Keiji Inafune’s tips for marketing Japanese games to Western audiences

Keiji Inafune and his company Comcept utilized Kickstarter to market a Japanese game to a predominantly Western audience; Mighty No. 9, the spiritual successor to Mega Man, is the designer's first indie project, and it's already slated for success. After blowing past its Kickstarter goal shortly after the game's announcement at PAX Prime 2013, Inafune and Comcept have been in the spotlight, a poster child for a Japanese indie seeking Western appeal.

At a previous conference, Inafune said "Japan is over," noting that Japanese developed games aren't doing so well in the market. During a session at GDC today, Inafune said Japan needs to take back the initiative and drive it once had in game production and continue to carve out a path towards a more productive and successful future.

"I think [you] are aware that Japanese games aren't doing so well here, especially is the U.S. but also kind of overall," Inafune said through a translator. The energy level still hasn't come up yet. We need to make a huge amount of effort to get back to where we used to be."

Inafune said it's not all negative, though; going independent himself with Comcept was a decision sparked by the U.S. indie movement. He said he feels there's more freedom, and he likes "seeing and feeling like we're making games like we used to do in the good old days."

"I think my heart and soul is a lot more healthier this way," Inafune said.

"I think my heart and soul is a lot more healthier this way."

Indie developers in Japan are on the rise. In the West, the indie community is seeing its dreams come true, Inafune said, and Japanese developers are now looking to their success to model their own movement.

The indie market in Japan exists in parallel with the doujin market, an artistic sphere in which creators take already-owned IP and build fan works like comics and video games based on them. Mark MacDonald of Japanese localization company 8-4 noted that this doujin market is more hobby-driven, as the products cannot be sold commercially — for a lot of people, this is their outlet for making games, rather than the pursuit of a career. As indie distribution methods grow, like downloadable-only titles through online platforms, the Japanese indie market as grown with it.

"People would be surprised because people haven't heard of them, but when you see these games that are really hard to find, some of them are surprising good quality," MacDonald said. "You think, if it looks this good, I should be able to easily find this. It's in dark corners of the internet where you can find these and people talking about them. It's really incredible talent — it's the same with the indie games, you just see them pouring all this love in. You kind of think, why did they use those [trademarked] characters because they can never sell this game, and it's such a high quality, well-crafted game."

So why don't more Japanese developers use crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter? Inafune said before the Mighty No. 9 Kickstarter, not many Japanese developers knew about Kickstarter. If developers don't even know, consumers likely don't know, and no one was using it. Kickstarter doesn't even exist in Japan and is just now branching out to other countries outside of North America.

"Kickstarter really is kind of a radical idea when you first hear about it," MacDonald said. "Mighty No. 9 has really broken it open in terms of people hearing about it and mainstream outlets picking it up. We're just now starting to see that and I think we're going to see more of it in the coming months and years, people in Japan just started to experiment with it."

"You think, if it looks this good, I should be able to easily find this."

In Japan, the fundamental of funding is more about borrowing funds from somewhere, not raising through a public campaign. Inafune noted that making games is always a challenge, and in modern day Japan funding is not an investment, heightening the gamble when it comes to finding money to make games.

As for Mighty No. 9, Inafune said Japanese reaction to the unveiling of the title was mostly one of surprise — the company raising almost $4 million through Kickstarter for the title. There wasn't so much negative feedback, with most responses being positive or neutral. MacDonald added that between 10 and 15 percent of the project's backers were from Japan, which is an astounding number for a territory just embracing crowdfunding.

"They're definitely less vocal than the Western audience, for better or for worse," MacDonald said. "They're super polite and very much were there and watching, but from my perspective handling community stuff they were more content to sit back and watch rather than actively participate or even volunteer. I feel like maybe they didn't even know that it was their place to [give feedback,] whereas Western people are more used to Kickstarter being participatory and engaging.

"It's something we're working on, getting people more involved and engaged in Japan," he added.

Inafune said more Japanese companies are asking him if their own game ideas would be good for Kickstarter. But what he believes they aren't thinking about is the back-end support and the behind-the-scenes things that need to happen to launch a crowdfunding project. The concept of a game needs to be appealing to garner an audience, but developers also need to be aware that everything on the back end is running smoothly.

"The backers themselves are another important layer of support for us," Inafune said. "Because of their support, it raises the quality of the game itself, for us, because we know we have people that are waiting for this. Yes we're making the game but I don't see that as being so hard — it's more about gaining the feedback and wanting to respond to that and reflect that somehow in to the product that we're making."

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