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Rubbing shoulders with the greats at BitSummit

Now in its fourth year, Kyoto's BitSummit is innovative, egalitarian, and fully deserves its place as a key event in Japan's videogame calendar

A great many words have been written over the years about why Japan became such a centre for videogames, and why the Japanese people embraced games so readily and so broadly. To this corpus, I'd like to add a simple suggestion; try visiting Kyoto in July. Locked between tall mountains on three sides, the valley holding the ancient capital fills up with cloying humidity that sits over the town like a hot, wet blanket. Heavy rainfall offers no respite, merely adding to the steam in the air. Walking just a few minutes down the road leaves you unsure whether you're soaked from the rain, the humidity, your own sweat or a combination of all three. It is, needless to say, perfect weather for staying indoors and playing videogames all day.

Now in its fourth year, BitSummit is a joyous celebration of staying in to play videogames all day. Held at Kyoto's international exhibition centre, Miyako Messe, it's a two-day long expo of indie games of all shapes, sizes and forms. It attracts, and seamlessly mixes together, a remarkably diverse set of creators and titles, with games from legends of the Japanese development scene rubbing shoulders with those created by students and ambitious unknowns. Open to the public, the show gives gamers a chance to meet many of their game development heroes as well as try out a dizzying array of new titles and new technologies. Its focus, however, remains unabashedly on burgeoning creatives, with many of its keynote talks boiling down to homely, personal advice from successful developers to young creators starting out in their careers.

"One of the interesting things about BitSummit, in contrast to almost any other games event, is how egalitarian it feels. Only a handful of sponsoring companies have a booth bigger or more prominent than the standard table"

This year's show is a clear demonstration of how the event has grown, and how seriously the broader games industry is now taking the Japanese indie scene. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo are all participating in different ways - each has a session on the main stage of the event (Microsoft sends ID@Xbox boss Chris Charla while Sony's Shuhei Yoshida is there to represent PlayStation), Microsoft has a booth where developers can come and talk about the ID@Xbox programme. Nintendo has a stand just inside the entrance where it's showing off a pretty solid range of indie games on Wii U and 3DS, including what may be one of the most entertaining games of the show, the endearingly bonkers underwater combat game Ace of Seafood.

The participation of the "big three" platform holders is a coup in itself, and would have been quite unimaginable at an indie-focused event only a few years ago - but they're not the real focus of BitSummit. The beating heart of the event is the rows and rows of tables which take up most of the floor space in the exhibition hall, each housing a developer and their game. The variety is impressive, in many regards. Games on iPhones sit alongside games on PCs and VR games played perilously in the middle of crowded walkways. Certain genres are repeated often - a lot of love is shown to 2D shoot'em'ups and 2D platformers - but other developers mash up genres in creative ways and some simply defy categorisation. I watch someone play a round of a fighting game as a sentient tray of sushi (this is EF12, a game which is introduced as "a beat 'em up which is also a game engine"), and spend some frantic minutes trying to fend off zombies by cooking, assembling and throwing burgers at them in Q Games' clever VR title Dead Hungry.

One of the interesting things about BitSummit, in contrast to almost any other games event, is how egalitarian it feels. Only a handful of sponsoring companies have a booth bigger or more prominent than the standard table - Nintendo, Oculus, Unity and a few others. Everyone else, no matter how famous or well-established, is working with pretty much the same space, from students at a university development club showing off their work through to famed developers like Koji Igarashi (Castlevania), Hironobu Sakaguchi (Final Fantasy) and Suda51 (No More Heroes), all of whom spend the weekend chatting and taking photos with fans at their booths. Other well known developers and industry figures stroll around seeing what's on display, and there are more than a few lovely moments when you can spot the look on a young indie creator's face as he or she realises exactly who they're showing off their game to.

"Rift and Vive headsets are the order of the day - only one title, fast-paced rhythm action title Thumper, is running on PSVR"

Although there's a lot of innovation on display, there are trends clearly visible in the games at the show. VR, in Japan as everywhere else, is a source of great excitement. Whatever happens to VR commercially from here on out, it has certainly fired up the imaginations of game creators, and the BitSummit show floor teems with headsets. The event is bursting at the seams and in need of a larger space for next year, but VR might be the tipping point that forces the issue; a handful of studios have arranged cordoned off spaces for people to play VR titles, but a great many others just show their games off at ordinary booths, and the risk of innocent bystanders being smacked in the head with a Rift controller is always imminent. Rift and Vive headsets are the order of the day - only one title, fast-paced rhythm action title Thumper, is running on PSVR - and lots of developers are showing off titles that are little more than interesting demos. "We're still figuring out what's fun to do in VR" is a pretty common refrain from a lot of creators - the technology is very impressive, and speaking personally I think this has probably been the most time I've spent playing VR titles without feeling the slightest nausea, but working out how to actually make great games from it is still a challenge lots of indies are enthusiastically grappling with.

Retro, too, is a major theme. Near the main entrance is a stand showing off Bokosuka Wars 2, a sequel to the 1983 title which is the grandfather of Japanese tactical strategy titles and which remains startlingly faithful to the 32-year-old graphical stylings of its ancestor. A few paces away is a stall showing off new software developed for the original Famicom (NES), and other games scattered around the hall aim to pluck on the heartstrings of nostalgia for children of the eighties. What's interesting, though, is that the nostalgia bandwagon is also moving on to encompass children of the nineties; from Suda51's remake of Japan-only PS1 title The Silver Case and Hifumi Kono's warts-and-all spiritual successor to 1995's Clock Tower, Night Cry, there's lots of PlayStation nostalgia on display. It reaches a peak, perhaps, with indie developer Takaaki Ichijo's Back in 1995, a horror title which deliberately emulates not only the play style and controls (the diagram of the controller on the booth helpfully points out that "It is 1995. Analog sticks do not exist yet.") but also every graphical tic of the PlayStation and of CRT TVs. Ichijo is also bringing the game to the 3DS as Back in 1995 64, a generational joke that's going to require some explaining to pretty much everyone under the age of 30.

"BitSummit is rapidly on its way to being the Japanese industry's second annual pillar event, counterbalancing the Tokyo Games Show at the other end of summer"

Throughout BitSummit, there's a strong sense of the underlying community that supports the expo and makes it possible. It is an appropriately named event; it really is just the summit, the visible tip of a massive iceberg which is Japan's growing and thriving indie community. That community, or at least the side of it which looks to the international market (there's a whole other indie scene focused exclusively on the domestic market), has its centre of gravity in Kyoto. Nobody I speak to can nail down the exact reason why it's Kyoto and neighbouring Osaka that are the heart of the Japanese indie scene, and not the much, much larger Tokyo metropolis, but a few reasons seem to be a big influence - the cultural impact of local firms Nintendo and Capcom, the lower cost of living which makes running an indie company less risky, and the presence of a handful of companies like developers Q Games and 17-bit, and publisher Playism, which have become key points of interface between the Japanese development scene and the rest of the world.

Though still in its infancy and undoubtedly going through growing pains, BitSummit is rapidly on its way to being the Japanese industry's second annual pillar event, counterbalancing the Tokyo Games Show at the other end of summer. It's culturally the antithesis of TGS, which is a giant, sprawling consumer show dominated by hugely expensive booths whose efforts to engage with indies by providing them with a dedicated space have fallen somewhat flat thus far. Though open to the public, BitSummit is much more about creators and aspiring creators than it is about consumers - and that makes it by far the most interesting, surprising and entertaining way to spend a weekend away from Kyoto's oppressive summer heat.

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Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.