Fellow Traveller was originally launched in 2013 under the name of Surprise Attack Games but the label was conceived two years earlier. Our founder, Chris Wright, was working at THQ as the Director of Marketing for two Australian studios – BlueTongue and THQ Studio Australia. Unfortunately THQ was struggling and at the start of what would sadly become a death spiral. They decided to close both studios and around 200 people lost their jobs, including Chris.
Chris had an idea he couldn’t let go of – if developers around the world were leaving the AAA world behind to strike out on their own to create small, nimble and independent studios, could someone in publishing do the same thing and create a small, independent publisher? Inspired by the independent record labels he had grown up listening to, Chris decided to create a new kind of indie games label: one that would be independent in spirit, would be closely connected to the developers it worked with and would remain small, intimate and champion the same principles that independent developers held dear.
Starting small, and beginning by working with indie developers as a marketing consultant at first, Chris launched Surprise Attack and quickly became a significant player in the Australian independent development scene. He worked with more than 100 indie studios over the next couple of years, learning a lot about indie games, indie developers and how to work with them.
Along the way, Chris attracted like-minded people to join the team, including Travis Plane, a colleague of Chris’ at THQ, who left the global brand team at THQ in LA to return to Australia and join the company as a partner shortly afterwards.
In July 2013, at the first PAX Australia convention, we launched Surprise Attack Games with a trio of games signed to the label. Later that year, we released our first game on Steam – Particulars – and became one of the first tenants in The Arcade, the game-development co-working hub in Melbourne.
Things were definitely tough in the early years. Bootstrapping the label rather than raising capital from investors brought a lot of challenges but it also meant that we have been able to keep our independence. We also truly understand what it’s like for indie developers working on shoestring budgets, with only their passion to keep them motivated. We did it tough and learnt to stretch every dollar and find creative solutions.
Our first success was Screencheat, a split screen shooter where everyone is invisible and you have to screencheat in order to find and shoot the other players. Discovering the game at a global game jam play party, we worked with the developers, Samurai Punk, to launch a full version on Steam in October 2014 and eventually bringing it to Xbox One and PS4 in early 2016.
With a diverse set of games on the label we always had a taste for weird and unusual concepts, publishing the dystopian steampunk mini golf adventure game Vertiginous Golf as well as moody platformer series, Oscura and intense co-op arcade platform shooter Super Mutant Alien Assault. But it was the terminal-based murder mystery hacking game Hacknet, that was a real turning point for the label in August 2015.
Developed by solo dev, Matt Trobbianni, Hacknet was a strange game that effectively gamified unix and was unlike anything else. The hacking game space was very limited. Everyone knew Uplink and the Hacker series but barely anyone was making hacking games. This was a time before Steam Spy or steam user reviews or any real way of knowing whether games were successful or not. The morning of the launch we finally found out just how deep the hacking niche went and quickly got on to Matt to suggest he might want to consider quitting his day job.
Hacknet taught us many things. Firstly, we realised that a huge amount of the value of a publisher is the partnership with the developer, especially for small teams. Our team worked incredibly closely with Matt, helping with whatever he needed such as extra writing and editing as well as developing the marketing pitch for the game, the trailer and marketing asset creative and all the store management, PR etc as well as a huge amount of work after launch on the product strategy and business development. We decided this was the way we wanted to work with all our developers in the future and we would keep our product slate small enough to be able to keep this level of intimacy on every project.
Hacknet also gave us the capital to start investing small amounts into development. The first project we funded was Orwell, from German developers Osmotic Studios. We fell in love with this surveillance thriller from the moment we played the first build Osmotic sent us. Around this time we has decided as a team that the type of games we really loved the most were those that were exploring the potential of narrative in the medium. This would be the flavour of the label and what we wanted to be known for. Orwell was a perfect fit. It launched in late 2016 to commercial and critical success, receiving nominations for prestigious awards such as the IGF, The Game Awards, and SXSW.
With growing momentum and building a reputation for interesting narrative games we reached a difficult decision. With the decline of kickstarter for video game projects, more and more indie devs were needing investment from a publisher. We had some success and some spare capital but we were still very much an indie label and weren’t able to fund the games that were wanting to sign with us. Meanwhile, the indie publishing space was getting crowded and plenty of the new labels around us had significant investment behind them. We needed to find a way to be able to fund more games but didn’t want to give up our independence or be forced into funding games on terms that we didn’t feel were fair to developers.
Our solution was to develop and launch a sister company, The Treasure Hunters FanClub, that would allow other people to invest alongside us into the games we were publishing. We gathered a group of successful developers that wanted to invest in indie games and made the whole process easy for them whilst providing friendly terms to the developers. This meant we would keep full independence as a label whilst providing the funding our developers needed and also solve a lot of the problems in investing into indie game projects for the investors. Since its launch in October 2017, Treasure Hunters FanClub has invested into six games and members of the club include Phil Fish (Fez), Alx Preston (Hyper Light Drifter), Andy Sum (Crossy Road), Morgan Jaffit (Hand of Fate) and Scott Reismanis (IndieDB, ModDB and mod.io).
In 2018 we made the decision to rebrand the label to Fellow Traveller Games to better reflect our motivation of working in very close partnership with developers and our mission to explore the uncharted space of what narrative games can be. Today we are incredibly proud that developers from all over the world trust us to be a partner travelling with them on their journey and we hope to bring players fascinating and unusual games telling surprising stories for many years to come.