How Itch.io became an indie PC game haven—and Steam’s antithesis – PCWorld

Every so often, Leaf Corcoran reminds himself that he’s not building another Steam.

As the founder of Itch.io, Corcoran has spent the last four years creating an online PC game hub that’s the polar opposite of Valve’s behemoth. Big-budget publishers are absent, and most of the 58,000 games in Itch.io’s catalog—from roguelike brawlers to raft survival simulators—are free. To further support indie development, shoppers can pay whatever they want above a minimum price set by creators, who decide how much commission—if any—Itch.io should get from each sale.

More importantly, Corcoran and his crew go out of their way satisfy indie developers’ whims, even accommodating one-off requests. (In one example, Corcoran tweaked some back-end settings so that a game could sell a finite number of copies.) The standout quality of Itch.io isn’t so much its open payment structure or its unique catalog, but the sense of weirdness that facilitated those things in the first place.

But as Itch.io tries to grow from a developer darling into something with broad consumer appeal, Corcoran has become aware that preserving those quirks won’t be easy. Hence the periodic reminders not to become the thing he’s pushing back against.

“I don’t want to fall in that trap of just trying to rebuild Steam, and then I lose because I don’t have the engineering resources that they do,” he says.

Taking flight

Corcoran started working on Itch.io in late 2012 as a response to Valve’s Steam Greenlight program, which used a community voting system to let indie games into the store. He wanted to create something more open, inspired by the online music marketplace Bandcamp. Developers would get to list their games for free and customize their game pages. Shoppers would be able to pay any price above a minimum as a show of appreciation, and the whole marketplace would be decentralized, with no way to browse the entire catalog or comment on any of the games.

The first version of Itch.io—the name comes from a cheap domain Corcoran bought years ago—launched in early 2013, to practically no fanfare.

“No one cared,” Corcoran says. “I had a hard time getting people interested. The sentiment from people that did reply, on Twitter and stuff, was like, ‘Oh, another store. Why do we need this? Why do we care?’”

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