The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

As mobile and tablet-based technology advance ever further, so does the need for new types of entertainment: the kind that push the ever-evolving technology to its limits and cater to the immediacy-driven, tech-savvy consumer.

In Japan, there is a growing number of independent, small, highly motivated, and entrepreneurial game developers—simply called indie developers. They are re-marking the gaming landscape and how titles are made, as well as pushing distinctive design aesthetics characterized by new and challenging ways of interaction.

Two of the world’s largest mobile gaming companies, Finnish Rovio Entertainment Ltd. (of Angry Birds fame) and Supercell (best known for Clash of Clans), had the humblest of beginnings, having started off as indies but now making billions in revenue each year. Having reached a level of global dominance, Rovio and Supercell spurred on a new generation to breach the surface and let themselves be known.

GOING SOLO
There is an almost universal mindset among the core indie developers in Japan. To them, it doesn’t matter how big your studio is, how much money you have, or what game you are making. What does matter is that you haven’t given up any of your creative control or compromised your vision. Then they consider you an independent developer.

Indie developers find themselves taking on the entirety of a typical business—from marketing and publishing to Q&A and distribution, and this is done all within a studio comprising one individual or a small, tight-knit group.

The subsequent need to cultivate the business acumen to market, publish, and hold events—which would be left to a publisher were the company larger—is, for the indie mindset, both a point of tension and one of liberation.

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It is not only a painful necessity, but also one more way a developer’s vision remains clearly defined without an external source forcibly changing the direction or intention behind their digital experiences and ambitions.

What’s more, independent developers don’t just make the software. In Japan, a nation often considered an innovator of technology, game developers are adding distinctive controllers, thereby increasing the interactivity of a product. With the advent of non-industrial-scale 3D printers, it’s becoming easier to rapidly design and adapt devices for a variety of gaming experiences.

THE NEXT LEVEL
Justin Bailey, former COO of Double Fine Productions, a widely known US-based game development studio, recently launched an investment and crowd funding company called Fig. Not only does Fig source funds to develop game titles, but it also offers accredited equity investment in a developer or product while offering a return on investment.

Speaking to Polygon, a game industry website, Bailey said: “You get a percentage of the revenue share. That’s going to be called out pretty concisely on the page. The terms are static.

“We have lead investors that are involved. They work out the deal terms that they’re investing in, and the people investing alongside them get to do it on the same terms.
“We’re only able to do accredited investors for the first few campaigns. It means that you have to have more than $1 million of net assets. We have to verify that. But we have plans in the coming months to open this up to everybody.”

In an interview with Polygon about the nature of both crowdfunded and accredited equity investments, Brian Fargo, an independent game developer who also sits on Fig’s advisory board, said: “If you look at Kickstarter, I never saw [them] coming four years ago.

“I never would have dreamed we’d have an opportunity to go direct to our audience and say, ‘Hey, help us fund these great projects.’

“Now, with equity . . . it’s not unreasonable to think these things might start going $10 [million], $15 [million] or even $20 million. Now we can make a different class of product.”

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GAMBLING ON GAMING
How does Fig offer equity investment in game development studios, both for the casual funders and the larger investors? It is in part due to the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act (the Jobs Act), which was signed into law in 2012, Fargo says.

“[The Jobs Act is] kind of a huge deal,” Fargo told Polygon, “because in the past, only accredited investors could do this kind of thing.

“This wouldn’t be as exciting a story, to me, if it were only accredited investors. The fact is that anybody can get in. Especially people who don’t know a lot about the stock market, but do know a lot about games.”

Through this kind of shared funding platform, a level of co-existence can be fostered. Where smaller, unaccredited funders can clearly show where gamer interest lies, a more financially savvy investor has an immediate and clear view of trends and the larger picture of which titles or company to invest in.

Speaking to The Journal, Alexander De Giorgio, co-founder of Inflexion Point Capital, a venture capital (VC) company and intermediary between independent developers and potential investors, explained why VCs are interested in indies, including those based in Japan.

De Giorgio also touched on some of the challenges and opportunities—for investors and developers—that exist in the industry.

Why were you attracted to the game industry?
From a pure business perspective, indies were a natural fit for us. As an early stage VC, our focus is on identifying and supporting the next generation of innovative talent in any particular field. In gaming, you look for innovation and fresh ideas to come from indie game developers.

What challenges have you faced as an investor in the gaming industry?
There are always hurdles to overcome when entrepreneurs seek to raise funds, and game designers are no different in this regard. Understanding the different types of investors available; getting exposure to the right type; determining their suitability and ensuring that they share your goals and vision; all of these require time, awareness, and discipline.

Astral Breakers, an action puzzle game by indie developers Intropy Games, was a hit at the Tokyo Game Show, 2015.

Astral Breakers, an action puzzle game by indie developers Intropy Games, was a hit at the Tokyo Game Show, 2015.

What are the pluses for VCs and game designers?
Clearly, for game designers, finding the right investor is an important step in realizing personal ambitions. The right investor will provide expertise where it is lacking, support and guidance when issues arise, and access to a wider network of resources—which can help a studio thrive.

Investors, for their part, get to work with and nurture exciting new talent while creating long-term economic value and growth. They are also rewarded for their willingness to take calculated risks, which are often based on potential alone.

What motivated you to create Indie Fest in the gamer-friendly Akihabara district of Tokyo?
I feel that being part of a community means playing an active role in its continued health and vibrancy. Tokyo Indie Fest was a response to a perceived gap in the Japanese gaming scene. It was created to catalyse awareness raising for indie developers among consumers, the media, publishers, and the like.

We were pleased with the success of the first Indie Fest and are now in discussions about ways to improve on the formula, and add the most value for those participants.

Gamers gather at Indie Fest in Akihabara, Tokyo, 2015.

Gamers gather at Indie Fest in Akihabara, Tokyo, 2015.

Adam Bolton is a contributor for The Journal and a naive of the U.K. He is, among things, a volunteer, a gamer, a technophile and beard grower. He can be found haunting many of Tokyo's hotspots and cafes
What matters is that you haven’t given up any of your creative control.