(This piece is from August this year and I've only just got round to posting it here after reading this warning so a few of the numbers may have changed since then)
There’s barely been a month go by in recent times without a couple of people getting into a right old pickle with bundles and bundling. There’s only ever a few weeks between yet another OH MY GOD, THOSE DEVELOPERS ARE TRYING TO RIP PEOPLE OFF or something kicking off on Steam and well, it’s kinda sad to see this happening so often.
Invariably, it sort of hinges around Steam keys, giving out keys, how to get keys to people and what was/wasn’t promised and all that goes along with everyone rushing into something without really thinking about whether this is a smart way to go about things. It’s clearly a bit of an issue.
But then, I think bundles are a complete mess at the moment for most folks who won’t be in a Humble so whilst this saddens me, it doesn’t exactly surprise me either. Bear with me here, let’s chat about this. Let’s go back in time for a bit first…
We started bundling for some very simple reasons. Cross promotion between developers and devs working together to lift each other up, to get some cold hard cash by selling a few games at a reasonable price and to control the means of distribution. The early bundles were put together and marketed by developers themselves.
Well, that went to the wall, didn’t it?
It went to the wall with fairly good and understandable reason too. When Humble came along and with it the big money and a certain level of “you have to be a certain kind of indie to win the bundle lottery” it left a massive gaping hole just ready to be filled. It also meant that with large amounts of money to be had, the trade off of control for a percent sort of paid for itself. If it meant a dev could just throw their game into one of these bundles and sit on their backside and watch the money roll in because someone had already taken care of the backend parts of stuff and made a name for quality bundling, yeah, that works.
With the big money being reserved (unsurprisingly) for capital I indie this left a bit of a gap for folks to come along and offer their services for the little i indies and to try and do similar to what Humble were doing but on a slightly lesser scale. Let’s face it, no-one was going to pull in squillions for a collection of 6 probably good but not so well known games but, importantly, when you’re a dev working at that level, a few grand is a nice little payout. Half the draw of a Humble is/was "games you know that don't cost a lot", for the rest it would need some bundlers to come along and do "some games you might not know that don't cost a lot". And oh, the bundlers came. There was no shortage of them either.
And that was OK for a while because bundles were still infrequent, there was a novelty to it all. The pool of way above average games had barely been touched by bundling either so it meant the money was still there; it wasn’t there on a Humble scale but it was there on a relatively substantial enough scale to justify losing some autonomy and control for. It’s not like these games had a chance to be in a Humble bundle so why not?
AND YET IT WORKS
It’s far from ideal but for a bundle to work it has to serve three purposes:
1) It has to offer a good deal for the people buying
2) It has to offer a harmless and profitable deal for the developers
3) When it’s not dev to dev and controlled by a third party, they have to get a payday too or why bother doing it?
When we started on our path to all the bundles, this is exactly what was happening. People buying games would walk away with some great games or some games they may not have otherwise tried for a small amount of money, devs would walk away with a few grand in their pocket and bundlers came away with a nice bit of money skimmed off the top. Lovely stuff.
Everyone was sort of kind of happy. Ish. If nothing else, it at least had the appearance of everything functioning OK. For a while, there was a vague hierarchy to bundling and things trucked along, start with Humble at the top and work your way down a bit, seller to seller.
But of course, things change.
At the beginning, there were some vague but important differences in what bundlers were doing. The basic principle of gathering a bunch of games together changed little from bundler to bundler but the ways they offered bundles and what they offered in their bundles differed.
So you have Indie Royale bringing stuff across from XBLIG to PC as well as pushing for games they personally liked and felt needed a wider audience. You had a couple of others that seemed a bit more haphazard and random but when people are buying because they’re cheap, it meant some devs got a payday and some people got to try something different. And then you had stuff like Bundle In A Box which coupled bundling with an attempt to get new games made (and in the interest of full disclosure, my very own DRM was one of those games) and tried to throw in a dev grant to help lift a few developers up too.
It was an interesting, experimental time and it seemed like with all these different ways of bundling, things would kind of sort themselves out. They kinda did. Some bundle outlets drifted away never to be heard of again, some collapsed in vague controversy, some closed because they were throwing money down a hole instead of making it, some changed hands and changed how they dealt with people and what sort of stuff they sold, some used their bundling as a launchpad for funding and selling their own game and some carried on and on and on and on and on and here we are now.
WHERE ARE WE NOW?
So where are we now? Well, at the time of writing you can buy over two hundred and twenty games in bundles RIGHT NOW. Obviously, there’s some overlap there that I haven’t accounted for but that’s a lot of bundled games, right? We’re no longer in the carefully selected, carefully curated, novelty stage of bundling. We’re in the “holy yowzers, we’ve gone half an hour without a new bundle! That’s amazing!” stage of bundling.
Since the initial run of bundles, a lot of things have changed too. Greenlight is a thing that exists still (albeit not for long now) and that changed who would be approached for bundles. Of course, Steam keys are the major bundle currency but with the advent of Greenlight bundles, STEAM KEYS FROM THE FUTURE are now a thing. You promise them in exchange for votes to help you get through Greenlight. But that doesn’t always work and things can get really messy here when it doesn’t. From my own point of view, one of my games was in an early Greenlight bundle and the game is still stuck in Greenlight. Even more awkward, the bundle my game launched in is shutting down entirely which will leave me without a way to easily distribute keys should it ever progress through Steam’s ridiculous system.
When STEAM KEYS FROM THE FUTURE were introduced into the mix, that complicated things even more because then an expectation grew up around bundling and keys that handing over keys is just a thing you do, even if you didn’t promise them. Even if you didn’t sign a contract to do so. Even if it was never ever ever mentioned. That’s the deal people expect and not just for Greenlight bundles, for all the bundles.
Of course, you just throw the keys over and walk away because what’s the point in fighting that but still, it’s a big old mess and one that people didn’t know they were getting into. This is the source of a lot of pickles people are finding themselves in too. Oh man, it’s a mess, right?
And this is where I’m going to argue that bundling has gotten really messy now because bundles are churning through games at a rate of knots. Over two hundred games being available from bundles right this second is absurd. There’s probably more, they’re just the ones I could find. I’m not counting ebook bundles, soundtrack bundles, bag of everything bundles or whatever. There’s a fair portion of these games that aren’t already on Steam and the devs are selling their game for a small percentage of each sale of a bundle when the majority of these sales are for $1 AND come with the expectation of a Steam key being handed over if and when the game finally does launch on Steam.
Is it any wonder people are getting themselves in pickles? The bundling system, outside of Humble, isn’t working on the three points I mentioned earlier. Now it’s more about churn and keeping bundles going. Bundles are packing more and more games in so the percentage a developer gets is smaller, there’s no careful selection of titles anymore because in order to keep the bundles flowing, bundlers take what they can get and contact as many people as they can. Some bundles are lasting longer. They’re no longer “grab them quick before they’re gone forever”, they’re “take your time, they’ll be here for a month or so”. For some games it’s now “hang on a week if you missed it, they’ll be in another bundle annnny minute now” thanks to middlemen inserting themselves into the equation to punt games out to any and every bundle they can. It’s not unusual for bundlers to be running 2, 3 or more bundles at the same time.
As the net gets cast wider there’s an increased chance that people just won’t be thinking far enough into the future of what effect bundling will have on their games when they agree. There’s a good chance that they simply won’t be well informed enough on what could happen, never mind. Selling games normally is hard enough without the what will happen if of bundles.
Like, think about it. It’s traditional wisdom that outside of sales and the likes, you’ll need to do fairly good numbers on launch. Launch is a funny thing because these days, unless you’re straight onto Steam, you get two launches. The one not many people take notice of unless your game is extra special and the one people do take notice of when the game lands on Steam. You can probably throw in a third if we’re including Early Access stuff.
If you’ve got a fairly regular game that’s good but without blanket press or whatever, the money you can get in the launch week is invaluable. Yet people are trading this for the chance to get through Greenlight or in the vague hope that a bundle will offer a good payout. Of course, these days, bundles don’t offer anywhere near the numbers or money they used to and without the launch-on-Steam buzz of sales, the money isn’t coming in from there either so, yeah, it’s wonky.
We’ve come to a point where bundling is often tipped against developers. Not out of malice or necessarily design but just how else are companies that bundle going to keep the bundles going? Good games don’t come out at too regular intervals or follow a schedule, amazing games sometimes don’t take long to make but the really big press heavy ones take years so unless you want to be selling the fair to middling all the time, you just take what you can and throw as much at the wall as you can and oh god, that’s where we are now. Remember, over two hundred games right now. I’m not sure it could have gone any other way whilst we’re talking humans and money being involved.
There’s little to no advice on how bundles will effect sales because a lot of this, it’s all new and changing constantly. By the time it’s clear that something has happened, there’s a good chance it’s too late to put the genie back in the bottle anyway. There’s also the typical videogame thing that no-one talks about failures nearly enough so people stay shush or just ignore them because “that doesn’t fit with what I believe”. Or maybe people just don’t know if it’s effected something so let’s stay shush because we’re not sure. On the internet, no-one wants to be the one that’s wrong.
Bundles aren’t going anywhere and the concept of bundling is still a strong and a valuable one. It’s good that people get the chance to buy games they might not otherwise consider for a few quids, it’s good that developers can have a way of extending the life of their videogame using bundles but the balance is all to fuck. Whereas not that long ago, bundles served their three masters well enough, now outside of Humble, bundles now mainly favour keeping bundlers going so they can bundle some more games and do some more bundling in a bit and to keep the churn going.
And oh man, developers and thinking long term. There’s a thing we need to start doing more of anyway but we need to acknowledge that some people are going to need help with that and that’s where talking about these things really becomes important. We rushed into this and we kept on trucking and we kept saying yes without pausing for long enough to think about what was going to happen. We’re still doing that.
For me personally, right now I wouldn’t agree to a bundle unless it was Humble (working on the principle that at the time of writing, Humble are still going strong) or at least a good, decent length of time after launch to give myself a chance to actually survive to make more videogames by making sales that aren’t a small percent of $1. I don’t believe that where we are now with them, they’re doing a whole lot of good for developers. I also believe it doesn’t have to be this way but it’s going to take developers stopping and thinking through consequences, understanding how things effect them and well, to put it bluntly, just saying “no” unless they need the food money fast.
And y’know, let’s be up front here, trading videogames that may well be your livelihood in exchange for votes to get onto a store where you’ll be trying to sell your videogame is really stupid if you stop and think about it for longer than a minute. Even more so when you consider that Greenlight will not be around as we know it for very much longer. I sorta knew this when I went in for my Greenlight bundle but y’know, I needed the money for food so stuff it. And that’s a thing too, yeah? Sometimes you do just need food and have to go “stuff it”. We need to consider that too.
Which is why, whilst I won't openly recommend never going into a bundle that isn't a Humble in 2014, I'd certainly recommend taking a pause for thought before agreeing to anything and for more people to speak up about their current and past experiences with bundling so that developers can make more informed decisions on whether bundling will be the right thing for them.