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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."

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.

Brendan Sinclair
By Brendan Sinclair, Senior Editor

Brendan Sinclair has been a games journalist since 1999. His tastes are eclectic, though he has a definite affinity for games with arcade roots. He's Canadian, but has also been at home in Atlanta, Austin, Chicago, and San Francisco.

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The-Longshot 12 pts

Wow, that is pretty awesome! kudos for the good work gentlemen.

D3thN1gh7 5 pts

Wow. I never actually knew about this. This is pretty cool and certainly inspires me a little more to into the indie development scene. I'll certainly be buying this bundle soon too. Looks great. Keep it up guys.

flammable_zeus 90 pts

I'm glad to finally know of this. I'm surprised I haven't seen it advertised around here before as it seems like the kind of thing that a lot more gamers should know about. I look forward to the next bundle, it'll be good to know exactly how much of my money is going where. I'm also glad that this brings to light how much more honest people can be.

gbrading 58 pts

The Humble Indie Bundle #2 was categorically my favourite gaming event of last year. First the offered some great games at a cutdown price with money going to charity, and then they offered the first Indie Bundle if you paid over a certain price. I thought that was just amazing. I wish them all the success for future events.

GGCrew_basic 32 pts

I was hesitant to purchase the first Humble Indie Bundle. I already owned two of the games (Gish, World of Goo) and am always leery of using my credit card on unknown/little-known storefronts. I'm glad I did! Payment was easy, downloading the games was easy, and (looking back a few months after the sale) I believe that I got more than my $30 worth of good entertainment - I use Windows, OS X, and Linux regularly, and the Bundle let me play any of the games regardless of which OS (or computer) I was using. As soon as I heard about HIB #2, I immediately bought the 2nd bundle without hesitation. Some excellent games, supporting the developers, and helping EFF and Child's Play. Looking forward to HIB #3!

magnusm1 5 pts

I'm so sad I missed the bundles. And Wolfire charged my credit-card without sending me a Lugaru-E-mail. Can someone send me a PM with a solution?

Cassius2k 5 pts

First bit of good news of the month. Agree with everyone who say it should of been advertised more. Never heard of it but going to have me a look-see


maybe they should advertise this wherever possible! i got to know about this only through my Gamespot Newsletter!

Samrat_Ashok 16 pts

Read this bloody pirates! Read this and feel small! It's stuff like this that makes me feel that people aren't all out to rip each other off. And no matter how many cheapskates and pirates turn up to screw good developers, in the end, the honest gamer will understand the developer, and the developer will understand the gamer, and everything will be all right.

PSdual_wielder 19 pts

Wow this is insane, this story should be headline example of why indies need more attention. Too bad I never heard of this deal, more people should have been informed about this.

poopinpat 114 pts

steam had great indie bundles for $5 each during the holidays! hope they do the same next holiday season.

Dmg051793 13 pts

I think this is the coolest thing I have ever heard of and seen. 2010 was the year for indie gaming and indie movies. If only this could be on consoles, I would get these in a heartbeat for at least $20. Just too bad Microsoft is too greedy :C

RufusChambers 5 pts

I like'd how they sent me info on the Humble Indie Bundle......AFTER it was over

zaphodbblbrox 5 pts

I feel sorry that I was one of the "cheapskates" I believe I payed 10$...... 5 to the charity and 5 to the devolopers. This bundle was so freaking good, I felt bad that I payed so little, and encouraged everyone I knew to check it out. Missed out on bundle #2. I really hope this keeps up.

ax23000 15 pts

@CyberKlown28 - Sometimes working within constraints leads to greater creativity. Giving many indie developers limitless budgets likely would not improve the quality or creativity of the games they would make. In fact, I bet there would be a DIP in quality.

fkbwii 6 pts

I am extremely humbled by this. I'm just dumbfounded that I've never heard of this until now.

julianozuca 14 pts

This shows well how epic an indie developer's life can be... :P

Adam_the_Nerd 8 pts

This was so inspirational. I bought it.

Legendary_Bibo 5 pts

A Linux port of Braid (I already have it through Steam, but what the hey) is what sold me. Getting the first bundle on top of that makes me want to get the next bundle as well. Gaming selection on Linux is very limited, so if this helps developers turn an eye towards the Linux community then this is one big helpful step. I like world of goo as well, and I bought the Prenumbra series after I got the first one from the bundle.

CyberKlown28 12 pts

Why does "poor and unemployed" get called "indie" ? Anyways...if they can make great games with little resources, what would happen if a big company brought them on board and gave them limitless budgets...?

Posted on Feb 28, 2011