Introducing the new publisher whose mission is to get more awesome Western indie titles into the hands of Japanese gamers.
This year’s BitSummit in Kyoto wasn’t just a celebration of all things indie gaming, it was also the coming out party for the new Japan-based indie publisher Dangen Entertainment. Formed by a group of ex-pats who have been embedded in the Japanese games industry for many years – working at places like Capcom, Grasshopper Manufacture, Q-Games and Playism – Dangen is the latest small-scale publisher to emerge focused solely on indies.
That’s becoming more and more common in the West, but in Dangen’s case, they’re based in Japan and largely – but not exclusively – focused on publishing into the Japanese market. It’s an interesting role to tackle right now, because Japan is most definitely in the midst of significant change. In some ways it’s simply evolving with the times, but in others, outside forces and influences are coming to bear, and that’s pretty interesting. Japan, after all, was once the sun around which all other gaming planets orbited. It was a simply huge market; so large it barely even noticed anything outside its own unique ecosystem. Fast forward to now, and that isn’t the case anymore – while Japan is still very much its own world, it’s still feeling the tug of those other celestial bodies a little more. Tastes are changing, (some) entrenched ideas are dissipating and markets are in flux.
“If you want to play the next Castlevania type game, it’s not going to be a Konami or a Capcom that’s going to give it to you… It’s going to be an indie creator.” – Ben Judd.
“It’s always been a hard market for Western games to get into,” says Dangen’s Ben Judd, who has been in Japan for 15 years and worked at Capcom before becoming a talent agent within the games industry, “but ever so recently, it’s started to expand and you’re starting to see Japanese gamers play some of these classic [indie] games, and I think that’s because most of these games are being built by Western indies who were inspired by Japanese creators, 30, 40 years ago. You know, if you want to play the next Castlevania type game, it’s not going to be a Konami or a Capcom that’s going to give it to you, and it’s certainly not going to be an EA or an Activision. It’s going to be an indie creator.”
Other elements are lining up, too. Japan, for instance, has been much slower to embrace digital than the West – it’s always been a boxed product country. As recently as 2011, Japan’s most iconic games publication Famitsu simply didn’t review digital games. That’s no longer the case, and each year digital becomes more accepted. The Google Play Store and the App Store are big factors, obviously, but so too is the sheer quality of digital-only releases on consoles and handheld devices, not to mention Steam. Yes, in a country that historically has had no real PC gaming culture, Steam is also on the ascendancy, which obviously plays into the indie scene in a major way.
Even being an indie creator is very much at odds with Japan’s traditional ‘employment for life’ culture, and yet, you now have high profile creators like Koji Igarashi, Yu Suzuki and Keiji Inafune all making games outside the corporate system, and a growing awareness of a broader indie scene, as evidenced by the growth of events like BitSummit and meet-ups like Tokyo Indies. It’s all helping to normalise the idea of being independent.
The opportunity is there for companies like Dangen, in other words, but there are still huge obstacles. And many of those obstacles are the same that other indie publishers face all over the world. How to cut through the noise and get people’s attention? How to compete with big marketing budgets and do a lot with a little? Their central concept is quite brilliant.
“What are we going to do for them that other people aren’t doing? The first thing is, we want to tie them into top level Japanese talent,” Judd explains. “And by that I mean, let’s say you are doing a Castlevania-like game, how cool would it be to have somebody who was, like, a famous creator who made a Castlevania game play your game or talk about your game or participate in some part of the development of your game? That’s pretty awesome, when you think about it. These people were inspired by those OG Japanese creators and now they’re potentially being able to directly work with them, together, on something that’s globally connected, as an indie product, but it wouldn’t have happened unless we had helped bridge that gap.
“I’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response – famous Japanese people that are willing to work with indies and do it just because they have the same passion.” – Ben Judd.
“That was one of the things we determined that if we’re going to make this company we’re going to focus on. Trying to talk to every indie and saying, hey, where’s your inspiration come from? And a lot of times it is from Japanese creators. What creators? Ah, this person. Great! I know that person, let me see what they say. Sure enough, I’ve gone around and talked to a lot of the connections I have in Japan, and… I’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response – famous Japanese people that are willing to work with indies and do it just because they have the same passion. And so that, right there, is frigging awesome and it’s like – why haven’t people done that before?”
It’s a smart move because in a world where thousands of games are released each year, quality alone isn’t enough to guarantee success. Not even close. Other factors need to be there too, and by giving a game a direct link to its genre antecedents it creates not only a notable talking point, but taps into an existing fan base. “The only thing in Japan that works for marketing,” says Judd, “is you need to get in Famitsu… or you have a commercial, that’s it. And so this generates what is a very human interest story for all the press here.”
Japan is also a little bit of an untapped market for indies because a lot of the games we play in the West aren’t ever localised into Japanese, and that can make a huge difference. “Oftentimes, what scares a Japanese player away from a game is not the type of game, or the art style, it’s the fact that it’s in English and a lot of English,” says Nayan Ramachandran, Dangen’s ‘Content Connoisseur’ (according to his business card). “So they [- indie devs -] may say – oh, you know, on Steam my game is available in every region, but my Japanese sales are like .1% – and it’s like, yeah, because you made an RPG and it’s all in English.
“We’ve seen numbers where it’s, like, an increase of 400% in Japanese sales if you just localise it,” Ramachandran adds. “It’s all you do.” Of course, localisation is an involved, multi-faceted undertaking, and Dangen’s approach to this side of things is refreshingly progressive too. “First of all, we make sure that the translators all get to play the game up front, before they even start on the translation,” says Dan Luffey, Dangen’s head of localisation. “That way they know what the game’s about and they get a feel for it, which helps a lot in translation.
“Then, as I’m managing the localisation process, there’s always an open door for them to ask the developer questions, so I’m not creating some wall there, which is usually what happens with translators. I’ve been a localiser for about ten years – games and manga and other stuff too – rarely do you ever get the chance to speak to the person that actually made what you’re translating. And I think that’s a huge detriment, so I wanted to… make sure that they can always feel free to ask any sort of question, no matter how miniscule, just to make sure we get the localisation as right as possible. And finally, after the localisation is in, we want to make sure that every translator, everyone that worked on the project, the proof reader as well, gets their name in the staff credits at the end.”
But that’s not the end of it. “We give translators a revenue share of the profits of the game, after the fact,” Luffey explains. This, obviously helps ensure they’re as invested as possible in doing high quality work, and ultimately, making the game a success. “Valuing the talent,” confirms Judd, “that’s essential for us.”
The Dangen team right now is small. In addition to Ben Judd, Nayan Ramachandran and Dan Luffey, there’s John Davis – formerly of Grasshopper Manufacture and Q-Games and one of the founders of BitSummit – who is doing PR, Twitch streamer and translator Chad Porter and Dan Stern, who like Ramachandran, is ex-Playism, and has plenty of experience working with indies. The current slate is even smaller – just four titles have been announced right now.
It makes sense given a core part of the Dangen business plan is hooking their indie creators up with iconic Japanese talent. And speaking of which, the team won’t be drawn on what some of those announcements will be, but we can already start making educated guesses. “I did kind of ‘out’ one of the examples,” admits Judd, “if you play our games you’re going to see one that potentially does look like a Castlevania-style game, and that collaboration will be announced soon.”
That game is Brave Earth: Prologue, which Nayan Ramachandran describes as having “Castlevania 3’s colour palette, with Castlevania 4 mechanics.” An appetising prospect for old school fans of that iconic series then. “It’s very much an old school 8-bit style Castlevania-like game,” he continues. “More straightforward levels. It’s got hidden paths and hidden bosses and stuff but it is a more straightforward game.” It is also “punishingly hard, with fantastic checkpoints… you will die a lot, but you’ll feel like you’re making progress.”
Developer Kayin, who also made I Wanna Be The Guy, has been working on Brave Earth: Prologue for eight years, which is only slightly longer than the seven years Joakim Sandberg, the creator of Noitu Love 2: Devolution, has spent on Iconoclasts. “Iconoclasts is basically an action adventure RPG with sort of Metroid style level design, but a little more linear,” says Ramachandran. Metroid Fusion in particular was one of Sandberg’s biggest influences, “because of the inclusion of story. He was big on a making a long, character-driven story, layered throughout the entire thing. He’s really proud of that but says he never wants to do it again,” Ramachandran laughs.
CrossCode is similarly advanced – it’s been in development for many years and in early access on Steam since May 2015. The game is a top-down action RPG with both shooting and melee combat, as well as simple but clever puzzle designs. It also has one hell of an intriguing story, built around an MMO within the game, in which players inhabit an actual physical space. (Read my 18 Games of BitSummit feature for hands-on impressions and more info on all three games.)
And finally, the only game that’s actually early in development, and probably a couple of years away from release, is Momodora V, which is actually a working title right now. “Momodora 1 to 3 were freeware side-scrolling pixel action adventure games,” Ramachandran explains. “4 was the team’s magnum opus. They were like – we’re going to do the biggest, baddest sprite game we’ve ever done: bigger sprites, better animation, larger game – and they felt like they’d hit the wall with what they wanted to do with sprite-based games. And they were like – well, what do we do next? We can’t just make the fourth one again, so they decided to go to 3D.
“Momodora V sort of melds the influence of Ocarina of Time and Dark Souls. The main director is a gigantic Dark Souls fan, and even Momodora has some Dark Souls DNA in there, in terms of enemy placement, how levels work… shortcuts, stuff like that. And now, getting more Zelda influence in there. The level design is obviously 3D now, and sort of loops in on itself like Dark Souls but has more Zelda-ish combat in terms of strafing around enemies. You’re much faster – fast like Link, rather than slow and plodding like in Dark Souls. It’s less deliberate, but you still target with R3 and there’s still some punishing difficulty and enemy placement. It also has a beautiful toon shader.”
So that’s the current slate. Or, at least, the games that Dangen has publically announced it will be publishing. “We want to focus specifically on a few number of titles each year,” says Ramachandran, “so we pick the four to six titles that we feel we’re really passionate about and say – this is our slate for 2017, this is our slate for 2018.” This then allows for a level of care that might not be achievable otherwise. “If people know that you’re passionate about what they’re making,” says Judd, “that really comes through, and I think some of the other publishers who are just doing it because they saw it on a website or they think it’s going to sell a lot of units, that passion is not going to be there. There’s no way they’re going to play it as long and as hard as we do, there’s no way that they’re going to be able to geek out about this level four boss and how hard it was, and stuff like that. That’s the sort of thing you can’t fake… True support.”
“The ecosystem we have with the developers right now,” elaborates Ramachandran, “is that we’re constantly in communication with them – every day – and they’re in conversation with each other as well, which we think is really important. So they’re constantly helping each other… we want everyone who works with us to intermingle and feel like they’re part of this family that we work with. And that, to me, enriches the experience of going through the publishing part – they feel comfortable with localisation, they feel comfortable with the marketing we’re doing, because it’s the kind of marketing that they felt they had a real hand in, and they did. And then when we’re post-release, we’re still talking to them… we don’t want to just say – it’s out! – and then forget about it and move on to the next game. What’s in the pipeline, what updates do you have, what expansions are you thinking about, what promotions, what sales?”
It’s clear that Dangen is coming to the party with a smart plan and plenty of passion, so it will be interesting to see how their slate for this year performs. Japan, after all, is still an absolutely massive market, so despite the differences in gaming culture and preferred platforms, despite how crowded the market is and despite the marketing dollars that are spent there, it’s also a massive opportunity for Western indies with the right approach.
You can read more about Dangen’s titles, and a heap of other great games that were on show in my 18 Sweet Games We Played at This Year’s BitSummit feature.
Cam Shea is senior editor in IGN’s Sydney office and tries to spend as much time as possible in Japan. He’s on Twitter.