60000 people in a Very Big Room - Comic Market and indie games in Japan
What do you get when half a million people pour into a single building over the course of three days, not with one objective or agenda but rather as tens of thousands of independent groups each aiming to educate, inspire and above all else entertain the others? Well, you get one of the world’s largest cultural events, and of course video games are more than welcome to the party…
I’m writing this on Monday 15th August, and over the last three days an artificial island in the Tokyo bay has been the venue for just that - the biannual “Comic Market” convention. Comic Market, or Comiket as it is often known, is an example of a volunteer-run “doujinshi sales event” - it is a venue where people come to buy and sell self-published books, music, games, and a wide range of other items.
The key term here is “self-published” - whilst there is a small section of Comiket which is reserved for commercial enterprises, the vast majority of the event is given over to individuals or groups (known as “circles”) who wish to display or distribute their own works. Anyone can register, pay a small administration fee (about 7500yen/60UKP/95USD), and get a table.
In practice it should be noted that as there are usually more applicants than available space, a lottery system is used to bring down the numbers to a level which fits. This is necessary because Comiket is a large event, and fills to capacity the Tokyo Big Sight convention centre at which it is held. Twice-yearly (August and January) over the course of the three days around 40,000 circles and up to 560,000 people attend. The catalogue which lists all of the participating groups is literally the size of a phone book - the introduction in recent years of searchable CD-ROM version is an absolute blessing!
As mentioned previously, the event covers a very wide range of media and genres. One of the key goals of the Comic Market is to provide an environment where freedom of self-expression is maximised, and as such circles may participate with virtually any type of self-produced goods or media (within practical and legal limits!).
In terms of media, books are very much the mainstay, covering everything from parodies of popular games and manga through to technical tomes on OS programming and political discourse. There are also homemade accessories, badges (often depicting popular Internet memes and the like), soft toys, music, T-shirts… almost anything that can be easily produced in the home (or made in small quantities through an on-demand printing or manufacturing outlet, of which Japan has many who solely cater to the doujinshi subculture) can be found at the event.
And, of course, games. Indie games (indie software of all flavours is often referred to as “doujinsoft”) are very popular - a quick and thoroughly unscientific scan of the event catalogue reveals about 420 circles participating in the software category, and a further 700 or so in the catch-all “other digital works” category. Since, however, categorisation at Comiket is loose (for example, a circle may make several different works but can only be placed in a single category, or may simply choose to change tack after registration), and circles may choose a more specific category instead of the general “software” one, these numbers are very rough indeed.
Games-related circles at Comiket come in many flavours. In broad terms, shooting games and adventure (or “visual novel”) games are the most popular, with strategy/RPG a close third in my experience. Production values are often very high, although on average the technical aspects are a little behind the curve compared to cutting edge commercial releases (this can also be attributed to the Japanese PC games market as a whole being biased heavily towards lower-end systems, however). The PC is by far the most common platform, although Android has gained popularity in recent years (iOS is also popular in general, but the closed nature of the App Store model prevents effective distribution at events like this). There are circles developing for old consoles and even self-built hardware, too.
It is not unheard-of for games originally self-published at Comic Market to end up being re-released commercially. For example, Trouble Witches was originally a doujinsoft title which subsequently became an arcade game and then an XBLA release, as with popular arcade/PS2 beat-em-up Melty Blood and a large number of Japan-only adventure titles. And of course it would be remiss not to mention Recettear, released in English to great critical acclaim last year.
It would also, at this point, be unfair not to mention Touhou - a long-running series of “bullet hell” vertically scrolling shooters produced entirely by one-man-team programmer/designer/artist/musician Zun, which have gathered such a following that Touhou-related works are treated as a genre of their own and accounted for around 1400 circles at the most recent Comiket! In particular, the series is famous for its soundtrack, and countless rearrangements of the music are published at events like Comiket (Touhou is in fact large enough to also have its own Touhou-specific doujinshi events).
It’s not just indie games that appear at Comiket, though - there are spin-off books, strategy guides, and a wide range of other goods. There are also circles who specialise in technical aspects of game development (and, indeed, all branches of hardware and software). For example, this circle have produced a number of books on SPU programming, and nearby another group were selling kits to build adaptor boards for outputting modern video signals from the humble NES!
So why is it, in this age of instant-download gaming, that people are prepared to queue for hours (quite literally - Comiket opens at 10am, and lines start forming at around 7am, not to mention the further queueing involved in getting to a popular circle’s stand) in the sweltering August heat just to buy the latest indie game? A doubly-perplexing question when you consider that there are dedicated doujinshi shops across Japan, and large popular releases will almost inevitably be available at those within hours of release.
Personally, I think there are many aspects to it, but one of the big draws for both publishers and purchasers is the rare chance to meet face-to-face. Being able to talk directly to the developer of the game you have just bought, and likewise hearing opinions straight from the players (and your surrounding peers) is invaluable. Having a physical stand can catch the attention of passers-by who would otherwise not see your game, too.
Another aspect is that of collectiblity - by nature, items found at Comiket are of limited print runs, especially as in a lot cases circles will throw in little extras (like postcards or illustrated flyers) which will not be found in the versions sold in shops. The personal touch, having something which was not just mass-produced in an overseas factory at the lowest possible unit cost, is worth the extra time and effort, it seems. It’s also nice to know that when you buy something you are directly supporting the creator, rather than some publishing behemoth who may only be passing a tiny fraction of the purchase price on.
Finally, like the Global Game Jam or NaNoWriMo, Comiket sets a common goal for everyone - if you hit the deadline, you can bask in the warm glow of satisfaction as people come to see your game. Fail, and you’ll be sitting there with a red face and a little sign that says “sorry, nothing new this time!”… and we all know how powerful a motivator Public Humiliation can be.
But, hey, even if it comes to that - at least there’s guaranteed to be some interesting stuff to look at nearby.
Many thanks to the circles who graciously allowed me to photograph their stands for this article.