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The End of Publishing

Digital distribution will change things, but publishers will remain part of the landscape.

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Image credit: Eurogamer

Published as part of our sister-site' widely-read weekly newsletter, the Editorial is a weekly dissection of one of the issues weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer after it goes out to newsletter subscribers.

The idea that publishers will become redundant in an age of digital distribution is a popular - and perhaps more notably, populist - one. Publishers are not, by their nature, attractive beasts. Where developers are seen as hives of creativity, the engines of creation which drive the gaming medium forward, publishers are easy to categorise as soulless creatures, faceless entities packed with accountants, marketers and executives. In a popularity contest between the suits and their spreadsheets, or the creative developers and their high concepts, there's no question as to whose side the public - and the media - will be on.

As such, when David Lau-Kee - himself a former Electronic Arts VP, a cynic might note - blasts publishers as "blood-sucking leeches" and talks about a digital future in which they will be rendered obsolete by the march of progress, it's a sentiment that developers feel pretty good about.

It helps that there's a strong sense of truth to his statements. Many publishers are guilty of being utterly domineering in their relationships with development studios, taking not only the lion's share of profits but also demanding that IP rights - the very lifeblood of a creative industry - be signed over.

Big publishers have been the gatekeepers to retail for years, with they alone holding the clout required to put a boxed game onto store shelves, and rather like the border guards of any banana republic, they have not behaved well with this power. Many developers, even very successful developers, will talk in public about how supportive and fantastic their present publisher is, only to reveal in private that they feel that the entire structure of publisher-developer relationships in the industry is fundamentally broken and heavily abused.

There is no question, too, but that the role of publishers will be diminished in the digital distribution era. Some of their major functions are essentially becoming obsolete - new retail channels are wide open, while warehousing and inventory have disappeared along with the physical products themselves. Physical production, packaging, distribution and sales are steadily disappearing from the publishing process.

Marketing, meanwhile, is not disappearing but is most certainly changing. The extraordinary and exponential rise in interpersonal communication which has been facilitated by parallel developments in areas such as social networking and mobile phones has been a broadside to traditional marketing - one which, frankly, very few marketers have come to grips with. Positive word of mouth buzz, spreading through mediums ranging from SMS messages to Facebook to Twitter, is driving sales more effectively than any above-the-line campaign ever could. Countless blogs and podcasts with a few hundred readers each are collectively reaching audiences wider than any magazine or major website.

Sometimes, clever marketing people can set off a spark which ignites that kind of coverage - but right now, it's more an art than a science, and the slightest hint of insincerity or PR guff can make a publisher's dip into "crowd marketing" backfire horribly. Yet, conversely, developers thrive in this market. They're the creative types, their enthusiasm for their game considered "real" and sincere by the audience who see publisher enthusiasm as fake, bottled and profit-margin focused. That doesn't quite translate into indie games outselling FIFA - but it does translate into indie games probably selling more copies than they would if they had been picked up by a publisher at some point in the process.