If you've played a cool, small game on your computer in the past year, there's a good chance it came from itch.io, an open marketplace where anyone can host and sell their games. There's also a good chance it didn't cost you a dime, as most of the games on the platform use a "pay-what-you-want" model.
It's a game store where almost everything goes, almost everything's free, and it's growing fast.
Itch.io's founder Leaf Corcoran recently revealed that the platform just finished its best month yet, paying out $51,489 to developers, and that since it was founded two years ago, it paid developers $393,000. The amount of games on the platform tripled in the last nine months.
"I'm ecstatic about this," Corcoran said. "Most of these creators are people wouldn't be able to make money had they uploaded their games elsewhere."
Whether you're into speed dating pugs, recreating the operating system from Jurassic Park, or battling a Clippy doppelganger, itch.io's known for hosting games that are unlike anything you'll find on its more established competitors.
Valve's Steam, which serves over 125 million active users, is by far the most popular digital games distribution platform, and while it aspires to be an open platform, developers still have to go through an approval process.
In 2012, Valve introduced Steam Greenlight, a process by which developers could upload information about their game and have users vote to get them into the store. The introduction of the program was followed by an unmanageable flood of game pitches, which prompted Valve to add a $100 submission fee.
"For them it was probably a good move to prevent a massive influx of games," Corcoran told me. "The problem is that it's a closed system and that's not fair to developers."
Valve recently revealed that since it introduced Greenlight, 3,668 games have been greenlit, and out of those only 643 have launched as finished games. Overall, including every type of game on the store, Steam hosts more than 5,000 titles.
Itch.io, by comparison, currently hosts more than 15,000 games and other items, such as comics and assets and tools that other developers can buy to make their games.
Corcoran started building itch.io when Steam Greenlight introduced the submission fee to serve the developers left outside of that system.
"A site I really liked at the time was Bandcamp," Corcoran said. "They're an anti-publisher for music. It's a self-publishing system where you upload your songs and pay what you want. A lot of the music I listen to, music that's not as mainstream, you find a lot of the smaller artists on the site and it was very cool. So I was like alright, let me apply this to indie games, and I started building a website."
Three months later, Corcoran had a prototype where all a developer has to do to make their game available to anyone fill out a simple form describing the game and upload the files.
Most of the time, that's where the story for any particular game ends, but because anything and everything is allowed, sometimes a game will come out of nowhere and catch fire.
Patapong, a mix of Pac-Man and Pong that was born out of a Pong-themed game development marathon, is one of those games that shows up as a tall spike in Corcoran's graphs. Like a lot of game jam projects and other curiosities on itch.io, it's a very cool idea, but it doesn't fit into existing digital game distribution models, where players expect to either pay $60 for blockbuster releases (or less during a hot sale), or free-to-play games with questionable monetization strategies.
"The thing that seems to resonate with most people that use (or know about) Itch.io is that it's a place where you don't have to conform to the 'standard' rules of being a game developer," TJ Thomas, who helps curate itch.io's front page, told me. "You can make whatever you want and sell it however you please, for the most part. We host the types of games that you wouldn't be able to find on other networks, because bigger networks don't particularly care about smaller, more experimental work."
Will Herring, a creative director at Buzzfeed and amateur game maker, saw a similar reaction to his game My Garbage Cat Wakes Me Up at 3AM Every Day.
"I've made a few small, joke-y games in the past, and they usually just collect dust in a Dropbox somewhere after I've sent them around and bugged my friends with them," Herring told me. "I kind of assumed the same thing would happen with Garbage Cat—I'd send the link to a few folks, hopefully make a few of them laugh, and move on to the next dumb joke."
A couple of days after uploading Garbage Cat to itch.io, Herring's game was covered on The Verge, Daily Dot, Kotaku, and others.
"It was kind of nuts—I was in a long meeting at work and my phone started to go bonkers with Twitter and itch.io notifications," Herring said. "I think the game was just short enough and just relatable enough to make folks want to talk about it for a split second."
For all the submissions itch.io gets, the only people curating it are itch.io's team of three: Corcoran, Thomas, who is also helping build the platform's community, and Amos Wenger, who helps with programming as well as the business side of things.
Games are published automatically, but Corcoran, Wenger, and Thomas try to go over every single submission, removing blatantly offensive content, malware, and highlighting the good stuff.
"It kind of feels like a mess to me already," Corcoran said. "We're getting so many games per day, it's hard to do it. The review queue is for us to try and look at as much context as possible to make sure we don't miss anything. Right now our main method for promoting stuff is putting it on the homepage, seeding it into the recommendation engine, tweeting it, stuff like that, but I think there's room to improve on that."
"We want developers of all types and skill levels to be able to sell and promote their work, but there's also a small degree of quality control necessary in order to make sure people can actually have their work found," Thomas said. "I don't have to spend that much time de-indexing low quality uploads, but it does happen enough for me to have work to do."
Itch.io's flexible monetization funds the platform as well. When developers publish a game, itch.io suggests that they donate 10 percent of all sales back to itch.io, but the developer doesn't have too, and a note also makes it clear that developers should only give back what they're comfortable with.
"I kept the percentage that goes to support itch.io at the default 10 percent, and another small chunk goes to PayPal with each transaction," Herring said. "Percentage-wise, roughly .027 percent of the people who played the game donated to it. That number doesn't sound like a lot, but plenty more people let me know that they enjoyed playing the game, which is all I really hoped for from it."
Corcoran said that 89 percent of the games on the platform are free, and that 44 percent of games accept money. The average donation is $3.68, and most people pay between $1 and $5. One generous soul paid $500 for a free game.
Corcoran pays to host the game files and the bandwidth to deliver them to buyers, which is one of the biggest costs of the entire operation. Amazingly, itch.io is still a only a part-time job for him, and he continues to hold on to his full-time job as a software engineer at Scribd in San Francisco.
"It is taking over my life. I literally have zero free time. I'm either at my day job or working on this," he said.
Corcoran didn't share his net profit, but said that it exists.
However, net profit doesn't seem like the primary motivation behind itch.io. It's more like a cool record store where the guy behind the counter can help you discover a new game you'd never find on your own, or as close as one can get to that experience now that the internet killed all the cool record stores.
From Corcoran's free services down to the developers offering free games and the players that tip them, it seems like itch.io is growing because people want to support something new and different in gaming.
"The decisions we make can really affect things for these games, so I want to be fair and give these games eyes, because some of them wouldn't get them otherwise," Corcoran said.