LudoNarraCon has become a staple among games industry events, and is poised to return in 2024, from May 9 to 13, with applications to exhibit or speak at the show now open until December 8, organiser Fellow Traveller announced today.
The event celebrated its fifth anniversary earlier this year, which Fellow Traveller founder Chris Wright says is "kind of wild" to the team.
"[It's been a] really good year," he tells us. "We had more support from Steam, more featuring support on the front page. I think we had 30% or 40% more traffic than we'd had in previous years – all the numbers [went] up, all the devs [were] very happy. I think we're just established now. We had like 500, 600 applications for the 50 places. The hardest job is not convincing people to take part (which is what it was the first year or two); now it's, how do we narrow this down to a small number?"
Only featuring a small number of devs as part of the narrative-focused festival is an important aspect, Wright says, due to the sheer amount of other events taking place throughout the year.
"There's a limit of attention with digital festivals, unfortunately," he says. "Some of them have got like 2,000 games in, some have like 600 or 700, some have 150 or so. What we try to do is keep it tight, which means some people can't participate, but the ones that are in know they are going to get a spotlight shined on them.
"Part of the original thesis of the event was narrative games struggle at physical events, [so] we needed to find a way to shine a spotlight on them outside of competing with those games that get all the attention. We didn't want to move it into the digital space then flood it with content and have the same problem. It's gone really well."
For the 2024 edition, Wright says the team is looking for ways to make it a "richer experience."
"It's always been a bit of a challenge to differentiate between the people who are actually coming and watching all the panels, and the people who are coming for half an hour to look at the demos, grab a few games on sale and then leave," he continues. "[It's about] how to give [people] a deeper experience while still showcasing to that really large number that comes through the door."
While it feels impossible to meet Wright without mentioning LudoNarraCon (we talked about the festival extensively in May last year, too), Fellow Traveller is also obviously a prolific indie publisher. But on that front, Wright says it's been an odd year.
"We've got a very light release slate this year after quite a busy couple of years," he says. "We launched The Pale Beyond in February and that is the only new game we are launching this year, which is strange. We've got some DLC for Suzerain and we've got some PlayStation and Switch ports. But in terms of new games, it's an extremely quiet year for us."
The label has signed nine games for the next couple of years though, but is not currently in the process of shipping any. This is due to delays across the portfolio that the publisher decided not to replace.
"It's quite hard to replace a game at short notice because you have to find the game, sign it, but also can you actually add value to the developer if you are signing a few months before the launch?" he wonders. "We're in a strange position in that we signed all these games a year ago but we literally haven't signed anything since July last year.
"We've had this slate that we've known about and then it's had some delays. Now we're looking two years ahead for our games, we're only just getting into it in earnest, to be honest. We've put a bit of a pause on proactive scouting for a while, just because we knew we didn't have the space. We're still getting lots of pitches, I can say that.
"We had a lull at the start of the year, but it's become pretty busy as Gamescom and other shows came up. A lot of the pitches aren't relevant to us; it's a label that's very curatorial-focused. A lot of things that come in the door just are not relevant."
The original vision for Fellow Traveller (created under the name Surprise Attack Games over a decade ago) was to highlight and publish Australian games. The company is an interesting symbol of the revival of the Australian industry after the global financial crisis.
"When I started the business 12 years ago, it was very different, the Australian scene was just dead"
"When I started the business 12 years ago, it was very different, the Australian scene was just dead," Wright says. "So many studios had closed and indie was really just starting. The original idea was to help this scene come back and work with people around us. We shifted to narrative about six or seven years ago, then changed the name five years ago."
Wright started the company after having been laid off by THQ – which is a common story for a lot of Australian developers at the time as the company had two studios there.
"I was looking around thinking that there's all these teams going indie but there's no indie publishers. It wasn't entirely true; Devolver existed at that point and there were a few mobile indie publishers. But it wasn't really a thing, and I was like, that's weird because I'd grown up with the indie record labels of the '80s and '90s and thinking, if the Doodle Jump guys can self-publish from a bedroom somewhere, I've got ten or 15 years experience at that point, surely I can help people publish something.
"The original idea was that record label concept of: you have a flavour or sound or identity that you bring to what you are working on. You're not just services. A lot of those labels were regional; you had Chemikal Underground, which I used to listen to a lot. They were all Scottish bands. That led me to think, along with what was happening in the industry, that we'll do Australian games. The problem with that is consumers don't care where games come from."
While Wright loved working with local teams, it ultimately wasn't really helping to bring an audience to the label.
"Part of our ethos is about new voices coming into games. Our grandiose mission is, can we do something small that pushes storytelling forwards?"
"So we looked around, figured we needed our equivalent of a sound. What are some interesting places to play in or be in, especially as a bootstrapped indie with no money, basically. Narrative was the space we were all excited about, but we also realised it was a space where low budgets can do really exciting things because you don't have to compete on production values. It was a mixture of what we were passionate about but also what was realistic. We couldn't be a strategy publisher or a simulation publisher because we didn't have the budgets and so on to do that."
He continues: "Part of our ethos is about new voices coming into games. Our grandiose mission is, can we do something small that pushes storytelling forwards in games? We're tiny so we know we're not going to have this massive impact but that's kind of what we are trying to do. We do that through things like LudoNarracon and we do it through trying to find devs who are doing interesting things with narrative, and then supporting them and hopefully they have success."
A lot of the time, the teams Fellow Traveller signs are new developers. Wright mentions recently signing Sunset Visitor 斜陽過客, a group of Asian-Canadian developers, mostly from the Hong Kong diaspora. Their background is in theatre, new media installations, dance, and performance art, and they're "making this crazy weird surreal game," 1000xResist, Wright says.
"That is what moves the industry forward, bringing those new voices in. Things like the cosy games [movement] are great because it's bringing in a whole new swathe of creators and giving them a space they can play in."
These days, indie publishers are not a rare occurrence anymore. New ones pop up every day, some with a niche interest, some with a wider remit.
"It's constant, and it's been constant for years. We generally take a cooperative approach. We pilot this semi-informal indie houses group, which is really just a few of us publishers getting together and doing some things together. Even before that, we'd been chatting to Raw Fury, Devolver, and a bunch of others, to share advice and so on. It's very similar to indie developers; we don't really see each other as competing too heavily. It's more about: how do we collaborate?
"The bigger competition is the larger publishers, and the challenges of the industry for indies. I, generally speaking, welcome more publishers. That's more funding going to developers, more people trying to help indies. It's a good thing. I think a lot of the people starting publishers are going to find out how hard it is. I wish them all well. It's a lot easier to start a publisher than it is to sustain one. It is a very challenging market out there."
While Australia hasn't necessarily been affected by mass layoffs in the same way other markets have, Wright mentions that "access to money that was there but now isn't there is affecting everyone here as much as everywhere else."
"Thankfully [Fellow Traveller] plays on this other level where we're not publicly owned. There's three shareholders in total and two of us work in the company, so we're fairly self-sustaining and we work at this art-house level where we're not betting millions of dollars on each game and we don't have this pressure to be insanely profitable or anything like that," he adds.
"There's been so many of these ex-AAA devs setting up studios with that VC money and now that stuff is drying up. I do worry about that level of studio. The small two-person team or tiny indie devs are maybe not quite at risk."
While VC money may be running out, public funding has been particularly flourishing in Australia lately, as we highlighted as part of our Australia Games Week.
"Generally, in Australia, the government support has just been getting stronger," Wright notes. "Screen Australia has money again. There were a few years where funding was cut almost entirely and now it has come back stronger. VicScreen here is still very well funded and lots of the other states are catching up, which is great. And you've also got the national rebates and so on. So I think it's very optimistic in terms of support never being higher. We have games like Cult of the Lamb and Unpacking to look at. People can do it."
Sign up for the GI Daily here to get the biggest news straight to your inbox