Big In Japan

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What it Means To Be An Indy Developer In Asia

I’m not exaggerating. Indie games are blazing a trail across Japan. According to the Japanese Digital Game Academic Society, homemade indie games comprised an industry worth 10 billion yen (130 million US Dollar) in 2008, making it a difficult sector to ignore.

Indie games or in Japanese: doujin game are usually made by one person single-handedly, or a small circle of friends. The quality varies (from the substandard titles to the professionally accomplished ones) almost as much as the genres, which cover everything you’d expect to see, from shoot-em-ups to porn (see my last month’s editorial) and everything in between.

Whilst the homebrew market struggles in the West, it’s flourishing in Japan, but how? The simple answer is the power and maturity of the fanbase these games manage to build. And this is possible because Japan offers a multitude of events and opportunities for these amateur game developers to showcase their work.

Bi-yearly Comic Market is a Japanese anime, manga and games convention attended by over half a million people over three days. Out of a total 35,000 booths, 800 are dedicated to selling homemade indie games. Added to that, there are more than 3,000 booths dedicated to support type goods such as comic books, self-arranged music CDs, even spin off indie games that already have a strong following among gamers.

If this all seems a bit mind boggling, then let me introduce you to some of Japan’s most popular homebrew games.

Touhou Project – or simply Touhou – is probably "the" indie game series in Japan. Some message boards suggest that this series sells more than 2 million copies, although the sales revenue has never been disclosed.

Touhou is a one-man project consisting of a series of 13 shooting games, which probably still continues. ZUN, the master mind behind this game, created everything including the game programming, character designs and the music. This game is infamous for being inhumanly difficult, which then piqued the interest of many gamers and today Touhou has become a big franchise. Out of the 3,000 booths at Comic Market, reserved for game spin-offs, 2,700 of them were Touhou booths, with many people worshipping ZUN as gamers would worship a big name developers like Hideo Kojima.

Gameplay Video:.

TYPE MOON is a name of an infamous band of creators for indie games. They have released a host of amateur titles; some are erotic games including Tsukihime, which then gained popularity among hardcore gamers. Several years after their initial indie game release, Type Moon "graduated" from the homebrew developer circle and became an officially registered game company. They started to reintroduce their R-18 game titles to wider audiences via other media such as TV animations, comic books, novels, collectable figures and other merchandise. Currently, Type Moon is airing a new TV animation Fate series: Fate/Zero.

Touhou Project and Type Moon are just two examples of how significant bedroom coders can become in Japan, garnering a huge following and major success. These developers either choose to remain within the homebrew, indie circle, selling a massive number of games without paying taxes, or they start a professional company, following a successful amateur career. Here in Japan, homebrew game developers seem to have more opportunities to gain success from their hobby and their passion.

Consumers of indie games have to take the rough with the smooth. There’s the small issue of quality control – or lack thereof. Consumers have to accept that although these developers make these games out of love and dedication to their personal vision, rather than a publisher’s financial targets, the quality could leave much to be desired. However, some developers gain a reputation for the quality of their games, putting them on the path to success. So in the end, the same rules of competition apply to professional game developers and bedroom coders alike.

As well as an issue of quality control, indie games are obviously, not under any other form of control. These games are not registered as a commercial product, so there are no taxes going back into the economy. In addition, homebrew games are free from the CERO rating system, which leaves the rating of the games in the, hopefully, wise hands of the developers.

Regardless of these issues, there is a lot of talent lurking among these semi-professional amateur developers, who are free from the usual rules to express themselves. Fortunately, conventions such as Comiket and the participation of hobby chain stores, that sell these games nation-wide allow gamers to access these otherwise hidden titles. This combined with the Japanese openness to amateur games and their willingness to give these games a chance, means indie developers can make a name for themselves.

But the key contributing factor to their success has to be the hard work they put in; toiling away in a room and then the tireless promotion at conventions, when they finally get to put their work into the hands of gamers. It’s at this point that the magic happens and the indie scene lives on.

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