For years now, it seems like any discussion of online gaming storefronts eventually comes back to Steam and Valve's incredible market share in the PC space. Though it was not the first thing GamesIndustry.biz discussed in a recent interview with itch.io founder Leaf Corcoran, the conversation was inevitably headed toward Steam and its ability to remain the de facto PC online game store despite well-funded competitors from the likes of Microsoft, Electronic Arts, and others.
"I think a lot of these stores have tried to do exactly what Steam is doing, trying to build a very similar product," Corcoran said. "And because of that, the only reason their content might be compelling is because of the content they have. But at the end of the day, pretty much all games end up on Steam, so that's not a good enough differentiator... If someone wants to crack Steam's dominance, they've got to get traction another way. It can't just be based on content. It has to work fundamentally different, support a different kind of developer, bring in a different audience or something like that."
While itch.io isn't threatening Steam's position in the market, the indie-friendly storefront is indeed getting traction by working in a fundamentally different way. Corcoran launched itch.io in 2013 as a way to give developers an easy way to distribute and/or monetize game jam creations and other small projects. From the start, the site gave developers the option of pay-what-you-want pricing on games, so customers could download titles for free or kick in a few bucks as they saw appropriate.
"The guiding vision was, 'There's no crap on the pages.' It doesn't force you to stuff other people's reviews, related games, logos and banners for the marketplace itself."
Beginning in 2015, itch.io applied the pay-what-you-want model to its own commissions, letting developers adjust how much of their revenue would be kicked back to the storefront. (The site originally claimed a 10% revenue share and still defaults to that, but Corcoran said the average share comes in around 8% these days.) Along the way, the site has also grown well beyond the realm of games. About 1-in-6 projects are from non-game categories, whether they be digital books, comics, soundtracks, general apps, or anything else.
"I didn't want it to look like a storefront," Corcoran said of his initial plan for itch.io. "I didn't want the project pages to look like Steam store pages or stuff like that. The guiding vision was, 'There's no crap on the pages.' It doesn't force you to stuff other people's reviews, related games, logos and banners for the marketplace itself. It was just a way for people to make a page for its game... When I started, I was really opinionated. I definitely wanted to be really different from other stores. There will be no way to browse games on the site. There will be no ratings, no comments. I wanted it to be a way for the creator of a game to present their game in a way that made sense to them. I didn't want to have any community stuff forced on them that would let other people take away from their projects."
As time went on, Corcoran found his dogmatic approach to that vision softening. Giving developers a place to sell their games was helpful, but they increasingly needed other types of assistance as well, particularly in the area of exposure and attention. As itch.io traffic grew, Corcoran began thinking about how many of those visitors could be pointed to other games on the service they might like, and many of the features he originally shunned were finally implemented, from browsing functions to user ratings, store recommendations, and game-specific message boards.
Even with those features, itch.io won't be confused for Steam anytime soon. But it's clear Corcoran has kept an eye on Valve's storefront and is taking notes.
"I have a strong feeling that Steam will probably be completely open sometime in the future, but they're just trying to work up to that."
"Despite what a lot of indies might say, there are also a lot of happy people using it, so there are a lot of things to learn there," Corcoran said of Steam. "A lot of the games have really strong communities, and there's a lot of integration and people playing and talking together. They've done a lot of good things and there's a lot we can learn from that."
At the same time, Valve could take a few lessons from the things itch.io does well.
"That's what a lot of the complaints I hear from indies about Steam are, that they just can't focus on smaller creators because they're focused on some of their bigger sellers," Corcoran said. "But I think that's going to change because the indie game industry is only growing and is only going to continue to grow. I have a strong feeling that Steam will probably be completely open sometime in the future, but they're just trying to work up to that."
And then there are things that both sites need to work on. One of the most obvious shortcomings they share with essentially every digital games storefront comes in the way they connect users with the games they'd be most interested in playing.
"Discoverability is something I think about a lot," Corcoran said. "I think there's a lot of potential for us to help a lot of people out, but I know it's something we aren't doing well enough right now. There are a lot of improvements we can make."
In some ways, itch.io's discoverability problem is even bigger than Steam's. The site has a front page full of featured titles, but it's not a destination for customers in the same way Steam's is. Corcoran explained that about 80% of purchases on itch.io come from people who arrived directly on the product page after following a link from Twitter or the like. Only 20% of purchases come from people arriving at the product page from other itch.io pages through the site's browsing feature and other discoverability mechanisms.
"It's our duty to make sure the things that are interesting are easy to find, and the things that aren't interesting--tech demos or something--don't flood the page, like, there's not a billion Flappy Bird clones all over the page," Corcoran said. "I think that can be found with a combination of technology and human input. I definitely don't think what we have now is close to being perfect, but I think there's a lot we can do there to make it work. I do think open marketplaces can work."
"I realized there were some people saying some hateful things, and I put a lot of effort into building this platform so I don't want it turned into something used to distribute hate speech."
That said, itch.io isn't completely open. That's another stance of Corcoran's that has changed since the site's founding, although the pendulum swing hasn't been quite as pronounced as it was on the issue of discoverability tools.
"In the very beginning, I was just like, 'Do whatever.' I wanted just to see what would happen, if people would try to abuse things," Corcoran said. "I realized there were some people saying some hateful things, and I put a lot of effort into building this platform so I don't want it turned into something used to distribute hate speech."
Corcoran said taking people's content down is still an uncommon occurrence that's dealt with on a case-by-case. However, it's an issue he acknowledges is likely to become more significant as the site grows.
"I think we've been really lucky because our initial set of users were indie game developers, and a lot of them are some of the kindest people in the world," Corcoran said. "They're incredibly supportive and incredibly helpful. But as the site moves more and more mainstream, you start to get random people who just want to say or do mean things, or create things that are offensive, disgusting, or something like that. So I can imagine it's only going to get worse, but we have to have a system in place to just handle it."
Odd as it might sound, itch.io is a storefront with its own user culture. That's another thing that might change in the future, albeit more due to the side effects of growth than by any kind of intentional design.
"For us, it's almost a differentiator that people enjoy, that they can stand behind," Corcoran said of the culture surrounding the site. "Developers may see we may push a certain vision forward and they can get behind it. They can feel good about it. So now, I think it's a good thing. In the future, it may become tricky. People may just think we're too opinionated, or we're taking a side they think is wrong, and that could backfire or something like that. So it's definitely a fine line to balance."
"I'm not trying to make a big exit or get rich or anything like that. I think there's just an opportunity to change how game development works for the better."
For all itch.io's changes, the site is still far from complete in Corcoran's view. To this point, many of the changes to the site--the recommendation functions, the introduction of the Early Access-like Refinery program--have been playing a bit of catch-up with other storefronts. But when asked about upcoming improvements, Corcoran focuses on areas that other marketplaces haven't yet touched. Taking the Refinery idea to the next logical step, Corcoran wants to build tools to help developers market their games before launch, like a diary to help them build their audience, a "Vine for video games" video capture tool to create short clips for social media sharing, and new ways to help developers decide if they're sharing the right kinds of content to promote their games.
"I started as a side project because I was trying to be a creator," Corcoran said. "The motivation there was that I saw these other people I could help. And that's still my motivation to this day. I'm not trying to make a big exit or get rich or anything like that. I think there's just an opportunity to change how game development works for the better. So my aspirations are pretty much exactly that. I'm not just trying to get a chunk of Steam's revenue doing what they're doing; I want to build something truly interesting and unique that might change the process around how people make games."