Steam, Desura, Humble DRM-Free, GMG Capsule; there are so many different digital platforms for games at this point that anytime I hear of the creation of yet another, I shake my head and wonder “what is the point?”
itch.io is the latest of these, or at least the one I’ve been hearing about the most. It’s a site dedicated to independent games with a focus on developers and flexible monetization. It doesn’t sound too radical when you put it that way, but as I dug deeper into the site, I began to see how itch.io drastically differs from other distribution platforms; in ways that significantly alter the message the site seems to driven by, and the impression I got of how it chose to present it. Though in some ways the site still feels as if it’s in its infancy, these differences are exciting and noteworthy enough to warrant discussing.
itch.io puts developers first
Though I love Steam, one thing I’ve noticed is an increasing feeling (especially from small developers) that they are working to help Steam, whether to build up its library or provide the meat for its eternal sale grinder. While I have no doubt Steam values the developers whose games they host, browsing and purchasing games on Steam never gave me the impression I was supporting something. I was just making a transaction, after which I may never hear of the developer again or have any idea if they were still around. It’s finite and seems first and foremost to instill the idea of Steam in me so I come back to buy more later.
itch.io in contrasts caters its entire site design to promoting and individualizing every game and creator on it. Game pages on itch.io can be completely personalized to developers and their games, like separate web pages all held together by a unified host but not required to adopt its styling. It creates a sense of distinction and importance for every game, clearly displaying the developer’s passion for their game and creating an environment where it feels like I’m supporting people whose art I love, instead of just making a one time anonymous transaction.
And this is reflected in itch.io’s payment model, on both the front and back-end. Though there are standard prices affixed to most games, itch.io offers the ability to pay above the minimum price, to help support developers further if you especially like their games and want to see them make more. Interestingly, this model of payment has led to many games being extremely cheap, or absolutely free. Developer’s take it on good faith that people who like their games will pay to support them, and this trust in consumers wasn’t lost on me. Browsing through games on itch.io, I never felt like I had to spend money, but I often wanted to because the things coming out of the site are so cool.
This pay-what-you-want model extends to how much the site itself makes off developers, allowing them to decide what percentage of sales goes to itch.io all the way down to zero. Prior to this itch.io had a zero royalties policy, and this change only continues the feeling that the site is working to help promote developers and the games they make, and isn’t too concerned if it doesn’t make a killing off of that. It’s refreshingly developer friendly, and helps make the site seem inviting to indie developers in ways Steam, Desura, and other platforms don’t.
itch.io is forward focused
One of the things I like most about itch.io, is how it allows you to follow developers so as to be alerted when they publish a new game or update. This plays into the fact that a lot of games coming out on itch.io are unfinished or game jam prototypes. While these games might be unpolished or still in development, if something sticks out to you as interesting, it’s easy to keep tabs on the person or persons who created it and see what they put out in the future. itch.io doesn’t want your relationship with a creator to end when you purchase your game, but to create connections between people to continue supporting both the games they love, and the people who make them.
It creates a community of support for even the smallest and most inexperienced developer. You might only have a rough build of your game right now, but down the line it could turn into something more, and itch.io allows me the ability to easily know when that happens. Easy links to social media also help to extend the connection between players and developers, putting faces to the nameless creators whose only recognition is often a place in a likely skipped credits section.
Having a page dedicated to game jams and making submissions to them easy also helps attract new developers, people who might never have made a game in their life but on itch.io can have a chance to get their game seen and played by other enthusiasts. It feels like an embodiment of indie camaraderie and sense of belonging that I’ve never seen in another distribution platform, but I feel is important for the sort of site itch.io wants to be.
itch.io treats every game equally
This plays into the last point, but it bares repeating that itch.io sees every game on it as equally important and worth supporting. There are no prominent places for games to be advertised, and everything feeds into one large pool of games that continually shuffles and pushes interesting stuff to the top.
itch.io hasn’t entirely fixed issues of discoverability, but it does level the playing field and keeps from creating instances where the same few games are all anyone ever sees upon visiting the site. Browsing over the top-selling games, it doesn’t feel like the fight to be noticed that I see on Steam. Instead it’s a collection of quirky experiments, polished multi-year projects, and one-off prototypes all happily sharing a space together.
Going into the future
itch.io isn’t perfect by any means. It has room to improve its community features, and as the site grows the problem ofdiscoverability is going to have to be addressed more. But as it stands I don’t think I’ve ever found a platform more enthusiastic and devoted to supporting the artists it hosts, or as interested in bridging the gap between player and developer to create an environment of supporting the creators we want to see continue making games. itch.io has gotten off to a brilliant start, and everything I’ve seen of their future plans only seems to strengthen the notion that this is a site that’s going to change the way we discover and view indie games for the better.