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."