I love the expression by which I titled this post, though I cannot take credit for it. That goes to Laurens Rutten, CEO of our portfolio company BoosterMedia, a leading network for cross-platform mobile games.
The importance of digital distribution has been on my mind a lot lately, and bubbled up again last week as I read Ben Evans’ characteristically insightful musings last week on the heels of an equally insightful board meeting with the aforementioned BoosterMedia.
The sound of one hand clapping
We see it in games, we see it in news, we see it in blogs, and in fact in every piece of online content available for consumption. You may have the best material in your space, and it’s easier than ever to create content — but no one will consume it if they aren’t aware of it.
In news, historically the local nature of the business allowed print newspapers to essentially control the distribution of content (and hence reader attention) over their own limited geographic area. Those days are obviously gone now, following the shift from print to digital, which in parallel pushed local reach toward worldwide while pushing publication costs toward zero. Now, anyone can be a publisher, but to be read at scale you need to be featured in a news feed or pass through a digital publishing platform that includes a distribution network like Tumblr or Medium.
Similarly, mobile gaming today by way of native apps is consumed only with an obligatory passage through the distribution gatekeepers of Apple’s AppStore and Google’s Play store. The present duopolistic configuration was of course not always in place. In the previous life before the release of the iPhone (stretch that imagination), mobile gaming was still big business, even way back then. It just happened to take place predominantly in two geographies with the most advanced mobile technologies and networks: Japan and South Korea. Games were played on what we in the West derisively called “feature phones” (though in reality were light-years ahead of the clunky handsets we used in the US and Europe); and gameplay occurred over the mobile web as opposed to in a native on the device. Rather than Apple and Google, the gatekeepers consisted of firms like Gree and DeNA.
All of the preceding is well-understood by now, but the point is this: even back in those prehistoric days of mobile gaming, quality of the game would determine who was the best dancer, but it was the distribution gatekeepers who drafted the guest list for the party.
Understand your new paradigm first, then create for it
Another point Ben underscores is the importance of restarting with a native mindset rather than trying to shoehorn your existing model into the new paradigm. “Buzzfeed starts by trying to understand the fundamental dynamics of how journalism is found and read and works back from that to the journalism itself. This is exactly how newspapers and magazines got created in the first place – by working out how to be native to the new form that technology enabled, not by starting with what you already have and trying to make the new form fit into it (which is how most newspapers and magazines then reacted to the web).”
Rarely is it as effective to attempt to transcribe an existing model into a new environment. In mobile gaming, Puzzles & Dragons and Monster Strike, the two most lucrative mobile games in history, were not ported from previously-existing games on consoles or pc’s but rather saw their genesis in the smartphone realm. Their creators started from a clean slate with a mobile mindset and developed content (the games) and the business model to fit this new realm.
If you’re building a business based on digital content, it’s worth working out the fundamental distribution model at your concept stage. If you’re not the Empire State Building, then you’re the girl.