Even high-quality games are still getting lost amid the thousands of apps on the various mobile app stores.

Getting your app discovered is still a lot harder to do on a mobile platform than it is on a social game platform such as Facebook. That’s not news to us, since VentureBeat has held two DiscoveryBeat conferences and identified dozens of ways to get apps noticed. But bright minds continue to focus on this problem, which is one of the toughest of the era of apps. Whoever solves it will wind up generating a ton of revenue.

In our most recent mobile-app discovery panel at last week’s GamesBeat 2011 conference in San Francisco, we tapped into the latest thinking on this tough issue.

Our panel (pictured right to left) included Jussi Laakkonen, CEO of Applifier; Immad Akhund, co-founder of Heyzap; Dror Oren, executive director of ventures, licensing, and strategic programs at SRI International; and Colin Digiaro, chief operating officer of MindJolt, which recently bought SGN. Eric Goldberg (far right), managing director of Crossover Technologies, was the moderator. Here’s what they said:

One of the best ways to get your game discovered is to have a great game. Great games spread by word of mouth with very little advertising or cross-promotion. Since more people play them, they spread more easily. And since people play them for a longer period of time, the friends of that player are more likely to notice that a person is obsessed with a game — and then they may try it out as well.

The mobile user still faces the problem of trying to find the equivalent of a single product on the shelf of a store in a city full of shopping malls. Discovery on the web was a tough problem until search engines such as Google came along, making it easier for people to find exactly what they wanted among millions upon millions of web sites. But the equivalent of search for apps isn’t nearly so advanced.

Goldberg said an informal survey he made showed that the most popular way to get a game discovered is by having it featured by the platform owner, such as Apple. But the odds of getting picked by Apple are so low that it’s like winning the lottery. The second most popular way was incentivized installs, which were banned as too manipulative by Apple. The third was word of mouth marketing, the fourth was free apps such as FreeAppADay.com; and the last was social networking.

Laakkonen noted that OpenFeint’s revenues for 2010 were just $282,500, even though the company (acquired by Japan’s Gree for $104 million; yes, that is 368 times revenue) had thousands of developers with more than 90 million users. OpenFeint delivered something like 6 million paid installs if all that revenue resulted from referrals from its customer base. It’s unclear how many free app installs OpenFeint referred, but it was likely a significant multiple of paid installs. Laakkonen said it was disheartening since the revenues were so low, but he noted that the traffic was pretty good.

By contrast, Tapjoy, which offered pay-per-install marketing until Apple shut it down (it has now moved to Android) said at MobileBeat 2011 that its services in mobile discovery have led to more than 141 million installs resulting from more than 25 billion impressions with users. That was for the six months ended June 30. Tapjoy was popular because it was an almost-scientific way to get a game properly promoted, in contrast to the scary and random techniques such as word-of-mouth and being featured by Apple.

That contrast between OpenFeint (which is more about social game development tools) and Tapjoy, which was much more directly focused on marketing apps, shows that while some companies talk a lot about enabling discovery, some platforms can do it much better than others.

Digiaro said that some lessons from Facebook discovery techniques can apply to mobile, such as an emphasis on sharing, badge rewards, and scores. Games that allow users to express themselves will also be shared more and spread in a more viral way.

“As we think about game development for mobile, we think about the same things we do on Facebook, like when do you prompt the user, how do you prompt, what do you say when you prompt,” Digiaro. “It’s a little bit of a different model, but we have had good success with our first game” from the newly acquired SGN mobile game business.

Laakkonen said the best way to spread a mobile game now is to take your phone and show a game to your friend — word of mouth.

“The question is how do I communicate to people who I care about this game,” Laakkonen said. “You need to be right there in the moment when someone is bored and you can show them something else.”

The good thing is mobile users try out a lot of games. The bad thing is attention spans are short. This isn’t to say that there are no good ways to get mobile apps discovered.

OpenFeint provides game feeds, or news about games, to its users. Applifier is providing a banner (pictured right) across key screens on games to try to cross-promote new games to users. The tough thing is that Applifier has maybe a ninth of the screen size to cross-promote apps on mobile in contrast to promoting apps on Facebook.

Getjar runs the second-largest app store behind Apple. The company makes money as game publishers pay extra to have their games highlighted on its site. GetJar recently started an experiment where it will give away millions of copies of high-end mobile games from Glu Mobile. Smule tries to get its music apps noticed by uploading videos to YouTube.

Flurry  tries to improve game discovery by understanding users through analytics. Flurry’s analytics software is used by thousands of developers whose apps are being used by tens of millions of users. So Flurry knows what’s on the users’ phones. It has added AppCircle  as a recommendation engine, analyzing the user’s taste in apps and then recommending apps that it thinks the user will like.

Akhund said that Heyzap’s game check-in app has driven 2 million installations of games at no cost to the game developers. The app works by letting users declare what game they’re playing to their mobile friends. Akhund says Heyzap is good at highlighting the most popular games at a given moment.

Oren said that SRI International is continuing to develop and spin off artificial intelligence and virtual assistant technologies that can help users discover apps that they want.

SRI, a renowned Silicon Valley research institute that spun out of Stanford University, developed AI technology that could serve as a virtual assistant for humans. It spun the division off as Siri (pictured right), which launched a free iPhone app in February 2010. The voice-recognition app allows you to ask for something, such as a restaurant reservation, and Siri finds the place for you and makes the reservation. Much like a good location-based service, Siri can help you discover things you didn’t know were there. Apple bought Siri last year and is reportedly using it to develop more new services.

If you apply AI to understanding what kind of games a user wants to play, you can solve discovery, Oren said. The AI can search for what the user wants and then return with the right information in a very efficient manner.

“Take Siri and amplify it 10 times more, adding stuff like the “if you like this” recommendation engine that Amazon.com uses,” Oren said. “You can use something like geo-location as a mobile discovery helper. These are things that are context-oriented that can be applied to the specific user.”

The hard thing is that to do AI discovery well, the AI has to know a lot about the user. Right now, the AI can’t get that kind of information easily. SRI is spinning off several companies in the next six months to 18 months that are doing discovery, Oren said, though the initial emphasis is not on mobile discovery.

Laakkonen said he was encouraged by the popularity of virtual goods on mobile. By their very nature, virtual goods are social. People win them or buy them and want to share them with their friends. By sharing virtual goods, they can share apps and thereby help those apps get discovered.

“That will drive a better communication system as developers see they make more money if people play together,” Laakkonen said. “The problem is, we lack the communications channels. Facebook Connect fell flat, as it hasn’t driven discovery.” Attempts to create communications channels include OpenFeint’s social sharing system, Apple’s Game Center (pictured right), Ngmoco’s upcoming Mobage mobile social network, and other similar things.

“I am optimistic those communications channels will evolve because game developers need them so badly,” Laakkonen said.

Digiaro said he thinks Facebook will improve what it has to offer on mobile phones in the future, and that will give game developers a much-needed better communications channel.

If the discovery issue gets solved, lots of dollars will follow. In Japan, DeNA has succeeded in selling a lot of virtual goods and promoting a lot of games to users; the result has been $1.3 billion in revenues and $650 million in pre-tax profit.