Gold into Lead: How Humble Ruined a Brand in Two Weeks
If, two weeks ago, I had to describe the Humble Bundles with a single word, it’d probably be “instabuy”. Started in 2010, the Humble Bundles did a few things, and did them well. To begin with, they gave much-needed exposure to tremendously talented independent game developers- because of them, I discovered Machinarium, Dear Esther, Revenge of the Titans, World of Goo, Trine, VVVVVV, Jamestown, Canabalt, Fieldrunners, The Swapper, and countless others.
Thanks to the Humble Bundles, I learned about game mechanics, narrative design, and I wound up being educated about the game industry itself. I watched as the Humble Bundles helped lead the charge towards making independent game development a viable source of income- they’re a large part of the reason I came to know and love independently produced games. I realized the risks that devs often take with regard to design- risks that could make their game sound initially unappealing to publishers and, quite possibly audiences unfamiliar with the execution of the ideas.
Why would a publisher want to pick up a shmup set in an alternate history on Colonial Mars? Does Dear Esther, a game that’s not actually a game but an experience in which players walk around and listen to sad poetry sound like a surefire bestseller for publishers? No, it doesn’t.
Yet, the Humble Bundles have helped sell these experiences to millions of gamers around the world. How did they get so popular in the first place? Put simply, the first Humble Indie Bundle was the idea of Wolfire Games, which was looking for a means by which to promote their own game Lugaru HD. Looking at the success of a different promotions- games bundled at a discount and games sold for a period of time at prices determined by consumers, they realized that there could be an advantage to combining these ideas into a single bundle. Thus, on May 4, 2010, the first Humble Indie Bundle was launched.
There wasn’t much complication around the first Humble Indie Bundle- there were simple some cool games and a neat slogan: Pay What You Want, DRM-Free, Cross-Platform, Helps Charity. They didn’t say it quite like that initially, but that’s what the bundles were.
You could pay what you wanted for games- for a dollar, you could have a bunch of fantastic games that’d keep you occupied longer than the latest $60 blockbuster- not that there’s anything wrong with the big, expensive, AAA titles, but their prices made them less than accessible. The Humble Bundles helped make good games available for a little bit of money.
They also raised countless millions for great charities, while being DRM-free- games you purchased could be played on any machine you own without limitations. The fact that the games were cross-platform meant that it didn’t matter what operating system you used- Mac, PC and Linux were all invited to the indie game party. It was the best of times for both gamers and developers.
The Set Up
It took a little while for the Humble Indie Bundles to find their footing, as it were, but eventually it settled on this model: customers could pay what they wanted for some games- if they were to pay at least a dollar, they’d receive Steam keys for any games sold on Steam. If they beat the average price paid, they’d receive a couple of bonus games. The Bundles typically lasted two weeks, and in the second week, extra games would be added to the Beat-the-Average (BTA) tier. Anybody who purchased the Bundle in the first week would get these automatically.
Each Humble Bundle would last for two weeks- time enough for plenty to hear about them, but short enough to provide a little incentive to buy quickly
Eventually, some changes were made- the average for some bundles was fixed at a set amount, and the second week games were only available for those who beat the average. Still, the Humble Bundles remained mostly the same- there’d be a new bundle every couple months with a showcase of fresh, unique games. Each Bundle would be an “instabuy” for PC gamers- it was practically a guarantee of new games.
Each new Humble Bundle would break a new record- they eventually came to rake in millions of dollars for Wolfire, the developers involved, and the charities featured.
What Went Wrong?
“Our goal is always to make promotions that people want,” said John Graham, co-founder of Wolfire Games in an interview with Rock Paper Shotgun in August 2013- this was in response to criticism over the Humble Origin Bundle, which was neither entirely cross-platform nor DRM-free, but instead featured AAA games from EA. Money from the bundle went entirely to charity and the whole matter was generally well-received. It was not, however, the first time a controversy plagued Humble.
The Humble THQ Bundle, which launched in November 2013, was met with anger on account of neither being cross platform nor DRM-free- the outcry eventually died down to the point of being a faint echo by the launch of the Humble Origin Bundle. People had stopped caring about the initial promise of DRM-free and cross-platform games and opened their wallets back up.
This isn’t where things went wrong.
Rather, Humble started down the path to trouble with Humble Indie Bundle X, which was released in January 2014.
The tenth Humble Indie Bundle, HIB X had some rather fantastic games, such as Joe Danger 2: The Movie, Papo & Yo, and To the Moon. Reus and Surgeon Simulator 2013 were in the BTA tier- overall, a good bundle, if not for the terrible shenanigan from the start. You see, the first thousand people to purchase the bundle for at least $10 would receive Starbound. For Humble, this was a very bad move.
For starters, this jacked up the average purchase price from around $4-5 to around $9 dollars. This wasn’t the average price as dictated by the customers- this was an artificially inflated price decided by a trick of Humble.
Of course, it’s not as if Humble took hostage the families of anybody who didn’t want to beat the average price- the move was viewed as one of desperation. The Humble Bundle was started as a promotion for games that, while great, weren’t getting much attention. By the time of HIB X, they had turned into a source of revenue for Wolfire and whatever developers were participating. Countless imitators followed in the wake of the success of Humble- game bundles are everywhere. They became the competition.
Still, the artificial price-jacking of the HIB X was viewed as a dishonest move, since those beating the average weren’t gaining anything extra from the increased price. It was a blatant manipulation of the BTA system, and after receiving much backlash against it, it was never again used for a main Humble Indie Bundle, though it is often employed by weekly sales.
The last major Humble promotion, mentioned at the outset of this article, was widely regarded as an embarrassment. The Humble Daily Bundle started with a repeat of the Humble Deep Silver Bundle, which was generally well-received and generated excitement for what the next day would bring.
What Humble delivered was the Humble Daily Bundle from Outer Space, which came with three games, one of which was behind the BTA tier- the other was behind a $10 paywall. This was disappointing, but not the worst thing that could’ve happened. That came later.
The next Humble Daily Bundle featured The Banner Saga- players could pay what the wanted for some artwork from the game and some units for the F2P Banner Saga: Factions. If they beat the average, they’d receive… Skins. They’d get new appearances for their units in Factions. Anybody who actually wanted a game would have to pay $15 for The Banner Saga. A nice discount for a pretty game, but not a bundle.
Needless to say, this was not good for Humble’s reputation. As the days went on, the Humble Daily Bundles seemed to get worse and worse- one of the bundles was just a one-month subscription to EVE Online. Eventually, it hit rock bottom on the last day with the Humble Daily Bundle: Total War.
24 HOURS ONLY: Total War games in the Humble Daily Bundle: Napoleon. Grand Master Collection in the top tier! http://t.co/gG52ciQE20
— Humble Bundle (@humble) May 26, 2014
@humble This is horrible.
— LieutenantLoch (@LieutenantLoch) May 26, 2014
For $45, you could have the Total War Grand Master Collection, which came with most of the games and DLC in the Total War franchise. If you didn’t have $45 to blow, you could check out the $25 tier, which came with a couple less games. If you didn’t have $25 to drop, don’t despair! You could buy the Napoleon: Total War collection for $7 which included the base game and four pieces of DLC.
Oh, you didn’t feel like paying $7 for the collection? Don’t feel bad about it, just beat the average for the base game.
The average was $14. That’s twice the cost of the first non-BTA tier, and it actually came with less.
The most insulting part of this bundle, however, is the Pay What You Want tier. PWYW, which has consistently been part of the Humble Bundle, had consistently featured something worthwhile. For the final day of the Humble Daily Bundle, the PWYW tier was a high-res art pack. It was just some pieces of concept art from the Total War franchise- nothing that you couldn’t find on the websites of the artists who worked on the game. The PWYW tier, which had been a part of Humble from the beginning, was nothing but a joke.
The Humble name isn’t wrecked entirely. Each daily bundle, good or bad, made money. People are still looking forward to whatever Humble Indie Bundle XII is going to be- they’ll move on from this. Still, the way they view Humble is different now. Humble, in the eyes of the public, isn’t a great benefactor anymore- it’s just another online store that occasionally has an epic sale.
Why the nonsense of the Daily Bundles, then? Perhaps some business folks took note of the fact that the Humble Bundles were often instabuys and imagined that they’d not have to present deals on par with those the Humble Bundles are famous for.
Is any of this right? At the end of the day, the Humble Bundles are part of a business that happens to give to charity, and nothing more. They changed the face of gaming, changed the lives of indie developers, and brought amazing experiences to millions of gamers. As a business, Humble has made decisions that damaged its reputations- will it continue to make these mistakes, or will it work to repair its reputation? That remains to be seen. As for me? I’m just happy I didn’t touch the EVE bundle- I walked away from it with my head held high and my wallet hidden away. Meanwhile, there’s a pretty tempting deal over on Bundle Stars today.