Why Isn’t The Japanese Indie Game Scene Bigger?

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Ojiro Fumoto is a 22-year-old game developer who lives in Tokyo where he’s currently working on his mobile game Downwell. It’s a platform-shooter about descending a dangerous well armed only with shoes that double up as guns.


Recently, Fumoto quit school in order to work on Downwell full-time, which is obviously a huge decision to make, but he has at least been financially backed by publisher Devolver Digital. His aspiration is to become a full-time solo game developer.


Fumoto’s case is a highly unusual one: it’s rare for a small game studio (teams of two to five people) to be able to dedicate the entirety of itself to making a game in Japan, even rarer for a solo creator. What’s even more uncommon in this case is the attention that Fumoto has picked up outside of Japan.


He has been mentioned in an article about the doujin scene in The Guardian, and the same author, Cara Ellison, also profiled Fumoto in her Embed With… series. His game has also been written about on a number of websites, including Siliconera of course, and then there’s the interest from an American-based publisher in Devolver Digital.


Indie games (or doujin games) have not had the cultural upheaval and attention boost in Japan that they have had recently in the west. But why is that? Siliconera thought Fumoto would offer a rare insight towards the answer to this question, even if he can’t answer it by himself, being so new to it all and all.


In the following interview, he delves into the world of doujin games and solo game development in Japan, revealing how small it is, and how it exists in its current form. Fumoto also talks about whether he sees doujin games ever expanding beyond their current obscurity, as well as how he came up with Downwell in the first place, and what he hopes to achieve with it.



What encouraged you to get into creating games in the first place? And why did you originally want to get into it?


Ojiro Fumoto, designer: I’ve always wanted to make video games since I was a kid, but had given up on the idea at an early age because I had thought that only the smartest people in the world could become programmers, and I hated maths back then.


At my third year in university where, through a strange turn of events, I was majoring in music; specifically in classical singing (lol), I started asking myself: If I could become anything in the world, what would I want to become? And it turned out I didn’t want to be the greatest opera singer in the world if I could become one, nor did I want to work in a company for a stable income, I just wanted to make video games.


In Tokyo, is there much encouragement to get into game development? Are there communities and classes you can turn to if you’re interested in it?


In terms of encouragement for getting into independent game development, I doubt there is much. There are many special schools that supposedly teach games stuff, but I hear they’re all pretty awful. I think most people my age would typically want to get into a games company to make games, for stable income. Indie developers are still really, really rare in Japan, I think.


Regarding communities, I know of and attend two monthly indie games-related meet-ups in Tokyo, which are “Picotachi” which is run by the folks at Pico Pico Cafe, and “Tokyo Indies” which is run by Alvin Phu of Dot Warrior Games.


Are there many other people around you that are in your position, that is, working full-time by themselves or in small groups on a game?


I don’t know anyone of my age that’s doing what I’m doing, and the only successful Japanese “indie developers” in Japan that come to mind are the two who are probably well-known in the west too: Studio Pixel and Nigoro.


Generally speaking, what is the attitude towards indie game developers in Japan? Is there much attention and appreciation shown towards them by anyone?


I haven’t been a part of the “Japanese indie scene” for very long so I don’t know much about them. What I do know is that I didn’t know they (other than Nigoro and Studio Pixel) existed until I started looking.


I think they are just starting to get acknowledged though; there was a big booth-space for the indie developers at this year’s Tokyo Game Show, the whole space sponsored by Sony.


How much knowledge is there of the western indie game scene in Japan in your experience? Over here, we hardly know of any doujin developers. Is it the same there for western indies?


There are some gamers who play the western indie games, but they’re certainly of the minority. Only a VERY small number of people have heard of “Braid” or “Hotline Miami” over here, let alone the names of its developers.


There may be a lot of coverage on the western developers on western gaming websites, but those don’t get translated into Japanese often, right? I guess it’s the same for articles on doujin developers in Japanese gaming websites. There is certainly a language barrier surrounding this issue, as well as a cultural one.


Do you see the doujin scene in Japan growing at all in the future? Why is that?


I think the general preferences of gamers are quite different here from that of the west, lingual / cultural difference being a huge factor in it. Anime girls are big in Japan; animal-masked assassins not so much. Also there’s the localization. Some awesome western indie games don’t even officially get translated into Japanese.


As Phil Fish, and various other developers have said, Japan’s game design ideas are really behind the times, generally speaking. And while we have so much we could learn from the western games, lingual and cultural differences hinder the general Japanese gamers from even touching them.


So, to answer your question: doujin games should grow in their own way as they have been, but probably won’t be received too well outside their limited fan-base, both in Japan and in the west. I imagine that doujin developers strive to make games that please its audience; it’s just that their audience is quite different from the mainstream western “gamers”.


How did the idea for Downwell come about? And could you explain how the game works?


I wanted to make a small Spelunky-like game that would work on smartphones. So I started making a 2D platformer where you would keep going downward, with occasional enemies and deathtraps, jumping and stomping being the only offensive option for the player.


It wasn’t very interesting, so I kept adding upgrades that the player could obtain, like double-jump wings etc.. One day I made an upgrade called the “gun-boots”, which let the player shoot downwards when the jump button is pressed while in the air. This mechanic felt original and worked pretty well, so I decided to make it the main mechanic for the game.


Why have you chosen to work on a mobile game rather than, say, a PC or console game?


Aside from Kero Blaster, I hadn’t seen many 2D platformers that felt good to play on the iPhone, and personally wanted a Spelunky-like game for the device, so it was from the start that I planned to make a game for mobile to realize my personal desires.


Besides, I can’t make too complex of a game yet, so the capabilities of a mobile device felt more than enough for any game I could manage to make.


What is your hope for Downwell? Would you like it to become a hit across the world? Do you think that’s possible?


My hope is that some people would play the game and have some fun time with it. It wouldn’t hurt for it to be a success and make me a ton of money, haha. But more than that I want the game to entertain its players, regardless of sales.

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Chris Priestman
Former Siliconera staff writer and fan of both games made in Japan and indie games.