Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Gamers Turn to Giving: Wolfire Games and the Humble Indie Bundle

Indie video game producer Wolfire has added a touch of innovation to their fun and games. That’s the impression the scrappy online gaming company gave consumers when it recently spearheaded a buzz-worthy experiment in charitable giving.

It’s little secret that the video game industry is serious business. Last year consumers in the United States spent over $25 billion on video games and related products. Though the bulk of those dollars go toward popular consoles like the Xbox and Play Station, nearly a fourth of all video games sales take place exclusively over the web, where Internet gaming has swelled in popularity.

How ornate is this whole arena? When reading up on it, I got so lost I had call up my tech-savvy friend, Mike, a Wolfire customer and occasional gamer, who runs the fantastic site Sake River.

Net-based games, Mike told me, like the companies and design teams that produce them, range in size, from the mighty multimillion-player World of Warcraft to smaller indie upstarts, featuring admittedly cheaper, more homemade graphics, but also stronger stories from grassroots companies with a hip, pro-consumer vibe.

And never has the dynamic nature of these companies been on better display than with Wolfire Games’ “Humble Indie Bundle.” Starting just a few weeks ago, the gaming company, creator of hits like Lugaru: The Rabbit’s Foot and World of Goo, joined other designers to bundle together five games into a DRM-free, cross-platform package for sale.

But here comes the really cool part.

Wolfire took a page from the alternative rock band Radiohead, who released their 2007 album In Rainbows for online digital download via a pay-what-you-want structure that allowed fans to select the amount they could afford. In the case of the Humble Indie Bundle, a game collection that would normally sell for upwards of $80, Wolfire set a minimum price of one cent. The proceeds were then divided between the game’s designers and two different charities, allowing buyers to set the structure for how their game-buying dollars were divvied, and where the money was allocated.

Even the charity recipients reflected the renegade, open-source culture of Wolfire and its customers. The first was Child’s Play, an organization that donates toys and video games to a network of over sixty children’s hospitals around the globe. The second was the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit digital rights and legal advocacy organization designed to protect civil liberties in the age of computing and telecommunications.

The Humble Indie Bundle experiment commenced on May 4th and concluded on May 15th, garnering a slew of attention along the way. From the very start, a surprising reveal set the blogs buzzing. Despite the one cent minimum price, nearly a quarter of all Bundle downloads were illegally pirated. If, like me, you’re struggling to make heads or tails of that, you can read a spirited and thoughtful analysis on - of all places! – Wolfire’s own blog, indicating they’d anticipated a rebellious, counter-intuitive response from some customers. Some pirates, it seems, just want to be pirates.

But once the dust settled, Wolfire did some well-earned boasting. In all, 138,811 fans purchased the package, shelling out an astonishing $1,273,588. Of that amount, the honest buyers of the Humble Bundle earmarked 30% of their dollars straight to the charities, leading Wolfire to donate $392,947 to Child’s Play and the EFF.

These renegade gamers showed an impressive collective might. Here this frequently misunderstood community of fans, artists and storytellers imparted a unique show of goodwill, maybe dashing at last that tired stereotype of the boys in mom’s basements.

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