Worried about Steam Direct? Try Itch.io!

  |   John Kemp   |    Opinion
Disclosure: I have no affiliation with Itch.io and they had no influence in the creation of this article. I just use their service to buy games sometimes.

Valve recently announced that they will be retiring Steam’s Greenlight program in favour of a new scheme where developers will pay a fee per-game to have them listed on the Steam store. There are already plenty of opinion pieces floating around regarding hypothetical pros and cons of this, so I’m not intending to add to the noise. A good starting place would be Rob Fearon’s piece on Eurogamer if you haven’t read that already. I have, however, noticed that a lot of comments are made from the perspective of Steam being the only available storefront for games. While this may be true to an extent for big AAA games, there are certainly more options out there for indie games. So… let me tell you about Itch.io.

Itch.io is a very indie-focused platform that is, in some respects, very similar to Steam. However, by not focusing on AAA titles and massive profits they are able to offer features that you can be sure will never reach Steam. For example:

  • The page for your game is completely customisable, down to the HTML and CSS.
  • You can set any price and change it at any time, including offering the game for free or having a “minimum price”.
  • You have control over discounts, allowing you to temporarily decrease or even increase the price of your game at any time.
  • Any sales you set up can also have “goals” which show a banner on the game page with how much has been collected and the progress towards the goal.
  • You can create bundles, of your own games or with other developers, whenever you want.
  • They won’t place advertisements on your game pages.
  • They let you choose what percentage of your sales (anywhere from 0% to 100%) go to Itch.io.

There are many more features than I can exhaustively list here, such as Kickstarter-style rewards with limited quantities, so it’s worth exploring Itch.io’s site. All of these features are available without needing to ever talk to someone at Itch.io or get authorisation. The goal of Itch.io is essentially for the developer to have complete control over how their game is sold. You can find more details on the Creator FAQ page, but I hope you can already see the potential for Itch.io to step up for indie developers if Steam’s changes have the effect of shutting them out. As a bonus, you are also more likely to feature on the front page of Itch.io’s site and are more likely to have your game tweeted about by them compared to Steam.

So that’s the storefront, but what about distribution?

Itch.io have a desktop application similar in concept to Steam’s one and it is gaining new features all the time. It used to get a little unwieldy once your game collection expanded beyond a certain point, which was unfortunate if you took advantage of a certain huge charity bundle recently, but this was fixed just over a week ago with a new table view rather than the existing grid view. All I need now is a nice game tagging system and all my library organisation needs will be met… I will admit that I tended not to use Itch.io prior to the app being available, but now it’s much easier to quickly download and play games from my library.

Now, obviously Steam does have some advantages compared to Itch. The primary ones I see mentioned are the larger userbase and the built-in lobbies/matchmaking for multiplayer games. I’m sure the unified achievements system, workshop, leaderboards, and so on are also interesting features, but I don’t see them mentioned nearly as often when discussing moving away from Steam.

So let’s talk about the larger userbase. This is true, Steam has more users than Itch.io. However, what does that really mean for a small indie game? Let’s be honest, Steam is not going to be actively promoting your game. If they’re expecting the sort of sales that would make it worth their time then you’re not someone that is worried about paying to be on Steam. For the first 8 months of 2016 around 12 new games were released on Steam per day and that number is only increasing (source). The visibility for your game without active promotion is therefore approximately zero. Unfortunately, a storefront’s userbase only matters for organic discovery. What this means is, their large userbase is essentially meaningless for smaller games. I find out about almost every game I play via word of mouth or direct advertising from the developer. If it’s on Steam I buy it there. If it’s on Itch.io I buy it there. Simple.

How about the integrated multiplayer lobbies/matchmaking and other such features of Steamworks? This is a more difficult one. Itch.io simply doesn’t have these features (yet?) and if they’re something you’re banking on for your game then Steam will definitely be the more attractive option. There is certainly something to be said for avoiding the need to code these systems yourself, maintain servers, and so on. Does this just mean there’s a gap in the market for someone to step up and create a nice set of libraries that can replace Steamworks without locking you in to a particular platform? Quite possibly, but right now Steam is likely to be the easiest option. On the other hand, you may soon be paying up to $5000 per game for access to those features, so that has to factor into the choice.

So what is the conclusion here? If you don’t need the features offered by Steamworks then it’s worth looking at Itch.io as an alternative to Steam. Even if you’re already on Steam or are planning to release on Steam in the near future then it might be worth giving Itch.io a try. You never know, it might just work out for you and if not then you haven’t paid a cent other than a little time to create a page for your game.

John Kemp
I am a software developer by day and dip into a range of related activities in my spare time, including working on my own software projects, writing, proof-reading, and, of course, gaming of both the digital and boardgame varieties. I am slowly starting to sink my teeth into game development.