Neocab, an example of the types of games that Fellow Traveller wants to become known for under its rebranding. Image: Neocab
Several years ago, a former THQ executive started his own consultancy for indie games. That label was called Surprise Attack, and it quickly grew into a publishing house with the ideal of showcasing Australian games to the world.
But with Surprise Attack rebranding as Fellow Traveller this week, that direction has changed. So I asked a straight question: is there still a place for Australian-made games as a brand in the global market?
Chris Wright is the managing director of Fellow Traveller, and the founder of Surprise Attack many moons ago. When the label was making waves publicly, Chris told Kotaku back in 2012 that Australia needed an Aussie publisher. "We have all this amazing content, but we're miles away from anywhere," Wright said.
When Blue Tongue closed its doors last year, Marketing Director Chris Wright lost the job he loved. But now, one year later, he's on a new mission to help rebuild what was lost. He has a plan, and that plan is Surprise Attack. the company bringing Australia's games to the world. Now Chris Wright provides guidance and marketing to countless indie developers — but if his plans come to full fruition, he'll be publishing them within a year.
Australia still has an incredible amount of talent. Look at the last few years alone: Hacknet. Hollow Knight. Golf Story. Earthlight VR. Crawl. Armello. Satellite Reign. Hand of Fate.
But these games just happen to be made in Australia — they're not Australian-themed, like Ty The Tasmanian Tiger. They're just solid, marketable games that appeal to everyone. Each cut through the noise in their own particular way.
And for Wright, that's the most important asset: an identity. That means building around a particular style of game, rather than where the game comes from.
"When we launched we did have a focus on Australian games but over time we came to realise that mostly publishing Australian games is a good position from an industry perspective but consumers actually don't care that much about where a game comes from unless it's local to them," Wright said over email.
"It's less about whether there is enough quality coming out of Australia and more about whether 'Australian' matters to gamers overseas as a reason to buy or be interested. At the same time we have been moving towards a focus on the kind of games we really want to be known for and that we are most passionate about and realising that gamers are much more likely to want to follow a label if the games it publishes share things that mean something to the player."
It's a sobering perspective from the same person who founded a consultancy, followed by a publishing label, on the belief in the Australian identity. But Australian studios don't really sell to Australians: they sell to the world. "Typically 90%+ of the revenue for Australian-made games comes from export markets," Wright explained.
That doesn't mean marketing local doesn't have an impact. Successes like Hand of Fate, Hollow Knight and Crossy Road can be held up as great examples for the industry to follow — particularly whenever discussions are had with state and federal governments.
But the gaming market is so much more crowded. Hundreds of games are released on Steam every week. Around 25 games are being released a day; 349 were released in the last fortnight. Even the eShop is starting to get flooded with the kind of shovelware that once only existed in the bowels of the defunct Greenlight program.
So to stand out, you need an identity. And for Fellow Traveller, the answer is story.
"By having an established flavour or style of game, labels with a strong identity can help gamers navigate the flood of new titles and discover games they like, just like taking a chance on a new band when they are on the same indie label as your favourite band," Wright said.
Devolver Digital and Adult Swim are two great examples. When you see their name, you think indie, weird, off-beat, the kinds of games bigger publishers probably wouldn't touch. Fellow Traveller wants to highlight stories, either games that tell tales in an unusual way, or ones that expand the methods and mechanics used for narrative.
"In a crowded market where there are 150+ games launching on Steam a week you need everything you can get to help connect your game with a gamer that would love it," Wright said.
It doesn't mean that Fellow Traveller is walking away from publishing Australian games, or the Australian scene. Wright already helped launch the Treasure Hunters FanClub last year, helping open a different avenue for studios looking for funding.
Under their previous moniker, Fellow Traveller organised an Aussie-themed Humble Bundle to promote Australian games. There's also an Australian-specific area at PAX East and PAX West, where Fellow Traveller has helped corral a group of booths for Australians to exhibit at PAX East and PAX West. And, like everyone else in this industry, they'll always offer a quick word of advice or caution if asked.
But to survive long-term, being Australian isn't a strong enough message. In a global market, the ones that care most about Australia are fellow Australians. And as Wright explains, that's only 3 to 4 percent of the market on Steam.
"We hope that by building a reputation and fanbase around a particular type of game, we can better help developers making that sort of game to reach the gamers most likely to find it interesting."
Wright used indie record labels as a good example. Music lovers don't hold a a lot of emotional attachment to a Warner Music, EMI or Universal, even if they buy a ton of their music. But a Domino Records, or XL, or Modular, or a Sub Pop? Those labels mean something. Fans invest in them, and the artists they promote.
That's what Wright wants Fellow Traveller to be - but for games.
Two things have rather conveniently combined today. The first is a rebranding of a long-running Aussie publisher, with Surprise Attack today reforming as Fellow Traveller. To mark the occasion, Green Man Gaming are discounting a raft of Aussie indies, including Crawl, Hacknet, and FRAMED.