The games contained in a bundle are generally meant for entertainment, of course. But the practice of participating in a bundle is also its own, separate form of entertainment.
For starters, bundles produce suspense. When will the next bundle arrive? What will it contain? You can sign up to be notified for the next bundle deal, thus ensuring a pleasant surprise sometime in the future, no matter what the bundle contains or whether you want it.
The Indie Royale bundle even offers a "blind" purchase, in which a buyer can get a special deal by buying in before the contents of the bundle are revealed. Running the risk of disappointment offers the pleasure of teasing chance and contingency, the same pleasure we get from game shows, reality television, and casino gambling.
Players often express glee or exasperation at the prospect of acquiring even more games from the Steam service thanks to a newly announced sale ("I still have so many I haven't played," one might read on Facebook or Twitter). In part, the public performance of this exasperation is itself a form of distraction.
But more perversely, players may have begun enjoying the collection the Steam keys themselves, rather than the games they unlock. Achievements and trophies offer collectables within games, but Steam seems to have catalyzed a desire for collection within the marketplace itself.
Then, when a new bundle finally does arrive, it becomes a spectator event. How many copies will be sold? What's the current minimum price? How much money will be made? Will Linux increase its share of payments by platform? Who will top the contributor list? The progress of bundles is often reported as news in the enthusiast and trade press, much like one might cover a sports tournament, including commentary from developers and projections about the possibility of besting a previous record.
Those who partake of the bundle spectacle need not buy anything whatsoever. They can check in on its progress, or even just talk about it. Many players take advantage of the opportunity to root for a favorite game or developer, or just to express an affinity with such a one on social media. This strange paramedia effect is created entirely by the bundle concept, quite separate from whatever experiences the included games might provide.
Finally, obvious though it may be, we must remember that game bundles and download channel sales are not mere goodwill. Bundle service providers are businesses seeking to create or maximize profit. Valve has been quite forthcoming about the fact that discounted games seem to yield greater financial benefit. And Indie Royale is run (with Australian download store Desura) by a division of United Business Media, the same multinational media conglomerate that owns this site as well as the Game Developers Conference -- they're definitely in it for the money.
But Humble Bundle presents an air of nonchalance that belies its status as Silicon Valley high tech startup. The service may have a deferential name, but it was backed by a $4.7 million investment from Sequoia Capital. That VC investment came after the company's tenure at Y Combinator, the Silicon Valley incubation darling.
Running a bundle site surely entails costs related to hosting and operations, but make no mistake: a multi-million investment from a major venture capital firm positions Humble Bundle as a distribution business interested in producing maximum leverage on digital downloads of games (and perhaps eventually other products, too). Business is business, but whether it qualifies as humility is an open question.
Another widely celebrated feature of Humble Bundle is its inclusion of a charitable contribution. Buyers can allocate a portion of their total purchase to charities like the American Red Cross, Child's Play, and Save the Children. While it's unfashionable to be cynical about charitable giving, there's a long history of corporations using charity as a ploy for sales. For example, to raise just $36 for breast cancer research from pink-topped Yoplait yogurt tubs, you'd need to eat three of them a day for four months.
Humble Bundle is clearly producing better figures than that, but it's hard to know how much better (they don't publicly disclose their charitable distributions). No matter the case, the point is this: while Humble Bundle and Indie Royale present themselves as unpretentious and hip and unassuming, they are deeply connected to the financial logic of the tech sector, even if their organizers do care about indie games. Nevertheless, these aren't grassroots volunteer organizations, and they aren't community festivals.
What does it matter how game bundles as game bundles exert forces on the industry and the marketplace? When we think about the effects of media, it's not enough to focus on the way the content of film, television, or games make us feel or the things they make us do. We also have to consider the effects of the media forms themselves.
Examples are everywhere, but to take just one recent example: Spry Fox announced a partnership with Disney's Playdom subsidiary, who will distribute their popular social network game Triple Town. The reason? That game's 150,000 monthly users proved insufficient to produce a meaningful profit, thanks to the low conversion rate of free-to-play games on Facebook. This effect is not a result of any properties of Triple Town itself, but of the Facebook platform and the way it has enhanced a particular kind of leveraged, user-driven business model.
Thanks to the sheen of low-cost, high quality indie games for every platform, bundle services have emerged to offer yet another new way to buy and sell games online. But in so doing, they have also blinded us somewhat to the effects they produce as a medium themselves. Bundles are not just transparent storefronts through which indie developers enjoy fame and success; they are also poised to alter the ecology in which games get created and used.