A Humble Interview With The Humble Indie Bundle

Ideally I'd like a game that combines them all.

The fifth Humble Indie Bundle has been an unqualified success. Only halfway through its run, and it has already raised an astonishing $3.2 million, from over 400,000 purchases. With additional surprises pretty much inevitable, it’s fascinating to see just how high those numbers are going to go. I grabbed the chance to speak to one of the Humble Indie Bundle’s team, Richard Esguerra, to find out what it’s like to be sat at the other side of this. We talk about the experience of achieving this level of success, controversies encountered along the way, and whether this money is changing lives.

RPS: When you started doing these Bundles, what were your expectations?

Richard Esguerra: Our co-founders, John and Jeff – they did the first Humble Indie Bundle as a project for their indie games studio, Wolffire Games, and I think they had an inkling that it would do pretty well. But the numbers I hear batted around were that it did about ten times better than they thought it would. And that first bundle, if I’m recalling correctly, was a million seller. So it was pretty clear, I think, when they got rolling it was beyond what they had expected.

RPS: Then it had to be followed.

Richard Esguerra: After the first one the question was, could this happen again? Was this a fluke, or is it something people are really into? So the second Bundle worked out even better. It sold more, more people heard about it. It became clear at that point there was something cool going on. I think that the thread is experimentation. There have been all kinds of bundles, with different arrangements, and it’s all been in the interests of figuring out what works, what people find exciting, what developers are able to do, and what they find intriguing as creators.

RPS: Doesn’t the success of this project, where you can get something for a cent but choose to pay way more, fly in the face of the messages we’re constantly receiving from major publishers, IP owners, copyright people? Even yesterday EA were saying 75% discounts devalue games. Yet people are choosing to pay thousands times more than they need to.

Richard Esguerra: Yeah, you know, it’s a mix. All of the signs point toward doing a sale being strategic and pretty successful. Otherwise it would be hard to justify the parade of Steam sales, and developers – appearing at least – to be happily engaging with Steam on those initiatives. I feel like those are sort of conflicting narratives.

RPS: I love the competition between the Humble Brony guys and Notch, constantly out-bidding each other.

Richard Esguerra: [Laughs]. It’s a completely spontaneous rivalry. I find it very entertaining.

RPS: And it’s almost a pointless one! Notch is currently giving $10,000, but that’s from a $3.2m total.

Richard Esguerra: If I’m remembering correctly, Notch’s initial engagement with the idea was that it was great for indies, and that he was making a statement about independent game creation. What’s interesting about the Bronies is they came to it with another perspective – we’re kind of misunderstood and we want the world to understand how great we are. So yeah, it’s a fun thing. One of my favourite gifs on Reddit was when people were discussing the rivalry, and someone posted a link to Smithers and Burns just throwing money at each other. “Money fight!” And of course, Notch is believed to be a fairly wealthy person, and the Bronies are a community of people.

RPS: So, people are getting rich, right?

Richard Esguerra: I… I wouldn’t really say that. The developers are definitely getting rewarded fairly well for what their input is, but a lot of the developers are also running multi-man teams. The teams for these games range from a single person to a small studio, and when you break it down like that I think everyone’s making a pretty reasonable, healthy living off of making games. Which I think is part of the goal. But when you break it down, “rich” for the non-profits and charities is also an interesting thing. So far I think it’s been $5.5m donated to non-profits. And that money is going into Child’s Play charity reaching out to more hospitals and being able to buy more stuff, now worldwide, and it’s allowing the Electronic Frontier Foundation to put more research toward fighting stuff like SOPA and PIPA, which were defeated largely on the back of their work and their leadership. I feel like there’s a lot of healthy stuff going on, but while the numbers are super-impressive, you’ve got to remember that they’re being broken down in a lot of different ways. When you think of that way, everyone’s making a healthy go of it, but no one is back-breakingly rich.

RPS: But say I’m a two-man development team, and I get my game in there, I’m going to be making a couple of hundred thousand dollars, at least.

Richard Esguerra: Yeah, with the Humble Indie Bundles it’ll probably be about that…

RPS: But that’s life-changing money, right?

Richard Esguerra: True, I totally agree with that. But a lot of the games will have development cycles of a year or two years, so it’s life-changing money, but if you were thinking about what sacrifices you made along the way, distribute that back across the development of the game, and distribute it forward while you’re maybe not making money while you work on the next thing, I think it turns out to be life-changing because you’re able to continue making games. Life-changing in that way, but it’s like mansions.

RPS: There must be developers who desperately want in on this, because of the money. Do you have any issues with this? How do you go about choosing who’s next?

Richard Esguerra: Really, the main question that it falls down to is: will this be exciting for gamers? That’s really the baseline where it has to start, for us. There definitely are a lot of developers who are contacting us. But really, it’s organic. There are a lot of conversations running in parallel about what developers’ plans are, what our schedules look like, porting always turns out to be something that throws a twist in there. Between all those factors there’s this divining of how things can become a bundle. That usually happens about a month or two before, with all kinds of directed bouncing around beforehand. Some of this comes out in the experimentation – is there a game available that someone wants to debut in a bundle, or is there a studio with a catalogue of works that they want to do?

RPS: Talking of debuting a game, did you receive any of the flak from Botinacula’s being released in the bundle. I know Amanita did. They were perhaps a bit surprised by the hostility they received, especially from those who had pre-ordered.

Richard Esguerra: Yeah, that was kind of a weird bummer. I guess I can understand the hurt feelings. But in some ways you’d hope people would be cool with doing a pre-order in the knowledge that it’s helping the developer, it’s helping the creation of something. It’s like a vote of confidence. That felt like it was a little rough. But Amanita worked out what worked best, and everyone navigated their way to a good place with it.

RPS: So, apart from the charities, you’re the consistent factor here. So you’re making money for every bundle deal. How much money are you guys making?

Richard Esguerra: Basically, our tip is publically there on the site. And that turns out to be about 15%. So we’re doing fine. We’re trying to grow a little bit so we can do other cool stuff. That’s the main goal – to do more cool bundles, be able to develop new features for the site. We have a lot of experiments we want to try. There’s been a little bit of talk about Humble Store, that’s been an experiment. That’s been interesting, and we’re trying to see if developers are interested.

RPS: How many people do you have working there now?

Richard Esguerra: We’re a team of ten in the office in San Francisco. Our support staff are on a contract basis, since so far the Bundles are a thing that pops up all of a sudden, and then goes away for a while. So on a big day we’re looking at about fifteen people.

RPS: It does seem exciting. You guys have a week to go on this one, and with 15% you’re already close to half a million dollars for a week. I hope you guys are being made comfortable by it! But do you now have more money than you can spend?

Richard Esguerra: [Laughs] We’re looking to grow at a pretty reasonable pace, and that means adding on software engineers, crew who really know what they’re doing. What we’re doing is technically challenging. If we’ve done our jobs right, which is to inform people but keep it a surprise – we think it’s more fun that way – then all of a sudden as much of the internet as we can reach arrives at once. That’s technically difficult. And we’re delivering ever-increasingly large files is technically interesting.

RPS: Your bandwidth costs must be terrifying.

Richard Esguerra: It’s definitely something to keep in mind when we’re trying to keep abreast of cutting edge technologies, how we can do this and serve all our customers. Another thing we pride ourselves on is very personal customer service. We have a team of support ninjas that’s always growing as the Bundle becomes more popular. So when a customer has a problem there’s live-chat on the site. We spend money on that. So the goal I think is to do these awesome things, continue benefiting developers who deserve it, continue helping charities, and to see where this goes in terms of digital distribution for games. It’s been interesting to see how the bar keeps rising, as we keep trying to beat it.

RPS: The Electrionic Frontier Foundation is a very political choice. Have you run into any issues with that?

Richard Esguerra: No. Not in particular. In wanting the internet to be available for people to be able to do interesting things on, I think that’s generally pretty popular. I guess there have been times when people don’t get it, or maybe they feel more empathy with what the Child’s Play charity does, so they’ll give their money only to Child’s Play. But it’s all stuff that we believe in – we find it important to be able to do what we’re doing, to see a lot of these interesting transformations for independent game developers requires the internet to be an open place.

RPS: So there’s a slight controversy with this current bundle regarding quite how indie it actually is. With Limbo originally published by Microsoft, Psychonauts by THQ, Majesco, and so on, do you think you’re pushing the boundaries on what indie can really be?

Richard Esguerra: I don’t know. It didn’t really feel like it to us. These discussions took place with the developers directly, and all of them are in the situation where the IP is owned by the studio. I don’t know that that should preclude them from additional appreciation. Especially for example I would want everybody in the world to play Bastion, to play Limbo, to see and experience those ideas and those emotions. To say that these people who, in my opinion, took a creative risk, and to say “that’s not indie”, I dunno – that’s drawing lines in a way that I think is weird when it’s also so apparent that there’s something to celebrate in what they’ve created.

RPS: It’s certainly not affecting sales, that’s for sure.

Richard Esguerra: And it’s part of how things are in transition. Psychonauts – ownership of that reverted back to Double Fine, and they’re a great example of a studio that are trying interesting things.

RPS: So, finally, I want to ask – after you’ve launched, do you guys sit and stare transfixed at the tickers rolling up?

Richard Esguerra: [laughs] Yeah, to be totally fair, there’s a little bit of that. In between other stuff like jumping on and helping customer service, and squashing bugs, there is definitely a culture of checking back. Yeah, having a good time, checking out the numbers, and seeing what people are saying and looking at retweets, communicating with people on social networks – it’s fun. It feels like a little party every time. We spend weeks and months setting these things up, so it feels like we finally got to invite people to this big thing we were excited about, and then everybody’s celebrating. It’s fun to be a part of it.

RPS: Thank you for your time.


  1. Jimbo says:

    Has this level of success been achieved by a PWYW bundle without a charity association yet?

    • Premium User Badge

      Malarious says:

      I don’t know how huge an incentive the charity thing is for people buying the bundle. At least, it makes no difference to me — I always throw those sliders down to 0 (excluding EFF). I wouldn’t be surprised if a bundle without charity donations went on to be as successful as some of the Humble Indie Bundles in the past.

    • Hoaxfish says:

      I think the main issue is simply what games they bundle.

      This one is basically amazing across the board, but previous ones have had one or two good games. While I’d like those games, I don’t want to “buy” those other games simply because those devs would see a sale but wouldn’t really be getting my money (for better or worse, I think a “sale” can be used to indicate whether the game they’ve made is “successful” and I don’t want to give a false positive).

      The humble bundle gets fame for being “first”, so they’re essentially ahead of the curve in terms of recognition, and the charity thing is a sprinkling on-top (especially when it comes down to “pay what you want”… slightly less likely to put down 0.01$ for guilt reasons).

      • Jimbo says:

        I don’t think it’s the sprinkling on top, I think it’s the key ingredient. I think it’s the single element here most responsible for generating the $$s and the thing which is making some of these guys extremely large amounts of money for games well past their prime. Which is why I’m curious if any PWYW bundles without that element have had this level of success.

        • Xocrates says:

          No other bundle has had this amount of success, period. No other bundle has ever had game selections as good as Humble tends to have.

          I don’t believe charity ever was the main driving factor for sales, particularly when you consider that Indie Royale has made an All-Charity bundle not long ago that got a fraction of the humble bundle sales.

          EDIT: Point of comparison, link to indiegala.com has also a bundle running with part of the proceedings going for charity. It’s running since May 26 and hasn’t reached 20.000 sales (or 5% of HB current sales)

        • Mattressi says:

          I have no data, but personally I’ve only bought one bundle that wasn’t a HIB; the Indie Royale bundle that had Towns, 3079 and something else. I bought it because it had Towns and 3079. I’ve bought every single HIB and it’s always been because of the games in it. I’ve also not ever given any portion of what I spend to charity; I’d rather spend less and give to other charities (this isn’t meant to be a slight to them, just personal preference).

          Charity has no bearing on any of it. For me, the only things I care about are the games and the price. If there are good games that I really want, I’ll buy a HIB for the average price or above; if the games are pretty good but not games that I’ve been really looking forward to, I’ll spend something below that. Sometimes I’ve paid $2 and not played any of the games, but it’s nice to know that I have some great games there if my genre preference ever changes. I’ve only bought one Indie Royale because of the high entry price – I have to actually really want the games to pay much for them, otherwise I’m more often than not wasting money on games that I won’t play. I rather spend a little money on the off chance that I’ll want to play in the future, than pay $5+ on something I might never be interested in.

          • abandonhope says:

            Dag, I would have bought a bundle with Towns and 3079. I guess that kind of amounts to an alpha bundle, which seems like a good angle from which to “compete” with HIB.

        • the_showerhead says:

          lol, no. The charity aspect is not what drives people to buy these bundles. It’s that for around $10, you can get 8 of the best independent games. The other bundles don’t do as well because they bundle boring games. Or the good games they offer have been offered in previous bundles. It’s as simple as that.

      • noogai03 says:

        I’m always looking for deals. The reason I buy the Humble Bundles is not that they came first, it’s that the games are ALWAYS REALLY GOOD. Unlike IndieGala/Indie Royale, who often have some pretty terrible games in them, the Humble Bundles’ games are always amazing.

        • Sparkasaurusmex says:

          I’ve purchased from each and honestly the first couple of times I did not realize they weren’t the same organization. (I just followed links from RPS)

          I made my purchases based on the game line-up only. I tend to slide the “tip” the highest, because I want these bundles to continue.

          The current humble bundle is too good. None of those games went under my radar or anything, so it’s redundant for me to buy this.

      • GTRichey says:

        It may be sprinkling on top for some, but it’s huge for others like myself. I find that if I already own many of the games (or if I’m not interested in them, but to a lesser degree,) I’ll still buy the bundle in support of the charities and the Humble Bundle team, and drop the developer numbers a bit, because I like what they’re doing.

        Some will buy and put all their money to developers. Others will put more toward charities because they see it as a worthy cause and maybe already have some (or even all) of the games. Still others may choose to support the Humble Bundle team simply because they want to see more of these bundles even if the current one isn’t as interesting to them. In my opinion that’s what makes this bundle so successful.

        I don’t think it’s the inclusion of charities in and of itself that makes this work, it’s the choice of precisely where your money goes.

    • Chuckaluphagus says:

      The fact that all of the games in a Humble Bundle run on Linux is probably more important to me than the charitable donations (not that I don’t like those as well). I have a Windows desktop with all the fancy bells and whistles, but I like to have good games I can play on my laptop (running Ubuntu Linux) when I’m stretched out on the couch, unwinding at the end of the day with my family. I’d buy a lot more of the Indie Royale bundles (for instance) if those also gave me Linux versions.

  2. Tom De Roeck says:

    very much yes.

  3. Kaira- says:

    One of the main things I’m getting more and more disappointed about the HIB is their claims of games being multiplatform. The main game of Botanicula bundle was running on Adobe Air, which hasn’t been updated in ages on Linux and runs generally like crap. And now on this Bundle we have Limbo, which is just Windows-version with a custom version of Wine thrown in for a good measure.

    [E] Not to speak about how catastrophical the launch of these games on Linux was. Bastion and Psychonauts barely launched without workarounds and the aforementioned Limbo ran like crap (reports of 2fps on high-end computers with i7 and whatnot).

    But still, it’s promoting Linux as a gaming platform and no DRM, it’s rather good.

    • byteCrunch says:

      On the other hand we got a native port of Bastion and Psychonauts (well I am unsure if Psychonauts is native someone will have to clarify) so I would say we are up in that respect.

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      Hodge says:

      Psychonauts is a proper native port done by the inestimable Ryan Gordon.

      I did raise an eyebrow at the wine-fied Limbo, but I gave it a quick go and it seems OK (it might slow down later on when things get busy). Apparently it was legal bullshit preventing a proper port. If I was to hazard a guess I’d say that there was some middleware that needed to be reverse-engineered, potentially falling afoul of the DMCA. That’s just speculation on my part though – I’d love to hear what actually happened.

      AIR is a pain in the arse, but as far as I know Botanicula uses it on all platforms, so it’s hard to single out the Linux port in that regard.

      For me the only truly dud port is the dreadful Binding Of Isaac one, whose menus were so extraordinarily bugged that it’s almost impossible to even start the game. *shudder*

      • Chuckaluphagus says:

        Really? I was pleasantly surprised at Binding of Isaac on Linux (Ubuntu 64-bit, Intel i5 with integrated HD 3000 graphics). It’s a Flash game, isn’t it? Do you run into problems with Flash elsewhere on your system?

        • Kaira- says:

          Yeah, BoI ran surprisingly well on my laptop despite being Flash (which meant that it ran rather slowly and made the game way too easy).

          Concerning Air, yes, it was used on every platform. The difference is that Adobe has given up on Air on Linux ages ago – Air-binaries are something around 2.6.x whereas on Windows and Mac it’s somewhere around 3.2.x.

        • Premium User Badge

          Hodge says:

          Interesting that we’ve had different experiences! The only way I could get Isaac to run at anywhere near decent speed was to switch resolution down to 800×600 and drop the detail down to minimum. And the menus didn’t work properly, you had to navigate them with the keyboard (which is far more difficult than it sounds owing to the odd layout). In the end I gave up and just ran the Windows version in Wine, which ran more quickly and also got the Halloween and Xmas updates.

          I had better experiences with Air, though, and I wish they hadn’t abandoned it – we’d have stuff like Lone Survivor if they’d kept developing it.

          • seamoss says:

            Same here with BOI on Linux – and we’re not the only ones. I think all they need to do is use a more recent version of Flash but I guess they can’t be bothered.

            Talking on Lone Survivor, it’s just been added to the bundle.

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    FhnuZoag says:

    Man, I wish stuff like To The Moon will make it into a Humble Bundle…

    • Sparkasaurusmex says:

      A bundle of similar games would be amazing

    • arcarsination says:

      Yeah! I was waiting for To the Moon too. Maybe soon. With Dear Esther or something. This Bundle gives me enough to play until the next one.

    • thelongshot says:

      I’ve heard it is coming to Steam soon, so maybe at some point.

  5. Hoaxfish says:

    I think I have bigger issues with how Child’s Play handles itself, than with the EFF….

    and dear god, money is not going to fix what I perceive as wrong with “Bronies”.

    • RaveTurned says:

      Pardon my ignorance, but what issues do you have with how Child’s Play handles itself? I’m not aware of them doing anything untoward – but then I can’t say I’ve been following their operations too closely. :/

      • Hoaxfish says:

        I probably worded it too strongly, but basically I meant I hold them both in pretty high standing, but the EFF’s goals personally seem much “better” in terms of moving forward everyone’s place in “technology” (privacy, copyright, etc) than Child’s Play’s goal (expensive video games for kids).

        That’s really too simplistic, as I say, I still think they both do a good job.

        • RaveTurned says:

          Ah OK, for a second I was worried CP might have misbehaved somehow. Glad that’s not the case. :)

        • Sparkasaurusmex says:

          I agree. I mean philanthropy is great, but just donating to any random feel good charity might not be as effective as donating to a charity that is doing more for a common good.

        • arcarsination says:

          Sorry to pull the political card out, but EFF’s intentions aren’t 100% legit… I think their idea of copyright is far too progressive, and doesn’t have a full grasp of reality – particularly with music. Games could be a different story, as I haven’t followed them as closely.

          I do love what Humble Bundle is doing, and the hard work that the developers have done on these wonderful games, but EFF doesn’t have much regard for (music) creators’ rights, so they get no money from me. Here’s a post from an increasingly interesting (and admittedly opinionated) source about their general disdain for creators’ rights: link to thetrichordist.wordpress.com

          This is just one that I picked randomly, there are many more to be found on that site.

          • Hoaxfish says:

            Yea, I know about that sort of stuff… but there’s a lot of madness on both sides when you’ve got copyright (especially stuff like code being basic maths), government lobbying, legacy business models, lawyers, judges/politicians who don’t quite “get” new technology, etc. That’s before you even move outside the sort of stuff that effects the gaming industry, like government data tracking.

            I guess it’s extremes fighting extremes to produce a bizarre form of “balance”. Not the best solution, but I don’t think we’ll be seeing a cease-fire any time soon.

          • cactus says:

            In general I agree with your portrayal of the EFF, on the other hand I fully agree with their positions and I hold even more “progressive” views on copyright.

            But why call it not 100% legit? One thing is to disagree with them and another one is calling them fake in some way.

          • Phantoon says:

            Hoaxfish has it right. Especially in America, the only way to fight insane radicalism is with some radicalism of your own- you can’t compromise with the RIAA, or the people that want to pass SOPA and PIPA.

    • TeraTelnet says:

      But we love you all the same.

    • Phasma Felis says:

      “and dear god, money is not going to fix what I perceive as wrong with “Bronies”.”

      Aww, diddums. It’s so hard when people like things you don’t like, isn’t it?

      • PopeJamal says:

        I wouldn’t say that as much as this:

        Despite how “progressive” it might seem to have a bunch of men watching a cartoon about pink and purple ponies, most of the “Bronies” I’ve met are still misogynist asses.

        Other than that, meh. Who cares. To each his own. I just don’t like things being misrepresented.

        • Phantoon says:

          I think Notch has come become insanely lazy once Minecraft became a success, but I don’t get mad when his name is the highest on every bundle.

  6. Sp4rkR4t says:

    He came across very well in that interview.

    /mental not give the bundle guys a bit more next time instead of giving all to the devs because fuck charity.

    • 13tales says:

      “fuck charity”

      • Jimbo says:

        Man, if only.

        • thegooseking says:

          I believe you’re thinking of “charity fuck”.

          • Zern says:

            Perhaps “charity fuck” is one instance of the service provided by a “fuck charity”.

      • Dr I am a Doctor says:

        More specifically, fuck Child’s Play and EFF. I wouldn’t have anything against donating to the Red Cross or some other actual charity, but those two are terrible

        • Sparkasaurusmex says:

          Hmm but red cross has been known to be sketchy when they actually need to respond to crises

          • Phantoon says:

            It’s less that they don’t respond, it’s that most of their actions are arbitrary and they waste WAY too much money.

            I was talking to this one guy who was doing independent research, and he ended up in the same building as a Red Cross office. While his group was working with folding chairs, the Red Cross across the hall had masterfully crafted Mahogany desks. The people there were clearly very well paid, and the guy even got cut off by one of them while coming into work one day- the guy that cut him off was driving a brand new Porsche.

            It could have been an isolated thing, the Red Cross is HUGE! But it doesn’t speak well of the organization of the system at any rate.

        • Kaira- says:

          EFF “horrible”? Well, that’s an interesting take.

        • InternetBatman says:

          I wouldn’t call either of them terrible; they’re both organizations that help people. I think Child’s Play is less than ideal if thematically appropriate, but I appreciate the work the EFF does.

          Also, not all the bundles have the same charities. Botanicula went to a save the rain forest fund.

  7. EdenCrow says:

    The Humble “experiments” could be pretty exciting. I really want to see the Humble Store turn into something big too.

  8. deadly.by.design says:

    But can someone really be humble if they go around calling themselves that?

    • Didero says:

      They’re just calling the indie developers that made the games humble, not themselves.

    • TechnicalBen says:

      You could humbly admit your humble. Better than being too proud to admit your too proud.

  9. Maldomel says:

    So, how about a horror game set in the mind of a dead boy, with awesome music and a narrator to comment on your actions?

  10. PodX140 says:

    Good interview, and that customer support thing is 100% legit. Those people are not bots, and although they usually start with the usual Ctrl-c ctrl-v shpeal, it took me only another message (If only I could do that with my hardware support or god-forbid, steam support) to actually break through and properly speak to the person. They feel a lot more personal then regular tech support, and I really liked it. Not to mention they are effective too :P

  11. seamoss says:

    Is the “Humble Tip” really the only money the Humble Bundle organizers make? They don’t have some sort of minimum % they take to cover their costs, make some profit, etc? For the last few bundles I’ve been giving all the money to the devs, but I might have to change that…

    • InternetBatman says:

      Since the only thing I download from them is Steam keys, I don’t feel too bad about not giving them a tip.

    • RobF says:

      They’re VC backed to the tune of a not insubstantial amount also.

      • seamoss says:

        Yeah, that’s about the time I stopped giving them a “tip”, since they had VC backing and (I assumed, perhaps incorrectly…) had to have sort of deal with the game devs for a small percentage of the rakings. Nothing against VC backing, but I thought that was the time it turned from being an indie thing into an actual business.

  12. sneetch says:

    /Looks at bundle games
    /Looks at Steam list

    Bingo! I have them all already, what do I win?

  13. RegisteredUser says:

    I’m glad the Humble Indie Bundle exists and I try my best to support and promote it where I can.

  14. figvam says:

    Apparently not every participating developer is happy with Humble Bundle profits:
    link to en.wikipedia.org