Behind the Scenes at itch.io: an Interview with Amos Wenger
“When [Leaf] started the platform he did it for his own games,” Wenger explains. “He just wanted to set up a page quickly that he could accept payments through... He just wanted to make a Bandcamp clone and did it, no big deal.”
Two months later Corcoran released itch.io, a marketplace for independent games that’s since become the go-to destination for the most personal, experimental and just plain bizarre creations coming out of the indie community today. By the end of its first year, itch.io was home to 350 titles. Corcoran was paying the hosting and bandwidth costs out of his own pocket, having decided to forego transaction fees as an “extended promotion” to lure in early supporters, but the potential was undeniable. Using savings accrued from his full-time gig at e-book retailer Scribd, Corcoran took the plunge and hired others to join the project.
Amos Wenger became itch.io’s first full-time employee in early 2015, following a few part-time hires to help out with promotion and curation. Among Wenger’s first assignments was to implement the “cut slider”. If itch.io was to become a financially sustainable business it would have to start actually making some money, though ideally in a more developer-friendly way than existing options like Steam and iTunes, which claim 30 percent commission on every sale. Itch’s gutsy idea was to let developers choose how much of their revenue goes back into the platform - including none.
“If someone's having trouble paying their bills or they don't trust us yet, then they can just set it to zero,” Wenger says. “But nobody that sells sets it to zero, honestly. Every successful seller on itch.io has it at least at 10. Some of them don't see why we should get less than Steam, so they just set it to 30.”
The slider exemplifies both itch.io’s aspirations towards a fairer financial model for indie game distribution - one in which both creators and vendors make enough to get by - and its philosophy of putting developers first. The latter is also reflected in their approach to game pages. Wenger is adamant that creators should have total control over how games are presented, free from ads and nagging recommendations populated by algorithms ala Steam or Amazon.
That’s not to say such features will never appear on itch.io. One of Wenger’s priorities is to improve discoverability, but only if it can be achieved in an appropriately “itchy” way.
“If we do that, it's gonna be something creators can opt into. So if they want to showcase either their other games or those of some other creator they like, or if they just trust the algorithm to find some games that are relevant, in the end it's gonna be opt in.”
For Wenger, such flexibility is integral to being a truly open platform, a resolve that’s gradually starting to pay off. Itch.io is now home to some 33,000 games, has generated half a million dollars for developers and last month landed its first exclusive distribution deal with Overland, the moody, gorgeous upcoming strategy game from Canabalt creator Adam Saltsman.
“We've done one-off favors for developers that say ‘hey, we want to do something special’ but working four or five months with a single publisher/developer is something we hadn't done before,” Wenger explains.
In addition to a commercial home, itch provided Saltsman’s company Finji the technical support personnel needed to devise their own take on the early access model, including purpose-built tools and infrastructures which have recently been made available all itch.io users under the name of “ These include changes to the way itch.io pushes updates, allowing for the quicker and more reactive iteration of in-progress builds, alongside developer forums where players can provide feedback. They’re calling the initiative “First Access” in an effort to distance it from the “negative connotations” frequently associated with early access.
“[Finji] don't want to do the thing where you haggle people a lot, sell lots of early access copies and then give up because the scope is way too big for you to actually achieve. What they did instead was sell a limited amount of copies so they can deal with the feedback and then slowly work on having a game with more content, more depth.”
“It's nice to see that we're trying to shift things from being the last platform big games come on to being the first one with these "First Access" type of things,” Wenger adds.
It’s a gesture long overdue, as maintaining such a stringently open enterprise is no simple task. First, there’s the extra labor involved in making your work open-source, as with the recently revised desktop app. “It probably would have taken a lot less time and toll on my health if I'd just done something dirty and said, ‘it works, don't touch it!’” Wenger admits.
There’s also the daunting task of reviewing every game posted to the site, which - when you don’t charge a $100 submission fee like Steam Greenlight - is a monstrous amount of stuff. Quality is not the issue here, but content. “We only reject things that would be illegal or intentionally misleading. We don't reject things that are low quality because historically there's been notable indie stuff that been released where the creator just gets better, and their stuff gets better and better.”
“There’s also the matter of accepting money for things of a sexual nature... We'd love to do that but PayPal and Stripe are not really keen on that idea. But there is free content on the site that is borderline distasteful to some people. If it incites hate we're going to reject it; if it's clearly toxic. If it's something that would just bother your mom, that's okay.”
The team try to shore up the best work they encounter by tweaking its ranking in storefront or shouting it out directly on Twitter, but Wenger is wary of inadvertently showing preference toward a particular style or aesthetic through the titles they choose to highlight. Many of the itch.io games to have garnered press attention, for instance, (think Orchids to Dusk, Hot Date, Oases or Joy Exhibiton) could be said to share a certain look or feel in their predilection for pastel colors and dreamy landscapes, but Wenger insists this is far from representative of the service as a whole. “It's maybe something we kind of want to move away from. The problem with having an aesthetic is that everything that doesn't fit with that is excluded. ...If we exclude stuff that's not artsy, that's too long, that's too expensive, that doesn't look like a Danish collective made it, you know, then we're excluding people that might be doing interesting stuff and we don't want to do that. We want the platform to be useful to everyone.”
As if to prove his point, Wenger reveals that the best-selling game on itch.io isn’t a ruminative first person exploration game nor a trendy pixel-art platformer, but is in fact a fairly obscure RC drone simulator. “I guess the big commercial success on itch.io was FPV Freerider. It's a pretty niche game about drones, RC copters. The game wasn't even really that polished but it's pretty much the best RC copter flying simulation that there is... It has probably paid about a third of my salary!”
Wenger’s favorite itch game is Royals, the quiet latest release from the mind behind Threes. For him, it epitomizes the kind of esoteric, understated title than can thrive in the platform’s low stakes environment where it’s common for games to be made available for free, fostering an audience that’s more receptive to new ideas. “It didn't sell a lot, but probably more than [developer Asher Vollmer] expected because it was pay what you want. People are always surprised to see pay what you want work! They think, if people can download it for free are the really going to pay any money? But the way itch works is that it asks you for an amount first and then you can say no, so maybe the guilt factor plays a bit into it. But I really like that he could just take a break and release something different and make beer money for a few months on it.”
Between Overland, launching the desktop app and rolling out the refinery tools , it’s been a banner year at itch.io. Naturally, Wenger’s ecstatic about the service’s snowballing popularity, but he’s also conscious that their handling of that success will be critical. For a service born in grassroots development and aligned with a leftfield, indie sensibility, the possibility of growing ‘too big’ is a legitimate concern.
“The hard question is where to stop. I think in my head I'd be comfortable with a company of 40 or 50 employees, around the world. Where we can afford to have healthy work practices, travel a bit, attend events.”
Most of all, Wenger hopes that expanding the company can help achieve their vision of a sustainable, truly alternative commerce solution for the digital era, one which confronts destructive industry practices like crunch and customer exploitation head-on.
“If internally we work like 80 hour weeks it sends a message, because some people look up to us as a company that has values, that has something different, that takes a stand against some of the abusive practices in the industry... And if we started treating our employees - and that includes me - treating ourselves badly because we work too much and we don't take any time off, then that's a bad thing and it kind of defeats the rest. So I think that with all we've improved so far with improving the tools, we have a way for us to be sustainable and healthy and keep our values where they are. So when you ask what's next, it's slowing down.”