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Japanese indie publishers steer Tokyo Indie Games Summit: "Companies are paying attention"

The event offered a fascinating look into the state of games publishing in the growing Japanese indie industry

Indie gaming in Japan is growing, while domestic investment in indie publishing and greater investment in independent and doujin creators is uprooting the Japanese games industry.

According to the report released by Tokyo Game Show organizers Nikkei, a record number of indie developers submitted titles for consideration in the Selected Indie 80 at the event, including a record 218 Japanese creators. Even the Japanese government recently announced investment schemes to fund and produce more domestic indie titles.

With large companies more willing than ever to step in and help solo developers and small teams bring their games to a larger audience, investment is bringing eyes and ears on an overlooked and talented pool of creators.

Perhaps nowhere was that more apparent than in the somewhat-cramped halls of a community center and hotel conference room in Kichijoji, Tokyo, where Tokyo Indie Games Summit put indie publishers on center stage in March.

This two-day event, with one day reserved for business and press and another day open to the general public, offered a platform to the city's indie publishers alongside a small selection of curated indie developers to showcase their work to the public – and each other. This was a chance to look forward towards the future of indie gaming in Japan.

At least, one aspect of that future. Unlike events such as Bitsummit, Digige Summit, or Tokyo Game Dungeon, or even a doujin event such as Comiket consisting entirely of hobbyists, this was an event prioritizing greater space to corporations and Japan's many indie publishers over those lacking such investment.

With roughly half of the event, including many prime booth locations, taken up by sponsors and indie publishers, the event sidelined truly-independent developers in favor of larger companies. Many indie creators in the run-up to the event voiced disappointment in failing to secure a space due to the priority given to major companies.

While such an arrangement left those lacking a publisher at a disadvantage for the attention of the general public, this elevated the profile of companies investing in the space.

Many indie creators in the run-up to the event voiced disappointment in failing to secure a space due to the priority given to major companies

One such company was Bandai Namco with its Gyaar Studio initiative, created both to encourage new graduates joining the studio to experiment on bite-sized projects, as well as run Indie Game Contests where winning indie game submissions earned investment for further development. Other companies present included G-Mode, Playism, and Room6.

The event offered a fascinating look into the state of publishing in the growing Japanese indie gaming industry, alongside the many walls that exist between Japanese independent creators and publishers with the rest of the world.

Compared to the more established international publishers with larger amounts of investment capital and brand recognition, so much so that their publishing label can act as a seal of recommendation for audiences seeking out new indie titles, Japanese publishers have yet to earn such recognition or success with general audiences. As such, events like this serve as a space to showcase their portfolio and build a seal of quality for their titles.

With few exceptions, publishers based in the West have rarely worked with Japanese developers, making this contingent of Japanese publishers showcasing their work at Tokyo Indie Game Summit a showcase for domestic talent and the future of the industry.

Indeed, to browse the showcase floor at Tokyo Indie Games Summit was an act of self-discovery for new titles rarely, if ever, given public space or awareness outside Japan. Gyaar Studio's showcase centered entirely on upcoming indie titles that won cash grants to further develop their ideas during their recent Indie Games Contest.

Many showed great potential: the cooperative quest of a group of cheese-hunting mice attempting to swipe their prize from a garden under the nose of a feisty cat in Little Cheese Works brought our demo group of four players speaking three different languages to states of laughter and communication beyond speech as we worked together over the brief 15-minute demo.

It was similarly nice to see Sky the Scrapper and Parry Nightmare, titles I've come to enjoy at other indie events, win awards through Gyaar and, in turn, receive space within Bandai Namco's showcase.

Numerous Japan-focused indie games publishers made their appearance at the event also. Room6 is a small indie development studio founded in 2010 and spun off from its then-parent company, smartphone application developer Subakolab, in 2014.

With only a few full-time staff, the team primarily places itself in the market as a small-scale publisher with the ability to assist with activities like porting and localization, media relations, PR and event participation centered on the Japanese market.

Though it directly publishes titles overseas, Room6 also partners with international publishers on select releases. Its portfolio, released both under the Room6 label and – used specifically for titles emphasizing atmosphere and story – includes titles like Mindhack, the upcoming Kitsune: The Journey of Adashino, and the recently-launched Recolit.

It also published Ghostpia in Japan and ported the title to Nintendo Switch, although it chose to partner with PQube for that game's international launch.

Events like Tokyo Indie Games Summit are a particularly important opportunity for smaller labels like Room6, which have the technical ability to port and support small developers but not the deep financial pockets of major publishers.

"Previously, indie game events were limited, so the awareness of indie gaming itself with Japanese audiences was very low"Serina Nakajima, Room6

Showcases like this are a crucial opportunity to introduce their work to a small-but-growing audience of Japanese players interested in indie gaming, particularly when such players attending these events are likely already interested in domestic indie titles.

Discussing the origins of the Room6 publishing label, the company's PR manager Serina Nakajima admits that it's the studio's and her own love of indies that led the team to pivot towards publishing as well as development.

"The activities of Room6 as a publisher began for the purpose of publishing a game I really loved for Nintendo Switch, Ghostpia," she explains. "So at the start we didn't really have a goal in mind for it. It was only with the release of Unreal Life that we created the label Yokaze with [that game's developer] Hako-seikatsu and we finalized on what direction we wanted to take with handling titles. That being said, we still try to focus on publishing the games that we ourselves really like."

Using its development expertise to assist smaller teams with development, porting, and marketing is what the company offers the creators it partners with, admitting that as a small company it can't offer large amounts of financial support.

The focused approach to the titles published succeeds in attracting a style of game that not only feels unique within the market, but also speaks to both the individual creator's strengths and the confidence of being offered something unique in terms of storytelling and design.

As of now the industry in Japanese remains small, albeit "increasing year-over-year" in the words of Nakajima, making it difficult for titles to reach broader audiences. That being said, this growth for Japanese indie gaming is visible in the increased attendance, frequency, and scale of indie gaming events in Tokyo and beyond, such as Bitsummit and Indie Games Market.

"Previously, indie game events were limited to things like Bitsummit or the indie gaming corner at TGS, so the awareness of indie gaming itself with Japanese audiences was very low," explains Nakajima. "Nowadays there are more indie gaming events being held and there's an increase in online showcases like Indie Live Expo, and thanks to that I think the number of fans interested in indie games has grown. You also have programs from outside the games industry from companies like Kodansha and Shueisha supporting indie games development, which is also bringing increased awareness and interest.

"Of course there's also been an increase in [games] selling over a million titles, and there's a growing interest in indie gaming [in Japan] because of the sales of the games. However, the overall awareness of indie gaming among Japanese gaming fans is not as high as it could be, which we have hopes will change in the future."

This growing interest becomes apparent in Japanese gaming stores and in discussions with players. Even major retailers like BIC Camera have come to stock indies from home and abroad, while the GiGo arcade in Shibuya now hosts a permanent store for Fangamer's Japanese branch that sells themed drinks and food like daiyaki, marked with a large mural featuring characters from games the company handles merchandising for.

Bubble Gum's Little Cheese Works was showcased at the 2024 Tokyo Indie Games Summit

While many titles under the Fangamer label are internationally-produced, a rising tide has lifted all ships, and further showcases the interest in indie gaming in the country. Interest that brings publishers of all sizes, as well as outside companies investing in indie gaming as an area for growth.

G-Mode, another ever-present publisher at these events, showcased the game OU alongside the upcoming Shinjuku Soumei visual novel, with appearances from other publishers including Playism, Gravity Game Arise, Happinet, and more.

Companies from outside the traditional games industry investing in the indie gaming scene in the country include TBS Games, an offshoot of the Tokyo-based TV broadcasting network, who are working with smaller studios on titles based on their IP.

Tokyo Indie Game Summit is a glimpse into a possible future for Japanese indie titles. One where they rise in stature at home and abroad with just as much potential in becoming global hits as their foreign compatriots

Another such company is multimedia entertainment conglomerate Aniplex's recently-launched visual novel label Aniplex.exe, established to work with independent artists, writers, and doujin circles on new titles with cross-media potential. Alongside giving promising creatives a chance to work on a project at scale, the crossover between other sectors of their business including music and anime is a lucrative one.

One title showcased at the event, Hookah Haze, a new title heavily inspired by the bartending visual novel VA-11 Hall-A and set inside a shisha bar, would make another appearance just a few weeks later at the company's mammoth booth at Japan's biggest anime event, Anime Japan.

Aniplex's early success with Aniplex.exe showcases a big reason why even investors outside of the traditional games industry have sought to invest in or work with indie and doujin creators on new projects.

One of the company's first projects under this label was visual novel Atri: My Dear Moments in partnership with Frontwing and a range of independent artists and writers. Following a successful launch, it could bring in other branches of the company to expand this story and world seamlessly into manga and anime adaptations.

The importance of Aniplex.exe to bringing fresh ideas that can stand on their own and find multimedia potential was apparent in how the company dedicated 90 minutes over two stage shows at Anime Japan exclusively to the newly-established label. One show focused on the upcoming Atri anime adaptation, while another served as a retrospective on one of the label's other games before closing with an exclusive reveal for Aniplex.exe's latest title.

"It's clear the industry is growing, the number of developers are increasing and more companies are paying attention"Serina Nakajima, Room6

With a strong presence and focus on the output and titles supported by studios and publishers based in Japan, Tokyo Indie Game Summit is a glimpse into a possible future for Japanese indie titles. One where they rise in stature both at home and abroad with just as much potential in becoming global hits as their foreign compatriots. One where studios are willing to support indie and doujin creators to realize their ideas, earn a platform and, perhaps, turn their work into multimedia success stories.

It may not be reality yet, but the signs are there.

"We're still in a situation where Japanese indie games are not well-known, and there aren't many titles with international awareness," admits Room6's Nakajima. "There aren't many titles [in Japan] right now that can recoup a return on their investment [from publishers]. As such, many indie game companies and publishers are still in the investment phase, with a few exceptions.

"However it's clear the industry is growing, the number of developers are increasing and more companies are paying attention. The other day, for the first time in Japan, direct support for the indie game scene began with the launch of the Ministry for Economy, Trade and Industry's So-Fu initiative, so I think awareness of the industry internationally also will only grow."

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