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Finding Apps In A Haystack

The vast number of mobile apps has created demand for ways to make apps easier to discover, even as platform owners limit some forms of promotion.
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Mobile game developers face a major problem: discovery. With more than 425,000 apps in Apple's iTunes App Store and something like 250,000 apps in the Android Market, competition for attention is fierce.

So it's perhaps no surprise that the GamesBeat conference in San Francisco, Calif., entered its second day with a discussion of mobile game discovery.

"Discovery" in fact means promotion. It's a way to say "marketing" that hides the hand of the marketer. When game industry people talk about making their apps more discoverable, they don't just trust that potential customers will stumble across their titles serendipitously; they're trying to push potential customers to become actual customers. And such manipulation isn't always welcome in a social landscape that describes everyone as a "friend."

App discovery efforts ran into resistance in April when Apple began enforcing its prohibition on incentivized installation--paying mobile phone owners to install apps. Considered in combination with Facebook's backlash against apps that promote themselves by spamming users' activity streams--Zynga's claim to fame--app developers face a far more daunting distribution landscape, particularly small and mid-size companies that relied on low-cost channels of promotion.

Moderating the conference discussion of discovery, Eric Goldberg, founder of Crossover Technologies, suggested that the most effective form of discovery is still the app store or mobile carrier store. Beyond that, he cited other potential tactics: the now dubious pay-per-install, word-of-mouth, free game giveaways, and games that require recruitment of other players to win.

Toward the end of the discussion, another tactic came up: quality. It's universally recommended, just not often achieved.

"If you are a fledgling developer, quality is the best way of getting Apple's attention," said Jussi Laakkonen, CEO of Applifier, an app discovery company.

Playing devil's advocate, Goldberg noted that even high-quality titles can get lost among the sheer number of apps being released. But really, the games most in need of discovery services are the titles that don't stand out, the mass of mediocre, uninspired, and sub-standard apps. The need is enough for Goldberg to postulate that perhaps the next great company will be built on discovery rather than distribution.

The panelists--the previously mentioned Laakkonen, Immad Akhund, co-founder of Heyzap, Colin Digiaro, COO of MindJolt, and Dror Oren, executive director of ventures, licensing, & strategic programs at SRI International--could hardly be expected to disagree, with three of the four being in the business of app discovery. There were some minor points of contention--Laakkonen said Facebook Connect wasn't that effective at driving traffic while Digiaro argued otherwise--but mostly there was consensus about the need for better app promotion mechanisms.

Social promotion was cited as a promising avenue, as was owning a large catalog of games for cross-promotion. Laakkonen put it this way: "You need your friends to make more money in this business."

While the specifics of effective app discovery are still being worked out, and are likely to remain in flux as platform owners move the goalposts, there can be little doubt that there's demand for discovery as a service.

One way that game discovery services may emerge is within game engine middleware. At a conference panel on game engines, all three panelist--Brett Seyler, VP of Strategy at Unity Technologies, Michael Agustin, co-founder and chief product officer of GameSalad and Walter Luh, co-founder and CEO of Ansca Mobile--said they were aware of customer concerns about game discoverability.

"We've been thinking about that as a problem that should be solved during the authoring process," said Seyler. "If you're going to ask the customer for money at some point [as you might through a cross-promotion button], you should know that when you're authoring the game."

"Discovery was a top concern when we polled developers," said Agusitin, pointing to his company's recently introduced HTML5-based game authoring system and Game Salad Arcade as mechanisms that enhance game visibility.

Luh noted that discovery is less of a challenge for high-end game developers, who can afford TV ads, but confirmed that it's top of mind for independent developers. He noted steps that Ansca Mobile had taken to make apps more discoverable through his company's Corona SDK--Facebook and OpenFeint integration--and also pointed to its app showcase. He said he expected Ansca will continue working with developers to educate them about how to promote apps and promised new tools to help with discovery in a forthcoming Corona SDK release scheduled for early August.

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