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A Humble Interview With The Humble Indie Bundle

A Modest Proposal

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.

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