LudoNarraCon, an online festival focused on narrative games and organised by indie publisher Fellow Traveller, was ahead of the curve, already into its second online event by the time the rest of the world was pivoting to online due to the pandemic.
The festival takes place on Steam, and sees several upcoming and recently launched indie titles spotlighted on the marketplace. During the event players can access demos, watch game streams hosted by the developers, and get an insight into what is new in the indie space.
Having just seen out its fourth and biggest event yet, Fellow Traveller is continuing to grow its offering, while navigating to stay noticeable around other companies that have latched onto similar ideas. However, the organiser does not intend to be the biggest or the best; it only wants this trend to continue thriving so that developers will continue to benefit, regardless of who runs it.
Fellow Traveller managing director Chris Wright tells GamesIndustry.biz the event first came together in 2018. The publisher had just wrapped up a year of travelling, and it wasn't seeing great responses next to the amount of money it was spending to attend various games events in Europe and the US.
"We asked ourselves why we are spending, particularly for the kind of narrative game that doesn't suit an expo experience," Wright explains. "It's noisy, you don't really want to sit down and play something, and a 10-minute demo doesn't do a good job of showing a game."
The idea for LudoNarraCon followed a talk from Steam about its new streaming tech, which allows developers to livestream gameplay and content directly to their store pages on the platform. This introduction sparked the idea to recreate an event booth environment, but remotely.
"We can do demos on Steam, we can sell games on Steam, we've got store pages, and now we're streaming like, we've got everything that we need to create an equivalent to having a booth but in a digital format," Wright says.
The first LudoNarraCon then took place in 2019 after a successful pitch to Valve, which Wright dubs as a "test run" for the event.
"They were excited about someone wanting to use their streaming tech, but the features on the platform at that point weren't really designed for what we wanted to do," he says.
"We stress tested a lot and [Valve] was very helpful in setting that up, and we came out thinking 'Wow, this is amazing, more people should do this.' I think towards the end of that year, Steam did something around The Game Awards that was similar, but was pretty much just demos, then something around demos again for GDC in March 2020. So basically, as the pandemic hit, people still weren't really thinking of doing this seriously, but we thought this would be great if other people did it, because then instead of having to organise it for everybody else and promote our games in it, if someone else organises it, great, we can be in there."
Wright is happy with the overall trajectory of events that are similar to LudoNarraCon, because, as he mentioned earlier, the costs incurred to attend in-person conferences are often unreasonable. Digital events are giving indies the chance to get seen without the massive and potentially disappointing expense.
"We're less remarkable within the overall landscape now, but we're very pleased about that overall because it means there's more opportunities for indies in general"
"For LudoNarraCon, it has been a bit more like a drought than a flood; we're less remarkable within the overall landscape now because we were doing something very different, and now it's very common," he says. "But we're very pleased about that overall because it means there's more opportunities for indies in general."
He goes on to cite conferences such as GDC, Gamescom and PAX as examples of events that create a divide between developers who can afford to attend and those who can't.
"With digital events, it doesn't cost you anything typically, and you can be from anywhere, so it's opened up geographically, and budget wise," he adds. "That was something that we liked about LudoNarraCon so it's been great to see it flow out through all these other events."
One hurdle that Fellow Traveller initially faced was trying to convince developers to create a demo to be downloaded online, as opposed to a hands on preview to be shown at an event, where they're on hand in case anything goes wrong.
"One of the biggest hurdles we had in the first year was trying to convince people to make a demo," Wright tells us. "I think we had 20 games, and maybe seven or eight demos, most of which were from our games.
"The idea of asking for a demo for a digital event, as opposed to something that's hands on at a show where you're you're there in person, it actually took devs a fair bit to get over that hurdle of 'Oh, shit, like, but I don't have control over this thing that's going out.' What's great now is that everyone expects to make a consumer demo as standard."
LudoNarraCon 2022 wrapped up a couple of weeks ago, and Wright tells us that the event saw over a million visits this year -- over 50% more than in 2021. He also says that quite a few developers that had games featured during the LudoNarraCon event saw their biggest ever sales days to date.
"We continually get anecdotal evidence from the other participants and exhibitors," Wright tells us. "And we saw a lot of them very happy in our Discord talking about the biggest wishlist spikes they'd had, to saying that we're stronger than this other event that they've been at recently and so on.
"It's not quantitative data, but we definitely like to see that and hear that the exhibitors are still getting a lot of value out of it."
Wright says that the event has also been positive for Fellow Traveller's own games, some of which feature in the event. He notes that this year's LudoNarraCon was one of the publisher's strongest events in terms of wishlist numbers and demo installs across its own catalogue.
Fellow Traveller was also quicker on uploading content streamed during the event to YouTube. It initially took them around a week to get everything uploaded, but this year, the team managed to get everything online in just 24 hours. The speed of getting talks uploaded has resulted in a bigger audience outside of the Steam event, according to Wright.
"If you can be the thing that people love, as long as there's enough of those people, you can build a strong sustainable development or publishing business in it"
"At the point where day two's content started, we had day one's content up on YouTube. The same when day three started, day two was out there," he says. "We've definitely seen more viewership this year on YouTube than we have in previous years. A couple of videos have cracked 1,000 views, which is not a lot compared to the number of people coming through on Steam, but those are obviously people that are really interested in the talks, so it's nice to see more people finding it that way and responding to it there."
Wright tells us that the indie scene has seen some amazing narrative-driven breakouts in the last couple of years, and cites Witch Beam's Unpacking as the latest example of such. Fellow Traveller "bucked the trend", he says, as back when the publisher launched, there was less interest overall in narrative-led titles.
"When we announced, 'Hey, we're a narrative-focused publisher,' it was at a point where everyone thought the narrative game was dead, that it's a really problematic genre and no one wants them," he says. "We've always said 'No, there is a strong audience for them.' "We don't care about hitting the biggest possible audience. The whole beauty of indie games is you don't need everyone to buy it. If you can be the thing that people love, as long as there's enough of those people, you can build a strong sustainable development or publishing business in it."
While developers generally see spikes in how many users wishlist their games ahead of launch after an event such as LudoNarraCon, Wright says it's not the most effective metric to measure. Still, Wright thinks that one of the keys to getting your game noticed is to take part in as many events like LudoNarraCon as possible.
"There's definitely a lot of question marks around the value of your wish list from digital events versus, say, someone seeing an article and then coming from that," he says.
Getting noticed on the Steam store ahead of launch can also be achieved by offering betas, or streaming through the store page as LudoNarraCon does, because that exposure is getting potential players engaging with the game, and that engagement creates other opportunities, such as having your stream pushed to Steam's main home page, where millions of users land each day.
"Developers shouldn't have to feel that if they don't go to an event, their game won't be signed"
"Streaming is a standard thing for us to do at launch but you do have to crack some decent numbers to get into the top slots, but if you can get in there it's a bit more traffic," Wright says. "It's about optimising your presence on the store, trying to be in as many places as you can to drive that activity to your launch day.
"The algorithm is a black box, we don't have any secrets around it. The more attention you're getting, the algorithm notices. It starts to see that your game is popular and shows it to more people that might be interested," he continues.
"A store like Steam that's got heaps of content on is all about how it can sift the signal through the noise, which is challenging, but Steam is actually incredibly good at a difficult problem everyone thinks is easy. It's very hard with this amount of content to have a good experience for most players, so if you can drive attention, then the algorithm will potentially notice you and drive more. So there's some value in having that burst at launch to maximise, concentrate and then lift off."
With the saturation of the indie market and frequent crossover of themes, Fellow Traveller bases its signings around what it calls a "flavour" rather than a genre. Games that the publisher picks up are always narrative-led, but may fit into more than one box.
"What genre the game is in doesn't really matter to us so much," Wright tells us. "In fact we're deliberately trying to diversify that so we're not like the guys that just do visual novels or adventure games. There's something that connects them; if you like one of our games, you'll probably like the next one, but it's not going to be the same experience.
"Ideally it's exploring how games tell stories in new and interesting ways, wherever that is a story that hasn't been told before or experimenting with new mechanics. If you look at something like Citizen Sleeper, it's an interesting story that isn't typical, and the way that the story is meshed with the mechanics in a way that kind of each reinforces each other is really interesting and different."
Fellow Traveller has turned down quite a few games with huge commercial opportunities because it doesn't fit the publisher's mission, which Wright says takes a lot of discipline.
"We as publishers shouldn't favour companies that have the money to come and see us at events versus those that can't"
"The dedication to the brand is a core pillar of what we do, and so we don't want to be opportunistic and just go 'Yes, we could do this multiplayer game because it's going to make absolute stacks of cash' but not who we are," he adds. "We have a clear set of criteria internally around what that mission looks like."
Another core ideal of Fellow Traveller is diversity of development to bring new voices into the fold.
"We tend to look at who the developers are, whether that's from underrepresented groups or a different region that isn't so well represented, or if it's their first major project," Wright explains.
"That is a key factor for us in our selection, and we try hard to diversify the types of people and developers that are on the label as the types of stories being told. Then obviously, we're looking at whether the game is actually good, if the budget fits our range, all the other basic practical things that any publisher would look at.
"Ultimately you do your best to keep it scientific, but a lot of it ends up being gut feel. Does this project feel good? Do we like working with a team? Publishing is a long term relationship, so you absolutely have to like working with the people involved."
Looking ahead, Fellow Traveller wants to ensure that the opportunities created for developers by digital events remain available. While physical events are returning, Wright feels that developers shouldn't have to navigate potentially unsafe spaces or rack up huge travel costs in order to be noticed, which is why Fellow Traveller only accepts pitches online.
"We won't ask developers to come to physical events to pitch to us, because we don't think it's fair that the devs should feel like they have to put themselves in danger to be at an event," he says. "They shouldn't have to feel that if they don't go to an event, their game won't be signed.
"I think it's important that we don't give some sort of preferential treatment to the people that are willing to come and meet us physically. There's still that divide between the developers that can travel and those that can't. If you're interested in supporting a diverse range of developers coming through, we as publishers shouldn't favour companies that have the money to come and see us at events versus those that can't."