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Sense of Wonder: Indie-fying Japan

Creators from Sony, indie developer Nigoro, and Q-Games discuss the rise of digital download content and the indie aesthetic in Japan -- a country that still focuses almost entirely on retail and publisher control of the marketplace.

The Tokyo Game Show's annual Sense of Wonder Night brings together a selection of independent and experimental games from around the world. In October of 2008, PlayStation Network title PixelJunk Eden by independent developer Q-Games was chosen as a showcase finalist.

The title's visual style and soundtrack were designed by Baiyon, a Kyoto artist who has in recent months discussed at industry conferences strategies to capture imaginative design concepts.

Coinciding with the 2010 Tokyo Game Show, Baiyon's latest collaboration with Q-Games is hinted at in a recently released promotional video directed by company president Dylan Cuthbert.

The PixelJunk Lifelike music visualizer will be controlled by the PlayStation Move accessory for the PlayStation 3 console. Participating in this group discussion, producer Tatsuya Suzuki has also been focusing his efforts on the creation of a Move title: namely, the puzzle game Echochrome II.

Suzuki has been responsible for discovering breakthrough talents in the world of experimental games as part of Sony's "Game Yaroze" and "PlayStation CAMP” initiatives.

Titles emerging from the recruitment and development programs include the interactive novel Diamond and the Sound of a Gunshot, the refuse puzzler Trash Panic and warship dismantling game Patchwork Heroes. The producer was also responsible for guiding the development of the original Echochrome.

Having created numerous surprising and comical flash titles for the independent studio Nigoro, Takumi Naramura is in the process of completing his first game for Nintendo's WiiWare service. Previously released as an retro-style platformer for the PC, La-Mulana is being given a complete audio and graphical overhaul for the WII, and will be released in English-language regions by Cave Story publisher Nicalis. In this discussion, the participants share their perspectives on designing standout gaming experiences.


Tatsuya Suzuki, Takumi Naramura and Baiyon in Tokyo.

Would you offer by way of self-introduction a few words on your background in game design?

Tatsuya Suzuki: I'm Suzuki of Sony Computer Entertainment. My most well known game is Echochrome, released for the PSP and PS3, on which I served as producer. The original idea was envisioned by Jun Fujiki and released as a freeware PC title. I was asked to adapt the idea for the console market, and in the process wound up serving in a role not unlike that of a director.

Much of my work has been in producing PSP titles. Upon joining Sony Computer Entertainment, I worked on a number of out-of-the-ordinary game concepts, including Intelligent Qube, Devil Dice and Yarudora. From that point on, it became my job to find people from outside the company to join in a game development project called "Game Yaroze," now known as "PlayStation CAMP.” For CAMP I produced Echochrome and Diamond and the Sound of a Gunshot.

Takumi Naramura: I'm Naramura of Nigoro. Our team has not released a console title for sale, so I'm not entirely certain why I've been invited this meeting. (laughs) Our intended debut may yet meet with an untimely disaster and never see the light of day.

Judging by your personal experiences, what would you say are the greatest challenges in expanding upon a previously existing game? For instance La-Mulana is a remake, PixelJunk Eden Encore is an expansion pack, while Echoshift and Echochrome II draw inspiration from the design of Echochrome.

Baiyon: Is it hard to expand on an existing game? It wasn't so much the case in my experience. In becoming more familiar with the programmers' processes, little by little I found greater enjoyment in collaborating. It helped that the studio placed no restrictions in the way of my creativity. The process of creating the expansion was a continuation of the same feeling of freedom to do what I wanted, which makes it difficult to prefer the one over the other.

TN: Our case is a little unusual. As a hobby we created a retro-style game on contemporary computer hardware. This time around, rather than creating a remake, it feels like we're developing an entirely new game from scratch. We want it to make the most of the full capabilities of the console. As a result, everything we're doing now is new to us, though at the same time I find myself stumbling over design problems I'd previously thought I'd overcome for good. At moments I feel a little like the student who's fallen behind in class and is told to stay after school. (laughs)

B: Are there many of these challenges that you're facing for a second time?

TN: There are quite a few. In changing the system we now have to think through the same problems all over again. Also, these days you can receive reactions from fans through the internet, so there are a lot of helpful opinions we receive. I take it to heart when people say, "I don't like this part," or "That part is a pain in the ass." It compels us to improve the design as much as possible.

TS: In my own case, I have two answers. I'm not the producer for Echoshift, which was done by Artoon, the makers of Xbox title Blinx The Time Sweeper. They wanted to create a 2D action game that like the earlier title incorporated a unique time control system.

Having brought this idea to the company, it appeared to be in line with Echochrome's theme of space manipulation. On that game, I was serving as more of a supervisor, offering my perspective on the design philosophy behind Echochrome. It was a unfamiliar experience, to have my game analyzed by another party as the basis for a new title.

Two additional expansions of Echochrome were released based on user feedback. It used to be the case that if you wanted to add content to a game, it had to be through a sequel. With downloadable expansions, the situation has changed, which over time I think is going to have some interesting consequences for the industry as a whole.

Though Echochrome was released some time ago, we're still disseminating free content online. I'm certain there are those who would be far from interested in the idea of extending development for so long, but for me I've found it to be a rewarding experience.

B: It's only very recently that I started designing games, so I have no experience predating downloadable content. For instance, a lot of people said PixelJunk Eden was too difficult, so we released a patch that lets you continue where previously you had to start over.


I've encountered a number of people who comment on the humor of Rose & Camellia. Does having a well-defined humorous or whimsical atmosphere help a game to stand apart from the crowd?

B: In speaking with game designers like this, I increasingly come to the conclusion that it's vital to be involved in activities, like the representation of humor, that feel like they're derived from somewhere outside of the industry. This doesn't seem to be a popular opinion. I myself do a lot of things aside from making games, and I find I speak the same language as people who view the industry from an outsiders' perspective.

TN: A journalist from overseas asked me why I insisted on having humor represented in my games. My answer was that it's an important part of my personal style, and to a certain extent I've grown bored with commercial releases.

Games used to be much more fun, more of an active experience. If a game didn't move you, it wasn't worth your time. For me, the quickest way to avoid creating a passive experience for the player is to connect with them through humor.

In the Flash game Rose & Camellia, the faces that your enemies make when you slap them are intended to be funny. The idea is that it's a fighting game, but part of the challenge is that if you laugh too hard you'll lose. Comedy can be a part of your difficulty settings.

What are the most significant advantages that download games have over retail titles and vice versa?

TN: It's difficult to imagine a small company like ours getting our foot in the door in this industry without the existence of digital distribution. It gives me hope that others will follow suit. Nothing would make me happier than to be surrounded by a surfeit of talented independent developers. As for the biggest disadvantage that digital products have going for them, even modern hardware has its technical limitations. I was expecting a better programming environment for console developers, but grappling with memory restraints remains a source of frustration.


Echochrome II

TS: Seeing as in Japan the demand for digital downloads remains modest, it's difficult not to be influenced by the retail market. Eventually, digital content will be the norm. If you look at CD-ROMs, which required several thousand yen to manufacture, these once needed to be sold for upwards of 10,000 yen [$124] to turn a profit. Today, in the context of a worldwide market, you can have a commercially successful title sold for a thousand yen [$12]. The disappearance of physical packaging has recognizably reduced overall production and manufacturing costs.

This platform for distribution has been commonplace in PC and freeware circles for some time, but now it’s finally gaining a foothold in console markets in Japan. If you look at the iPhone, the same phenomenon is taking place in fast-forward. The gestation period, where inspiration creates actual products, is getting shorter. While it's a good sign that so many concepts are finding expression these days, there is also the unfortunate reality that many of the same ideas are being recycled over and over again. For downloadable titles, I think there is an even greater need to innovate.

B: I agree that there is a surplus of new games being produced today. As with music, it puts greater pressure on digital labels when the market is saturated with content. In such a context, it makes it difficult for anyone with aspirations of becoming an independent game designer to be noticed.

What use do events like the Sense of Wonder Night at the Tokyo Game Show or the Independent Games Festival at the Game Developers Conference have? Are these kinds of meetings important to the industry?

TS: My title Trash Panic appeared at the first Sense of Wonder Night.

B: I also participated in that event, and last year was my first time taking part in the IGF. Our team didn't receive any prizes at the Game Developers Choice Awards, but we received four nominations. The IGF is brimming with excitement, so it's easily my favorite part of GDC. I'm also inspired by the sight of Kiyoshi Shin from IGDA Japan putting so much energy into organizing the Sense of Wonder Night to help promote experimental game concepts. It's rare to see such a free and spontaneous exchange of opinions related to game design.

TN: We've been to the Tokyo Game Show two times to participate in interviews. My first impression is that it's a surefire way to tire your legs. I'm hoping it might become more interesting if a greater number of smaller developers start turning up and lending it more of the vibe of an indie music festival. That would be preferable to finding yourself in one corner, surrounded by all the gargantuan game companies.

TS: The Tenkaichi Computer Cowboy championship in Japan is attempting to fill that void. That event is mainly a competition for technical demos submitted by programmers.


B: Speaking of which, I participated in an event last year in Akihabara called the Location Test Game Show. This was also organized by Kiyoshi Shin to gather independent game programmers. Our game was the only one among those featured at the Location Test that had been released commercially.

TS: My sense is that these indie events can be very useful for sharing ideas with your peers. What Japan still needs at this point is greater acknowledgment from major publishers of the value of downloadable content. This is something you routinely observe at events overseas like GDC and E3. Yet there still remain barriers preventing small companies from entering the game market here in Japan.

B: Also, saying a game is good "for an indie game" isn't high praise. That's not the kind of compliment I'd like to receive. It's like saying we should play indie games because it's charitable, not because it's a worthwhile endeavor in and of itself. To be looked down on in that way isn't much of an accomplishment.

TN: In terms of our studio, we see it as a kind of local workshop. We're interested in creating a fewer number of well-crafted products. There is an audience for that style, though it's not for everybody. I'll be pleased once more people come to recognize these distinctions and there won't be this concept that indie games are somehow lacking in quality.

The independent game scene is currently exploding in English-language territories around the world, but Japan's indie developers are not as visible abroad. Why is that?

B: You enjoy a pint of beer more when you've brewed it yourself, right? Well, I think the same can be said for games. As a musician, there are many aspects of the art that I can appreciate primarily because I create music. Having grown up playing JRPGs, it might be difficult to imagine creating your own game. Maybe it comes more natural to people overseas to express themselves, as here I feel that telling anyone you're, say, writing a poem will elicit a strange look from them.

TS: When you view the profiles of actors from overseas, you find they play instruments, paint and are engaged in all sorts of pursuits. You don't really see that so often on profiles in Japan. Once someone has been associated with a certain profession, it can be almost impossible to see beyond that. Personally I'd like to for there to be greater resistance to that sort of societal categorization.


La-Mulana

TN: In my case the situation is a little different. Not too long ago I was creating games purely as a hobbyist. I later decided to gamble on going pro. From experience, I know there are people making games as amateurs, but very few try to break through to creating consumer products. It's viewed as a hobby, not a serious pursuit. There are few people that have the passion to make their homegrown games their profession.

B: It's the same story for all other media.

TN: The avenues toward publishing are narrow, leading people to give up without ever pursuing success.

B: It's especially the case with games. Music created as a hobby in a relaxed atmosphere can pick up steam. You don't have to understand the rules of play to enjoy the product.

Are there aspects of your games that you hope people will appreciate years from now?

TN: Since we are creating an extension and continuation of old school gaming, it's possible our audience is primarily friends of ours in their 30s. The game we're making has a lot of text, which might be challenging for young children, but there are those out there who crave that challenge. I would be pleased if because of the game, someone out there develops an interest in archaeology, or having struggled to overcome all these gameplay challenges can now apply that determination to other skills.

TN: Yesterday I attended my high school reunion, and I brought my kid. At this age I don't encourage my child to play games, but at the reunion someone said junior high school students benefit from playing RPGs because they learn to speed read. It was a different perspective on games than what I had in mind. It would be pleasing to be the catalyst for something beneficial like that.

This article is available in Japanese on Game Design Current. Translation is by Yoko Wyatt.

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