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BitSummit founder discusses the event's surprising success, future

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

James Mielke spent 12 years as a game journalist in the U.S. before moving to Japan to become a game developer at Q Entertainment, and later, Q-Games. Last year, he founded a conference called BitSummit in an effort to invigorate the country's indie scene. The one-day event, held last March in Kyoto, Japan, took an incredible effort to put together, but proved to be a smashing success beyond Mielke's hopes and expectations. He and the event's organizers are currently in the midst of finalizing the preparation for BitSummit MMXIV, and as the conference grows, so too does the anxiety surrounding it.

"We wanted it to look packed; we wanted it to look cool; we wanted it to look like it was thriving," said Mielke in a talk at IndieCade East 2014 in New York Friday, explaining why he chose a relatively small venue for the inaugural BitSummit last year. Nobody knew what to expect, so he figured it was better for the show to feel crowded than empty.

According to Mielke, indie development in Japan is nothing like it is in the West. In fact, even the label "indie" takes a different meaning there. Here, developers wear the term as a badge of honor; in Japan, it carries the negative connotations of "amateur" and "hobbyist." Said Mielke of Treasure, the small studio behind revered shoot-'em-ups such as Radiant Silvergun and Ikaruga: "They would never call themselves 'indie,' but they might call themselves 'independent.'"

That's why he started BitSummit: He wanted to foster the kind of friendly, mutually beneficial environment among indie developers in Japan that exists in the West — consider, for example, collaborations like PAX's Indie Megabooth. Mielke also pointed out logistical and cultural hurdles that exist in Japan. Digital distribution isn't nearly as prevalent there, and in Japanese culture, developers tend to be private and reserved about their work, reluctant to show it before they feel it's finished.

in Japan, "indie" carries the negative connotations of "amateur" and "hobbyist"

Because of his experience as a game journalist and developer, Mielke knew what people liked and disliked about gaming events, so he was able to plan and design BitSummit around that. For instance, it's scheduled early in the year, before the convention season kicks off with PAX East and the Game Developers Conference in the spring. And his library of contacts gave him the ability to attract developers, sponsors and press — from Japan, Europe and the U.S. — to the show. He hosted it in Kyoto because it's somewhat off the beaten path for members of the media, who are usually confined to Tokyo or Osaka.

The show was so successful that the organizers had to cut off registration beforehand. Special guests from Valve, Epic Games and Sony, to say nothing of the 40-plus developers who attended, all told Mielke that the event far exceeded their expectations. That gave Mielke the courage and inspiration to make the second BitSummit even bigger and better.

The government of Kyoto took notice of last year's success and came on as a sponsor with a contribution of approximately $30,000, no strings attached — a rarity for government in Japan, according to Mielke. He also noted that he's feeling increased pressure to put on a good show — one of the slides in his presentation was titled, "Mo' Money, Mo' Problems." BitSummit MMXIV will run for three days instead of one, and the location is a proper convention hall that's more than three times the size of the club-like venue that hosted the first BitSummit. The organizers are planning a special art piece, a physical set of polygonal objects, as a stage background: "We want to remind people of what it was like to walk into an arcade in the '80s," said Mielke.

in year two, it's "Mo' Money, Mo' Problems"

He's equally excited and anxious about BitSummit, which is now just three weeks away. With more developers, guests and interest from the press, the show is poised to blow last year's debut out of the water. And Mielke has a lofty goal for it all.

"I want it to be the Woodstock of Japanese indie gaming," he said.

For more on the genesis of BitSummit, check out our Human Angle feature on Mielke and the conference.

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