The Humble Bundle has been a bastion of forward thinking in an age that has seen consumer power steadily on the rise. Even as platform holders and publishers have sought to restrict the power they hand over to the consumer, in order to protect their own interests, others have found a way to empower the gaming audience by eschewing traditional distribution models and RRPs. The ascension of pay-what-you-want as a viable business model, not to mention crowdfunding in the industry, has given consumers the ultimate freedom over how they spend their money, appealling to gamers' altruism and leveraging a sense of wider industrial community rather than the adversarial nature (at best) or hunting grounds (at worst) that the man in marketing talks of behind closed doors.
It's no surprise, either, that upstart business models have made the most of upstart games, with the indie sector benefitting the most from the pay-what-you-want model. The Humble Bundle has become synonymous with smaller, less-well-known titles and DRM-free downloads. With the PWYW model allowing consumers to distribute their funds across the various developers, partner charities, and the folks at Humble Bundle themselves, there's been a growing sense of goodwill. Buy game, donate to charity, support indie devs, take home five or more games at a steal, and feel happy and content in the understanding that you've been part of A Good Thing.
So it's understandable that some have criticised the latest Humble Bundle - a single-publisher venture with THQ - for seemingly "threatening to ruin the brand's reputation" or taking a "step backward" with regard to the pricing model.
The kneejerk reaction is, of course, one of almost indignation. Here we go again, after all, another case of the big publisher taking attention away from the little guys that need it. Isn't it the Humble Indie Bundle, after all? Isn't that how this all got started? Mac and Linux users won't be able to get involved? And what's this...we have to use Steam? As ubiquitous as Valve's platform is, it's still a restrictive platform and therefore a form of DRM, no matter how cuddly it might seem.
Things are certainly a little bit different. After all, instead of a cent, the lowest thing you can pay is a dollar. Moreover, with this being a publisher-led Bundle, many of the studios responsible for the games in the Bundle won't see any of the money that's been rolling in having moved on to pastures new and fresh adventures years ago. For an initiative that was deliberately designed to be open and offer unparalleled freedom, there seem to be an awful lot of caveats.
Mac and Linux users will be unhappy, and they have every right to be. They are, after all, regularly more generous than Windows contributors, grateful perhaps for the attention and consideration. To be shut out from an exciting new development as a big dick strolls into town is a little raw. So too will PC owners who cheered when Jeffrey Rosen wrote "When considering any kind of DRM, we have to ask ourselves, 'How many legitimate users is it OK to inconvenience in order to reduce piracy? The answer should be none." There are swathes of legitimate users who've just been wholly alienated by this latest Bundle by the simple matter of not being able to take part in it.
Will that have an impact on Humble Bundle themselves going forward though? I very much doubt it. Co-founder John Graham has already moved to dispel the notion that this will change Humble Bundle irrevocably forever. “One thing I’d like to point out is that this is not a perpetual policy shift that will obstruct our efforts to construct other types of bundles but is rather a brand new experiment of its own,” Graham told PAR. “2012 has been a year of many promotions for us that fall outside the original Humble Indie Bundle framework and we are excited to be able offer a critically acclaimed line up like this in a ‘pay what you want plus charity’ promotion."
More attention then for charity, that's surely a good thing, right? More people, too, attracted and alerted to the Pay What You Want model, informing and educating consumers who might then return for future indie bundles, or perhaps go off and do their own research now they know that this sort of thing exists.Whether or not THQ, as Kotaku flippantly put it, were so broke that they made a Humble Bundle is not really the point. They're a canary of sorts, testing the waters of a model previously untouched by big business. That it's a big business which has been brought to its knees and humbled by falling stock prices makes it something of an ideological fit for Rosen and Graham's company.
For consumers that's a good thing. We've seen plenty of imitators pop up over the past couple of years, bringing indie games to the fore, and empowering consumers by offering up subjective transactions. Indeed, the freedom of choice when it comes to how your money is divided means that you could feasibly buy the THQ Bundle and not give THQ or Humble Bundle a penny, and that appears to be exactly what many ambivalent parties have done.
It's interesting, though, that THQ didn't do a PWYW bundle off of their own backs. A slick little site of their own here, some blanket press releases there, and they could have really made some noise without bringing the Humble Bundle brand into it at all. It would have been better, perhaps, because PWYW is too interesting a model to find itself embroiled in brand politicking. Taking Humble Bundle for granted would be wrong, and it's all too easy to see some of the negative backlash as a form of entitled whining from one perspective. Just because things have been done a certain way before does not necessarily mean that it will always be so.
Furthermore, as altruistic as Humble Bundle have been in the past, they must continue to look forward, and one can't help but wonder just how much (or rather little) say they would have had in how the games were presented. Expansion and growth costs money, so for them to continue to operate and evolve as a company, if they have to offer a "Big" Bundle every once in a while to support their more niche offerings then so be it. It would be a mistake to think that Humble Bundle have long championed unsung heroes. Indeed, most of their indie offerings have come via established darlings such as Braid, Darwinia, Trine, and Machinarium - smaller games, yes, but hardly unknown elements.
So there are two sides to this. From an idealist standpoint, it's a shame that this Bundle eschews some of the principals upon which Humble Bundle has been built. From a consumer perspective, however, there's little to complain about. But by far the best thing that has come out of this is an increased awareness, and serious debate. The Pay What You Want model, after initial excitement, has been in something of a saturated rut this last year or so. Hopefully, as a result of this recent Bundle, we might see a few big names pushing the boat out for themselves and how a model in which everyone can be a winner might become more important going forward.