You can see the talk he gave at Screenshake about Downwell here:
What follows now is the interview Ali had with him that evening, it involved a bottle of bourbon that went Down Well 😉 (poor Ojiro is not a drinker):
A: This was your first indie game event apart from exhibiting at GDC?
O: I have been to other indie events; there are a few in Japan. But they’re definitely different from the type of event that Screenshake is. They’re more focussed on the business side of things.
[Sound of whiskey being poured]
O: Holy shit man, I don’t think I can…
A: (Re-assuring) Yes, you can 😉
O: Yeah, there aren’t many “arty” indie games in Japan yet. It’s like we don’t have that “idea” yet…
A: There’s the Doujinshi culture of course which has existed for as far as I can remember.
O: Yeah, for sure. They’ve been around for quite a while, but it’s never been about “art”.
A: Strong stuff!
O: It is.
O: Obviously there is a difference in culture, not just in videogames but in art as well. In Japan, Manga and Anime are obviously big, not so much in Europe. So it’s only natural that Japanese games have a different kind of style. We don’t have many artists that make games. Like with Screenshake, the developers are also artists in a sense: they’re not trying to make a super-arcadey game, they’re trying to make an experience. And I haven’t seen that happen in Japan, but it could be I just don’t know about them.
A: I don’t know, if we go back like a decade or more you had stuff like Every Extent and all the doujin games.
O: Yeah, for sure, it may be that I just haven’t played enough games. But as of recent, I don’t think we’ve had many experience focussed games coming out of Japan.
A: From what I’ve seen it seems like it’s the people from the West who are pushing the indie game sector in Japan itself.
O: For sure, in Tokyo there are two main indie game meetup events per month. The biggest one is called Tokyo Indies and it was founded by an American guy. Another similar one was founded by a New Zealander. So it seems like it’s always the foreigners that see worth in Japanese stuff.
A: There is also Otaru
O: Otaru is kind of different. At the other two people would just show up and present their games using like a projector and stuff. Otaru is basically drinking, you don’t really present your game. You just drink and connect to other developers.
A: So it’s still at the Izakaya then?
O: Yeah, it’s just like that. You’re familiar with Japanese stuff, aren’t you? [Laughs]
A: It is my job to be informed, that and I’ve travelled to Japan quite a lot and interviewed a lot of big Japanese producers, Miyamoto, Naka, Suzuki
O: Oh shit, wow, nice!
A: Yeah, I have a lot of friends there. I actually was in a Virtua Fighter team with a Japanese player called Beaku . She’s still in the scene but I haven’t played competitively in two years, anyway we should go back to the interview: So we were talking about how it seems a lot of the indie games seem to be influenced by Western games and your game actually looks and feels as if it was made here in Europe. Where did these influences come from?
O: I spent five years in New Zealand when I was young. I lived there from when I was 10 until I was 15. That’s also the time when I really got into videogames. I used to play stuff like Half Life 2 and Unreal Tournament. I grew up playing many “non-Japanese” games because I really liked them. So it’s only natural that I ended up making a game that doesn’t feel very Japanese. So when the indie scene really started taking off, after Braid, I started playing all the major ones like Super Meat Boy and I super loved all of them. So I aspired to make something like that. Obviously certain elements of Downwell are influenced by those games, like the upgrade system is from Nuclear Throne and the HP bar is super similar to what they have as well. The screenshake influence is from Vlambeer stuff.
A: It’s kind of sad that Rami isn’t here right now
O: yeah, I wish he was here.
A: He was at the first two editions actually. He financially helped make this possible. He donated 1000 dollars. He’s been with the festival from the start since it was still called Free To Play. It started four years ago and this is actually the fourth edition. So anyway: Do you think the indie scene in Japan still has a chance of growing or are they stuck where they’re at now? The studios and the commercial side no longer seem to be what they used to be.
O: In terms of being an indie, I feel like it doesn’t matter what country you’re from or where you live. You’re selling your game through platforms like Steam, Apple’s app store or Google Play so it doesn’t matter which country you’re in to distribute your game. I don’t really care if the indie scene in Japan doesn’t grow. There haven’t been that many successes, there’s really only Cave Story that became huge. And also there’s been La Mulana. Those guys are really big and famous, but they’re also pretty old. In their forties maybe?
A: Thank you for insulting my age. [Laughs]
O: Haha, sorry noooo I did not mean to do that. But what I mean is: for indies to grow, I feel like younger people have to have something to aspire to and with Western indies you have many “superstar” developers. Nowadays you have all those people like the Vlambeer guys and the younger people that know about them can aspire to be like them. They output a lot of their stuff through Twitter and such, so you get to know what kind of people they are. Whereas the Japanese indie developers tend to be closed. They’re not outgoing. So younger people, who are still at the university, they don’t know that being an indie is a possible way of living. They have no influence or anyone to look up to.
A: Don’t they have people like Inafune to look up to?
O: Young people don’t know him. Sure they know about his games like Megaman, but I doubt many people know about Mighty N°9 or Bloodstained. His fans tend to be older guys from the SNES era. I don’t think the younger generation is all that excited about his new games. That’s only the non-Japanese people.
A: Actually, Japan does have one of the biggest independent studios there is with Platinum Games?
O: Yeah, they’re a well-known studio. I don’t really want to get into the definition of what it means to be an indie game studio, but I wouldn’t consider them to be similar to the indies you see here at Screenshake. There are a lot of students who want to become a game developer in Japan, but after they graduate they want to start working for an existing company like Platinum Games, CAPCOM, Square Enix.
A: That makes sense. I was talking to the producer of Super Mario 3D Land some time ago and he told me that he wanted to get into game development BECAUSE of Super Mario. He wanted to work at Nintendo. The Japanese seem to have a clear focus like “I want to work for CAPCOM or I want to work for NINTENDO”.
O: Yeah, that might be why there are way less indie devs in Japan. Games like Monster Hunter and the big Nintendo titles are really popular and they want to make those kind of games. They don’t even consider becoming an independent game developer. It’s our culture: if you don’t get a stable job, you’re a failure.
A: America has its individualism and Japan has a focus on the collective.
O: Yeah, that’s exactly it. And I think that’s bad. Creatively it limits them and they don’t realise that they can make the product they want to make and have it be a success. The culture doesn’t support individual people. When I teamed up with Devolver Digital, my own girlfriend thought I was insane and she wanted to break up with me.
A: Well Yuji Naka did the same; for his first job he applied to Namco but they didn’t hire him because he didn’t have a diploma. He ended up becoming Sega’s star programmer/designer and even started Prope in 2006. His own indie game studio.
O: I didn’t know about him actually, which games did he make?
A: Sonic the hedgehog.
O: And after he’s become indie?
A: There’s Let’s Tap on the Wii, for example. A rhythm game but let’s get back to your talk at Screenshake.
O: Oh, I’m so sorry. I wish it was longer.
A: Oh no, the only disappointing part of your talk was that you didn’t sing. The rest was perfect.
O: Oh I’m terrible at it, I haven’t practiced singing for a long time!
A: You talked about insecurity. It’s something I see in a lot of creators & artists. I even have it with my opinion articles as well. I read them afterwards and think “this is not good”. Do you have that with Downwell?
O: Oh, I do. I feel like I don’t deserve all the good feedback I’ve gotten. I feel like I’ve gotten incredibly lucky. I feel like I’ve made a decent game…
A: It’s awesome!
O: … But I’ve gotten super lucky with Devolver Digital. Without them it would not have been half as successful. It’s a matter of visibility nowadays. There are super great games that just don’t sell well like Slime Rancher.
A: I was disappointed that Mayan Death Robots wasn’t nominated for Screenshake. It’s a great game but it’s just dying out there. A ton of really great games out there never get noticed.
O: Yeah. It’s sad. I’ve talked about accessibility and how it’s so much easier to make games that EVERYONE is making them. It’s both good and bad for the industry. It’s good that anybody gets to make them if they want, but it’s bad that there are so many out there that visibility has become an issue.
A: So you can indeed say you lucked out with Devolver Digital. Did they show your game at events?
O: They did. They showed it at PAX East and some other events as well. They’ve been super great.
A: you said you’re going back to “a game a week” until you get another great idea. Do you have a timeline? Like “this new idea has to come to me between now and then” or are you financially comfortable enough to take it slower for a while?
O: Right now I am financially comfortable. For quite a bit. I’m even working with a Japanese artist for my next game. I’m hoping to figure out through “a game a week” what kind of project we’ll be working together on.
A: You’re going to continue with Game Maker?
O: Yeah, 2D is enough for now for me to express what I want to express.
A: Your story actually matches up well with Vlambeer as well. They left school, started making games.
O: Yeah, I love Vlambeer. I really want to be like them. I love the stuff they do as people as well as the games they make. They have been a great inspiration for me.
A: We have been talking for a while and we both start slurring because of the whiskey so maybe you have any closing words that you’d like to say?
O: I don’t know. “Make games?!” You shouldn’t have made me drink this whiskey if you wanted wise closing words. It’s just my humble hope that my story and how I was able to make games would inspire another budding game developer to take the plunge.
I love videogames (mostly RPGs), anime, movies and Magic The Gathering.