Our second interview with Josh Bush (affectionately known to many as Cheese of Twolofbees) on his Humble Visualisations turned out to be a great learning experience for us. Not only was Cheese patient with us through the transcription process, he was gracious enough to lend us a hand, particularly when one of us (namely me) was struck down with three ugly levels of the flu, bronchitis and tonsillitis.
For now, we hope you enjoy our interview with Cheese and his Humble Visualisations. We do express considerable warning for those hoping for quick and efficient read. These interviews are, after all, personal and intimate stories about the folks we’re showcasing as well as their thoughts and feelings about video gaming itself.
If you are interested please let us know and we’ll see what we can do. For now, we present Cheese and his interview on his Humble Visualisations.
About Josh Bush (Cheese)
It's difficult to imagine Cheese not doing something with his creative mind and soul. To date he's managed to create more than a name for himself in a collaborative effort of Neverball, a free and open-source game. (He'a also created another open-source game called Flat). He's also worked with Ethan Lee on the creation of ParaCMS. Cheese also runs a close-knit group of Linux users in Tasmania and is an advocate of the free-software movement. But, of course, Cheese is widely known for his analysis and commentary of the Humble Bundle up to and including the most recent entry, the 3rd Android Bundle.
RYG: I guess to start things off why don't you explain to us how it all began.
Cheese: As far as how it [the Humble Visualisations] began, there was a period when things weren't very clear about the Humble Bundles. After the first [Humble] Bundle, I think they had talked at PAX about their experiences, and then they had talked at GDC about their stats and what they could interpret from all that stuff. And then the Frozen Synapse Bundle came which was, you know, it was a very different angle from what had previously come. There was not the same level of statistics stuff forthcoming, and people just sort of thought, “Oh, that’s because it’s a different type of Bundle, and maybe it’s not as interesting to talk about.” As the Indie Bundle 3 came along, people were like, “Oh, yeah, we’re back for the same thing,” but there were no more statistics.
Then we had the Frozen Synapse Bundle and the Voxatron Debut, which were smaller pickings than previous Humble Bundles. This was very different stuff, and people were a little bit concerned about whether or not it represented a new direction.
RYG: Do you mean people as in gamers? Or people within the video gaming industry?
Cheese: Possibly both. The Humble Bundle at that point in time seemed a bit like a rogue thing, and I kind of get the impression that a lot of industry commentators were happy to talk about individual successes within each Bundle, but not really postulate too much about what might come and what might happen.
There were a lot more of what we call “source releases” earlier in the Bundles. So, the first Bundle had everything in it released under the GNU Public License; I think the second Bundle had a number of open-source games; in the Frozenbyte Bundle, their abandoned project, Jack Claw, got a source release, as did the two Shadowgrounds games, I believe, although none of those were quite classified as “free software” - the licenses were a little bit more restrictive and preclude any derivative commercial works. You know, it’s interesting to see how companies approach this decision.
At this point in time, the speed between Bundles was ramping up. We’d gone from hundreds of days between Bundles to, you know, about a month, and this was an interesting transition because there were all these Non-Indie Bundles, that were happening a little more frequently. So, it seemed that they quickly outnumbered the Humble Bundles and everybody was a little bit confused about what was happening.
There were a couple of issues that I was particularly invested in from the Humble Bundles. There were the stats, because that's a really interesting way to provide a different perspective on the industry, “source releases” (I get kind of excited at the opportunity to look inside their games and how they work), and the general quality of games.
So, I shot an email off and I said, “Look, I'm a fan of you guys. This is the stuff that I really like that you do. This is the stuff that I see that's not being done anymore, and you know, as a fan and someone who's interested, I'm keen to know if the things that I care about are the things that you care about.”
The email I got back from Jeff [Jeffrey Rosen] was pretty much saying the only reason they had originally published stats stuff was because they were invited to PAX and GDC, and none of those kinds of invitations had arisen again. Jeff also talked about how they had encourage developers where they can to do source releases and that that’s interesting and compelling to them personally, but obviously, it’s up to the developers whether or not they feel comfortable with doing a source release of any type (which is kind of in some ways a little disappointing). The other thing was that they considered the Indie Bundles to be separate from the non-Indie Bundles, which comes across as a bit of a branding issue because there’s been quite a number of times where people have said, “Oh, I miss how the Humble Bundle used to be,” and they haven’t quite clued into this fact that there are sort of two or now maybe three or four concurrent products that they offer.
RYG: Why do you believe it’s a branding issue?
Cheese: Because it’s about presenting these things as separate products or separate entities to people (that’s what branding is: it’s how you tell your customers about what your stuff is), and, so they recognised that they weren’t at the time doing a good job of highlighting these were different things, and you can sort of see that a little bit in the sales figures from the Frozen Synapse Bundle through to the Introversion Bundle where there was a very gradual decline in the amount raised.
So, Jeff said that they recognised that they had this issue of presentation, and that that was something that they were hoping to either directly focus on or to just put out enough Bundles that people would catch on. Now that there’s been a fourth and a fifth Indie Bundle that’s starting to be a little bit more obvious.
Cheese: I was really interested in being able to give them an opportunity to sort of tell that story about how the Indie Bundles are different, that they’re not intentionally ignoring stats, and that they’re still kind of pro-open source, but sadly, we kind of didn’t end up having time. They were a little bit busy, which is understandable.
RYG: And was that the moment where you decided to present your statistics on their Humble Bundle releases?
Cheese: Yeah, so, they ended up being a little busy. I do talk to Jeff every now and again, and there are a couple of other people involved with Humble Bundle stuff that I touch base with every now and again. It’s nice to have, you know, a relationship there, and before I made these stats live I shot an email off and said, “Look, after our discussion you know, I wouldn’t mind doing some presentation of the data.”
Initially, I was thinking about doing some analysis. But as soon as I had realised that there was the ability for me to put together the kind of thing that I have now then I kind of quickly realised that it wouldn’t be appropriate of me to sort of smother it with my own opinions. It’s important to allow data a chance to speak for itself. Otherwise you run the risk of creating preconceptions. And if somebody sees something that I don’t see in these figures and these numbers, then that’s immensely valuable, because I’m limited to my own perceptions, and the chance to see something beyond that is engaging and potentially revealing. So yeah, I decided not to write anything about it at first.
There’s also a little bit of backstory here. Previously, I had a Google Docs spreadsheet that I had been maintaining, inspired by some discussions that I'd had in the Steam forums with other Humble Bundle fans. And I had been basically copying and pasting the data from the finished Humble Bundle pages into this spreadsheet. And I had been maintaining that for about six months prior to starting the Humble Visualisations.
It was December 2011 when I started this Humble Visualisations site, so, yeah, it must’ve been at around six months prior to that that I had been maintaining this Google Docs spreadsheet.
RYG: That would’ve been a year or so ago.
Cheese: Right. I remember, I liked to look at the numbers and the stats and the figures on the Humble Bundle pages, and I was always kind of, “Oh, I wish they'd show more,” and it didn't really occur to me that I could calculate further stuff out of that. I didn't notice that the figures in the URLs for the pie charts on the Humble Bundle site had values to six significant places. This other guy had posted some individual summaries for a bundle when it finished, and I said “Hey, I didn't actually realise we could do this!” and I went back (because I had all the old bundle pages saved), and I created this Google Docs spreadsheet, which calculated additional statistics and gave the opportunity to see the values from multiple bundles in one place.
RYG: How do you accurately and consistently maintain the data that comes from the Humble Bundle site?
Cheese: It was a bit of work to copy and pages stuff and it changes a little bit because people have the ability to up their purchase after the bundle has finished. I really like automated systems (I hate having responsibility to remember stuff) so it kind of ended up being a bit of a hassle to maintain, and I eventually went, “Sod this, I'm going to spend a couple of days and I'm going to write an automated system that crawls the Humble Bundle website and parses it.” So, I put a weekend in and came up with pretty much what you see now.
It was very, very important to me that when I was setting up the Humble Visualisations that all of the data was directly pulled from the Humble Bundle site so there’s no third party information there, so I can confidently say I’m not making this up or introducing copying errors.
There have been a couple of features that I've added over time, and I'm kind of at a point where I feel like I need to expand it further, but basically I was providing total payments, average payments and total purchases for each platform. I was also showing a combined graph that shows the history of per platform revenue, per platform averages and per platform purchases. I added additional ones for all bundles combined, and another set for just the Indie Bundles because I think that helps highlight that there's a bit of a difference.
So I put all that together, and before I made it live, I shot it off to Jeff and said, “Hey look, I've put this together. Would it be appropriate to let it crawl the Humble Bundle pages? Your robots.txt allows it, so I don't imagine that it would be a problem, but I wanted to be courteous and give you the opportunity to make some comment on it or give me any feedback if you're not comfortable with it,” and he pretty much said “It looks great to me,” so I published it. It was really great to have Jeff's support in terms of giving me some-kind-of-vaguely-official thumbs up to do it.
Obviously it’s a lot of just raw data and that’s off-putting for some people as I have discovered. “Oh, it’s too many graphs there, man. I don’t care what the numbers are. I just care what they mean.”
RYG: Well you did mention that you wanted to let the data you compiled from the Humble Bundle site speak truthfully and plainly.
Cheese: Yeah. I felt that if I had launched into my own opinions at the same time that people would have been talking about the interpretations I came up with rather than the numbers themselves.
So, when I started posting links, I noticed that discussions were emerging and I thought, “This is really valuable. I need to give this time to sit and time to settle so that people having these discussions can continue to have these discussions.” So, I kind of intentionally left it a little while, but I paid attention to what people were talking about and involved myself in those discussions without directing them too much.
RYG: And what did you personally find?
Cheese: It’s very interesting to see that the Bundles mean so much to so many people. There are massively diverse interpretations, and people feel very heavily invested in it, and I think that’s in part an extension to the pay-what-you-want model where people do take on this kind of sense of ownership. They feel like they’re contributing to indie game development – they feel like they’re contributing to the industry. But because they’ve got this level of control it becomes much more personalised as opposed to seeing something in the shop. There's also the charity and DRM free stuff as well as cross platform support, which really appeal to different people differently.
So, when it came time to do my analysis, I came up with this idea of trying to get some quotes in there from people that would help highlight how varied the personal meaning that the Humble Bundles have for individuals are, and rather than just asking people that I know, I thought, “Why don't I go and I contact every top contributor for every Bundle in the past?” It was great to talk to these people - I back-and-forthed with Notch a little bit, and Garry Newman (the guy who does Garry’s Mod) and I had some conflicting opinions about how to interpret some of the stats, which was fantastic because I really wanted to highlight that this stuff means so many things to so many different people. I also got to chat with the Cupcakes Nom, who co-ordinates the Humble Brony Bundle contributions, which also prompted me to add an addendum to my analysis that looked at the comparative retail value of games across the bundles.
RYG: Do you think that because of the Humble Bundle that it has brought out the best in people?
Cheese: I do think it does bring out a lot of interesting stuff, and it does, I think, encourage a lot of people to take a further look. I believe that if people are given the opportunity to be sensible, if they are given the opportunity to show that they are rational and understand stuff, then they do, and they will.
I mean there are exceptions (there will always be exceptions) there’s always people - there's always someone, somewhere who is– what’s a nice way of saying arsehole?
RYG: *Laughs* Freerider?
Cheese: *Laughs* Well, I don't know. Freeriders? I don't have a problem with freeriders, but there are people who are maliciously, actively a pain the back side.
Looking at another aspect, we’ve got lots of Pro-DRM [video] game publishers who are feeding us information about how piracy is killing the industry and blah, blah, blah. So having this kind of” DRM free” promise from these guys is kind of a commitment. Just to look at the numbers and you can sort of understand what Valve says about piracy being a customer service issue and not a technical or development issue.
I know people who contribute to the Humble Bundles who buy or contribute ... I don't really consider it a buying thing, because what you get is completely unrelated to the value of the transaction, so it's kinda like they're giving you the games and you're donating the money. I know people who contribute to the Humble Bundles because they are DRM-Free and don’t end up playing the games. They’re not interested in the games themselves, they're interested in the initiative!
Cheese: That's cool. And that's interesting, it’s inspiring, it’s perhaps noble, but at the same time not only do the Humble Bundle promotions give you the power to express yourself in that way, but they also bring together people whose motivations aren’t the same. You come together and you start to interact with and talk about and being involved with the same stuff as people who are specifically excited about the games, and you have a chance to have your perspectives rub off each other. Socially that’s really healthy and that’s really positive in the way that they're able to bring people together.
RYG: Is there ever at time where you felt that this sort of statistical analysis – this passion to analyse the financial and social data – was more like work and less of a hobby?
Cheese: I just feel I'm doing what I have to, because I am inherently compelled to waffle on about stuff. I enjoy investigating and understanding things, so if I see a bunch of graphs, I want to look at them and I want to try and interpret them as much as I can, so this sort of thing feels like it's natural to me. I do put a lot of effort in, but it's hard for me to call it work even though it might seem that way for others.
RYG: Oh, no doubt! They could’ve gotten anyone with a degree doing this. I think it’s quite amazing what you’ve done with the Humble Visualisations and you’ve done it without any qualifications or without any stats background or experience.
Cheese: *Laughs* Like I say, I don't feel like I'm special. I'm quite confident that there are many people out there who have similar ideals and perspectives. I just seem to be the only one motivated enough to write 1200 articles at the moment.
RYG: So, I guess to wrap things up, is there anything you’d like to share about what will become of your Humble Visualisations in the near future? Are there other projects you're working on at the moment?
Cheese: There's too much data being shown at once there. That's something that's pretty obvious. What I want to do is find some way to try and tag each of the Bundles so you can say, “Show me only the android bundles,” or, “let me compare the music bundle with the Indie Bundles." I want to create something that's a little more dynamic and a little bit more customisable in terms of how you go about viewing the data. It’s technically completely doable. It's not difficult, it'll just take me a little while to sit down and work out the nicest implementation for that sort of stuff.
I’ve also been collaborating with Flibitijibibo [Ethan Lee] on a few things here and there. Recently I wrote the CMS [ParaCMS] he now uses for his list of third party DRM found on Steam. He's been contacted by a bunch of DRM places such as DRMDatabase.net about whether or not we can come up a way in which other websites can pull data easily from his site. So, if they want to embed his list of DRMed games, then that's easier for them, right? Because they only have to maintain stuff outside of that. So, that's a future thing that's going to come along there.
The worst part is that there are so many people out there who don't know that DRM exists, who don't know what it does and what it means. So, it's really fascinating that people are putting time into highlighting this stuff, and it's really worthwhile that the word is getting out there about what it means. I feel like indie games need to be credited with pushing the anti-DRM stance [in the gaming industry]. The Humble Bundle promotions definitely support it, but I feel like it was already established within Wolfire, you know, that mentality, and it was already established with their partners for the first bundle, so you know, it's not something that the Humble Bundle started. I think it was already well in place there, but the Humble Bundles have done a lot to popularise and broaden the number of people who are exposed to this idea of DRM free, so that's pretty worthwhile.
I have some game development projects that I'm working on, which, not including FLAT and Neverball, are still in very early states and I can't really talk about them, and there's always Twolofbees stuff going on.
And, of course I've got more articles and interviews planned or in progress for Cheesetalks, where my Humble Bundle stats and analyses are located.
A couple of weeks ago, I published a short article looking at the Humble Music Bundle, and I'll definitely be writing more about future Humble Bundle promotions.
RYG: Would you like to someday work with them?
Cheese: With the Humble Bundle guys? Yeah, if the opportunity arose, I'd love to.
- Humble Visualisations, by Cheese
- Cheese lengthy analysis of the Humble Bundle
- Humble Bundle
- GNU Public General License
- Humble Bundle GDC Talk
- Wolfire Games
- Humble Brony Bundle
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