I was lucky enough to be able to attend the Games Development Conference in San Francisco this year. My favorite session from Day 1 was Anne Ferrero’s talk entitled “Big in Japan, Not in the West: The Difficulties of Cross-Cultural Appeal” discussing the difficulties Japanese indie developers face in creating and publicizing their games. Her talk shared a unique perspective that challenged my idea that since Japan has such a rich culture of game creation, it would be easy to be an indie game dev there. I’d like to share some key points from her talk here, as I think it’s important for people from all industries to be considering these internationalization challenges that make the metaphorical playing field uneven.
Anne Ferrero is the community manager at Asobu, a community space for indie game developers in Shibuya. She also directed a documentary that was released in 2016 called “Branching Paths: A Journey through Japan’s indie game scene” and formerly was a member of the documentary team at Archipel.
Indie Dev Culture: Not Universal
In order to understand the issues that Japanese indie devs have in creating and marketing their games, there first needs to be a discussion on how different the reception of, and culture surrounding indie gamemakers is in Japan as opposed to Western countries. English-speaking indie developers have a wealth of resources available, like platforms like itch.io that specialize in hosting indie games, and game jams. These resources aside, it’s important to also acknowledge that perhaps due to the successes of indie games like Undertale, being an indie game developer in the West is something that is acknowledged as a profession.
Ferrero explained that this just isn’t the case in Japan. While the number of indie devs continue to grow, and many have been able to graduate from the hobbyist stage to creating games as a career, it’s still difficult to be successful. This is due to both logistical and legal issues, and because it’s culturally discouraged. Ferrero mentioned that while it’s relatively easy to work as a solo dev if you’re below a certain income threshold, gaming platforms require you to be part of a company or legal entity to release a game.
On the cultural side, it is interesting to note that based on a survey of 65 of Ferrero’s Twitter followers and her own observations of the industry, Japanese indie game devs tend to be older than the counterparts in the West.
One of the main reasons Japanese indie devs tend to be older is because creating a game takes a lot of money, even more so for those creating games in languages other than English. Ferrero says that there is little funding to go around from the government or creative groups to support game creation, so indie devs generally have to rely on their own capital. Older game creators who have had a successful career and have had the opportunity to put away savings, or currently have an income to support their creative work have the ability to invest in development – a luxury that younger devs don’t have. While in the West, this gap could be remedied by using crowdsourcing platforms, Ferrero explains that this isn’t an option in Japan.
International crowdsourcing platforms like Kickstarter really haven’t taken off in Japan, and there aren’t any similar Japanese platforms. So if devs want to utilize crowdfunding, they would either have to be skilled enough in English to promote their game on an English platform, or hire an English speaking team to run the promotion campaign. For someone already strapped for cash, this just isn’t a viable option.
A Direct Line from School to Career
Another reason why young Japanese indie devs aren’t very present is because students who attend universities to study game design and development are actively discouraged from becoming indie developers. In all Japanese universities, students spend a good chunk of their last year career hunting, and the majority of Japanese companies hire employees right after graduation. Schools base their reputations on how many of their students are hired on at successful companies, or go on to become big names in their respective industries. Except for the rare exception, being an indie developer won’t help boost the school’s reputation.
Although companies like Nintendo and Sony have contributed to Japan being known worldwide as a gaming powerhouse, the Japanese gaming audience is still relatively very small. Japanese developers who can only produce games in Japanese obviously have a much more limited potential customer base than those who can produce in English. Those who want to expand their chances of their game being purchased need to invest in translation and localization, which adds to the already steep costs of publication. For Japanese games, where text-heavy styles like visual novels and narrative RPGs are prevalent, the bill for localization can be especially hefty.
The language barrier isn’t just a stumbling block for the publication process. Ferrero points out that many resources and guides for how to produce an indie game are only in English. Game making tools and platforms also largely don’t have translated documentation. This lack of accessible information only compounds the struggles Japanese indie devs face in pursuing their craft.
A Plea for Internationalization
Ferrero concluded her talk by encouraging the video game industry as a whole to be more internationalized and seek out opportunities to make resources more widely available. In addition to promoting Japanese (and other international) devs through indie expos and exhibitions, supporting games you enjoyed out loud on social media can make a huge difference. Any buzz in English that is created is another foothold that a non-English dev gains. Just like in any other industry, it is important to highlight creators from cultures and areas other than just the English-speaking West. Representation matters in every industry.
Ferrero also pointed out simple things that conferences like GDC could do better – like creating a transcript of speakers’ talks in addition to video recordings, as it’s often much easier to read in your second language than it is to listen. (I’m personally also curious about if video recordings of GDC talks could be subtitled by crowdsourcing à la TED talks)