Last year indie publishing label Fellow Traveller launched LudoNarraCon, a digital convention dedicated to highlighting narrative games and their developers. It was an event with virtual versions of booths, a main stage area, panels, demos and more all streamed live on Steam and then later archived on YouTube. In 2019, LudoNarraCon was often treated as a unique and novel event by the media.
Today in the midst of a global pandemic that’s confined many indoors and banned mass gatherings, LudoNarraCon has become less of a novelty as more events are shifting to a digital venue. The narrative-driven convention even responded to the cancellation of GDC in March with a move to help displaced attendees, re-opening submissions to developers and panel ideas. Since then, LudoNarraCon 2020 is now set to feature over 40 games.
Chris Wright, founder and managing director at Fellow Traveller, spoke with Unwinnable over email days before LudoNarraCon. He discussed the convention’s growth, response to COVID-19, how physical events can change when they return, and collaborating with artists.
Key art for LudoNarraCon 2020 illustrated by Leonie Yue.
Alyssa Wejebe: Hi, thanks for doing this. Could you please tell us more about your role at Fellow Traveller?
Chris Wright: Besides overall running the company and supporting our great team, I get to spend a lot of my time on scouting and signing new games.
A.W.: Did you know right away that you would be able to hold another LudoNarraCon in 2020?
C.W.: We knew right away that the initial 2019 event was a huge success. It proved our concept could work and exceeded our expectations in terms of the number of visitors and other targets we’d set, so we were definitely keen to hold another event this year.
There was a bit to work out in terms of timing, scope and of course we had to ask Valve if they would be happy to have us back; but we started planning the 2020 event pretty much as soon as the 2019 event finished.
A.W.: Are there any changes being made to the event based on what you learned from last year’s LudoNarraCon?
C.W.: This year’s LudoNarraCon has double the exhibitors, double the panels and double the demos and we’ve felt confident expanding the size having learnt what’s involved and how the audience reacted.
Having two days of live panels was a big goal for us, as we had to keep the amount of live content quite tight the first year when everything was being done for the first time.
Adding more demos was also a big goal as it was hard to get teams to commit to a demo (it’s a lot of work to make something you’re happy to put out there to download vs. something you take to a convention and are present whilst people play). We saw how popular they were in the original event, so [we] really wanted to increase that aspect of the festival this year. We’re really pleased to have over 20 demos this time.
One big lesson last year was that when you do something new, most people don’t easily understand what’s going on. We saw quite a few confused people in the chat of the panels asking what the event was. This year with the help of Valve we’ve been able to add more information to the event page, and we’re aiming to provide a bit more of an explanation of what you can do at LudoNarraCon and how to engage with it all.
LudoNarraCon had over fifty games on sale.
A.W.: When you launched LudoNarraCon last year, the press tended to treat it as something more novel and rare because it was an online convention. What has it been like to see that suddenly shift and have virtual events become more common due to COVID-19?
C.W.: The initial idea for LudoNarraCon came from feeling like physical conventions were not really working well for the kind of narrative games we publish, and asking ourselves “what would we do instead if events didn’t exist?” It’s been a weird experience to suddenly find ourselves in that reality.
We’re very excited by other virtual events like the upcoming Steam Festival, and we’ve already started talking with some other event organisers about what we’ve learnt and offering help and guidance to others seeking to run something similar. We’re looking at 12-18 months of no major physical conventions so we’re keen to help anyone fill that gap with virtual alternatives, and I think we’ll see some really interesting ideas born out of this situation.
After this year’s GDC was postponed, LudoNarraCon re-opened submissions to indie games.
A.W.: In your announcement revealing LudoNarraCon’s panels and expanded lineup, you mentioned helping “others create similar festivals in the coming months.” Have people approached you for assistance in organizing virtual events, or did you reach out and offer your expertise?
C.W.: We’ve had a couple of people reach out, and we’ve also reached out ourselves to some of the organisations that run physical events we often attend to share what we know and offer help if they want it.
There’s a lot going on around the E3 week from various parties, but with Gamescom now cancelled and PAX West highly likely to be cancelled in our view, it will be important to have something in that August / September period; so we hope to see some virtual events pop up around then.
Once we get through LudoNarraCon, we’re planning to reach out more widely to offer that help.
A.W.: What do you think of discoverability as more gaming events go online?
C.W.: The good news about discovery and online events is that they can be way more effective than physical events. Not only can you reach a global audience, you can do it very cheaply in terms of both time and money. This is particularly important for small indie teams or developers working on relatively niche game titles. It can be really hard to stand out at a physical event with a small booth when there are 150 other indie games and huge AAA booths. And when you do get someone’s attention, they may not take action to, say, wishlist your game or remember it.
At an online event like LudoNarraCon, you can have a significant spotlight shone on your title and the potential audience is huge compared to a physical convention. Steam recently hit a record concurrent user number of 22 million. The number of unique users they see over four days is higher still. So the potential audience is in the millions, whereas even the biggest consumer shows like Gamescom only have 300 thousand visitors in comparison. With LudoNarraCon 2019 we saw 850 thousand people come to the event page; 30,000 to 50,000 people come to each of the exhibitors’ store pages (equivalent to a booth); and most games received 3,000 to 5,000 wishlist additions. Many of them told us it was their biggest day of wishlists since putting up their store page. We’re aiming to more than double these numbers with the 2020 event.
It’s really good news for indies that things are going digital this year, as it levels the playing field; but [it’s] also really great news for gamers. Instead of going to one local event, they are going to be treated to a whole flurry of digital events across the year that they can access no matter where they are, and be able to do it for free and without the travel and other costs.
A.W.: After GDC was canceled in March, LudoNarraCon re-opened submissions to developers and panel ideas. Now the event is featuring over 40 games. Could you talk more about how COVID-19 has changed your plans for LudoNarraCon? Has it altered them in any other ways?
C.W.: The biggest change was that opening up of the applications to try to support developers who no longer had options to show off their games physically. We added 18 new exhibitors since re-opening applications, and so there’s been a lot of work to get those new teams up to speed.
Other than that, the plans have not changed for us that significantly since the event was always set up to run with participants joining from home or their office wherever they are, and our team already works remotely with members based around the world.
It has affected the plans for each exhibitor to a degree as they need to think about their team members taking part from different locations, whereas last year a lot of exhibiting teams would do their streaming content with several of the team on camera in the same place.
A.W.: When the situation with COVID-19 eventually improves, do you think the number of virtual events will remain and continue to grow? Do you think virtual and live conventions can coexist together when there’s no pandemic?
C.W.: I hope so. We definitely want to see the return of physical conventions and we really enjoy being part of them, but I think we’ll see a lot of virtual events in the next 12 months and there’s no reason they shouldn’t or wouldn’t continue even when this situation is over.
When physical events do come back, I think they will need to adapt and change as things will be different. Once there are good virtual alternatives, it will make it less critical for indie teams to exhibit at big cons.
A.W.: How do you think physical events will change when they return?
C.W.: I’m certainly looking forwards to when they return and when we’re able to do the things that physical events do best — bringing people together to connect as a community and make personal connections. I’m very excited about the potential for digital events to take a bigger role, but I do hope to see [physical] events come back and for those companies to survive and thrive as well.
Assuming we are looking at 12-18 months before big international style conventions come back, I believe a lot of the things physical events do now will have digital solutions firmly entrenched by that time, especially for indie developers. Access to the sort of content you get [at] a GDC from an industry talk point of view, for example, or trying new indie game demos, discovering new games, talking with developers. These are all very solvable problems through digital means, and so the regular approach of indies flying around the world to major conventions is not likely to come back in the same way. Once indies get off the train of thinking they need to be at the physical cons and start pursuing digital options, it may be hard to get them back on.
Looking to ourselves as an example, we made the decision not to have any significant booths at major conventions when we decided to go ahead with LudoNarraCon in 2019, and that’s still our plan. Instead we try to go to the smaller events like Day of the Devs or IndieCade and we attend the big shows, but more to meet up with people rather than exhibit. I imagine a lot of other indie developers and publishers will end up in a similar place.
Big publishers will probably be similar in terms of using other ways to achieve the things events used to give them. You can see already with a show like E3 how the big companies have shifted more and more focus onto their digital conferences and further away from the show floor, and how the Nintendo Direct style videos have started to replace traditional press conferences and events.
To succeed when they come back, I believe physical events will need to double down on the things that only they can do. Focusing on — it’s not so different from the way some magazines have thrived by leaning into the aspects of being a physical product, even as the trend as a whole has been towards digital media, or how vinyl has made a comeback in recent years. So this would be things like increasing the community-focused elements, increasing activity that can only be done in person, more content that is about celebrating the culture of the gaming community and less content that is about promoting a particular game.
A.W.: Let’s take a break from COVID-19 for a bit. Will Kirkby made incredible art to promote LudoNarraCon last year. This year’s promo art looks just as lovely. Did Kirkby return to make the art, or is this the work of someone else?
C.W.: Will’s art was incredible. I still have it as my desktop wallpaper actually, and we commissioned Will to do some other work for us, but not the 2020 poster.
We wanted to have a distinctly different style for this year’s event, and the promo art is by Leonie Yue, a Melbourne-based artist and game developer. You can find their art at https://leonieyue.com/ or follow them on Twitter at @leonieyue.
A.W.: How did developing the promo art for LudoNarraCon 2020 work? Did you ask Yue for something very specific, or did she have a lot of creative control? Or was it a more equal collaboration?
C.W.: This was led by Marla and Suzanne in our marketing team. The process for the promo art for LudoNarraCon or any of our games is very collaborative — we provide a broad brief to the artist of what we’re looking for and what we want the art to communicate, and they come back with various ideas and concepts. We choose a direction and then the artist works it up and we iterate in back-and-forth discussion with the artist.
In the case of the LudoNarraCon 2020 art, we did want to have a distinct style compared to the 2019 art, but keeping certain consistent themes, such as showing a narrative designer at work, and including a dog companion as a nod to our Fellow Traveller logo.
The art also has to be used in a lot of different places — as a full piece of art, in banners on Steam in lots of different formats and sizes, on the website, social media, around the streaming content, etc.; so our team and the artist are working with that in mind to make sure it suits those spaces, and that we can also pull out separate elements [of the art] to use in different ways.
A.W.: What are your hopes for this year’s LudoNarraCon?
C.W.: A big hope is that we hope to bring in a lot more people overall, but also more people that come in and stay for a long time, more people who have planned to come and be part of the event. Now that what we’re doing is less unusual, I hope we’ll have more virtual convention-goers who know what it’s about coming in, and more people that have put the event in their diary.
Success for us is a lot about the success of the participating teams, so I hope we’ll be able to provide a platform to shine a light on the amazing narrative games taking part and help each of those teams succeed.
Early idea for LudoNarraCon 2019 key art by Will Kirkby.
A.W.: How would you describe the games at LudoNarraCon this year? It looks like another diverse selection, with brand new titles and some familiar faces.
C.W.: We’re really excited about the added diversity we have been able to bring into this year’s exhibitors with the space for more games.
Obviously a lot of the games from our own label are taking part, with some returning titles such as Neo Cab, Genesis Noir and In Other Waters, and also two new games we signed since the last event — Suzerain and Paradise Killer. We’re very excited to be including demos for those two in particular. There are a few other returning games like Boyfriend Dungeon and Mutazione, but a lot of developers will be doing their first LudoNarraCon.
We’ve got exhibitors participating from more than 13 different countries, and all kinds of genres of games with a focus on the narrative of the game as the connecting thread.
There’s a roughly 50-50 mix between games that have already been released and games that are coming up in the next year; so [there’s] a chance to find out more about a game you love or a game you haven’t yet tried, and also a chance to discover something new.
A.W.: Thanks again for taking the time to chat. Take care, and good luck!