February 28, 2011 7:00 PM | Tim W.
Though the Humble Indie Bundle eventually introduced an entirely new model for digital distribution of indie games, the bundle's creators said they were actually inspired by one of the most established players in the digital download space.
“One thing that we instantly noticed is that anytime Steam would take a bunch of games and put them together and discount the price, it would become the number one story on Reddit,” noted Humble Indie Bundle co-creator and Wolfire Games founder Jeffrey Rosen in a presentation at the 2011 Game Developers Conference. “I felt like I could do that, [that's] not too hard.”
So Rosen and fellow Wolfire employee John Graham rounded up some friends from the indie development community and offered up a bundle of their own. Now, after two iterations, the Humble Indie Bundle has attracted hundreds of thousands of downloads and brought in over $3 million in revenue, well beyond the low six-figure revenues the creators initially expected.
But Rosen said it wasn't just the viral press attention, nor the inherent appeal of the pay-what-you-want model, that led to the bundles' success. Designing a simple, elegant web site that made purchasing the bundle as simple as possible was also a factor.
“A web site with a Paypal button... that works, but there's a lot of things you can do on the site to make that better,” Rosen said. He pointed out that fancy 'features' such as required registered accounts and shopping carts just make it harder for customers to give you money.
“We were pretty adamant that instead of having to download a client or anything, you would click the buy button, get an e-mail, and download your games, which seems kind of silly, but it really worked,” Rosen continued.
Providing support for even a small fraction of hundreds of thousands of purchasers created a more unexpected problem, but Rosen and Graham managed to handle thousand of customer issues simply by pulling a few all-nighters in front of e-mail and a chat support client.
“It's really surprising how a lot of companies don't have a good customer support team, but we managed to do it across hundreds of thousands of customers while also developing the site,” Rosen said. “It's not really that hard, you just have to sit down and answer e-mails.”
Even though the Humble Indie Bundle was offered to purchasers for as little as a penny, the organizers estimate at least a quarter of the bundles were pirated either through the site or over bittorrent.
An anonymous internet survey among self-selected bundle piraters found that most of them stole because they were unable to use credit cards or online payment options in their country. Others simply preferred the convenience of BitTorrent, leading the organizers to add a relatively new web-seeding BitTorrent download option to the site.
Despite the piracy, “the amount of generous people overpowered the cheapskates,” Graham said, including 16 people who spent over $1,000 each across the two bundles. Linux users tended to be the most generous of these, leading Graham to suggest indie developers go after underserved markets.
“If you support Mac and Linux as an independent developer you have a good chance of doubling your revenue,” Graham said.
Going forward, Rosen says he'd love to have more lesser-known games – rather than previous hits like World of Goo and Braid as in previous bundles. “If a game is legitimately good and no one has heard of it... using the Humble Indie Bundle to promote that game would be a dream for us,” Rosen said.
Of course, it's that “legitimately good” part that is often a point of contention. “Lots of people send us requests [for bundle inclusion] for games they believe are great, but... we don't see it the same way,” Rosen said. “It might damage the brand if we put a lot of those kinds of games in there.”