Creating the Humble Indie Bundle

GDC 2011: Organizers of the charitable pay-what-you-want collection of computer games talk about putting it all together, from getting developers on board to dealing with pirates.

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Who was there: Wolfire Games' John Graham and Jeffrey Rosen were on hand to talk about the first two Humble Indie Bundles: multiplatform, DRM-free collections of five indie games sold at a consumer-determined price point, with a portion of the proceeds going to benefit the Child's Play charity and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Braid was among the games in the latest Humble Indie Bundle.
Braid was among the games in the latest Humble Indie Bundle.

What they talked about: Rosen opened the session by underlining what made the Humble Indie Bundle unique. People could pay whatever they wanted to for the collection of five games, from nothing to thousands of dollars. Additionally, the customers could determine how much of their contribution went to the developers and how much went to the charities.

The Humble Indie Bundle came about in part because Rosen noticed a pair of popular promotions that had worked for other games. Whenever Steam had a bundle of games and cut the price, he noticed it would generate plenty of attention from news sites and Reddit. He also called out developer 2D Boy as an influence, given the attention the pay-what-you-want promotion for World of Goo on its own had garnered.

Once they had the idea for the promotion, they had to convince the developers to get on board with it, which Rosen admitted was "a little tricky." They knew they wanted to go multiplatform with the bundle, so the developers had to have Linux versions of their games. Additionally, they figured it would help if the developers already knew and believed in them. That narrowed down the pool considerably, Rosen said.

The next step was getting charities on board, which wasn't hard at all. Rosen recounted the discussion as being essentially, "So let me get this straight: You want to give us money? OK."

The next problem to tackle was finding a way to get the games to users. That meant they needed a scalable site capable of supporting massive amounts of traffic that could be done on the cheap. They went with Google App Engine, which Rosen said was basically perfect for the needs of the Humble Indie Bundle. When they ran the second Humble Indie Bundle, they had 70 simultaneous instances of the site running. After 1.8 million downloads over the course of the promotion, Google charged them just $10 for the work.

Rosen also wanted the site to be easy to use for gamers. They wanted to make sure people didn't need to set up an account or install a separate client program, and they supported a number of different payment methods, allowing people to skip entering their credit card information if they signed on with a PayPal account.

Tech support was another big concern for Wolfire. Graham said they used an application called Tender to deal with customer support e-mails for the second promotion. Even though only .5 percent of people had a problem, Graham said that made for a ton of work, and they found it too easy for requests to slip through the cracks with Gmail. On top of that, they had 18 people who volunteered their time to do Web chat tech support. Once the volunteers got up to speed, Rosen said they were able to handle about 30 simultaneous chats.

The first Humble Indie Bundle launched in May of 2010. Graham said they had hoped to get about $200,000 over the course of the promotion but found that expectation quickly outdated when it brought in $250,000 in its first day. The grand total for the first bundle was $1.27 million. Graham said the average selling price for the bundle at first was about $7 or $8. However, when they publicized the breakdown of average selling points, with Linux users topping the scale at about $12, Graham said they noticed that it encouraged everybody to increase their donations.

For the second Humble Indie Bundle, Rosen said it was significantly easier to find developers willing to get on board. Braid got an exclusive Linux port as a result of the bundle, and Revenge of the Titans actually launched as part of the promotion. Rosen also included a "Humble Tip" slider to the checkout process, enabling people to contribute money to the organizers to prevent them from losing money on the deal. For the second bundle, Graham noted that there were many more one penny and sub-$1 purchasers than the first time around, but there were also a dozen people who topped $1,000 donations, and the promotion wound up successful in the end.

Graham added that some people did take advantage of the situation, with one person buying 1,000 bundles for a penny each the first time, and another person picking up more than 1,700 penny bundles during the second promotion. Rosen added that there was a significant amount of piracy for the games in the bundle, prompting him to open an anonymous survey for pirates to explain why they would steal the games. While some people weren't able to legitimately buy bundles because they didn't have credit cards, Rosen said there were numerous people who offered to buy the games in their stead. Rosen said he made about 25 purchases himself for people who e-mailed him directly with their problems or posted about it on the Wolfire blog.

Graham said one of the biggest takeaways for the Wolfire guys was that supporting Mac and Linux communities pays off for independent developers. The bundles did very well in both communities, resulting in higher average contributions, with the two platforms making up nearly 50 percent of the total revenues for the bundles. Another interesting behavior Graham noted was that Linux users tended to give the developers and the EFF more, but Child's Play less.

As part of the original bundle, the games were made open source after the promotion brought in $1 million. As a result, Rosen said Wolfire's own Lugaru was counterfeited on the Mac App Store recently. And because it was priced lower than the legitimately released Lugaru HD on the Mac App Store, it came up as the first result on the store. Rosen said that the developer eventually took it down himself and that they didn't get much help from Apple with the problem.

There were two spikes in revenue during the second Indie Bundle promotion, Graham said. When they added Steam keys into the promotion, revenues experienced a slight surge, even though the average donation went down considerably (a result of people speculators gathering keys to resell later, he supposed). Additionally, when they sweetened the Humble Indie Bundle deal by giving away the original Humble Indie Bundle games to anyone whose donation beat the current average, Graham said there was a more significant spike.

Quotes: "The amount of generous people overpowered the cheapskates."--Graham

"We have quite a few ideas for ways to improve the bundle. In general we want to make the customers happier and make the bundle cooler. I don't want to reveal exactly what that is yet, but hopefully we can deliver some good stuff."--Rosen, on Humble Indie Bundle 3

Takeaway: Rosen and Graham believe the Humble Indie Bundle works for charity, for game developers, and for gamers because the Internet is basically full of decent people. While there are people who will abuse the system, complain about everything, and steal games they could get for virtually nothing anyway, they weren't a big enough detriment to keep the promotions from being beneficial.

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