The first session of the Indie Games Summit, GDC’s “voice of the independent developer”, was given over to the Humble Indie Bundle, the aptly-named, pay-what-you-want promotion that debuted in 2009. A pack of five independent games, DRM-free and compatible with Windows, Mac and Linux that let customers specify how to split the revenue between the various developers and charties, it made $1.27 million. The 2010 Bundle passed that total in eight days, eventually grossing $1.8 million. John Graham and Jeffrey Rosen of Wolfire Games, who devised the promotion, spent GDC 2011’s opening hour discussing their experiences in putting it together.
The idea for the promotion came from Steam’s bundle sales, with Graham and Rosen noticing that deals reached top story status on reddit, seeing sales spike. For an independent developer to administer and host a bandwidth-intensive promotion, serious thought was required on how to set it up: it needed to be scalable, able to deal with millions of page views and gigabits of traffic, but on an indie budget.
The solution was the Google App Engine, which the pair say is great for applications that have lots of reads, and not writes; they were able to run 20 simultaneous instances and only paid Google $10. File downloads in the first Humble Indie Bundle were handled by Akamai, the second by MaxCDN, Rosen saying Akamai “is the best quality and the most expensive, but we got a very compelling deal.”
The Bundle purchasing system needed to be as easy to use as possible: no registration was required, there were no forced client downloads, there would be just one page pre- and post-purchase. Customer support was provided by Tender App and Olark, with 18 operators providing online support to 3,200 visitors.
The pay-what-you-want model brought surprising results at both ends of the scale. Four people paid $1,000 for the first Bundle, the duo reveal, and that number increased for the second promotion. Minecraft creator Markus “Notch” Persson offered up $2,000 from his own recently swollen coffers, with the highest bidder of all paying $6,132.96. The top ten contributors to the second bundle paid a total of almost $28,000, an average of $555 per game.
Midway through the second Bundle, Wolfire incentivised generosity, offering anyone paying over the current average price the entire first bundle as well – a total of 11 games. While that did drive up the average, it also resulted in one individual buying 1,736 copies at $0.01 to try and lower it. Another registered the domain wolffire.com in an attempt to siphon off sales, but was locked out of search results by Google. Akamai data suggests the Humble Indie Bundle was pirated by approximately 25 percent of end users.
Despite that the bundles have combined to raise £3 million, with one third of that going to the charities Child’s Play and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Humble Indie Bundle now an established brand. In the future, Rosen hopes for greater focus on lesser-known games of a similar quality to the likes of World Of Goo, Braid and Machinarium which have graced past bundles, saying: “That’s the dream.”