You’ve probably heard of the Humble Bundle – a bunch of indie developers sell their games together in a complete package for a pay-what-you-want price, letting you split your cost however you want between the developers, the Humble Bundle operators, and charity. The games themselves are DRM-free, compatible with Windows, Mac, or Linux, and – almost without exception – a mix of high- and low-profile games from independent developers that you might not have ever had the chance to try otherwise. Yesterday, that changed.
THQ is in dire straits. Losing big licenses, a stock value in freefall even after a reverse 10-to-1 stock split, high-level management chaos and reorganization, uDraw… the works. They seem ready to do just about anything to reverse their bleak, inevitable future. So why not sell a bunch of old games from their back catalog for a bargain basement price, using the perceived integrity of the Humble Bundle as leverage? It’ll build enthusiasm for their future games (Metro and Company of Heroes both have sequels in the works) and maybe – just maybe – keep THQ from going bankrupt this week. Giving away the 5-million-shipped Saint’s Row 3 as an incentive to pay more than the average bundle price (as well as keeping the pay-what-you-want price from being less than a dollar – a Humble Bundle first) ensures that THQ will finally make some money this week. This is good for THQ – their stock bumped up around 40% compared to this time yesterday. It’s not as great for the Humble Bundle guys.
This isn’t the first time the Humble Bundle has tried something different. They had an ebook bundle a while back, and there was an Android game bundle, and one for music, too. This is the first time they’ve worked with a AAA studio, made the games Windows- and Steam-exclusive, or been as widely derided as this offering, though. (Side note: I don’t know a single person that didn’t just go with the Steam key option when downloading their Bundle games before this – making it essentially a non-issue in my eyes – but it’s nice to have the option, I guess, especially since it’s always been there for the Linux crowd?) Ars Technica’s Kyle Orland argues that partnering with THQ might irreversibly damage the Humble Bundle brand. I think, however, that partnering with THQ was an inevitable step for an idea that was once innovative yet is now struggling to maintain any semblance of excitement, or even relevance. It’s happened before in other media; it will happen again.
Let’s go back to the first Humble Bundle three years ago. The games were shining indie darlings, triumphantly displaying the talents of the little guys with the big ideas. It made a lot of money, and fast. A name-your-price indie bundle had never really been tried before in gaming. Of course, the success meant that they did it again. And again. And again. Now there’s a new Humble Bundle every… quarter, I believe? They have long since lost their shiny luster of innovative and interesting newness. “I missed the Humble Bundle – it’s been so long!” is not a phase that is/has ever been uttered. (For contrast: think of Steam’s Summer Sale.) So why not try teaming up with floundering THQ? It’s a new idea! EA had bundles!
Here are some ideas that were terrific and completely changed their respective medium before quickly becoming disgustingly imitated to the point of over-saturation:
- Plastic guitar games.
- Louis C.K. selling his professional stand-up special on his own website for $5 over PayPal.
- Radiohead selling In Rainbows without major label backing on their own site with a name-your-own price months before a physical release was even available.
- Tim Schafer and Double Fine using Kickstarter to fund a “real” game (as compared to a one-man indie project), forever altering the role/necessity of big publishers.
- The first Humble Bundle.
Look at the world now. These ideas have all been imitated, duplicated, and cheapened at one time or another. Few have surpassed the success of the original attempts (from these points, I can only think of Rock Band and Obsidian’s RPG Kickstarter as projects that did better than the original, and Rock Band had to add an entire drum set to stay ahead of the curve). The Humble Bundle’s problem is that, unless they mix things up a bit, no one will care the next time a Humble Bundle hits the internet. But they keep doing more bundles anyway, like it’s all they know.
They’ve already sold seemingly every single PC indie game (and Braid… three separate times?), so they moved to smartphones. And music. And ebooks. Now they’re into the AAA games from the big publishers that – if the publishers had a better business acumen – wouldn’t need the allure of the Humble Bundle’s low prices and charitable slant to stay in business.
THQ is trying anything and everything they can just to stay listed on NASDAQ. The Humble Bundle is desperately trying to regain the novelty and popularity they had back when they offered their first Bundle. Combined, well, it’s an inevitable race to the bottom while both brands try to cling to former glories. We consumers can enjoy the 7 games for $5.69 while it lasts, though! It won’t be forever.