The game store that outshines Steam by staying small and weird

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Leaf Corcoran would rather you didn’t compare Itch.io, his digital marketplace that currently houses around 120,000 games, to Steam, the leading video games distribution platform on PC. “We’re a tiny company, the kinds of games and service are definitely different,” Corcoran tells The Verge. “I like the idea of us providing an alternative thing.”

It’s true: you won’t find the latest triple-A release on Itchio. Best compared to the zine section of a comic book shop, Itchio has nonetheless become the go-to platform for up-and-coming game developers to share their games with the world — and for more established developers to release games that take risks. As of this writing, the Itchio front page features eclectic games such as one where you can go on a beach date, one that generates random homes for you to enjoy, and one where you can play as a frog detective. Dive deeper and you’re sure to find something even more offbeat and unexpected.

Leaf Corcoran at XOXO

“Putting your game on Steam is a gamble,” says an established developer who spoke with The Verge on the condition of anonymity. “It costs money to upload your game and if it doesn’t reach a certain threshold of sales, you don’t get any money at all. Yes, you get exposed to a lot more eyeballs, but the people there are also much more likely to be looking for ‘real games.’ So if your game is weird or simply just not polished to a mirror-shine, then Itch is a much more fitting place for it.”

This willingness to experiment without feeling beholden to fan expectations about what games should be sold or shared makes Itchio feel like a garden of digital possibility, one unburdened by corporate overlords or the growing malaise of loot boxes. Here, you might find some junk that someone made in a few hours, barely playable or legible — or you might find a raw yet heartfelt game that does something you’ve never seen before. Given how often PC gamers bemoan that nothing in a Steam sale feels exciting or new anymore, a digital ecosystem that still inspires wonder in the face of algorithm-driven consumption is refreshing.

Corcoran built Itchio haphazardly and by happenstance, starting in 2013. His initial aim was to make his own programming language, and while he was successful, Corcoran wanted to do something with his project, which he named “Moonscript.” So, he started making games — but he had nowhere to put them. Around this time, Steam was debuting a new program called Greenlight, where people could vote for what games would make it onto the platform. That’s when Corcoran got the idea of building a distribution platform without any sort of gatekeeping, like Bandcamp, but for games instead of music. He happened to have the domain name Itch.io, so he used it.

At first, the platform was mostly Corcoran’s personal repository, but when the notoriously impossible mobile game Flappy Bird came out on Itchio, the site exploded. Someone threw a game jam that invited people to make other fiendishly difficult games, which were naturally shared on Itchio as well. Hundreds of Flappy Bird-inspired games followed. Corcoran wasn’t prepared for the sudden influx at first, and Itch buckled under the pressure. The site would sometimes randomly go down, prompting Corcoran to spiff up his otherwise makeshift code. Since then, Itchio has continued to grow, with Corcoran employing a few full-time employees and contractors to handle the influx — but he notes that from time to time, something unexpected will still go wrong.

“I haven’t really taken a proper vacation in a long time,” Corcoran says after evading a question about how many hours a week he works. “I don’t know if I would admit that.”

Itchio’s online storefront

Beyond the fact that Itch has a tiny outfit compared to the number of people using the platform, part of the reason that Corcoran is always busy is because he actually gives a shit, and giving a shit is time-consuming. Steam, meanwhile, has become notorious for being so big that it does not have to care. Baffling platform-wide changes will happen on a moment’s notice, seemingly without any input from the people whose livelihoods rely on Steam, or Valve will decide to change its policies without actually telling anyone what they are. To use Steam, both as a developer and video game fan, is often an exercise in frustration. Until very recently, the platform — which is the biggest on the market — did not hire any moderators to keep Steam’s forums clean. Before 2018, you didn’t have to go far into the Steam forums to find something nasty, both toward developers and between players themselves.

“This approach has led to numerous other issues over the years: a flood of ‘fake games,’ a multi-billion-dollar under-age Counter-Strike gambling ring, an unhinged developer trying to sue 100 users for $18 million — the list goes on,” says Nathan Grayson, who writes for leading Valve news website Steamed. Valve’s recent decision to start allowing everything on Steam, coupled with their generally hands-off approach, makes critics wary.

“Now Valve is doubling down with an ‘anything goes’ policy for games that shirks responsibility and shows that the company has learned basically nothing from a series of highly publicized fiascos it did nothing to safeguard against,” Grayson says.

Valve’s mercurial and opaque nature is a large part of why, despite Corcoran’s protests, Itchio is so often mentioned in the same breath as Steam. People can’t help but compare Itchio, a platform defined by its compassion to users and developers, to Steam’s seemingly uncaring nature. In an age of platforms that are too enormous to be controlled, supervised, or to extend empathy to all users, Itchio is the rare tech creation that puts humans, rather than products, at its forefront. The mandate isn’t to become as huge or as profitable as possible, but to genuinely provide something different.

While games make up the bulk of Itchio’s content, creators can also upload things like books, music, and comics. It’s also where people go to raise money for causes like Ferguson, or for life-saving surgeries. It is where people upload intimate games they’re scared to show to the world, or to feel heard. Developers speak of Itch with reverence and delight, and almost everyone has a story about how Corcoran personally went above and beyond to help them achieve their vision for release.

Alan Hazelden for example, creator of A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build, had the idea of having a launch period where the price of the game would be determined by the real-world temperature. On most marketplaces, this would be impossible. On Itch, something this specific and absurd is a tantalizing challenge for Corcoran.

“I emailed to ask if there was a price-changing API that I could use, and a day later Leaf replied saying that he’d implemented one,” Hazelden says. “That kind of response time and implementing features on a whim is unprecedented, and not something I’ve seen at any other store or would expect to see. They’re incredibly responsive and considerate of developer needs.”

There are many stories like these, where Corcoran personally builds something for a game just because, as well as stories about how the platform treated its users with kindness. One developer, Kevin Cole, describes a tight situation where he once forgot to ask for a payout from Itch after the release of his game. On most marketplaces, missing your window means you don’t get a paycheck.

“I forgot and [thought] I was basically going to be out of luck, so I sent a polite and apologetic email to Itch, explained my situation and asked if I could cut in line, thinking that probably wouldn’t happen,” Cole says. “It did happen! That real human person got back to me super fast and I was paid out the next day and my financial life dodged complete destruction once more. This may seem like a really minor thing but $80 when you super need it can change a person’s life.”

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Corcoran knows that doing things like this “means a lot” to people, and he largely does it because he feels invested in the games that get released on the platform. In a presentation at the 2016 XOXO festival, Corcoran said that he wants games on the platform to succeed to the degree that he gets “emotionally attached” to them.

“I had anxiety for them, I felt terrible if they didn’t sell well,” Corcoran said. “I felt ecstatic when they succeeded.” No surprise, then, that Corcoran says he likes to look for more opportunities to give creative work released on Itch a personal touch.

Unlike other storefronts, Itchio allows creators to set the price of the game, including “pay what you want.” More importantly, Itchio also lets developers decide how that money gets divided between the platform and content creator. If a developer doesn’t want to give money back to Itch, they don’t have to. In the XOXO presentation, Corcoran said that he didn’t want to take a cut of money that someone might need for rent or food.

“I want them to feel okay to put [the percentage] at zero,” he said, noting that most developers end up setting the split at 8 percent. Steam, like other digital marketplaces, reportedly takes around 30 percent of a sale made on its platform. Some games, like Paratropic, end up profiting more per unit sold on Itch than they do on Steam. Itchio’s own profit varies from month to month, Corcoran said, but it usually breaks even.

A game’s unique store page on Itchio

Itch also allows creators to customize their store pages, rather than demanding that they all adhere to unified branding. Scrolling through different landing pages, Itchio is reminiscent of the early days of the internet, when web pages felt more personal because they could look like anything, even if it meant being messy and overwhelming. While many pages opt to keep standard layouts, others experiment with color schemes, fonts, specialized backgrounds, and themes. One moment you might be looking at a store surrounded by moving waves, and the next you might find yourself descending down digital pipes. You never know what to expect on Itchio, which is part of the appeal. Venturing into its marketplace feels like setting out into the wilderness: you’ll probably need a machete to cut your way through, but that’s what makes Itchio an adventure.

The platform also allows developers to upload unfinished games that can only be played by audiences specified by the creator, rather than allowing early access to anyone who pays or opts into it. Itch has become a hub for game jams where people challenge each other to make themed digital experiences within a set time frame — right now, for example, there’s a challenge to make a game about friendship. Most of Itch’s features and prioritizations are aimed at creators, which may be part of why the platform is kind of niche. Even as many game developers know of or use the platform, mainstream gamers don’t always know what Itchio is.

“There’s this weird cultural thing, where it’s kinda difficult for us to gain traction among gamers because Steam is such a massive source,” Corcoran says. And when someone does find a game on Itch, it’s not uncommon for them to say they’ll wait for the eventual Steam release. For Corcoran, that’s painful — he hates the idea that someone might upload a game to Itch only to have nobody play it.

“It’s gonna take time, a cultural shift,” Corcoran says, for people to stop considering Steam the end-all-be-all distribution platform. But the shift may already be underway: publishers like EA, Ubisoft, and Blizzard have their own game launchers and storefronts that exist independently on Steam, and extremely popular games like Fortnite and Minecraft don’t exist on platforms like Steam at all. In the meantime, Corcoran is left wondering about better ways he could engage with consumers, whether that’s better marketing or new features.

But the prospect of Itch becoming more popular is a double-edged sword; a large part of what makes it so good is precisely that it is small and personal. Corcoran couldn’t possibly find the time to make game-specific custom features in a marketplace as big as Steam, nor could Itchio bend its own rules for every single person in need. As platforms like Facebook and YouTube have shown us time and again, decency does not scale. The only way to keep up with unencumbered growth is to rely on algorithmic black boxes that make decisions for us, ultimately stripping the humanity out of platforms that are meant to serve us.

“I think there’s a good chance that when any platform becomes very large, maybe [decency] becomes impossible to enforce,” Corcoran says. “That’s probably what happened to Steam, Twitter, Facebook, et cetera … now we’re small so it’s easy to enforce.”

The hope, Corcoran says, is that perhaps maintaining “caring” as a value will allow the platform to avoid some of the pitfalls that come with growing big.

“I do care about trying to scale our culture, I do think it’s going to be challenging,” he says. “Maybe there’s a chance that having good intentions from the beginning can kind of offset. Kind of what I’m hoping for.”

Until then, Itchio will continue blazing forward the only way it knows how.

“We’re always going to host weirder, smaller things that probably will never feel appropriate on Steam,” Corcoran says. “Getting bought, creating money, changing our focus — I don’t really want to do that. I really enjoy building the site and talking to people.”