Commentary

Game On: Humble Bundle

It’s one thing to make a video game, another to sell it. If you do both, and blow up the games publishing model while you’re at it, that’s worthy of the Triple Crown. The Humble Indie Bundle, and the model of bundled games offers it originated, can plausibly claim just that.

Originally a project of Wolfire Games, now managed by the spun-off Humble Bundle, Inc., each Humble Indie Bundle is a collection of five to 10 games and a few promotional items, such as game soundtracks. They’re available for a limited time, cross-platform (on Mac, Windows, and Linux), and free of any kind of Digital Rights Management lockdown.

All are offered at the dangerous (but possibly inspired) price point of ... whatever-you-want.

Defying the mixed results of bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails, who have sold name-your-own-price albums, the Humble Bundles have total sales approaching $20 million, and the most recent one, Humble Indie Bundle V, shot past $2 million in its first 24 hours.

So why is this quirky model successful?

In part, it’s because of that eponymous ‘Humble.’ A portion of the revenue goes to the game developers, but a rotating cast of charities also benefits. They’re carefully chosen for the soft spots they hold in gamers’ hearts. Organizations like Child’s Play and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are frequent participants.

More important, are the elements of gamification included in the experience. One key piece: the distribution of money between developers and charities isn’t set beforehand. It’s decided by the buyer.

Each person who buys the bundle controls exactly how much of their money goes to the developers, the charities and Humble Bundle, Inc., respectively. Also, one of the games in each bundle is only available to those who pay more than the average purchase price. This rewards the quick and fuels viral / social spread, not to mention having the obvious effect of driving up the average purchase price over time.

Transparent record-keeping means everyone knows how much each computing “tribe” has paid. For example, Windows purchasers have spent the least per-transaction for Humble Bundle V, but by far the most in aggregate. Linux users are the most generous, and Macophiles are in the middle.

A leaderboard of top spenders is also publicly available, which gives rise to competition around who can pay more. Humble Bundle IV saw a friendly contest between Markus “Notch” Persson -- the developer of indie gaming smash-hit “Minecraft” -- and the HumbleBrony team -- a group of semi-ironic fans of the TV show, “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.” (Got that, Bro-ny?) They paid $8,500 and $16,000 respectively, and they’re at it again with Humble Bundle V, $10,000 and $9000 to-date.

The lessons learned here are threefold. First, as has also been demonstrated by Louis C.K.’s recent $5 download-only, DRM-free comedy special, “Live at the Beacon Theater,” traditional models of content distribution are becoming less and less relevant.

Most Humble Bundle games have been released independently, by publishers, and as part of the bundle. For the first time, there’s room for (and competition between) multiple viable channels. Digital has been truly disruptive, in the best sense of that term, and content producers no longer depend entirely on physical channels to speak to their fans.

Second, it’s all about those fans. With seven days remaining in the two-week sale, Humble Bundle V actually added three additional games into the deal, which all previous purchasers received. Give the fans value. Create something they connect with, and they’re there for you, voting with their pocketbooks. Especially in the interactive market, gamers speak explicitly of “supporting” their preferred developers with their purchases. They track their favorite studios’ activities closely, and follow celebrity developers from studio to studio. And they have a real propensity toward helping the little guy.

Third, gamification works, but maybe not in the way we thought. Search as long as you like -- you won’t find a single badge or score on the Humble Indie Bundle site. Instead of slapping a gamey skin on a site that doesn’t otherwise require it, the developers engage users with meaningful choices. It makes use of a few subtle mechanics and does so from a credible footing. It gives users a sense of power, because (shock!) that power is real.

McLuhan couldn’t have categorized video games with his hot/cold analysis. They’re high in information, but engage multiple senses. They engross deeply, but require intense participation. Perhaps they belong at both ends of the continuum. But if the medium is the message, the Humble Indie Bundle seems to be telling us that video games are changing a lot more than their own distribution models.

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