The Humble Indie Bundle: Leaving no customer behind

Ludwig Kietzmann
L. Kietzmann|03.01.11

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The charitable, almost casually presented collection of indie games, The Humble Indie Bundle, was born from an earnest approach to customer service. Wolfire Games offered a user-determined price point, ditched DRM, shared earnings with charity organizations and targeted multiple platforms -- including Windows, Mac OS and Linux -- when it launched the first Humble Indie Bundle in May 2010. "It was very relaxed and very good for the customer," said Jeffrey Rosen, co-founder of Wolfire Games and Humble Bundle Inc. "We didn't want to leave anybody out."

Rosen and Wolfire's John Graham elaborated on their "leave no customer behind" approach at a GDC panel on Monday morning, emphasizing the importance of including platforms like Mac OS and Linux in addition to PC. The decision to spread beyond Windows was informed by Wolfire's prior experience selling its own games, with anthropomorphic bunny basher Lugaru HD racking up doubly strong sales through Mac and Linux support. Linux users seemed particularly grateful for the support -- when the first bundle concluded after racking up $1,273,613, Linux users had spent the most with $14.44 on average. "If you reach out to them, they want to take care of you too," John Graham said.

The initial thrust behind the creation of the Humble Indie Bundle actually came from social news site Reddit, where Rosen had noticed discussions of Steam bundle sales rocketing to prominence. "I thought that I could do that," he said, before organizing an Overgrowth/Natural Selection 2 pre-order bundle. Landing on Reddit with minimal press coverage, that bundle ended up selling about 1,600 copies.

Indie dev 2D Boy had seen success with a pay what you want sale for World of Goo, which spurred Rosen to find a way to deliver an even more enticing offer. "I was kind of thinking about how can you top a pay what you want promotion? That feels like the best deal ever -- you can pay what you want for a game." And not only would you be able to pay what you want, but you could determine how much of the payment would be split between the developers and charity.

Getting charities on board proved to be easy (a good charity couldn't be too combative about receiving funds, after all!) but the first, unproven bundle had to work harder to convince enough developers to give their games away, essentially for free. "We basically talked to the people that we knew, and the people who actually supported Linux," Rosen said. "So, that's a very small number of people." That unique intersection eventually yielded World of Goo, Aquaria, Gish, Wolfire's own Lugaru HD, and Penumbra Overture (Samorost 2 was eventually included as a bonus game).

Wolfire was very considerate of the design of its website, which had to serve gigabits of traffic per second and enable purchases with minimal hassle. After building its web system with Google App Engine (economical aside: though the bundle earned over $1.2 million dollars, Google billed Wolfire only $10), the web page was set up sans account creation and client downloads, and with only one pre-purchase page and an immediate post-purchase page. "It's a game on the internet, you don't need a shopping cart," Rosen said.

Unencumbered, unrestricted access to a game on the internet proved to predictably irresistible to pirates. Rosen estimated that nearly 25% of original bundle downloads (26,497) were pirated directly from Wolfire, and noted that a particular user purchased 1,000 bundles -- at a penny each, possibly with the intention of profiting from re-sales. According to John Graham, that player's actions eroded the average price displayed on the site and was, he noted calmly, "kind of annoying." Wolfire is currently considering ways to deal with this problem in a way that doesn't jeopardize its DRM-free file delivery, but had yet to counter it by the time the second Humble Indie Bundle launched. Bundle 2 ended up being penny-purchased 1,736 times by another, err, avid fan.

Rosen attempted to understand the motivations of pirates by sending out a survey through Twitter, and was often told that users felt entitled to download the bundle illegally because they had no credit card, and thus no way to obtain the bundle properly. "If you can't purchase the bundle, there's a lot of people who would buy it for you," he said. Rosen himself purchased a couple of bundles for those who were unable to do so themselves, though at the time of the first bundle's launch he had only received three emails directly requesting assistance.

The large discrepancy didn't deter the bundle and its eventual sequel from success. Overall, Graham pointed out, the customers who paid in the region of $10 for games overpowered the penny-pinching, penny-paying "cheapskates." The second Humble Indie Bundle -- comprising Braid, Cortex Command, Machinarium, Osmos, Revenge of the Titans and eventually the entirety of the original bundle -- launched in December 2010 and went on to earn $1,825,742. Lacking a Wolfire game in the second bundle, the company added the option of a customer-determined "humble tip," which netted it $133,492 by the end of the promotion. (Though some might consider that a bit of a lousy tip at 7.3 percent.)

With over $3 million dollars earned in total (and about $1 million of that set aside for charity), the Humble Indie Bundle series should have an even easier time finding and incorporating the next batch of interesting games. The ultimate dream, Rosen said, was to regularly use the bundle as a platform for promoting and conveniently selling indie gems that would be overlooked otherwise.
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