as far ahead of the rest of the world as they were 20 years ago.

So people wanting to make games just because they want to make games end up at the indie scene. Fortunately, Japan has a decades long tradition of fairs and markets for fanzines and fan-made, small-print products in general; the most famous being the gargantuan "Comics Market" with 400,000 visitors, held twice a year in Tokyo since the 70s. Comics Market is a three-day marketplace not only for fanzines, but also research papers, home-made merchandise and of course, games, both digital and not. My rough guess is that there now are a couple of hundred sellers of home-made games on each Comics Market.


Entering the hall, welcoming poster, typical rows of exhibitors, and selling audio tools.

Digital Game Expo 2013 is an indie fair in the same line, however for digital games only, and my first impression was actually that it was way smaller than I had thought. It was one hall with about 100 sellers on about half as many 20''x80'' cm tables, most only using half of a table as space. Used to Comics Market and Game Market (for board games), I'd thought it would have been about double this size, but a closer look revealed the reason, and it was in the event title: As a first-time event, where all exhibitors are selling their goods on Comics Market aswell, Digi-Expo didn't aim to be a market place so much as an… just an expo. Hence it was for the developpers, by the developpers, and most people who came to visit and look were indie developpers themselves. The show proved to be a good success, with over 600 visitors crowding the little room.

Also, another thing that was noteable was that Digi-Expo was for games (and gamer tools) only. On Comics Market many of the software-selling exhibitors are selling mere digital art books, many of them pornographic, whereas Game-Expo didn't feature any erotica at all. As ZUN joyfully put it, it was only gamers there, and it was more having fun with games than just selling.


Zun's lineup of indie game history, Project YNP with their race game, spinning shooting game Revolver 360 and project ICKX's impressive fighter pilot game.

Zun loves beer.

Some 10 years ago I had a period when I focused a lot on the Japanese indie scene, and though I don't remember all names, it was nice to see that several of them were still in business. First to note was of course the maestro ZUN, nickname for the maker of the immensely popular Project Shrine Maiden series of shooting games. Having made "bullet hell" games even before the term existed, ZUN has now released 14 games in the series (not including side games), the last being, according to himself, the simplest of them all. "It was a point for me to release this game this year 2013" he says, "I believe the Japanese gaming scene is finally come to an end, and I wanted to put out this, the simplest of my games, just to show what a game is and what a game can be." He continues with saying that he with this latest release intends to step down from the front of the indie game scene, a place he's been standing in for the last decade, focusing on other things and just making some weird games when he feels like it. And beer. ZUN loves beer.

ZUN's old partner studio Twilight Frontier, most famous for doing the official fighter-game spinoffs of Project Shrine Maiden, "Immaterial and Missing Power", "Hisouten" and "Hisotensoku", weren't present as an exhibitor, but only because they didn't have any new titles to show. "Looking at the rest of the tables", the representative said, "most were content with just showing what they had. We should have just come anyway. Next year, we'll be here." On a scene where few are earning anything at all, Twilight Frontier stands out as a group of people who are actually making a (sparse) living on their games. In their specific case, though, it's not a big surprise. Another studio I remember from before, French Bread, who used to make quite impressing fighting games, had obviously gone the whole way, not focusing on developping fighter games for the arcades. Their release of "Ragnarok Battle Offline" way back did stick out as special, mostly because it was officially OKed by Gung-Ho. DNA software, and my little favourite Daisessen were also there, but the makers of the broken-yet-painfully-funny fighter game Maribato were not to be seen.


The entry stairs and exhibitor rows.
Asking around a bit, I find there are roughly two types of games on the fair: Games that look like they were made by one individual in about two weeks, and the others that blow you away with amazing visuals. The former type is usually made by… one individual in about two weeks, and the latter, I learn, is usually made by a team of 2–3 people during the course of about 8–12 months, sometimes excluding illustrator and music composer, two roles that are typically out-sourced by developpers who can't draw or compose themselves. Surprisingly many are writing their code from scratch in C++ or C#, but a few write in Unity or gaming tools made by some other indie developper. With very few exceptions, all these games are made in the developper's free time, when they come home from work.

From previous experience, I know that few exhibitors want to reveal their sales, so I ask for that reason instead. Representative of Aqua Style, who will release a Shrine Maiden-styled roguelike in December simply replies that "Nothing good comes out of it. If anything, it'll just seed discontent, so we never reveal our sales." That said, I know from other sources that while the less impressive titles may sell in only 50 or 100 copies, the more professionally made games may indeed sell ten thousand, with of course the works of ZUN and Twilight Frontier must be tenfold or more. Aqua Style's game "The Mysterious Gensokyo 3" has been 2 years in developpment by a team of 5 people and 5 external playtesters. I don't think it'll just sell a mere thousands.

One thing that surprised me was that at least five developpers had brought their Oculus Rift with software too. I tried out a game in which you flew through space shooting crystals, and only aiming with your head, a strange utility where a mechanical doll you held in your hand (and could fiddle with) turned into the virtual idol Hatsune Miku once you had the Rift on, and another demo where you just walked through a creepy empty wooden school building (a typical horror scene in Japan). Obviously the Rift is something that the indie developpers here had a good chance at. A lot of exhibitors also displayed developping tools such as simple programming languages for simple games, sprite editors, animation tools and general game engines.


The scary oculus Rift doll, "How to make visual effects" and a 2D animation tool for indies.

Of the finished games, most of the things were from the Shrine Maiden franchise. ZUN has said that anyone's free to develop for the franchise as long as they make it very clear it's a derivative work, and ever since, the franchise is bigger than anything else on both the indie game scene and the non-indie game scene. While I am a fan of the Shrine Maiden games, it does get a bit tiring after a while, and that's why I was impressed with "The ruler of the planet", a good-looking RPG that was completely original. Made by 2 guys in the course of a year, illustrations and all. They sold it for $10.

With the Japanese commercial gaming scene in decline, I thought about how PSN and XBLA have welcomed indie games these recent years, and wondered why none of these games reach the download scene. I spoke to a few duing the fair, and it wasn't bright. The Western offices of Sony and Nintendo are very welcoming towards indie developpers, but this is obviously not the case in Japan – as anyone with access to the Japanese WiiU eShop can see. There are strict controls, you have to have a renown publisher to back you up, and for WiiU for example, Nintendo takes the larger part of the sales anyway. Steam isn't a cute situation either. With Steam not being spread in Japan, and few Japanese having an account, getting a game reviewed enough to actually get a Steam release is obviously a very high threshold. And this is after you manage to get someone who can translate the game to English (which I doubt anyone can pay for). I get the impression that it's just not worth it. Unfortunately it seems the Japanese indie scene will stay an isolated island until further notice.


Revolver 360.


Perilous Dimension for the Oculus Rift by Hydrangea


Various games demoing, the leftmost being Gensokyo Rond, by Cubetype.


Project YNP's racing game.

Award-winning novel game House of Fata Morgana and the developpers Novectacle.

My favourite booth on the fair: Kirakira Star Night, developped for the Famicon (NES), featuring 60 sprites with no slow down. They didn't sell any cartridges, though. Only the ROM. Developped by RIKI

Next soft + with their tactical RPG Rime Belta. Devevelopped by 3 guys during 3 years.

AAA! with his game Howitzer. He was giving the game out for free – "I'm moving house, and they're taking up space".

Mission to Depths by Day-to-Day management – a typical one-man developped action platformer.


The teaser for AquaStyle's roguelike "Mysterious Gensokyo", scheduled for Comiket 85, that is about New Year's.


Impressive Toho-themed fighting style action game. Sadly enough I never caught the developper's name.


Project ICKX's fighter pilot game.


The beta version for Illucalab's Mariokart-style racing game with Toho characters (here with Sakuya)

Thinning out.


Digital Games Expo intends to stretch on, trying to do a fair at least once a year, hopefully two. When asking the host if they expect to become the Comics Market of indie gaming, his answer is no. Comics Market is something else, he says. There, people come mainly to shop; Digi-Expo is more intended as a place for interaction. The bleed-over between fanzines and fan games is big, and there is no competing with 400,000 visitors with open wallets. Also, Digi-Expo won't feature any erotica, but will only focus on games. He hopes it to become a place where it's more about the exchange between developpers and not only about selling.


My hoard. Biggest headache being my bags were already full, so I had to send it home – by boat. Will be 2 months before I can try them out.
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