In a panel on iPhone game publishing at GDC Europe in Cologne, panelists discussed the success of the App Store and whether you genuinely need a publisher for your iPhone game.
The panel was made up of a mix of developers and publishers, including Joe Wee of iPhone publisher Chillingo (iDracula, Zen Bound), Michael Schade of mobile phone developer Fishlabs, Sergei Gourski of Fieldrunners developer Subatomic Studios, and Alan Yu of Rolando publisher Ngmoco.
Starting out, Gourski discussed how Fieldrunners -- now also coming to the PSP Go -- ended up being a hit in the iPhone App store. He suggested that, although the game's quality alone was one of the reasons it rose to the top: "One of the hurdles we had to overcome early on was that we knew how to make a game... [but] we needed help marketing and writing press releases."
The need for marketing and messaging is definitely important, and both Ngmoco's Yu and Chillingo's Wee explained that there were varied reasons that developers might want to partner with them.
Firstly, there's access to funding, if you need it. But also important is access to marketing, both via Apple and externally through relationships with press and company-related PR. Wee claimed that for iPhone game publishers to serve their developers, "buzz creation is key".
Ngmoco's Yu commented that "in the console space, money is really a defining factor", but not so in iPhone. It's more about "what kind of access and reach you have to an audience."
Sure, you can 'self-distribute' on the iPhone, but Yu thinks that it's "patently false that [anyone] can self-publish." In other words, all developers need to try to get the word out somehow -- though as Gourski pointed out, it may be possible to do it yourself.
There are other reasons for linking with publishers, of course. For one, there's creative feedback. Yu noted that "there's something to be said for not working in an echo chamber". He cited creative collaborations between Ngmoco's experienced staff and external developers on titles like Rolando.
But it's the upcoming linked iPhone game networks, such as Ngmoco's Plus+ network and Chillingo's Crystal Network, which really seem to offer promise and a reason for publishing and partnering.
Companies like Chillingo and Ngmoco recognize that closely working with developers on individual titles isn't going to scale massively. If there are shared high scores, achievements, or recommendations across multiple games, this is a much larger reason for developers to use these iPhone game networks.
Now that there's a large amount of game creators and publishers starting a trend of trying to aggregate audience across all their titles, Yu concluded that "whoever gets to that critical mass of audience first is going to win".