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A Better Mousetrap: Building Bundles Of Joy

Just, like, my opinion man

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.

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