August 6, 2015 7:10 AM | Lena LeRay
Over the years, James Mielke has worked in many areas of the video game industry. He's been a games journalist, he's worked in game development, and he currently works for Shinra Technologies. He's also the driving force behind the creation of BitSummit, where his passion for games and the people who make them is an almost-visible aura that follows him from booth to booth. Today we've got his answers to questions about how BitSummit has evolved over the years.
BitSummit was your brainchild, right? How did that come about? What made you decide this needed to happen?
I first cooked up the idea of founding an indie game event in Japan partly because I had by then worked for two great independent Japanese game developers; Q Entertainment and the totally unrelated Q-Games. The reason for this was that Western indies had been getting truckloads of attentions for their efforts, but I felt that - due to the fact that the teams that I had worked for had had their games published by major game publishers - we weren't being perceived as independent, despite being self-sufficient and wholly-owned companies. I mean, look at how many of the indies in the West are published and sometimes bankrolled by companies like Sony or Warner Brothers and still retain full indie cred. But Japanese developers who had experienced some success in the past weren't really viewed in that way, so I thought it was time to do something about it.
So I felt that one way to reinforce the fact that we, in Japan, were independent and proud of it was to hold a festival that gathered as many Japanese indies together as possible, to see what we could learn about each other, and maybe get some eyes on the games. In this way, we would not only reassert the fact that the term 'indie' can be used to describe a lot of things, but we would also emerge as leaders of the scene, and help the smaller Japanese indies who didn't have the same level of resources that we did.
So a little bit of this was pride, but the majority of the inspiration was to help the scene be known and heard. A rising tide lifts boats, so by leading this effort, everyone else would benefit. That was the start of it.
Well, the first year it was an operation spearheaded primarily by me, my teammate John Davis, and my colleague Shouichi Tominaga. Dylan Cuthbert was of course responsible for setting us loose on this idea, but it was basically the three of us pulling the event together without having any formal experience in throwing an event this size. Of course, my wife Joy was hugely instrumental in making it succeed, because she was the one who wrote to every developer on my behalf, and helped with the accounting, setting up the corporate account for sponsorship funds, and organizing all the logistics regarding branding and promotional items like t-shirts, USB keys, posters and banners. And she did all of this while pregnant with our second child. I'm confident that he's going to grow up to be a strong kid because his mom was so tough during the planning process.
The second year I did largely the same thing; pretty much driving ahead by pure instinct, creating an event based on my experiences from the previous 14 years or so as an editor and developer. Having been to countless events, I knew what I liked and what I didn't like, and also how I wanted to differentiate from other events. Gaming events in Japan can be pretty sterile, so I wanted to create something that was very energetic, which is why we had so many musical guests the second year. The goal was to be the Woodstock of Japanese gaming events, to offer a sea change in the way events there are done. It was an important facet, too. Considering the amount of International media we draw each year, to offer an attractive, dynamic event is going to reflect in the coverage we receive. When readers see how much fun a BitSummit is, the attendance would surely grow year after year, creating the best possible exposure for Japanese indies.
Again, it was a lot of work for John, Tominaga-san, and myself, and also my wife, who continued to handle the same duties she did the first year, but now we were dealing with an event literally six to eight times as large as the first BitSummit. We had to learn a whole new playbook for that. The difficult part was that I ended up moving back to New York City halfway through the process to attend to family matters, so I had to handle the second half of the planning remotely, which was basically like working a night job on top of my day job. It was very difficult to coordinate all those logistics, with a newborn, and all of the effort it took in our evenings.
In the third year, the formation of JIGA was nice on paper, but we still got started really late. We're still an organization operated by pure volunteer work, so sometimes our main jobs have to take precedent. Once the ball started rolling, though, the JIGA team proved its worth, handling a lot more work than we had done in the first two years. The addition of the IndieMEGABOOTH to our ranks as event planners was very helpful, too. I can't say enough about Kelly and Chris. They were awesome, but they had to navigate the sometimes peculiar way in which Japanese planning is handled, so it was yet another learning process. The JIGA team had to learn how Westerners organize themselves, too, but in the end it all worked out.
The big change from the first to second BitSummit was that instead of treating us skeptically, like a curious oddity to be viewed with a wary eye, by the second event people were genuinely excited for the event. They were making games because they saw this as a real new outlet for their games, as a way to be seen. After the end of BitSummit 2, despite suffering from food poisoning and a fever on the final day, it took me nearly two hours to leave the venue because of all the developers who stopped me to say thanks for putting this all together. It was very humbling to see the love reciprocated like that.
Another big factor was that major developers, like Keiji Inafune, saw BitSummit as the perfect vehicle to announce their new games, and that's huge for us. Daisuke Amaya (of Studio Pixel) announced Kero Blaster at the first BitSummit, but that was an unplanned one-off. By BitSummit 2 it became a known quantity, and gave us a reputation as an event to watch. Of course all of the amazing music acts that I recruited, as well as the stable of artists that Brave Wave brought to the event got us a lot of press, so the biggest thing was that people were talking about this event in Kyoto that was all the rage. Developers across the seas were tweeting things like "I really need to go to BitSummit." As the guy who coined the term "BitSummit," I have to say this felt really amazing.
The third year is that I now feel like we're a real organization, which really helps with all we're trying to achieve. As the event's Creative Director, it really helps me focus on the fun stuff, because what I continue to try and do is create an atmosphere that always surprises people and keeps any copycat events from getting too close to us. If we're going to go through the trouble of creating an event, we might as well produce the best one out there.
This is the first year that BitSummit curated which games would be shown at the event. What are your thoughts on that change in particular?
I think it's a very good decision. At the second BitSummit we wanted to do something similar, but it's an impossible task, with everything else going on, to try and ask a handful of people to evaluate hundreds of submissions. Plus, we just weren't organized enough to create a submission system that made sense. This year the JIGA team really helped get that concept nailed down. We can always be more efficient, but this was a good step in the right direction, as it not only enabled us to bring the number of developers down to manageable numbers, but also raise the overall quality of the games present at the show. Last year our space was twice the size of this year's event, and we could easily have done so again this year, but what's the point? People need to aspire to being the best they can be, and if they know there's a submission process, it'll help inspire developers to do more than just show up and sit down at their table with whatever they threw together. This, plus the BitSummit Awards, helps bring out the best in the developers, and I've seen real progress in the stuff they're creating each year. It's really inspiring to see, and for the Japanese devs, I think having the IndieMEGABOOTH there has been great, as it exposes them directly to the developers and what kind of games they're making. For the IndieMEGABOOTH devs, many of them grew up fans of Japanese games, so they get to connect with that scene.
We felt that there were redundancies, or awards that were too vague to nail down and really vote on with confidence. But in the discussions regarding the awards, a couple of interesting thoughts emerged. One was that we should have an award specifically for Western games, so that there's something for those devs that visit BitSummit from overseas. We want to keep the original BitSummit awards for teams based in Japan --otherwise some amazing game could come in from the West and sweep the awards here, and that's not what we're trying to achieve. But we recognized a need to acknowledge the best of the West, so that's one thing that will be implemented going forward.
The other thing was that now that we have a stamp rally feature built in to BitSummit, where visitors are encouraged to go and see all of the games at the show and are thus rewarded with badges depending on how many stamps they've collected. So because we have this (and we didn't have it in year 2 of BitSummit), we can now effectively re-implement our public choice award, where the public votes on the games. The real upside to this is that it gives the public a chance to have their say, and it also gives games made by development teams who are associated with the planning of BitSummit (i.e. 17-Bit, Q-Games, Vitei, etc.) a chance to win an award without any worry of bias. It's our policy that any team that is involved with organizing the show is not eligible for award voting, since members of these teams are actually voting on the awards. But with a public vote, they now have a chance to be recognized, too.
This is also the first year that BitSummit charged indies to attend. What are your thoughts on that one?
The original intent by the JIGA team was to charge developers, to help cover costs, but I didn't think the indie scene here had matured enough to the point where they would be able to pay for such things, since many of them are still students or salarymen who develop in their spare time, and also possibly traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto. So I made my case to the planning team, and the fee was waived this year, since we had just enough sponsorship to cover it. This may change in the future, as creating this event costs a lot of money,and sponsorship changes from year to year, but for BitSummit 3, no developers had to pay to attend.
I think our greatest strength is being able to put on an event like no other, to attract great guests that are of value to the developers, and to have fun doing it. Our greatest weakness is that we're not a professional event staff, like the company that runs PAX or GDC or E3, so we're constantly undermanned and forced to overachieve. It'd be nice to just be able to hand off the responsibilities to someone else, sometimes, but maybe then we'd lose some of the charm. This is a real labor of love and I think the developers who join us every year understand that, and they reciprocate by making specialized BitSummit animated GIFs and avatars and art and BitSummit-specific versions of their games for the event. I think they're buying into the culture and embracing it and making it part of their own. It's like an open source event in some ways, and that really makes it worth doing.
What has been the biggest challenge about organizing/running BitSummit?
Again it comes down to the tremendous amount of work we're faced with every year, and the very limited amount of manpower --even now-- that we have to achieve this with. I've found that even as the planning team has grown, it just often adds more people asking questions. The Japanese are very cautious about 'owning' a decision, partly because no one wants to be the guy who screws up, and partly because they don't want to offend anyone else by staking a claim on something, aka stepping on other people's toes. As a New Yorker, I'm more proactive about getting things done, so sometimes that can lead to frustration. That said, I think we have a pretty good team now, which will make it easier going forward.
Certainly the event itself. Every year I keep thinking "Can I do another one? It's so exhausting." My original goal was to see if we could do three BitSummits, because all cool things come in trilogies. So I thought I'd just be happy if we could manage three. But then every year, as I meet every enthusiastic developer at Bitsummit, I think to myself "I can't just let this event die." I honestly don't think anyone else could do events like we do in Japan, and if BitSummit went away, what would be left? So in a lot of ways I feel a sense of obligation, in trying to assemble something awesome, that people will talk about for years to come.
What if any effect do you think BitSummit has had on the Japanese indie scene in general?
I genuinely believe we have given the scene some momentum. Three years ago, even Japanese developers didn't know what the indie scene was like here. Now we can put names to faces, and faces to games. We've already seen some breakout games emerge from the scene, and more than a few have ended up being greenlit on Steam, or published on PSN or XBLA. So the games are getting out there, the devs are meeting the media and the fans, and new alliances are being born. It's really rewarding to know we have positively affected people's lives. I mean, we make games so that people will play them, right? It's a good feeling to play a role in that.
We're getting closer to the vision, but the ultimate realization of this concept just needs more money. It's incredible how expensive it is to put on an event in Japan, so most of our sponsorship money goes right to the venue and the vendors. Anything left over goes to making shirts and banners, and if we have anything left over, to advertising. None of us --none of us--makes a yen off of BitSummit. So, if I could have anything in the world, it'd be a blank check to put on the total show that I want to, but for what we've achieved thus far, with 100% volunteer help, I don't think I can complain.
Do you think JIGA can continue to operate as a volunteer-only organization, or is it going to need to hire staff in the future?
Well, I think it's obvious at this point that we can continue to run BitSummit as a volunteer-only operation, but I think I can speak for most of the team when I say that we'd love to be able to assign some full-time contractors to setting up the event. Of course the JIGA team, myself, Kelly and everyone else will continue to pull the strings and steer the creative direction, but as far as the on-the-ground operational stuff, it'd be nice to offload that to someone else. It comes down to budget, though, so that'll determine when we can make something like that happen.
I just hope that we can grow in meaningful ways while remaining true to our original altruistic goals. I always want to be able to retain a close connection with the people who join us, and I hope we can foster more enthusiasm for the event. I love seeing developers talk about BitSummit online, and see them make custom avatars for their profiles during the event. It means they love being a part of it, and I want to know all of these guys. We've grown more than I could ever have hoped for, considering how intimate our first event was. More than anything, this is a real family affair. John and Tomi are like brothers to me, and of course I could never have done this without Joy's support. It felt good to have her here for BitSummit 3, and it was great to see how all of the guys we worked with the first two years really treated her like a queen. It's the acknowledgment of her efforts that was really touching. And speaking of families, one of the best things about this year's event was how many families, both International and Japanese, showed up, and that says a lot about what we're creating. If people feel enthusiastic enough about BitSummit to bring their children, that's really cool. I hope we can keep that family atmosphere going forward.
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