LGC 09: ‘Beware the death of the disc’

Traditional PR and marketing, competition with rivals, and boxed product – all of these things face extinction when digital downloads take hold.

That’s according to a panel of online games experts grilled by industry veteran Phil Harrison at this evening’s London Games Conference.

Playfish’s Kristian Segerstrale, Mark Gerhard from Jagex and Thomas Bidaux of ICO Partners all agreed that games have a massive future that is online-centric – and that traditional games publishers need to be ready.

They need to be quick too: as the physical disc is due an imminent demise, they agreed.

Publishers must look at "how consumer behaviour and the way they interact is moving online" said Segerstrale, whose Playfish digitally publishes social games like Pet Society and Restaurant City on Facebook.

Pet Society regularly scores over 20m monthly uniques, Restaurant City has 17m – that’s half the size of World of Warcraft.

"[The industry has] meandered own this road creating games for solitary entertainment," added Segerstrale, pointing out the wide audience reach of his firm’s games. "There’s an opportunity to bring games back from this niche."

But traditional publishers, the Ubisofts and EAs of the world, haven’t really touched this space, Harrison and the panelists pointed out.

The implication was that there are vastly different skillsets between the established retail-centric games industry, and players like Jagex and its Runescape MMO have the upper hand when it comes to online games.

"Everything is going to merge at some point," said ICO’s Bidaux. "You won’t categorise games as being played online, because they all will be. You won’t say they are social because all will have integrated friends lists."

He later added: "It’s not random that the biggest players in social games are not tied to any of the major players in the established market."

MMOs and their publishers, specifically, will eventually ditch their retail component as they realise that "online is a safer model that is sustainable in the long term", said Bidaux.

"Going after the launch effect is acually a very dangerous strategy – because you are in for the long term, not just launch. Making too big a launch impacts you if players wll stay – and it creates an economy in your company that isn’t healthy."

The different behaviour of players operating online versus those that go into shops also means PR and marketing as publishers know it is facing extinction, the panel said.

Said Gerhard: "We create good games – people tell their friends about that. That’s it. We’ve never had a marketing or PR campaign in 10 years. The users will go and promote the game for us."

Added Segerstrale: "There is a big green field in online – you compete with everyone and eveything. It’s not like retail where if there is no shelf space, or you aren’t in the top 30, you are done. You can focus on your own game and not care about the competition."

And as the industry potentially turns its back on discs – ultimately, all three agreed with Harrison that future games consoles will lack an optical disc-drive – that means retail could remain just an outfit to reach a limited set of consumers; retail becomes just a promotional gimmick.

Gerhard admitted the Jagex is interested in releasing its hugely popular Runescape game on disc at retail – but only "as a marketing opportunity. It doesn’t get any deeper than that."

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