The role of game publishers in the mobile market is obviously different from what it is in the traditional retail environment, but some would say it's currently bordering on irrelevance. As part of a panel discussion on mobile developers at the GamesBeat 2013 conference, Kristian Segerstrale suggested the functions publishers once filled are much easier for small teams to handle on their own.
"What's really interesting to me and the heart of the issue is, 'Is there such a thing as publisher leverage in the market today?' My own view is no," the Playfish co-founder and Supercell board member explained.
In decades past, publishers had a clear purpose because games had to be sold at retail channels, and relationships with those retailers were difficult to forge. The skill set for making good games and the skill set for getting those products into Walmart did not have much overlap, Segerstrale explained.
"Today, though, my sense is that even though a lot of companies claim they have publisher leverage through being able to market better or somehow help monetize better, I think the truth is it's just not there yet," Segerstrale added.
However, he believes publishers will serve a purpose in the mobile realm in the coming years. Specifically, once there are global juggernauts who offer developers services they couldn't handle themselves--such as managing player relationships in Germany, China, Brazil, and any other markets outside of the team's home country, publishers could see a return to relevance.
"What used to be a publisher as a big company with relationships today is replicated by two people," Segerstrale said, echoing the sentiment of fellow panelist and Chartboost CEO Maria Alegre. "It's the idea that you have one person who is pretty good at helping guide design in a way that makes it monetizable over time...and then there's somebody who understands user acquisition, one way or the other."
If a developer has those two people and money, then the need for a publisher is essentially zero. In fact, in his position as co-founder of Initial Capital, Segerstrale said he looks specifically for teams that have those first two qualities and just need a bit of investment to get them off the ground. Still, he cautioned small teams to think long and hard about signing on with publishers, and exactly what they're getting and giving up in the process.
"I actually think publishers have a role," Segerstrale said, adding, "I just think small teams need to think very carefully about what they sign up to in the long term, because it's so little."