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The End of Publishing

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

However, let's temper this for a moment, and think about a few of the things that publishers do which aren't going to change in this brave new world. For a start, while marketing is paradoxically getting harder for the big guys and easier for the little guys, there's still incredible power in traditional campaigns, be they TV, radio, print, online or outdoor. Developers, as a rule, don't have the know-how to create those campaigns - or the financial muscle to support them.

Which brings us neatly to the question of finance. Of course, the model whereby the publisher pays for development up front is far from being the only model which works for game creation. Indeed, digital distribution opens up the exciting possibility of a long-tail model, whereby games continue generating decent revenue long after their release - so a studio with a few successful titles available can conceivably fund development on new projects with continuing revenue from back-catalogue sales.

However, that won't work for everyone - and finance isn't just about where your money comes from. It's also about how you handle your money. Over the years, many developers have summed up their relationship with their publisher to me in the simplest of terms - "they're our bank" - but many others have understood that the publisher is, in effect, taking care of all the annoying financial stuff and letting the developers get on with what they do best, which is creating great games.

Other issues, too, would be new territory for developers to break into. Few developers have much experience of negotiating for licences and IP to work on (there are many exceptions, of course, but it's certainly true that the majority of IP negotiations in the industry are carried out by or on behalf of publishers, not developers). Sales, too, would remain a factor to some extent - at the very least, someone needs to be cultivating the relationships required to get your products featured strongly on the portal pages of the various digital distribution platforms.

In a world without publishers, then, developers would need to either learn a whole raft of new skills in marketing, finance or elsewhere - or hire people who already have those skills, effectively turning every developer into a mini-publisher. Of course, rather than everyone hiring their own skilled staff, it might make more sense to have a company with all of those staff, who work on games created by many developers - at which point you have, essentially, reinvented the wheel and created a new publisher.

So, as appealing as David Lau-Kee's sentiments are, I think his case is a little overstated. Publishing is certainly going to change in the coming years - there is a storm on the horizon which is likely to break first in the music business, where the publishing giants really are becoming increasingly obsolete, but which will eventually reach videogames and will reshape the entire market. Some publishers will disappear. Some will shrink, in their range of functions if not in their actual size and turnover. Some developers will become publishers; some publishers will become developers, and strange hybrids between the two (such as Steam operators Valve) will appear.

But while digital distribution will change much, it will not remove all of the functions which publishers now serve, nor will it make the existence of publishers themselves entirely redundant. They may not win any popularity contests, but this industry needs its suits, just as it needs its creatives, and a role for publishing companies will remain even after the upheaval to come.

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