BitSummit 2019: My Experience Participating in Japan's Largest Indie Game Show as a Volunteer
The first time I heard about BitSummit was a few years ago when I was watching Branching Paths – an excellent documentary about Japan’s indie game scene. Initially founded by James Mielke, an ex-game journalist turned game developer, BitSummit is all about giving a voice to the myriad of small indie game developers from Japan and beyond.
This year, the seventh BitSummit, officially titled BitSummit 7 Spirits, was held in Kyoto from June 1st-2nd.
In February, when I was attending the monthly indie developer gathering Tokyo Indies, I got to know two BitSummit organizers, who invited me to take part at that year’s BitSummit as a volunteer. I promptly accepted, as I knew it would be an awesome chance to network with other indie devs from all over the world! We exchanged contact info and they said they’d let me know the details. After a few months, I got invited to the BitSummit Volunteers Facebook group, where the volunteers organized the preparations.
The event weekend came along quickly. Me and two friends of mine, who also volunteered for BitSummit, boarded the Shinkansen on Friday after work to reach Kyoto.
After a pleasant 2-hour Shinkansen trip, we finally reached Kyoto. We quickly checked in at our respective hotels and went to the pre-event party hosted by the volunteer leaders. It was an awesome night. I got to meet a bunch of interesting people from the most diverse backgrounds and cultures. There were a lot of native English speakers working teaching or translation jobs, but also plenty of game industry professionals living and working in the Kansai area.
I woke up early the following morning, had a quick convenience store breakfast, and took a bus for the Miyako Messe, the convention center where BitSummit was being held. The convention center is really nice and modern, and can be easily reached within a short 20-minute train trip from Kyoto Station.
At 9:00, the volunteer meeting started and around 80 of us gathered in the lobby. The volunteer team leaders welcomed us and gave a brief explanation regarding our various duties. We also got swag like official volunteer t-shirts and staff badges. Then we were assigned to subgroups and received further instructions from our respective subgroup leaders. After that, we finally moved to the exhibition floor.
There was about an hour left before we opened the gates to the press and general public to come in and enjoy the show. Developers were still putting the finishing touches on their booths and demo machines. You could feel the excitement in the air. Our team leader gave us the exhibition floor tour, and we all decided on our shifts and schedules. 10 minutes before the opening, organizations were giving their opening speeches on the central stage. After that, we took group photos, and finally, the gates opened and visitors flooded in.
For the first shift, I was assigned to some Japanese game journalists, who would be interviewing a few international developers. It was the first time I had to do real-time English-Japanese interpretation in a professional context, and this turned out to be a great personal challenge and learning experience. Meanwhile, volunteers were free to explore the exhibition floor and try out the games themselves when they weren’t busy helping out.
At around 13:00, my group had their lunch break. The event organizers kindly offered the meal, which consisted of your typical Japanese bento lunch box (people could choose between meat or fish). A variety of soft drinks were also available to all volunteers free of charge. We chilled for about 20 minutes and then headed back to the floor.
During the second half of the event, I was assigned to the photo booth, a small and relatively quiet space where we took pictures of the visitors and provided them with a download link so they could remember the fun times they had at BitSummit. Everything went smoothly, and working at the photo booth ended up being great fun. Visitors loved taking silly pictures with us!
The other volunteers and I were enjoying our time there at the photo booth when we noticed an unusual number of people talking and saying goodbye to each other in front of the IGN Japan booth. It looked like they just concluded their interview. And there he was. Hideki Kamiya – an unmistakable figure in his trademark orange glasses. A former Capcom employee, Kamiya now works at PlatinumGames, which he co-founded with other former Capcom staff. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take a photo with Kamiya, so I politely asked him if he wanted to take a picture with us, and he readily agreed.
After taking the photo and giving the card with the download link to Kamiya, we chatted about random stuff. When I mentioned I was interested in developing my own games, he was really cool with it and started telling me some anecdotes of when he was just starting out. Really inspiring stuff!
After we finished talking, I said my goodbyes to Kamiya, and we parted with the promise that we’d meet again someday. Since my shift at the photo booth was over, I started wandering around the exhibition floor, looking out for anyone who might be in need of help while I tried out some games and talked to developers.
At 17:00, it was time to wrap up for the day. I left the Kyoto Messe and headed for Kamogawa River – a popular gathering spot for Kyoto residents and tourists. Later on, BitSummit staff, volunteers, and developers all got together to celebrate a successful first day. The party was another wonderful opportunity to network with some of the most brilliant people in the Japanese video game community. Tomorrow would be another busy day for most of us though, and I knew I had to be ready for day 2, so I left the party around 22.00 and walked to my hotel. As I was reaching it though, I couldn’t resist and made a slight detour to visit Nintendo’s historic former headquarters.
On Sunday, I woke up at 8:00, had a quick wash, got dressed, and started walking toward the nearest bus stop. I arrived at the Kyoto Messe just in time for the volunteers’ morning meeting. The second day started exactly like the first one, with a brief explanation and the opening ceremony.
The biggest highlight of day 2 was meeting Swery. Hidetaka Suehiro (better known in the industry as Swery65) was presenting his new game, The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories, to a foreign journalist. Swery’s English is amazing. He didn’t need my help at all, so I just listened to his explanation. After the journalist was done with the interview, I seized the opportunity and started chatting with him. He was super nice, and started explaining to me how he got the idea for the game and part of his creative process. His company, White Owls Inc., was also presenting another game, The Good Life, at the Microsoft booth, and he suggested going there to try it if I had some free time. We exchanged business cards and left with the promise to meet again in Tokyo someday for an extended chat.
The second day at BitSummit went smoothly and was again successful – in fact, I got the impression that we had even more visitors than on day 1.
BitSummit 2019 was officially over.
After that, I took part in the BitSummit volunteers wrap-up dinner. We held the party at a traditional Japanese restaurant, with the dinner consisting of a full nine-course traditional Japanese meal – with the usual all-you-can-drink option (nomihodai) included, of course! Everything was generously paid for by the Japan Independent Games Aggregate (JIGA) as a token of gratitude to all the volunteers.
As you can probably imagine, the party was amazing.
Unfortunately, I had to be at the office early the next day, so I couldn’t stay for the after-party. I bid farewell to everybody and headed for Kyoto Station, where around midnight, I hopped on a night bus back to Tokyo.
Taking part in BitSummit as a volunteer was an intense but extremely rewarding experience. Getting to know and exchanging thoughts and opinions with my peers in the Japanese game industry was such a pleasure for me. Plus, I had the opportunity to finally meet legendary game developers of the caliber of Hideki Kamiya and Hidetaka Suehiro.
See you again next year, Kyoto!
Every time I’m in Kyoto, I never fail to return home without buying at least 5-6 packs of yatsuhashi. What are those, you may ask? Originating from Kyoto, yatsuhashi (also known as Kyoto Triangles) are a kind of traditional Japanese sweet. They’re made from glutinous rice flour, sugar, and cinnamon. There are two versions available, baked and unbaked – the latter is called nama (raw/uncooked) yatsuhashi. Both are exquisite, although the unbaked ones have a shorter expiration date – keep that in mind if you ever buy them as souvenirs.