This shouldn’t work…

… according to media industry advocates.

The Humble Indie Bundle is in it’s fifth iteration right now, and it’s doing pretty well. For those who don’t know it, it is a package several independent  games (i.e. not made and marketed by one of the big game studios who’s stuff you can get at Gamestop or similar mainstream-only retailers).

What’s so different about it?

First of all, the customer sets the price.

Media advocates: This shouldn’t work, because everyone on the Internet is used to getting everything for free and thus will never pay a decent amount for anything, if it can be gotten for free or almost for free (e.g. setting the price at $ 0.01).

Second, the Humble Bundle games do not use copy protection or DRM (Digital Rights Management)! In some jurisdictions, such as Germany, this would actually make it legal to give a few copies of those games to friends or family, because you don’t have to circumvent a digital lock to do it.

Media advocates: This should mess up sales, especially since the main promotional channel for the Bundle is social media. It is therefore likely, that a bunch of people who know each other are all interested in the offer, and could legally just buy one and share it.  [Actually, real media industry advocates would gladly deny your right to make a private copy for your friends, but right now the legal reality says otherwise]

Strangely enough, the Humble Bundle V is doing just fine, just like its predecessors.

Now, how is that possible?

I suggest a few important reasons, though there might be more.

The games are actually GOOD. And not “good” in the sense of hyped-and-heavily-advertised like the mediocre releases of the Call of Duty franchise or like some annual sports games, who’s only innovation is the renewed license to use the actual player names. These are high-quality, creative, clever and unique works of digital entertainment, who didn’t have much trouble getting sold at regular price points even before the Bundle.

They don’t punish their customers with DRM. Copy protection is often a painful affair. You have to make the 20th account with some game publisher and register your game or install some DRM software which might prove a serious privacy risk, slow down your system or just annoy you with problems that wouldn’t be there without it. The crazy part is: Only paying customers have to bear this. Someone who downloads a pirated copy (the existence of which has never been prevented by copy protection) can just install it and play. And that’s what you get with the games from the Humble Bundle – Install and play. It’s that simple.

Also, they give the right incentives to pay more. The cheapskates that used to give one cent in previous bundles are repelled by the fact, that codes for Steam (a popular distribution system for games that mostly stays out of your way, even for games who do not renounce DRM) are only given out at a minimum price of $ 1. This makes at least those few, who were planning on using Steam, work for their stinginess, by requiring manual downloads. So those people will think twice if their extra time isn’t worth more than 99 cents. Then, there is something else driving up the price. Simply put: The Bundle officially only contains four games, the fifth is a bonus for paying above average. Apart from setting a guideline for what’s an appropriate amount to pay, the average will obviously rise during the course of the offer, further providing an incentive to buy quickly and impulsively.

 

Learning from it

So much for the horrible situation media companies see themselves in. Why don’t more artists and publishers experiment with smart new business models like this one?

People are willing to pay for media. They are not willing to pay 60 bucks for 10 hours of not very original entertainment – a DVD box of your favourite series does a better job at that for a third of the price. And what youth or young adult (allegedly the target group) has that kind of money to spend  on a regular basis anyway?

Customers are not willing to be bullied and treated like criminals after they already paid for a product. Most copy protection systems nowadays make you feel like the supermarket was routinely checking your bags after check-out. This is especially true for games, since those customers tend to be geeky enough to know and notice these things (or their blissful absence). This issue was also relevant for music, but has since been resolved, with the expected results.

So, instead of making uncreative and lame games at outrageous fixed prices, that bully and annoy their buyers before they can actually play, and then blame discrepancy of sales and some fictional expected number on piracy, why not try something new? Not all releases by the main studios are dull affairs, they produce some real gems as well. How about getting more people to buy them at a fairer price and without restricting their rightful use of the product by annoying DRM systems?

 

The exact concept of the Humble Bundle might not work for all publications, or even all games. But it does prove that there are more ways to successfully sell media than the last-century concept of selling physical copies at fixed, dictated prices. And clinging to it by bullying customers with digital locks and prosecute those that are unwilling to accept these conditions seems a waste of time and resources and generates nothing but bad publicity. There should be alternative, more acceptable concepts, as to avoid dragging on a futile conflict for ages and only antagonises media creators and consumers.

 

tl;dr

Media creators, please look to the Humble Bundle for ideas on alternative business models. This might not be exactly the thing for your product, but might serve as inspiration how it could work, without antagonising your customers and fans.

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