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Making a success of the Humble Indie Bundle

Jeffrey Rosen and John Graham of Wolfire talk 'net generosity and goodwill

Wolfire Games' Jeffrey Rosen and John Graham have spoken at GDC about the triumphs and pitfalls involved in the marketing, sale and distribution of the Humble Indie Bundles, two packages of top indie games offered to customers on a pay-what-you-like scheme which saw $3 million taken in revenues - $1 million of which went directly to charity.

The two bundles, which included indie hits like Braid and World of Goo, not only embraced the concept of allowing purchasers to set their own prices, but also permitted them to decide what proportion of the purchase price went to the game developers and how much went to charity. Pay what you want is a system which had worked in the past, but for Wolfire it was still a huge gamble.

Fortunately for them it was also a success. The Humble Indie Bundle #1 raised over $1.3 million in revenues, while the second instalment brought in more than $1.8 million. The average purchase price for the first bundle ended up at $9.18.

That success was not without its obstacles, however. Piracy was rife, even with the option to pay just one cent. The first bundle saw a piracy rate of 25 per cent just through the official site alone, with hackers using simple techniques such as WGET to access unprotected download links. Single users were downloading thousands of instances of the bundle for nothing, presumably in order to resell the download links at a later date.

Rather than accept that rate of theft as an inherent risk of the business model, Wolfire engaged with the pirates, tweeting an invitation to people who pirated the games to fill in a survey letting them know why.

The response was phenomenal, with the tweet ending up on the front page of Twitter's homepage as part of the scrolling 'top tweets' section. The responses were frank, and extremely revealing.

For the first bundle, the primary payment method was PayPal. As well supported and accessible as it is, PayPal is not ubiquitous. Several territories have no access to it, and anybody without a credit or debit card cannot set up an account. A large proportion of those pirates fell into these categories, either living somewhere without PayPal access, or not having a card which gave them access.

Pirates are perhaps not the most inherently trustworthy group of people, of course. But some of their stories highlight the spirit in which most consumers approached the offer. One user collected every scrap of loose change from his house, took them to a change sorting machine at a local supermarket and bought a $12 Amazon giftcard to buy the bundle. When that payment method also failed, the story he posted on Reddit explaining what he'd done led to another user paying $12 on his behalf to buy him a gifted bundle.

Jeffrey Rosen himself claims that he paid for at least 25 bundles personally for users who experienced problems purchasing.

Using PayPal caused some other problems, too. Initially, the payment service wanted to retain a large amount of the cash passing through the account in escrow, in much the same way which it did with money which had been paid for Minecraft. The appointment of a PayPal account manager saw that number decrease, but even with that level of acknowledgement, several thousand dollars were held back.

PayPal's popularity meant that using the service was almost a necessity, but in Rosen's own words: "If you're going to do a promotion with PayPal, assume that you're not going to get the money for quite a long time."

At the other end of the scale were the benevolent. The highest price paid by a single contributor was an incredible $6132. For each user taking advantage of the offer's open handedness, it seemed that there was another who was prepared to offer very quantifiable support. For Humble Indie Bundle #2, 30,000 users downloaded for free. 35,000 paid one dollar. A further 40,000 paid $10.

Some of the lessons which the team learned were simple, and easily applied. Mac and Linux support, for example, meant that 50 per cent of total sales were made to those platforms. Not only that, Linux users actually transpired to be the most generous, generating the highest average payments of all the platforms. Interestingly, those same Linux users tended to skew their payments more towards rewarding the developers, with a lower percentage contribution going to the two charities involved: Child's Play and EFF.

Exposure on social and trend tracking sites such as Reddit also proved fruitful. Aside from generating the sort of community generosity story above, that coverage gave excellent exposure to a initiative which initially struggled to garner coverage in both mainstream and specialist press channels. The "democratic" nature of those services meant that information was spread organically without any time investment from Wolfire, and reached the exact demographic which the company had been targeting from the beginning.

Humble Indie Bundle #1 was a success, but fine-tuning the methodology saw the second package build on that success considerably. Whilst HIB #1 made $250,000 in the first 24 hours, bundle number two doubled that first day income to $500,000.

Rosen and Graham wouldn't be drawn on what improvements they'll be implementing for the planned third bundle, but one can only hope for their continued success, and an exponential increase on that $1 million charity donation.

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Dan Pearson