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Persuasive Games: What is a Game Bundle?

January 19, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

From Humble Bundle to Steam Sales, from Indie Royale to Indie Gala, it seems like you can't go online anymore without seeing a new "game bundle" offering -- a set of unusual, overlooked, and independent game titles offered at a substantial discount for a limited time, often with a portion of proceeds donated to charities like the Red Cross or Child's Play.

It's tempting to let these bundles pass by without fanfare. After all, what harm can come from selling charming, clever, or unusual independent games and giving money to charity? But if downloadable games, free-to-play games, social network games, and other trends in distribution have taught us anything, it's that new distribution platforms often have a surprising impact on the perception and use of games.

So, what are game bundles, anyway? Here are a number of possible answers.

Game Bundles are Fun Packs

That game bundles are bundles is obvious, but what kind of bundles are they?

Remember those breakfast cereal "fun packs?" They come with many single-serving boxes of different varieties of sugary cereal like Apple Jacks and Froot Loops.

Sugary cereals are precious. Most parents won't buy them very often, and when they do they expect them to get eaten. And moreover, many parents aren't likely to buy sugary cereal at all; for them, the fun pack becomes a special treat, one meant to be repeated only occasionally.

While a casual scan of Twitter or Facebook posts might suggest that bundle purchases come from gamer "holdouts" too stingy to shell out even 5 dollars for a complete game, the sheer volume of bundle sales (sometimes in the hundreds of thousands of buyers), suggests that these bundles might be more like cereal fun packs than like discounted Corn Pops.

Game bundles resemble cereal bundles in almost every way. They collect eight or so titles together, offering a variety of hand-selected options. They gather them together in a convenient package, and they offer them at a substantial discount. While indie games are perhaps not so indulgent as sugary cereal, they are still a kind of extravagance for most people -- or at least a nonessential product, an exploration of a part of the video game shelves less commonly raided in large numbers.

Cereal fun packs also explain why deep discounts only work at scale. Internet utopians often celebrate "experiments" in digital distribution in which famous entertainers like Radiohead or Louis CK offer pay-what-you-want or low-price deals that produce enormous response, but they ignore the fact that those artists already have enormous followings created by years (or even decades) of traditional media -- just like fun pack buyers already know about Trix.

Selling more units of something requires selling to more people, and selling to more people means appealing to them in a way that overcomes perceived deficiencies in the product, among them simple indifference.

Bundles thus exert forces of both novelty and homogenization. Atypical customers try out unfamiliar goods, but in order to make them appealing those goods must be selected or adapted to make them less undesirable.

Current trends in free-to-play games are producing enormous player bases, but they do so at the cost of, well, cost -- only a small percentage of F2P players become customers, thus a very large user-base is required.

But a large market always entails a dilution of the product, making it more unassuming and homogeneous. So while bundles may introduce independent titles to a larger audience of gamers, the kind of titles most conducive to bundle purchases might turn out to be more like Apple Jacks than like, say, Sir Grapefellow.

Game Bundles are Promotional Campaigns

Even a half-decade ago, the business of independent games was in a far worse state than it had been 20 years ago, when shareware games birthed titans like id and Epic. Even 30 years ago, disks in bags at local software stores may have offered greater financial opportunity than free downloads from obscure websites.

Then Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network arrived, offering a highly controlled, low-volume, tightly (if sometimes weirdly) curated channel for games. Getting a game on these services spells almost certain success, but doing so is difficult.

Soon after, the Apple App Store, the Android Market, and Facebook emerged, offering enormous audiences accessible to everyone, but at the cost of very noisy storefronts. It's still possible to win the lottery on the App Store, of course, but it's more common to languish in oblivion. Steam sits somewhere between the two, both curated and noisy, where distribution is hardly a guarantee of financial victory.

Being a "working game maker" today is a lot like being a musician or an author: making stuff is easy, distributing it is relatively easy, but making meaningful money is nearly impossible.

Game bundles reduce the unit cost of games, and so it's impossible to deny that they are contributing to the "race to the bottom" in media pricing more generally. But because each bundle or sale only lasts a limited time, it exerts a different force, offering certain sell-through for one, but increasing potential reach thanks to the surrounding publicity.

In that respect, bundles are also promotional campaigns in which a temporary reduction in price with a particularly desirable placement results in free marketing with considerable reach -- while also delivering substantial revenue thanks to volume. Bundles are the retail end caps of the indie game supermarket.


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Comments


Ivaylo Kovatchev
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Thank you so much for this article.

Keith Nemitz
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Yep, your article helped this potential bundle member to think a little deeper about the matter. Thanks.

E McNeill
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Some amateur devs at Reddit are putting together a bundle. It's interesting to watch the conversation about what is important in a bundle and what's not: http://www.reddit.com/r/redditbundle

Ian Bogost
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This was interesting, thanks for sharing it. Seems like this suggests another idea that I didn't cover explicitly in the article, namely a bundle as an expression of membership in or support of a particular community.

Jay Margalus
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I would push back a little on this specific comment: "Game bundles reduce the unit cost of games, and so it's impossible to deny that they are contributing to the "race to the bottom" in media pricing more generally."



I've seen this comment circulating the internet in various forms, but have never actually seen anyone support the claim with statistical data. Conceding that it *may* be true, I'd argue that without data or sources to support this claim, it shouldn't be offered as absolute truth.

Ian Bogost
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Do you ask in reference to game bundles/sales specifically, or games generally speaking?



For the former, there's data in the RPS Valve article linked in the article.

For the latter, well, Bejeweled cost $20 in 2001, and $1 in 2011.

Jay Margalus
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You're right, I should've been more specific; I meant games/sales. I'm not sure I can find any evidence in the RPS article to support the notion that game bundles are contributing to the devaluation of media, though I might be missing it. It just seems like this is an accepted notion without any real support.



Edit: I misunderstood your question. I was asking in reference to bundles/sales specifically.

Adam Bishop
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The original Bejeweled may sell for $1 in 2011, but it's also a 10 year old game. Bejeweled 3, the most recent version of the game, sells on PC for $20. That particular example doesn't indicate a race-to-the-bottom to me, it indicates that Popcap has to sell its older, less feature-full version at a discount due to age, which is fairly common in all sorts of industries. But as long as their new games are still coming out at roughly the same price, I don't see a race-to-the-bottom mentality.



I'd also argue that reduced pricing is not necessarily indicative of a race-to-the-bottom. Prices on all sorts of things fall over time due to factors like increased productivity, decreased input costs, etc.

Ian Bogost
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You're right about the PC title, Adam. But the iOS edition of Bejeweled, of which there is but one, is $1. Races to the bottom, where they exist, are also platform-driven affairs.



Sure, some sort of a statistical study would be lovely. But we don't have that for games, although there has been data collected for music (e.g. http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/2010/how-much-do-music-arti
sts-earn-online/). Different situation, but it characterizes the way aggregation affects individual creators. In any case, this is really not the central point of the article.

Jay Margalus
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Sure, and to be clear, I enjoyed the post as a whole; it lays out a lot of good possibilities for what bundles might be. Yet I also think this particular point is something that gets raised too often to leave alone, and without pushing back, it will become an unfounded "truth." What if it's wrong? Hope this didn't come off as hassling you. Thanks for the ideas.

Ian Bogost
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No hassle. I'm not even sure how one would measure this trend statistically anyway. I'll ask my economist colleagues next time I see them.

Ted Brown
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For me, it's hammered home the concept of indie titles as consumable products, especially when the title takes a primitive game form (platforming, for example), wraps it in novel aesthetics and garnishes with new mechanics. Maybe it'll be a new standard. But maybe it's just doomed to be Crystal Pepsi.

Evan Jones
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I do wish Humble would be more open with their charitable giving statistics. I'm a bit cynical about their "support charity!" claim when their default split has just as much money going to them as to charity.

Ian Bogost
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My understanding is that the "majority" of buyers simply select the default split. What that means is hard to know.

Devin Wilson
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They give you the option of giving 100% of your purchase price to charity, though. I think this makes them meaningfully different from the Yoplait situation.

Ian Bogost
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Hi Devin. As I said in the article, it's definitely better than that Yoplait situation. But the Yoplait example reminds us that charity is not just charity. It is also--and often first--marketing. The fact that you have the *option* of giving your entire purchase to charity is a powerful message that helps the HB rise above its competitors, no matter how people actually contribute. It's neither duplicitous nor virtuous, really, but it's best not to romanticize the matter.

Keith Burgun
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Can I ask the obvious question... what the HELL does "giving to charity" have to do with supporting game developers? Why does it make ANY sense that I can "give all to charity" on the HIB?



I'm not anti charity, but it seems strange that we've all accepted that developers are expected to be able to live off of the fumes of feeling good that "someone donated money to get my game".


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