How Itch.io became an indie PC game haven—and Steam's antithesis

After making a name for itself among indie developers, Itch.io is still figuring out how to resonate with consumers.

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Steaming ahead

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 Drone 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.”

clonezone Steam

Itch.io’s sales of Clone Drone in the Danger Zone have dropped off now that the game is on Steam.

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.

Growing pains

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.

itchiodeios Itch.io

Deios, a combination art game and music album, could help Itch.io reach new audiences.

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.”

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