Last Thursday, the latest Humble Bundle dropped, and it was unique in many ways . So far, there have been over three million dollars in sales, with half a million people paying what they wanted for six or seven games from a single publisher, THQ. The Bundle is only available through Steam, on Windows.
If you haven’t heard of Humble Bundle, Inc., they’re best known for their Humble Indie Bundles. These bundles package together a few games from independent games studios, and gamers can pick them up for any price they felt like paying (between $5 and $9 has been the average, depending on the bundle). The games could be well-known, like World of Goo in the first bundle, or new games looking for exposure.
Humble has diversified a bit since their earliest bundles, offering single game “bundles” like the Voxatron Debut, as well as bundles from single developer. They’ve even offered music and eBook bundles.
Games are the main attraction, though. Humble has built its sales and consumer goodwill not only through its pay-what-you-want prices, but also because nearly every game sold has Windows, Mac, and Linux compatibility (and sometimes Android), and comes without DRM. Until now.
The THQ bundle includes Metro 2033, Red Faction: Armageddon, Company of Heroes (and two expansions), the original Darksiders, and soundtracks for most games. If you beat the average price (currently about $5.60), you’ll also get the absurdly awesome Saints Row: The Third. It’s a fantastic deal for some genuinely good games, but the games are only available for Windows, and only through Steam.
We have a lot of Steam fans here on Icrontic, both due to the platform’s occasional wallet-busting sales or from our members’ dedication to Valve’s Team Fortress 2, Left 4 Dead 2, or Half-Life 3 (trololo) games. Steam works well most of the time, and when it does, it’s easy to forget that Steam is, at its core, a DRM system. When it works, it’s transparent, and doesn’t utilize any especially irksome techniques like SecuROM. When something’s amiss, though, DRM does what it’s best at, and sets legitimate paying customers into a rage.
Therefore, I can understand some frustration when Humble, a bastion for DRM-free games like Bastion (Indie Bundle V), suddenly embraces a bundle of games available exclusively on Steam. Ben Kuchera of the Penny Arcade Report considers it a “step backward for bundle model,” and thinks it “gets rid of everything that made people love Humble Bundles, and may be damaging to the brand.” Kyle Orland from Ars Technica wondered why the Humble Bundle was “willing to essentially sell out this core part of its DNA just to get THQ on board?”
But haven’t I forgotten something else about Humble?
Oh right, the charitable donations. As of a couple weeks ago, Humble Bundle, Inc. had raised over $7.85 million for charity. Penny Arcade-founded charity Child’s Play is a usual beneficiary, and on the THQ bundle, they’re joined by the American Red Cross. Not only do customers pay what they want, they decide who gets the money in what proportion. All of this is possible through the magic of sliders.
If anyone doesn’t like the setup, or finds that they like it differently than the other ones, now’s their chance to play with those sliders. If gamers are truly offended in this instance, they can deprive Humble and THQ of their cuts, give 100% of their money directly to charity, and still get a few games to play. There are lots of reasons to discount the criticism of offering mainstream Windows games, and I’m about to get into them. It just seems like if charity is a core part of the Humble brand and that hasn’t been messed with, I should be able to leave it at “think of the children.”
What’s in a brand?
Critics of the latest bundle derided THQ for trying to make a quick buck, and Humble Bundle for diluting its brand. But what’s in a brand? It’s a “name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.” For the sake of discussion, we could consider the main features of the Humble Bundle brand to be:
- Pay-what-you-want model for video games
- Cheap way for customers to buy several games at once
- Easy way for publishers to increase the audience for games
- Curated, high quality collections
- Usually independent games
- Usually DRM-free
- Usually multiplatform
- Charitable donations encouraged with every purchase
- Content that appeals to geeks
- Simple ordering process (no registration required)
- Simple order fulfillment/downloads (BitTorrent was added when a survey showed pirates wanted it)
None of these are unique to the Humble Bundle, but taken together they are what the Humble brand offers. As such, offering a bundle that is not independent, DRM-free, or multiplatform does dilute their brand somewhat, but to say that it “gets rid of everything that made people love” the bundles is a clear exaggeration.
Gamers might feel betrayed by their simpatico distribution company seemingly turning to the dark side, but Humble has no intention of stopping the DRM-free, cross-platform bundles that their customers have grown to love. They do need to do a better job at protecting their reputation in their original domain, however. It wasn’t until critical articles were written about the bundle that Humble Bundle co-founder John Graham told Ars Technica they will “never stop creating Humble Indie Bundles”. Humble should have anticipated and gotten out in front of the criticism by letting their fans know that the indie, cross-platform, DRM-free products they have been accustomed to finding there aren’t going anywhere.
When Humble diversified by offering music and eBook bundles, they were met with praise for extending pay-what-you-want to new domains. On their blog, Humble at least acknowledged that these were new kinds of bundles in their announcements. But there was no such acknowledgment in their announcement of the THQ bundle, leaving the clarification for later damage control.
The THQ bundle is now being pitched as an experiment into a new domain, and if successful, Humble can generate more consumer goodwill by offering pay-what-you-want for mainstream games. Judging from the success of the music and eBook bundles, Humble has room to grow their brand to new product types, and it makes sense that Humble would try expanding into a category much closer to their original offerings than either books or music. With competition heating up in the independent games space, diversification is probably a good idea, anyway.
Incidentally, the eBook bundle included books that were already big sellers, by already acclaimed authors, represented by major publishers. The music bundle also included previous releases from well-known acts OK Go and They Might Be Giants. To me, this means it’s a little inconsistent to characterize the sale of already successful games from mainstream publisher THQ as a money grab when it wasn’t perceived as such for the music and eBook bundles.
What are we supposed to think about THQ?
The immediate cash flow can’t hurt THQ, but even if they end up taking a few million to the bank, that sort of pales in comparison to $21 million loss last quarter. The real potential in this bundle is increasing the audience for their full-priced sequels: Darksiders 2 (out now), Company of Heroes 2, Metro: Last Light (2013), and Saints Row 4 (2013).
I haven’t played any of the THQ bundle’s games before. Until a few days ago, all I knew about Darksiders is that there is a Darksiders 2. All that I knew about Metro 2033 is that it’s frequently used in benchmarks. And all I knew of Saints Row 3 is dildo bat. I’m the target audience, and now I’m probably going to end up buying some of these sequels.
Only time will tell if the bundle was a good idea for THQ. It’s early yet, with more than a week remaining for sales, and months before returns are seen on sequels. Investors seem to be pleased, though, as stock prices are up a bit since the bundle began. After the first day of the bundle, they spiked up over 45%, but after some selloffs, shares are down to $1.36 as of this writing, or up 23% from close on 11/28.
The rhetoric around the bundle and THQ’s prospects has grown toxic, and it risks feeding into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Kuchera thinks the bundle could be “a death rattle” for the publisher. Kotaku’s take on the story is just an excuse for their incendiary headline: “THQ Is So Broke, They’ve Made A Humble Bundle”.
It’s possible to write a critique of THQ’s business decisions without sensationalism, but we’re not seeing much of that anywhere. It’s as if every writer or Internet troll turns into a shark as soon as he or she smells blood. People seem eager to ridicule THQ, almost wishing for it to fail, so they can say that they called it back when THQ offered that Humble Bundle. If THQ does close, it would be nothing but a loss for all of us in terms of creativity and competition.
Is there an Internet groupthink going on? It’s tough to nail down exactly how strong of an effect the dominant narrative has on product performance vs. the actual decisions made by the company. Research has demonstrated that crowds tend to go with the established momentum of opinion regardless of its accuracy, at least initially. If there’s a correction, and we learn to appreciate what we’ve got, I hope it’s while my buddies at THQ still have jobs.
Also, CoH2 keys lol 8JX2G-LCFNM-G28KB