How Itch.io became an indie PC game haven—and Steam's antithesis
- 31 March, 2017 21:30
Every so often, Leaf Corcoran reminds himself that he’s not building another Steam.
As the founder of Itch.io, Corcoran has spent the last four years creating an online PC game hub that’s the polar opposite of Valve’s behemoth. Big-budget publishers are absent, and most of the 58,000 games in Itch.io’s catalog—from roguelike brawlers to raft survival simulators—are free. To further support indie development, shoppers can pay whatever they want above a minimum price set by creators, who decide how much commission—if any—Itch.io should get from each sale.
More importantly, Corcoran and his crew go out of their way satisfy indie developers’ whims, even accommodating one-off requests. (In one example, Corcoran tweaked some back-end settings so that a game could sell a finite number of copies.) The standout quality of Itch.io isn’t so much its open payment structure or its unique catalog, but the sense of weirdness that facilitated those things in the first place.
But as Itch.io tries to grow from a developer darling into something with broad consumer appeal, Corcoran has become aware that preserving those quirks won’t be easy. Hence the periodic reminders not to become the thing he’s pushing back against.
“I don’t want to fall in that trap of just trying to rebuild Steam, and then I lose because I don’t have the engineering resources that they do,” he says.
Corcoran started working on Itch.io in late 2012 as a response to Valve’s Steam Greenlight program, which used a community voting system to let indie games into the store. He wanted to create something more open, inspired by the online music marketplace Bandcamp. Developers would get to list their games for free and customize their game pages. Shoppers would be able to pay any price above a minimum as a show of appreciation, and the whole marketplace would be decentralized, with no way to browse the entire catalog or comment on any of the games.
The first version of Itch.io—the name comes from a cheap domain Corcoran bought years ago—launched in early 2013, to practically no fanfare.
“No one cared,” Corcoran says. “I had a hard time getting people interested. The sentiment from people that did reply, on Twitter and stuff, was like, ‘Oh, another store. Why do we need this? Why do we care?’”
Still, Corcoran took the criticism in stride, and eventually started getting some attention through his association with Ludum Dare, a long-running “Game Jam” series in which developers get a short deadline to build small games around a particular theme. Corcoran had participated in a few of these events, and decided to add competition-hosting tools to Itch.io, including submission forms, deadlines, and voting mechanisms. He also tried to boost his credibility with developers through meticulous documentation, making liberal use of animated GIFs to highlight improvements on Itch.io’s blog and Twitter feed.
A breakthrough came in early 2014, when Itch.io hosted Flappy Jam, which paid tribute to—or gently mocked—Flappy Bird following its disappearance from the iOS App Store. Amid Flappy Bird hysteria, the event gained widespread press coverage, and Itch.io suddenly had hundreds of new submissions.
“I realized I got super lucky, because the act of people just entering this jam introduced them to the platform, and all of a sudden, they were like, ‘Oh, this is kind of cool,’” Corcoran says.
Through his newfound audience, Corcoran’s perspective started to change. He warmed to the idea of a centralized store, and added a way for players to comment on the games they owned.
But he also started fielding requests for unusual features that didn’t exist on other stores like Steam. One developer wanted limited-time pricing that was more expensive than normal. Another wanted a game page that slowly shrank over time. Corcoran also allowed for alternate descriptors on the site’s buy button, confirmation emails, and other site elements, so for instance a shopper might find they’ve purchased a “game art album” or a “psychedelic experience” instead of just a “game.”
“The mentality of the store was, do what the other people aren’t doing,” Corcoran says. “Do things that’ll let developers do weird stuff and interesting stuff.”
The pinnacle of this approach is Itch.io’s early access program for unfinished games, dubbed Refinery. The program lets developers limit their number of sales, use secret URLs or password protection for game pages, and add tiered purchases and rewards. For updates, the patching system lets developers distribute only what’s changed, so players don’t have to repeatedly download full-size install files.
Refinery arose in part from the concerns of one developer, Adam Saltsman, who a couple years ago became frustrated by the early access process on other platforms like Steam. Saltsman spent months researching early access for Overland, the survival-strategy game he’s currently working on, and pitched several gaming platforms on the types of features he wanted to see. They all either ignored him or didn’t understand what he was trying to accomplish.
“I was pretty mad for like three months,” Saltsman said.
Saltsman was still seething in late 2015, when he ran into Corcoran at a developer event and started venting his frustrations. Corcoran offered to build the things Saltsman wanted, and Itch.io launched Refinery about six months later, with Overland among the first titles.
“He said something to the effect of, 'Well, we could just build that stuff for you, and then it’d be fine,’” Saltsman says. “And then they did, and it was fine.”
Corcoran says that more than anything else Itch.io has done, Refinery has helped attract larger independent developers (or what he calls “triple-I’s”).
“It’s not just these small side projects that people are working on,” he says. “Now we’re seeing some bigger games, larger teams working on these things, who are looking to make a serious amount of money with their games ... and it made people compare us more to things like Steam than ever before.”
Next page: The future of Itch.io
The result of all these improvements has been a steady upward trajectory for Itch.io, at least by some metrics. The number of game pages on the site has more than doubled since this time last year, and game downloads have also spiked, from 1 million in early 2016 to 5 million in February 2017.
Yet those successes have not turned Itch.io into a fully sustainable business. Although sales revenue pays for a couple of full-time staffers and four contract workers, Corcoran doesn’t take a salary and still holds a part-time programming job with the digital document company Scribd. He’s conflicted about when—or whether—to make Itch.io his sole focus.
Part of the problem is that many consumers and developers view Itch.io as a stepping-stone to Steam, which recently dismantled its Greenlight program, but still plans to charge an application fee. Corcoran notes that one of Itch.io’s bigger financial successes, a robot battle arena game called Clone Zone in the Danger Zone, recently made the jump to Steam, and sales on Itch.io fell to about 20 percent of pre-Steam levels.
“I can go to the comments of a random game that’s doing pretty well, and I’ll see things like, ‘Oh, when’s the Steam key coming out? Can I get a Steam key?’ Things like that,” Corcoran says. “Those are really discouraging to me, because it just means that although people are aware of the platform, they’re already dismissing it.”
Corcoran does have some ideas on how to expand Itch.io’s consumer appeal. He’s working on a way to record quick video snippets that could easily be shared on social media, and he’s thought about trying to reach audiences beyond core gamers through the site’s more artistic creations.
“A potential future for Itch.io could involve trying to target that audience looking for a way to bring in other creative mediums like music, comics, and writing,” he says.
The site may also try to boost revenues from games that already perform well. On average, Itch.io’s open revenue-share model gives the site about 8 percent of each sale, but Corcoran has thought about taking a larger cut from big sellers, or requiring a larger share in exchange for certain developer tools.
“We’re going to continue to try to grow the company, but if it’s obvious that even at this growth, we cannot cover our costs, we cannot pay proper salaries, then what’s likely is I’ll try to tweak it such that it affects only the larger sellers,” he says.
Itch.io’s growth has created new challenges, too. The staff still manually reviews submissions—both for noteworthy content as well as for malware and objectionable content—but Corcoran acknowledges that the increasing number of games on Itch.io makes this type of screening tougher. In response, the site has been adding other curation strategies—such as sales spikes, Twitter buzz, and developer pedigree—that hew closer to the methods of larger stores. Automated malware screening is also a “high priority,” Corcoran says, though he worries that such tests are expensive and not always accurate.
But as Itch.io tries to mature, other game stores are starting to take notice of its approach. Corcoran claims, for example, that Humble Bundle has started offering customizable game pages, and he’s heard “whisperings” that the site has other Itch.io-like initiatives on the way. He also believes the Flash-driven game site Kongregate is working on ideas that are similar to Itch.io's, and claims that larger game stores—which he won’t name—have been inquiring about how Itch.io gained traction.
“There are a lot of signals I’m seeing that say things are going to get intense,” Corcoran says.
For Corcoran, there’s also the personal toll of managing a business that began as a diversion. Between Itch.io and his paying job, Corcoran works seven days a week and seldom takes vacations. Instead of getting to build interesting side projects in his spare time, he’s managing employees, dealing with mundane legal and tax issues, and generally putting out fires.
“I was a programmer from the beginning, and I was interested in building tools and websites and stuff like that,” he says. “And then I accidentally became the CEO of a company, and that was hard for me.”
Still, Corcoran says he’s avoided offers for outside funding, noting that in his six years of living in Silicon Valley, he’s seen too many companies fall apart when they can’t meet investors’ expectations. He also rejects the idea of selling the whole endeavor. Despite all the headaches and challenges of running Itch.io, he’s enjoying the work.
“I don’t want to just try and get rid of it and move on,” he says. “I’m actually really engaged in what I’m building and the people I get to interact with.”