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With the App Store flooded, is partnering with a publisher becoming necessary?
With the App Store flooded, is partnering with a publisher becoming necessary?
May 4, 2012 | By Eric Caoili

May 4, 2012 | By Eric Caoili
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Digital distribution has brought a huge change to the game industry in recent years, enabling developers to distribute games freely without having to rely on a traditional publisher cutting into the profits. But that unlimited virtual "shelf space" comes at a cost: namely, it's getting harder to stand out amongst the crowd.

Trip Hawkins, the shrewd businessman who founded video game publishing giant Electronic Arts way back in 1982, believes that this flood of products is making the idea of a traditional publishing relationship necessary for developers once again, for better or for worse.

"When Apple launched the iPhone, when Facebook launched their app API, when Android and Google Plus followed suit, you started to see all these offers where 'Hey, if you're a developer, just come to me. You don't need a publisher,'" he points out in an interview with BigWorld Technology.

"I think that honeymoon is ending now because if you have a million apps in an app store, just because your app is in an app store, it doesn't mean it's going to be discovered," says Hawkins, whose current venture, Digital Chocolate, is a mobile app publisher. "So you've got issues about how you're going to bring traffic to it."

Independent developer Spry Fox faced that problem with attracting players to the Facebook version of its critically acclaimed social puzzle game Triple Town earlier this year, so it agreed to have Disney/Playdom take over publishing for the title, promote it, and handle its scaling issues.

Hawkins also questions the 30 percent cut that platform holders like Apple and Facebook take from game revenues, as he doesn't believe the companies are providing the same service as physical retailers. He points out that old brick and mortar shops had employees that could tell shoppers more about their products and guide them toward purchases.

"Retailers in the old days not only solved the distribution problem, they solved the discovery problem," he says. "In the very beginning with iPhone, with Android, with Facebook, they also solved the discovery problem because there wasn't much there. As you got up into the thousands and thousands of things that are there, they're no longer solving the discovery problem."

Hawkins continues, "As you got up into the thousands and thousands of things that are there, they're no longer solving the discovery problem. They don't really in fact deserve 30 percent of the value chain anymore. The 30 percent number is kind of arbitrary. ... That number makes no sense whatsoever anymore."

If app stores can't find a way to solve the discovery problem, many developers might not be able to put out a hit mobile or social game without a publisher to market their titles anymore.

"I think for developers increasingly, they're going to have to try to then figure out, 'Well how do I get my discovery problem solved?' If they can't finance it themselves, then maybe they need to partner a publisher that's good at it."


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Comments


Jeff Weber
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Looks like it's still possible to have a hit without a publisher to me:

Ski Safari: http://itunes.apple.com/app/ski-safari/id503092422?mt=8

Bruno Xavier
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Why a featured game of the week would need to solve "discovery problem"??
If that same game wasn't featured by Apple it would never ever be a hit without good marketing.

Joe McGinn
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It's also possible to run a profitable iOS app business without a hit (contrary to the popular view that you must compete with Angry Birds). Build a quality game for a dedicated, more niche audience, at a higher price point ($6 - $12). I know more than one company running successful iOS businesses in this way.

Michael Joseph
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He makes some good points, but I think we all know he's really talking about premier distribution platforms like Steam and.... Origin that are much more selective about the games they allow onto their digital shelves.

Seems to me a mighty thin line to refer to one type as publishing and the other as just i dunno... a store.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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Developers need to stay strong and avoid giving into the temptation of letting publishers once again dictate what succeeds instead of leaving it up to the free market. It is rent-seeking, it is analogous to the mafia protection racket.

Props to him calling out platform holders on their 30 percent flatline. They don't "deserve" it, but they never thought they did. We live in a culture of greed, people are taught to take what they can, not what they deserve based on how much value they are adding to society. This is a moral and cultural problem that needs solving, not an economic one.

Bob Johnson
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AGe old story.

No way to solve the discoverability problem. IT's the law of large numbers.

Competition would drive this 30% cut downward. Unfortunately there isn't much competition in these spaces.

Apple does promote games. But it can only promote so many at a time.

The role of publishers changes too. You don't need a publisher to get you on the shelf at GAmestop or Walmart. You're on the shelf already.

You just need advertising.

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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"Competition would drive this 30% cut downward. Unfortunately there isn't much competition in these spaces. "

Is this true? I ask this honestly. It seems like every time there's a distribution channel that opens up they fall on the tried and true 30%. It's almost like implicit collusion. Why is it always 30% if the market is supposed to pressure the cut down as more options appear? Why do triple A console games still ship at ~$60, from short single player experiences to massive multiplayer experiences? I believe in reality there is no true free market, merely a game being played by experts (the business elites) and novices (the rest of us) in which the business elites will continue winning because most of us have been taught to be lazy and leave pricing up to the "market", as if the business elites are doing the same and not spending every second and every cent they have to collude and lobby in their favor!

My take is that "Free market" thinking simply does not apply in the real world as systems fold in on themselves and sub markets become demonstrable fractals in the real world. For example, if you view platform holders as governments, then the 30% is more taxation without representation than a freely arrived at figure that meaningfully reflects the input and output from both sides of the transaction. I don't disagree with you, and I have a lot to learn about the subject, but it seems like relying on abstract nouns such as "competition" will never fix economic problems -- it takes intentional action, collective action in particular. It takes developers saying "no, you are taking more from the system than you are putting in".

Bob Johnson
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Well competition amongst stores isn't going to drive prices upward.

I think the business is too young to say the cut is always 30%. And it also lacks competition. Facebook has no competition. The App Store dominates mobile digital stores.

And there is only one store on the iPHone.

Maybe Android will eventually show what competition can do if Amazon and Google get their respective stores humming. I guess we already see Amazon offering discounts on apps.

But it is funny that stores get 30% no matter the price point as if it costs more to sell a $10 game than a $1 game (outside of credit card fees.)

And then what ebooks which take up next to no bandwidth. IT has to cost less to sell ebooks.

And then on top of all this, technology only drives the cost to run the store downward as bandwidth and storage and processing power only get cheaper.

Lars Doucet
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"No way to solve the discoverability problem."

I disagree.

Kongregate is just one of many examples of managing enormous numbers of game submissions and still doing a magnificent job with discoverability.

Discoverability can be solved. Apple just doesn't want to.

Bob Johnson
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@lars

Well your definition of discoverability must be different than mine.

Ultimately a consumer only has 2 eyeballs and a limited amount of time to discover games.

Throw in 10,000 games and it would take me 3 years to try 10 games a day.

You can't beat the law of large numbers and limited time. There is no system to beat that.

And so it comes down to word of mouth and advertising and standing out from the crowd and timing etc.

Lars Doucet
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@Bob:

For each and every individual game, regardless of quality, to be uniquely discoverable? Yeah, you can't beat large numbers. Full agreement there.

That's not really much of a tragedy, though. I lose no sleep over the idea that nobody paid any attention to my first five or six terrible games, because they were terrible.

For a game that is well and truly good, to have a decent chance of being discovered and earning the praise and attention it deserves, on its own merits, without having to be a hand-picked "cinderella story?" - that's what I consider discoverability, and that's been shown to be more than possible.

Bob Johnson
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@Lars

That's the thing. Ratings are no solution to discoverability. They are probably better than nothing though.

How do you get ratings in the first place? Especially when there are other good games released around the same time as yours? And when other good games from the past year are on the charts and now get a lot of press as they go "viral."

And even then I still only have so much time as a consumer to read about games and play them.

Danien Chee
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"Retailers in the old days not only solved the distribution problem, they solved the discovery problem,"

You mean "solved" as in the payola system where publishers and distributors pay retailers for preferential shelf space, ambiguously call it "Market Development Funds", and then take it out of the developers' cut?

Bruno Xavier
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And paying stores' employees to drive consumers to the right shelf too.

Daniel Gooding
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Depends on whether the publisher will actually spend time promoting your product.
Or if they are just taking a cut of your profits, and doing absolutely nothing to promote it besides posting it on their Youtube channel.

David Phan
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Yes. If you want to have a shot at cracking the Top 50 grossing in the iOS App Store and hold a position there then you need that partnership.

Aside from marketing and PR, many of the mobile partnerships provide services that small teams can't support due to resources or lack of knowledge/experience such as:
- User acquisition and retention
- Monetization strategies
- Analytics based design/decision making
- Localization
- Launching in international markets

I'm speaking as a member of a new mobile dev team trying to launch a freemium simulation game and knowing that we're going to need that extra muscle to compete against the likes of Dragonvale and Smurfs Village.

Bradley Johnson
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A "good" publisher knows people at Apple, which helps in getting featured, which leads to sales, which further leads to burying the apps from people who don't have friends at Apple

Bruno Xavier
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Chillingo's staff knows some important people inside Apple Store, but I don't see their products featured all the time.

Damir Slogar
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I don't know a single person at Apple, but ALL our games in last 2 years had been featured (8 titles). Same go for Google Market except they only featured 3 of our 5 Android titles.

Josh Fairhurst
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Most iOS and mobile platform publishers take 25 - 50% of your sales and the only major thing they offer in return is the fact that they know people at Apple which raises your chances at getting featured. Getting featured is NEVER a guarantee even if you know someone at Apple. Whether you go with a publisher or forge out on your own, you stand relatively equal chances at getting featured.

We spent the better part of a year searching for a publishing partner for Saturday Morning RPG - we eventually came to the realization that with solid in-house marketing and PR, we could get featured on our own (and get coverage on many of the bigger websites). We managed to make a contact at Apple and found out that Apple was already tracking our game due to the PR we were doing on our own. We didn't need a publisher to do that! If you've got a unique, fun, and polished game your chances are high at getting featured regardless of if you have a publisher or not!

I would strongly advise that you weigh your options before pursuing a mobile publisher! Find someone to do PR in-house and run with it. You'll be extremely happy when you find yourself featured and you aren't forking over a quarter or more of your profit to a publisher.

I should also mention that one true value add that publishers bring to the table is cross-promotion. I can't argue that cross-promotion is worthless. It is something you can still arrange on your own without a publisher, though (it just takes some work and some willingness to contact other developers out of the blue).

Bob Johnson
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So I guess getting featured isn't much different than getting on the shelf at a GAmestop or Walmart then?

I guess publishers are going to still assume the same role.

ONly difference is you can get in the back door without any help with a digital store like the App Store.

Brad Wolfe
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I admit I'm not familiar with this Hawking character, but his comments seem contrived and designed to stir-the-pot more than anything else.... I'm sure in EA's mind the future for indy studios is indeed very grim, as any future that doesn't involve the whole of world-game-development occurring within the confines of EA's endless rows of 10x10x10 cubicles is not something I can see them easily wrapping their heads around. Imagine creative minds slaving away inside EA_Castle like indentured servants, their innovations stifled time and time again by the bottom line...is THIS the future EA envisions? If so, I want no part in it.

I believe that at the most basic level people want to feel the $1.99 they just spent on game X was really worth it - that they are having fun. Would you pay $1.99 to walk thru a cornfield backwards in your birthday suit? It's the same with crappy games. Sure... a few people will buy it, but after a slew of negative reviews and word-of-mouth it's unlikely the 'Cornfield game' will be the next Angry Birds. Many people buy games to escape from their reality... consider that even if one were to hypothetically double the amount of available games overnight, there will still be good games, crappy games, and really GREAT games. People will naturally gravitate towards the titles that stand out and they feel are a good value. For most game developers success and discovery will not happen instantaneously, it requires a stellar product, a demand for what you're offering, and perseverance. Would Doubling the size of the market really change that? As for Hawking? I guess I just disagree with him, fundamentally.

brim leal
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Agree'd you have to work at it.Make a great game and get the word of mouth going and its an avalanche. make something lackluster and that is your result. With certain publisher's, the attitude is to "throw as many games against the wall" and see what sticks. That's a gamble! The sure fire thing to do is to make something great( "fez"). Do it on your own and see where it goes.

J Spartan
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Well the article made me chuckle.

I'm not surprised that big AAA publishers are worried about the democratization of gaming. They will still have a large part of the pie (with the more closed platforms like consoles etc), just not 99% of the pie anymore.

And looking at the recent boom in really good indie titles, the potential of things like Kickstarter etc, i'd say this liberation of the creator (via DD) from under the cartel of the traditional big AAA publisher is one of the best things to have happened in gaming for decades.

Want success in this new world? Quality is everything, and once people get tuned into the better titles they will naturaly rise to the top. It isn't like traditional publishing where you spend lots upfront for marketing to try to ensure that hit of the bat (bad game or not).

You don't need the numbers that are required to fund the massive AAA publishing houses, so player awareness via word of mouth due to quality gaming is where your best effort lays. Just make really good games that will get noticed and the longtail will reward you.

You might get a hit (like Minecraft say), but those will be more rare.

I agree the 30% cut thing from some of the DD stores is an issue. But i can't really take that critiscm with a straight face from a traditional publisher in this industry. I can't think of many contracts where the publisher would only take a flat 30%. It just ended up with the publishers pretty much dominating the developer in the traditional market.

So i'm all for this new era of 'developer first' working that DD can allow. We will see better games, more variety of game and maybe a new golden age of gaming!

Daniel Smith
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Regarding discoverability, it does seem like Google, Apple etc could be doing more. Rather than promote "top grossing" and "most downloaded" , I'm surprised they aren't promoting what might be relevant to me personally (ie. recommendations based on download history, and previous app ratings - amongst other things). This seems to be the way everything else in the world works now (from netflix, to ads, to search results) - why not apps stores?

While i'm here... the "top grossing" lists always seemed bizarre to me, especially since they're so prominently placed... who is this important to other than developers and analysts? Why would a user choose an app based on how much money it has made? Very weird.

Jeremie Sinic
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" recommendations based on download history, and previous app ratings - amongst other things "
That's also what I think is missing on the App Store.
It would help both users and developers if users knew the ratings they give games would actually impact the recommendations they get. And it would make users really think twice about their ratings, thus giving more legitimacy to App Store game reviews and ratings.

Amir Barak
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Wouldn't adding more tag options, better search functionality and finer genre granularity make discovering games on the digital stores easier?

Personally I find navigating both the Apple and Android stores quite annoying because I have to rely on those stupid lists which I don't care about. If I had better searching tools at my disposal I'd find it much much easier to simply locate the games that I like or at least get better close-but-not-quite results and start from there. It's not like we physically need to expend the stores anymore in order to add more shelf space, right?

Lennard Feddersen
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30% is a heck of a lot better than dev's were getting a couple of years back with all of the casual downloadable portals (BFG, Oberon, Real Arcade, etc.). With all due respect to a pioneer... Trip needs to work on making good games for his shop and not trying to get the dev's back into the barn.

tony oakden
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When I started the industry I got 10% of gross...

Anyway I personally hate the fact that I'm expected to promote, market and support my games. I'd much rather just focus on making them. Frankly I don't think publishers have been making a very good job of it for some time. Unless you are first party or had a very close relationship with a pub you got pretty crap marketing in the last few years. I'd gladly give 50% to someone to market my games properly and offer decent after sales support, running of forums etc. Unfortunately nobody does it well on mobile. With regards to getting noticed it is very hard to do. Maybe the answer is to focus on making something truly exceptional rather than lots of generic titles...

Bruno Xavier
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Yes... But if your truly exceptional game fails, it means you will fail big and that may doom your business. Thats why most mobile games are small simple stuff, they cant work on a very long tittle because nobody knows if that tittle will really succeed.

Funny is that most consumers are used to these small games now, and most big complicated games for iOS are falling behind those simple casual games.

James Coote
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I hear this a lot. Most developers don't enjoy marketing. It's not why they got into the industry. There is a gap in the market and Hawkins has identified it in the article above. The only problem is it goes against the indie instinct to pay for such services

Gil Salvado
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The days of a "blue ocean" App Store/Android Market are certainly going to be over, unless those platforms get some serious competition you're going to need a publisher again to do your marketing and such stuff.

James Coote
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I don't get it. If distribution is digital, isn't a publisher just a specialist marketing agency? If so, why (aside from historical reasons) should we treat them as anything else?

Lennard Feddersen
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I think you have hit it on the head.

In the old days (when shelf space was restricted to the really big players) a publisher would front money and take an incredible amount of risk. That is no longer the case and the percentages need to change. In the case of a 4 entity team - programmer, artist, designer/audio/producer person & a marketing firm - what is a fair split?

If the marketing firm/entity/person comes in after the fact and only signs on to projects that have turned out successfully, do the principals get a larger cut for having carried the thing to that point and taken on a larger risk %?

Sinan Hassani
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It depends on what the publisher has to offer.

Sean Kiley
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I think Apple could do more. There are too many games now to keep the old system. Divide games up by quality maybe?

Davide Pasca
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In my experience, getting featured by Apple is easy but is worth squat. Only the *main/overall* featured spots are useful to drive any sales. Being featured under "games", is just a way to slow down an inevitable fall.
I've been in both places and I can definitely tell the difference: gain for the top featured area, loss for any other sort of feature.
If one can be featured in the overall section, then it's great, but I think that it's way too unpredictable right now.

This is not to defend the role of publishers.. but to say that App Store is really tough nowadays.

(I made a blog posts with some personal stats, if anyone is interested http://v5.kazzuya.com/2012/04/31-days-later.html)


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