A Better Mousetrap: Building Bundles Of Joy

By Alec Meer on January 9th, 2012 at 11:55 am.

Puppies! Image concept suggested by @mtrc

Bundles here, bundles there, bundles bally everywhere. Indie bundles are bloody fantastic: they help bedroom developers achieve the funding and awareness necessary to pull off truly great things, and they contribute to presenting gamers with a stronger alternative to heavily-marketed mainstream fodder. They’ve changed indie devs’ lives and they’ve brought wonderful new titles to the wider gaming public’s attention. On top of that, they’re helping to prove long-held idealistic theories of how to make money on the internet without the involvement of mega-corps and in spite of fears about piracy. But there sure are a lot of bundles, they sure are coalescing around a set formula, and that risks affecting the response to them. I want to see bundles blossom rather than stagnate, and I’ve had a chin-scratch about a few ways that might help to achieve that. To the list-mobile!

A humble bindle

  • 1) Don’t all use exactly the same model. This is how FarmVille and FrontierVille and CityVille and all the untold hundreds of clones of clones of clones of clones happened, you know. And before that all the games that tried to copy World of Warcraft and summarily went under or had to switch to free to play a little later. It’s what’s called a goldrush, and it’s almost inevitably going to erode consumer interest in the entire dog and pony show at some point. Just because one model – pay what you want, minimum/average prices that unlock extra games, sliders to alter how much goes to devs and how much to charities – has proved successful doesn’t mean it’s the only one that can work. Each bundle should stand out on its own, not be just like all the others but with a different name and choice of games. Be bold, be brave, be different, make people want to sing your name all over the internet.
  • 2) Collaborate. Indie gaming has a whole lot going for it that the mainstream games industry has arguably lost, and one of those is the fact it’s not made up of giant corporations in ferocious competition with each other. There aren’t shareholders to please, there’s almost nothing to be gained from smacking down the other guy, and moreover half the devs behind the games being sold are friends. Take advantage of that inherent chuminess. I sincerely hope bundle-organisers will be and are communicating with each to make sure there isn’t a bottleneck of multiple bundles released at the same time, and that exciting games are shared out cannily rather than there being an arms race to get the big names signed up to exclusives. Of course, rivalries are apparent and even necessary, and increasingly some bundles are arranged by corporations rather than devs and charities and enthusiasts, and that’s a big worry. It risks ripping the excitement out of these things as they become cold, commercial interests for large companies rather than a way to make the paying public sit up and take notice of unknown pleasures. Lest this sound too starry-eyed philanthropic, what I really mean is: work with your colleagues and competitors to ensure your bundle stands out and seems special rather than just part of a bewildering white noise. There’s room, in theory, for tons of bundles to do well, and certainly enough games to support that – there doesn’t need to be a vicious race for someone to become the Steam of bundles.
  • 3) Be surprising. And I don’t mean “add some more games to the bundle in its second week of availability.” Customers can see the patterns, as can the media – and it gets harder and harder for the moany likes of myself to raise the enthusiasm to post again and again about entirely predictable matters. Mix it up, find ways to amaze and delight us, so journos are genuinely moved to post “cor blimey!” headlines and punters in turn to flash their cash. How? Oi, that’s up to you, cheeky.
  • 4) Perhaps a little too self-serving, but then that’s the likely title of my autobiography. Work with the media: give us advance warning, even game code, and generally do what you can to ensure coverage is something meaningful about the games in these bundles rather than cursory “new bundle out, contains x” news posts. I’m conscious that’s what we tend to do on RPS of late, partly because there’s so damned many of these things but also partly because as soon as the press release or announcement arrives it’s prudent to get the news up as soon as possible. It’d be fantastic to prepare capsule reviews or discussions of bundle contents in advance, to give our readers a sense of if/why they want this particular bundle. Otherwise the bundles, and attendant news stories, only really become about money, and that’s a sad thing to happen to indie games, and to sites like this.
  • 5) Be conscious that indie devs are increasingly being hassled to hell about these things. I’ve seen a few alarming dev comments on Twitter lately. Bundles are fantastic in that they get indies a degree of attention and cash they might otherwise be denied, but there’s that risk of dilution and/or backlash if the goldrush doesn’t slow down. And bully-boy tactics or making vague claims about untold riches certainly won’t help. Get devs on board for the right reasons.
  • 6) Keep bundle contents special and exciting: don’t try to make up the numbers with games that aren’t up to scratch and no-one’s going to want to convince their friends to buy too. Too much filler content is only going to undermine everyone’s faith in the whole model. Make it a smaller bundle or wait longer rather than rush something out the door as soon as you can get to five or six so-so games propped up by a renowned headliner.
  • 7) Be wary of “rich get richer” scenarios. Of course, a big name helps sell a bundle and get across the sense of it being a bargain, but bundles are such a wonderful way to bring a little-known game or dev to wider public attention. An arms race of big names is ultimately only going to narrow the playing field instead of supporting indie development as a whole. Seek out the weird and wonderful; change devs’ lives and the stories gamers will tell each other.
  • 8) The charity thing’s awesome. Keep that up: it’s always a happy thing for this little medium of ours to demonstrably make the world a better place. But change it up, make the best of it, rather than part of a rote pitch.

, , .

52 Comments »

  1. Mike says:

    The best things I’ve got in the Humble bundles particularly have been the OSTs or source code or special stuff that you would not normally get a hold of (particularly on Steam). I really appreciated that stuff and it made the first few bundles feel a bit different to any other kind of game purchasing.

    I miss that kind of stuff from the later bundles, particularly those from other suppliers.

    • simoroth says:

      Indeed. Although I think the source code inclusion isn’t what people want at all. I’d like to see special levels and extra content etc. You’d be surprised about how few people download the source code when its offered.

      I’d also like to see them improving the customers perceived value. Pay what you want is great, but it damages other non bundle games who now have to compete in a world where high quality games are selling for $0.01-to $(A few). I know there is the “Steam effect” massive discounts have, but its a trade off and we have lowered the threshold too far.

    • AshEnke says:

      I agree?
      The most special surprise for me was Subversion’s City Generator that came with the Introversion Bundle.

      Although I already had all the games, this particular bonus was the reason I bought them again.

    • Mike says:

      With the source code, I think you’re right in that the number of people it matters to is a small proportion, but those that it does matter to really like it. Unique opportunity in many cases.

    • Suits says:

      I think so far the Littlebigbunch already failed misserably. It provided an uninteresting package of unrelated games that required different installations, accounts and download pages. You needed to make an account on that distributor’s site, which wasn’t always available. Also when you bought the bundle, chances were that you never even received the confirmation mails with the codes/keys, yes you got 5 seperate e-mails for each game and one receipt. However 3/4 times i missed either a game,receipt or got nothing at all.
      There was no support for the bundle specifically, but rather you had to use the distributor’s site, a bit inconvenient and at launch they couldn’t handle it at all. Site crashed, no support, installs didn’t work except the Steamworks one. Also you couldnt pay €0,01-1,49, but you could “pay” nothing at all, which is a bit weird. Even though it was for charity afaik, it certainly detracts from the whole bundle concept.

      Btw, the HumbleBundle4 had Cavestory+ OST, but is the remastered version somewhere to be found there? I love what they’ve done with it.

    • Simon Hawthorne says:

      Out of interest, is there a reason for someone like me (non-programmer, non-dev, gamer) to download the source code?

      It’s not really a matter of not wanting it, it’s a matter of not knowing what I’d do with it if I did download it.

    • Kaira- says:

      @Simon

      Technically, you could try poking around the code, changing variables and see what happens. If I remember correctly, John Carmack [?] started game development this way. Of course compiling the code after poking it is another maze to solve for people who aren’t used to the procedure of making executables and so.

    • simoroth says:

      @Simon Nothing much really, lets you tweak the game I guess. It allows community patches in the long run, and supposedly lets people learn off the code.

      However learning off game code is a terrible way to learn when there are many great books in bookshops and many free resources on the internet. Shipped code is often god-awful, buggy, dangerous and tangled into spaghetti by the last week of crunch.

    • RobF says:

      Oh yeah, dealing with the Games Aid bundle pre and post purchase was a grade A1 example of how to demonstrate the worst of online games shopping to all comers. Bloody awful experience that I felt pissed off at the hoops I had to jump through afterwards.

      The clusterfuck of idiocy that is web installers to download another installer (every shop or person who does this should stop and cut a toe off each time they think they’re helping), wrapping storefront DRM round no-DRM games and oh, fuck it. If it wasn’t for Explodemon being so well worth supporting it could have burned for what the experience was like – a typically corporate misunderstanding of where all the benefits lie for the customer. It’s not just in getting a few games for cheap, it’s getting them hassle free too.

    • kyrieee says:

      “However learning off game code is a terrible way to learn when there are many great books in bookshops and many free resources on the internet. Shipped code is often god-awful, buggy, dangerous and tangled into spaghetti by the last week of crunch.”

      Reading code is actually one of the best things you can do as an aspiring programmer.

    • jamesgecko says:

      @kyrieee Reading GOOD code is a fantastic exercise. I’m also a fan of modifying great code and having your changes reviewed by one of the original authors.

      However, there’s very little to be gained from reading terrible code, unless you’re refactoring it to be not terrible. It can be a nice source of entertainment in small doses, but I recommend The DailyWTF if that’s what you’re seeking.

  2. sneetch says:

    I like this article. There were words which I didn’t read because they’re hard and I don’t like them but also puppies! 10/10

    Slightly more relevant to the words in the article which I forced myself to read, despite how hard they are, I’ve never bought a bundle, I keep my charity donations and game buying seperate and I tend to buy indie games seperately at launch (or when I find out about them).

    There are also a lot of “will buy in a bundle” posts appearing on this site and that’s fair enough to a degree, in some ways it’s a variation of “will get it when it’s on sale” but there seems to be an increasing expectation that all indie game will be in one of the many bundles so it can be bought along with 5 other games for a total of £1 and that’s not ok.

    • RobF says:

      Yeah, between that and deep discount Steam sales it’s a bit of a worry. I tend to subscribe to the RevStu idea that games are too expensive so bringing prices down isn’t a bad thing, not being able to hold any sort of price (see “I think the Indie Royale minimum is too expensive” posts that keep appearing, or the HiB Steam key-gate) is awkward.

      The frequency and near inevitability of these things towards the end of last year felt all wrong to me. Which probably seems odd for someone who bundles his stuff up to say but one thing I noticed from my own personal corner is that I’d gone from as good as never seeing 0.01 spends to a ruck now. Which has to be learned behaviour because there isn’t even a reason to do that with my stuff.

      But! I still think bundleogeddon wont occur and there’ll be some levelling out. But I don’t know if I’m relying too much on people reasons comments sections about bundles or people’s issues in articles like this and not just seeing wongawongawonga or not.

    • RobF says:

      “People reasons” = “people reading” in non autocorrected worlds. Bloody machines.

    • DrGonzo says:

      Completely agree about game prices. I would be buying twice as many games if they were half the price(of course). As it is, I buy all I can afford and often pirate a few here and there. Those would probably have been purchases had the price not been so high.

      Sometimes it appears the market is saturated, but I just feel it’s over saturated for the price point.

    • SuperNashwanPower says:

      I didn’t read the article either. I just logged in to shout FLUFF FLUFF FLUFFEH PUPPEH BELLEH MC SNORGLE FLUFF. In a high pitched voice.
      That is all.

  3. Zeewolf says:

    Agreed. Point 8 is important. It’s just lazy that everyone needs to include Child’s Play just because it’s kinda sorta related to gaming. I would much rather feed some starving child or help fund medicines than pay for PlayStation-games for hospitalized American kids. Nothing against them, but there’s so many other good (and IMO much better) causes so go for some variation.

    Use funds from a bundle to help build a school in a poverty-stricken part of the world, help kids who are orphaned due to parents dying of AIDS etc. Always going for Child’s Play makes it seem more like a PR-thing, less like really wanting to make a difference somewhere.

    And if it really is about PR, then just imagine “the school that gaming built” or whatever. That’s good PR too :p

    • simoroth says:

      Polio eradication is also another very worthwhile cause that they should consider, since a few more million spent world wide and the disease will be dead and gone forever.

      The bundles should incentivise the charity giving by setting a target for everyone. “If we reach 2 million for charity we will add a new game to the bundle for free!”

    • Treebard says:

      You wouldn’t believe how unpopular this opinion is in America amongst gamers. I’d MUCH rather put my charity money towards something else, and people give me cold stares for it.

    • Rinox says:

      I have the same issue with the charity thing. It’s not that I don’t want to help American charities, but I’d rather give it to the a global one instead. If they’d put something like, say, the International Red Cross there instead of Child’s Play, that would be grand.

    • InternetBatman says:

      I agree with that. I’d like to see the bundles come up with a reason for what charities they include rather than just plop one down.

    • FluffyPanda says:

      Not the only one. I’ve always, when given the choice, set the charity percentage to 0.

      Last week I spent £10 on a bundle at Indie Royale, which I believe goes entirely to the devs… But I also donated £100 to the NSPCC. I like that my donation goes to a charity of my choice.

      I still think it’s a good idea to offer people who might not donate to charity the option to easily and without having to think about it make a small donation to some random organisation. Like the £1 donation checkbox on paypal payments. It’s just not for me.

    • Veeskers says:

      Exactly this. So many worthwhile charities out there, and all this money being thrown at what amounts to an unending promotional stunt.

  4. AshEnke says:

    Am I the only one who never gave anything to charity ?
    I give almost anything to the devs, a small amount to the Bundle, but I want to buy games, not donate money.

    • Mike says:

      Yep, you’re the only one. The Humble Bundle guys sent out an email to everyone except you, and they were all “Look at this jerk.”

      We had a big shaming session.

    • HoosTrax says:

      Nope, you’re not the only one. My philosophy is to ensure that the devs are able to support themselves, make a decent living, and be able to continue making these types of game. And then, if they themselves wish to pass a portion of my donations on to charity, they’re welcome to.

    • Jacques says:

      Nope, I’m also hearless.

    • roguewombat says:

      I give it all to the devs, too, though I did tip the Bundle thanks to the amazing array of games in the latest group. I rarely play these games for more than a passing few moments, but I want the devs to succeed – that’s my charity.

    • MondSemmel says:

      I usually try to donate ~40-50 cents to the bundle guys (mainly because paypal fees are outrageous, and I don’t want them to lose money for processing my transaction), the rest to the devs. I don’t really like the idea of charities that much, but I have sometimes donated a bit to them, too.
      But I don’t get people who buy these bundles and then donate 100% to charity. (Although I guess it’s okay if you already owned all games you were interested in.)

    • Premium User Badge FriendlyFire says:

      I tend to only donate to the EFF in those bundles, mainly because the other one tends to be Child’s Play, which doesn’t really connect with me despite being a gamer.

  5. Jimbo says:

    1. Stop selling charity, or at least stop pretending that isn’t what you’re doing. There’s nothing ‘humble’ about making 10x as much profit from a ‘charity’ weekend as from a regular weekend – especially if you’ve waited until sales have otherwise flatlined before doing it.
    2. Make better games.
    3. Receive media coverage on the strength of your game, not your business model.
    4. Sell games on their own merit.

    Of course they will keep up the charity thing, because the entire business model falls apart without it.

    • kyrieee says:

      I fail to see how the entire business model falls apart without charity. The idea is to offer a good deal and sell more copies to make up for a lower price. The charity just costs them money.

    • Jimbo says:

      No, the charity ensures the media coverage, which is what makes the difference between making stacks and making the pennies most* of these games would otherwise be making. These bundles make far more profit with the charity association than they ever would have without it. When you’re talking about games which are often late in their life -or just weren’t particularly noteworthy to start with- then coverage is everything.

      *Not all. Including games which are still selling very well is genuinely generous.

    • bigtoeohno says:

      Sound like a positive relationship to me. Charity used for a plug and bit of good will in the public eye helps drum up attention to sell more which in turn gets the charity more $$ and awareness. win win. Whats not to like?

    • Jimbo says:

      The ‘Humble’ bit for a start. It’s about as humble as rattling a charity tin on the street and taking a 70% commission, which is effectively what they are doing except they supplied their own tin.

      Obviously journos wouldn’t touch this with a barge pole, but it would be interesting to know just how much the developers of, say, Gish (??) or Samorost 2 (?!) made in the week prior to the HIB, compared to the $166k (!) they apparently made in the week the HIB ran for.

      The charities are responsible for the lion’s share of the profit here, yet they are actually the humble and subservient partner in this relationship and are ending up with a comparatively small share of the money. The developers of some very mediocre games -games which had almost no pull left (or even no pull to begin with) until they were associated with the charities- are making an incredibly disproportionate amount of profit out of this ‘humble’ gesture.

    • Rinox says:

      It’s the age old issue of ‘what is charity’ really. The classic example is the comparison between Bill Gates giving millions upon millions to charity – akin to pocket change to him really – and a regular Joe like you and me giving a 1000 € to one. Arguably, the latter is a more charitable effort since a 1000 € means a lot more to us than a few cool millions to Gates.

      However…that 1000 € is naturally much less useful compared to those millions for the charity and people benefiting from the charity’s work. So how to make a value judgement on that? Clearly, the only way to do it is to separate the intention of the gifter from the money that is actually raised and going to charity.

      In that sense, it doesn’t matter if anyone does anything under the banner of charity for other purposes, as long as there is actually money going to charity. Cause if not, y’know, that’s a scam. But this isn’t. So who cares?

      It’s like hotels asking you to be economic with your towels and don’t leave the light on in your room because of the ‘environment’. Sure, they mean ‘our wallets’, but that doesn’t mean the environment doesn’t get better from it.

    • Nice Save says:

      The charity got money that they probably wouldn’t have otherwise. Does it matter how?

      Also, publicity helps charities too.

  6. HoosTrax says:

    My feeling is that the goal of HumbleBundle is to use well-known titles in order to maximize the amount of donations to charity. Whereas the goal of IndieRoyal is to give a platform to lesser-known ones.

    I do agree wholeheartedly with the comment about less “filler” though. It’s a touchy subject, but we can’t pretend that some of the titles in those bundles are top-notch titles when they’re really not.

  7. Premium User Badge Gap Gen says:

    How about a model like a gig, where you package up a known indie game with a warm-up act that people might not have heard of? The paid extras could be an “encore” or something.

    • InternetBatman says:

      That’s pretty much how the Voxatron bundle worked, although they did it in reverse.

    • Matt says:

      So what would be the digital equivalent of drinking in the parking lot while the opening band plays?

  8. Deadly Habit says:

    I’m just here for the puppies

  9. Dinger says:

    Often lost in fog of indie love and charitable given is the fact that these bundles are, for the most part, put together by separate companies running a for-profit business model. I’ve read here people express their unease with this arrangement, and then seen them ridiculed (“How dare someone try to make money!”), but this post helps clear things up.

    Yes, bundles are there to make money, but they are monetizing a cooperative; the HIB works (or worked) in part because they have the good games, and in part because those who paid in bought a sense of participation.
    For a bundle to be successful, then, the organizers need to use community resources as leverage. The people who read RPS, for example, know about these games and about the people who work on them, and buying the product is just another way of “supporting the indie scene”.

    • InternetBatman says:

      At least in the Humble Bundle you can choose how much of your purchase goes to the organizer. I really like that option.

  10. InternetBatman says:

    I would add a few things. One is slow down. Put the humble bundle at least on a regular schedule and make it an event. Make it a huge event. Everyone knows steam sales are coming and they get excited for the sales themselves before they even see what games are on sales. It would also prevent some of the obvious strip-mining going on.

    Also, it was a mistake to include Shank in the last Humble Bundle. It’s a good enough game, but it’s not Indie. It had a publisher. The promotion of Indie games and an alternative publisher free business model should be an important concern.

    Finally, I would stop including previous bundles as an ordering bonus. It’s a nice gesture, but it provides a disincentive for ordering the current bundles.

    • sonofsanta says:

      To an extent, HIB already do this: there was a sizeable gap between HIB3 and HIB4, at least in Internet Years. It’s just that the gap was filled with things like the Voxatron Debut and Introversion Pack. Which, while lovely, did contribute to the Bundle Saturation we started seeing.

      I was surprised when HIB4 came out and was only #4. But in all fairness, it was a hell of a bundle, and did feel like an event.

    • Agnol117 says:

      I totally agree with the previous bundles bit. It was a nice enough incentive the first time around (as I know plenty of people who weren’t aware of the HIB until the second one), but at this point it’s largely redundant, and even though I tend to buy it before the previous bundles are added, it feels a lot like I’m paying for games I already own, and it makes me reluctant to buy sequential bundles when I think “well, I don’t need to buy bundle #4, since it’s contents will be in bundle #5 anyway.”

      And your statement about Shank is spot on.

  11. sonofsanta says:

    I think the “no filler” point is the one that strikes truest to me – particularly in the now-crowded market place, one game I want and 4 I’ve not heard of (even on here) is more likely to put me off, because I have enough games filling my Steam backlog up already. IndieRoyale is starting to suffer this a bit – perhaps because the headline games in the last couple of bundles haven’t appealed to me (Dino D-Day and Nuclear Dawn respectively, iirc) but they don’t feel like the excellent bundles they started with. More like an old Amiga cover disc where you had one great game and then two or three PD games to fill out the last 80k of space.

    The charity thing is a touchy subject; personally I’d like to see them rotate it each time with HIB – particularly including some smaller, targeted charities that seem to do a better job of getting the pennies to their intended destination rather than losing them in the administrative machine like the big multinationals.

  12. Premium User Badge shoptroll says:

    Excellent article. I’m glad I’m not the only one worried about the possible “Great Bundle War of 2012″. I really hope a couple of the bundle organizers take this advice and run with it. Because the bundles are one of the neatest movements to come out of 2011 and it’d be a shame to have the whole concept crash in burn within a year.

  13. SiHy_ says:

    I don’t care about games anymore. I just want puppies! Aaaaaww!

  14. Keith Nemitz says:

    Have to call a smattering of B.S. in Proposition #6. It basically say’s better games for less money. That’s not terrible, but indie games run a huge gamut, from amazing 5 minute quickies, to 15 hour read-a-thons. Not everyone is going to like every game, and I consider it vitally important that bundles contain variety (even within a categorized bundle). Consider a bundle with 2 well known, great games, and 2 or more things you’ve never heard of, but are at least worth trying out.

    So, yeah, no shit games, but maybe a few, “wtf was that!” This incentivizes indie developers to make weird stuff and regular stuff.

  15. Wulf says:

    Now that’s a good article. It makes a lot of good points, and really, it’s a nice jab in the side to people who’ve been doing “Me too! Me too!” efforts. I think that the Humble Bundle are still the best and by far and wide the most trustworthy of the bunch. Because they’ve actually retroactively met a lot of this criticism.

    They’ve brought attention to lesser knowns (with titles like Voxatron, Frozen Synapse, and Trine getting the spotlight), and they offer you the chance to decide how much (even if not any) money goes to the Humble Bundle company themselves. Plus it’s Wolfire and I just know they’re nice guys, they’ve done so much out of pocket to prove that. Like: Paying for Humble Bundles when people haven’t been able to, thus covering the costs for people, and offering full versions of Lugaru to people who were conned by fake versions. Stuff like that. It’s out of pocket and so unexpected. It’s genuinely damn near impossible to have a cynical opinion about them. They’re passionate, good people, and sometimes too nice for their own bloody good.

    I have been dubious of the other bundles though because of their “ME TOO!”-ness, and the Indie Royale has really been worrying me, frankly. They get too many games and too fast, and I can only imagine that they’re probably a bit pushy with how they handle that. It just makes me uneasy. With the Indie Royale bundles, I’d feel better and trust them more if they slowed down a bit, but at their current rate of bundle creation… it’s just unsettling.

    Anyway, good article. And +1 karma for doing something nice regarding dogs for a change, Alec. :P