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Language and cross-cultural barriers are just some of the challenges Japanese indie developers face when bringing their games to the West.

Anne Ferrero is the community manager at Asobu, a non-profit community and working space designed to support independent game developers in Tokyo. In 2016, Ferrero directed the documentary film ‘Branching Paths: A journey through Japanese indie game scene’ and has also contributed several videos to Archipel’s YouTube channel covering the stories of Japanese creators.

In a GDC talk titled Big in Japan, Not in the West: The Difficulties of Cross-Cultural Appeal, Ferrero described some of the opportunities and problems Japanese – and other non-English speaking studios – can encounter.

The Japanese indie development scene has evolved over the last decade, moving from being a traditional hobbyist pursuit to a viable, if precarious, career path. The latest edition of the Indie Game Survival Guide suggests there are now around 10,000 indies based in Tokyo and Kyoto alone.

Ferrero says that, in part, this is because it’s easy to start work as a solo developer or subcontractor.

“In Japan, you don’t have to create a company or register as an entrepreneurial activity if, for example, your revenue doesn’t reach a certain amount of money,” Ferrero explains.

“Developers don’t need to build a studio, although it can be a problem when you need to release your game on console because they (the platform holders) require you to be a legal entity.”

Retro Game Aliens
Retro Game Aliens | Giichi Totsuka

The average age of indie developers also tends to skew higher than in the West.

“You might think that indie devs are very young, but that’s not the case in Japan,” says Ferrero.

Many Japanese schools place students within companies for their final year, and being an indie developer is not generally acknowledged as a career path. It’s actively discouraged by some educational institutions that are keen to maintain reputations based on corporate placements. This contributes to the age disparity, as indies are often comprised of developers leaving established roles mid-career.

There’s also the issue of funding. Japanese publishers offer low minimum guarantees, and there is little help from the government or other creative institutions.

“If you publish your game overseas, you are going to have to translate it, Ferrero says. “Localisation costs money, and these are costs publishers need to recoup.”

Most investments tend to flow to ex-AAA developers or famous developers. The same applies to crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter.

“Crowdfunding isn’t an option in Japan,” Ferrero explains. “People prefer to buy products and not an idea. So, if you do crowdfunding, you have to try and target overseas markets, which means you will need to have an English speaking team to run the campaign.”

Language is the other obvious hurdle. In a developer survey, Ferrero found that more than 80% of respondents said they can’t communicate fluently in English.

“The Japanese game market is really small, so if you want to have more chances to sell your game, you’re going to need to sell it overseas, which means translating it, which means extra costs. So, imagine you’re making a visual novel or an RPG with a lot of text it’s going to cost a lot of your budget. “

The language barrier also limits access to the wealth of information available online. Everything from tools and templates to engine documentation and media information. Even a platform as popular as GameMaker Studio doesn’t have officially translated documentation.

“It’s going to impact your access to information. All of those awesome resources on the internet are mostly available in English,” Ferrero says.

As a result, many Japanese indies self-publish and struggle to make themselves seen or heard. Media coverage is also comparatively limited, and social media engagement requires considerable fluency. Platforms that are a given in the West, such as Twitch, are not as ubiquitous in Japan. And there isn’t the same culture of events, mixers and expos.

Unreal Life
Unreal Life | Hako Life

Ferrero identifies clear areas for improvement.

“First, we need more translated content, whether it’s articles or tutorials. Also, for conferences such as GDC, having a transcript is helpful as it is easier to read English than it is to hear it.”

Non-English incubators and accelerators also need to be encouraged, and school exchange programmes could allow Eastern and Western developers to share their experiences and culture.

There’s also a need for more exhibitions and events to promote Japanese indie studios and broaden coverage. Recent years have seen events like Bit.Summit and Indie Live Expo thrive, but more need to follow in their footsteps.

“It’s important to showcase games from different regions and different cultures because it will create role models people can relate to. We know that representation matters,” says Ferrero.

Given the love for Japanese games, it’s surprising how tough it can be to promote and communicate the appeal of projects that are just as innovative as anything created in the West

Ferrero concludes the talk with an appeal for enthusiasts of the medium to help support the games they appreciate.

“If you see a game or creator you like, don’t hesitate to retweet or like or engage in discussion.”

Word of mouth, whatever the language, will always help.

Images: asobu

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