"I really like people who are individuals, like mavericks," says James Mielke, a six-foot and change, bleached-blond ex-pat. "Japan does not reward that kind of behavior normally. It has a village mentality. Like when shit happens, people keep their shit together. They don't raid or loot Best Buy and they don't set cars on fire. All of these young people who are full of hope and promise, they just go into a salary man job. They end up being the guy who chain-smokes and drinks himself to death. Jumps on the subway because he can’t handle the pressure or jumps on the train tracks. It is really tough here for the average Japanese person."
Mielke is the organizer of BitSummit, a conference designed to galvanize Japan’s fragmented indie game community and introduce it to Western media. The goal: to empower Japanese independent game makers to strike out on their own. To be mavericks.
HUman Angle: Behind Bit.Summit
The indie label
Indie video games — those developed by small teams independently of the traditional publishing structure — are ascending in the United States. Credit naturally belongs to the creators, but also the simultaneous advents of crowd funding websites, online storefronts and social media platforms that have helped said creators to fund, sell and promote games on a previously impossible scale.
In less than a decade, we've witnessed a perfect storm of creativity and scalability. And with billion-dollar publishers going all in on the unsustainable budgets of AAA games, the rise of indies could not arrive at a better time.
This sort of passing-at-the-crossroads was dramatized weeks ago at the 2013 Game Developers Choice Awards, when independent developers beat out triple-A studios, with their hundred-person teams and multimillion-dollar budgets, for all but one award.
Indie is strong in America, and with its community's resounding desire to become more ambitious, more innovative and more inclusive of all walks of life, it could become the dominant force its supporters believe it should be.
By contrast, Japan's indie scene is all but invisible. Japanese consumers have been slow to adopt digital distribution, making selling independent games impractical. The "indie" concept itself is suspect, commonly associated with amateur hobbyists, or "doujin."
Indie, to some Japanese gamers, is a downright dirty word, but James Mielke, a boisterous bleached-blond ex-pat living in Kyoto, hopes to change that.
To longtime video game enthusiasts, Mielke's known for his tenure as editor-in-chief of Electronic Gaming Monthly and its sister website, 1UP.com.
Before that, Mielke owned an East Village bar, worked as a DJ in a few nightclubs and spent some time as a male model. But he doesn't want to talk about that. This is how Mielke converses, dropping surreal tidbits of former lives and former passions and moving on. For all of his love of retro things, he seems intensely occupied with the present. Anyway, we'll catch up to Mielke in the present shortly.
Mielke's most recent career was a 12-year run in the games press. EGM and 1UP.com cultivated editorial personalities as big and brash as the video games they covered. Weekly podcasts and web videos felt like water-cooler talk, each episode brimming with rumors, gossip and uncensored childishness. They put the enthusiasm in enthusiast press.
The team loved video games, arguably none more so than Mielke, whose personal game collection numbers in the hundreds; dozens of those games are signed by their creators. The publications' joint credibility was an all-access pass, introducing the fan-turned-professional to some of Japan's most important video game makers, like Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid), Kenji Eno (D) and Yu Suzuki (Shenmue).
These were Japan's original mavericks and auteurs. "I was trying to get into the human side of [their story]," Mielke says.
Despite the editorial team's forward-thinking approach and the success of its individual personalities, in 2008 publisher Ziff-Davis went looking to sell the "Game Group," which included EGM and 1UP. "I'd been through so many turnovers at Ziff-Davis," Mielke says, "that I didn't want to go through another one."
That year, Mielke met with Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the creator of Rez, during the Tokyo Game Show.
"We walked over to a coffee shop and we sat down and [Mizuguchi] pulled up this laptop and he turned around and said 'Check this out,' and it was a target video […] I was like, 'What is this?' and he was like 'This is the sequel to Rez.' Rez being one of my all-time favorite games […] He was like, 'And I think you should join us as a producer.' And I was like, 'Wow.' That's all I needed to hear."
Born a Japanese gaming evangelist
A couple nights before BitSummit, Mielke is editing a video at his East Kyoto apartment, which he shares with his wife Joy and three-year-old daughter Musette. His cramped home office doubles as an amateur video game museum. Shoulder-height glass towers, bookcases and boxes display the hundreds of video games, art books and figurines he's amassed over the past three decades.
When asked about the room, this is how Joy, his wife, describes it: "We agreed that no matter where we moved, no matter how small the apartment was going to be, he had to have his own room. Because, not only does he have a huge collection, he's not the most ..." Joy laughs, then continues, "he's not the most organized person in the world. So I didn't want things overflowing through the whole house. It had to be contained."
There's no clear rhyme or reason to the collection beyond its size and density. "I want to show you something," Mielke says, reaching behind a shelf. He lets out a few expletives before recovering a dusty box. "My uncle used to send these to me from Japan."
On the box is a rendering of a space battle. Inside, a single-serving handheld video game from the late 1980s, the kind that was constructed in the form of a brick of cheap plastic with a itty-bitty display. This was one of many Japanese games Mielke's aunt and uncle would ship overseas from Japan to Mielke's childhood home in New York City.
"he's not the most organized person in the world. So I didn't want things over-flowing through the whole house."
"Let's say it was like 1981 or '82 or something like that," he says. "When you walk into school and you've got something like this — it's got a joystick. Nothing like this existed at the time. So this was just mind-blowing. When I'd walk into school with something like this — like, my mom even put a freaking label on there to let you know that this is mine — you were the king of school."
A five-year plan
Joy, whose mother is Japanese, had previously lived in Japan, but she had no doubt returning would be difficult. The couple was recently engaged to be married, and Joy was pregnant. It was like an entire lifetime was happening all at once.
Mielke, a big idea man, came up with a five-year plan. If they didn't love their new life after half a decade, they'd re-evaluate their location. Maybe move back to the States.
Joy has admired Mielke's passion since they first met. "I think that's what kind of attracts me to him," she says. "Because I don't have as strong of a passion that he has for his games and his music. He has his passions and I look up to that and want to support it."
After months lost waiting, the couple was finally approved for a visa. They took a cross-country trip across the U.S. for a farewell visit to Mielke's parents in New York City. Then goodbye, America; konnichiwa, Japan.
Getting situated in Tokyo was even more difficult than expected. Mielke ran into a number of bureaucratic issues, hampered by his inability to speak or write Japanese more than conversationally. He turned to his old personal blog on 1UP.com to write lengthy anxiety purges.
After a couple more months, life finally settled and the man who'd always loved Japanese games found himself working on one. From Japan, James and Joy planned their wedding in NYC, had a child and had a wedding. Mielke released Rez sequel Child of Eden, as well as Lumines: Electronic Symphony. The five-year plan was on track.
But last year, economic changes called Q Entertainment's business strategy into question. Eyeing mobile and social gaming profits in the West, the company's board of directors pushed for cheaper and more profitable games.
"Social became such big business," says Mielke, "that formerly traditional game publishers or game developers like Q Entertainment thought, 'Why spend $5 million in two years developing a major console game when we can split that budget up into 10 games and make infinitely more revenue creating social games?' […] I was like 'OK, well, I think my time here is done.'"
The big idea
Dylan Cuthbert, owner of the similarly named Q-Games, began conversations with Mielke over the internet, and after a few weeks, Cuthbert invited Mielke to join the company in Kyoto.
The period was transitionary. Though Mielke began work on a number of the company's projects, he suddenly had more free time than usual. So his mind wandered. It was at Q-Games that Mielke came up with the idea for BitSummit.
Japan lacked a strong indie community
Q-Games was an independent game studio, but Mielke noticed it had minimal communication with other indie developers. And Japan, let alone Kyoto, lacked a strong indie community.
Mielke didn't quite know what to do with that. And then, a Western indie game developer spoke up. "It was Phil Fish's fault," Mielke says. "That's what inspired me."
Phil Fish is the 20-something creator of indie-puzzler Fez and one of the designers featured in Indie Game: The Movie. There was a time in early 2012 where the bespectacled artist was regularly unloading semicontroversial opinions about the state of the industry on social media and in public forums. For that, he became something of a media darling, with his quotes appearing on a smattering of enthusiast blogs.
"Japanese games just suck."
The most explosive of Fish's claims came after a screening of Indie Game: The Movie at the 2012 Game Developers Conference. During the Q&A, a young, soft-spoken Japanese game programmer named Makoto Goto stepped up to a microphone and asked what the game designers thought of modern Japanese video games.
Fish's reply was instantaneous: "Your games just suck."
Deal with it
"At first," Mielke says, "the knee-jerk reaction was, 'Well, that's a fucked up thing to say.' But then at the same time, I knew that a lot of people were saying things like that. It didn't even have to come from a Western game developer. It was coming from people like [Metal Gear Solid creator] Hideo Kojima."
In fact, Japanese developers had been criticizing their own development community for years. In a speech in 2009, Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune said, "When I looked around at all the different games [on] the Tokyo Game Show event floor, I said, 'Man, Japan is over. We're done. Our game industry is finished.'"
In an interview with The New York Times, Inafune shared his assessment of the same show floor a year later: "Everyone's making awful games; Japan is at least five years behind."
"Every time they opened up their mouth," Mielke said, "it was like a pronouncement of doom, and I thought 'Well, yeah, if you look at the major publishers, you are constantly doing the same old thing. You are kicking out sequels. You are catering and pandering to a very conservative audience. Japan first, the rest of the world later, so yeah, it's happening.'"
"Our game industry is finished."
Then there's the American indie development community, which Mielke sees as a wellspring of creativity. Small teams operating on small budgets making personal projects; it's not unlike the early days of Japanese development.
Japan was doing this decades ago.
Not so impossible
John Davis, a community manager and assistant producer who also served as Mielke's right-hand man on BitSummit, gives a tour of Q-Games.
Mielke and Davis started at the company around the same time, and Davis remembers when the outspoken blond-haired goliath pitched him on the idea of a Japanese indie game summit.
"I just thought it was the most ridiculous thing he could try to do," he says, "because I knew how much work it was going to be. And I didn't think we, as Q, just the two of us, Mielke and I, could do it."
"Japanese gaming is very protective and private."
Davis explains that uniting the Japanese indie scene is a task bigger than it appears.
"The [Japanese scene] is very compartmentalized," he says. "Everyone is in their own world. They don't have the camaraderie like you see out West, but it's kind of a cultural thing, I think. I don't think it's just the indie community. I think Japanese gaming in general is very protective and private. They don't like to share whatever is going on. Japan is about circles. Like, you have your circle of your family, your circle of your college friends, your circle of your work friends."
The summit would happen. It needed to happen. Mielke's made of skin, bone and forward momentum. Over time, with lots of constructive questioning from Davis, the idea fleshed out. Their boss, Dylan Cuthbert, agreed to sponsor the event, and a number of co-workers volunteered to work it.
"It just kind of started to fall into place," Davis says.
It's the night before BitSummit and Mielke's apartment is a mess.
Tonight, Mielke, Joy and Musette are joined by a half-dozen volunteers, busily stuffing bags and reviewing last-minute details. The place is littered with red cups, celery sticks and Domino's boxes of half-eaten pizza.
Musette is bouncing on the couch, gleefully aware she's circumvented bedtime, until Joy catches her. Joy is BitSummit's secret weapon. For the past couple months, she's been renting the space, setting seat arrangements, ordering bags and T-shirts and posters and pamphlets.
"Our mission statement: Don't bore the shit out of people."
"If it wasn't for Joy," Mielke says, "I don't think we would be having this event." What about Musette? "She's helped all right," Mielke says, laughing. "I don't know in what way, but she kept us on our toes screaming at the top of her lungs when she wants apple juice or when she wants to watch Dora the Explorer."
Currently on the television is a video Mielke just finished editing. The footage is from the Japanese-made indie games that will be showcased tomorrow, cut at lightning pace and set to blaring club music. It's a music video. A very loud music video.
"You know, I have been thinking about planning and all of this stuff," Mielke says, "What's our mission statement? Don't bore the shit out of people."
Welcome to BitSummit
It's a beautiful morning in Kyoto. The mob of humanity outside BitSummit, mostly men, doesn't appear bothered that they will spend the day inside. There's a giddy, almost childlike energy floating in the air.
James Mielke looks surprising well, a living argument for man subsisting on raw positivity alone.
Nearly 200 developers, volunteers and reporters stream down a cement stairwell to the venue's entrance below street level. Some game makers hang around the courtyard, catching up with old friends. A couple of marketing people — very clearly from the West — make a beeline for the tiny bar.
Joy skitters from a back room to the welcome table to a group of men in suits and again to the back room. The wifi isn't working and her plans to register everyone digitally are falling through. This is a miniature nightmare, but you wouldn't know it from the genuine smile on her face.
The venue itself is arranged like an elementary school classroom. Where the audience would be stand a dozen or so tables, each carrying folded pieces of paper with the individual developers' names. Many guests have already begun setting up their laptops and iPads for the demonstration session at the end of the day.
The event was set to begin 15 minutes ago, but some technical issues are holding up the introduction. On stage, Mielke, sporting a custom-printed BitSummit sports jacket, quietly rehearses the beats of his speech.
A number of U.S. press are in attendance. The place is overbooked, so the press are herded upstairs, where they're told translators will be waiting. From the balcony, the room of developers looks like one unified organism. Here they are. Together.
The beginning of the event is divided by lectures from a handful of developers and sponsors.
Yohei Kataoka's speech about the development of Tokyo Jungle seems to resonate the most with the crowd. He explains that whenever interviewed by overseas press, he'd be asked if the Japanese video games industry is over. "I don't think it's anywhere near over," he says. "It's something we should be proud of."
After the panels, a mob of developers storm the Steam representatives, who look only slightly intimidated. Other devs wait within range, debating whether they should make an introduction. A group of Western translators encourage them. "They don't bite," an American reporter says, before realizing that idiom won't translate so well.
On opposite sides of the room rest booths for Epic's Unreal Engine and Unity. Reps from both fling into the crowd like human fishing lines, reeling developers back to their tables. A middle-aged man in a suit asks me if I'm a developer and tells me all about the benefits of developing for the Unreal Engine.
"The large game market is becoming smaller and smaller, while smart phones are becoming larger and larger."
Other developers congregate in the venue's courtyard, many reuniting with old friends. Many of them are either still working at a major developer or recently left.
"There are a lot of people I used to work with," says Takayuki Nakamura. Nakamura is a video game composer who composed music for a number of classic SEGA titles, including Virtua Fighter and OutRunners. Now he collaborates with fellow industry veterans, including Fumio Kurkawa, at independent studioBrainstorm Co, Ltd.
"A lot of [the guests] share the same feelings," Nakamura says. "They're moving out on their own and so the scene is growing. The large game market is becoming smaller and smaller, while smart phones are becoming larger and larger. We're now able to go out on our own and make smaller, downloadable games."
As the day progresses, the developers start grabbing beers and sharing cigarettes. The atmosphere is like a class reunion.
"Hey, excuse me," Mielke shouts, pacing across the stage. This is his "one last thing" moment. The crowd goes silent, and suddenly it's obvious what Mielke meant when he said, "Japan knows how to keep its shit together."
The lights lower and Mielke hits play on a video. For a second, the screen is black. Then appears a large photograph of Kenji Eno, the developer of D. Eno recently died due to heart failure from hypertension. He was 42. The middle-aged designer had long been a creative anomaly. At 17, he dropped out of high school and took jobs in a variety of industries, making time for his electronic music. During the development of D, he shared a one-bedroom apartment with his wife, fearful that they didn't have the money to have children.
"He was the original indie developer," says Mielke, tearing up. Many of the people alongside Eno in the photo montage are in the audience, and the vibe is swirling like a mood ring from jubilation to sadness to hope.
"Japan knows how to keep its shit together."
Eno never had a community of independent developers to turn to. These developers in this room, right now, have one another. The tribute is a celebration, but also a warning: don't be exclusive, don't be hermetic, appreciate one another. You never know when your time will be up.
Outside the venue, a band of developers wait on the corner to share cabs. Where are they going? "To the bar," a translator says. They have plenty of catching up to do.
To the light
Mielke's plan to organize the indie game community in Japan is a positive start. But for indies to succeed in Japan, gaming culture at large may need to change. There must, at the same time, be an overwhelming embrace of digital distribution and small-scale creative culture.
The day after BitSummit, Mielke gets an email from Yoshiro Kimura, the creator of Little King's Story and a guest of the summit. Mielke freezes. "You have to read this," he says.
"I want to explain this emotion which You and your Bit Summit gave me.
It is like a small beautiful light of a life. Maybe I am walking in the very deep cave. But this light gave me a strong energy [...]
Mielke's plan to organize the indie game community in Japan is a positive start.
"I was [a] happy child who made video games every day [...] I wanted to create what I love. There was no money around me. There was no industry around me. There was no audience around me. No one was able to stop me. I was not able to stop myself [from making] video games. There was only my body and my thoughts. Now I must believe, I should believe, I can do as I did in my childhood. Even if it is so hard and tough."
I am walking to the light.
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Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis
Video: Jimmy Shelton, Tom Connors
Phil Fish Image: James Everett
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone