In September of this year, after much hemming and hawing about where (or even whether) to share my games, I started publishing games on Itch.io. For the benefit of anybody out there wondering what taking that plunge looks like, I thought I’d share a little bit about what the first few months of hobbyist self-publishing looks.
If you just want the “executive summary” rather than reading the whole post, here are the things I think you’ll find most interesting. With 1 game priced at $5, and 10 games offered as pay-what-you want (PWYW), I saw….
- $303.50 gross revenue in 4 months, of which $141.50 was tips
- 319+ downloads of my most popular game, for $43.50 in revenue
- The $5 game earned more than the other 10 PWYW games combined
- About 5% of PWYW downloaders paid something
How I got started
I specify that this is “hobbyist” publishing because I have a day job, and I never expected any of my self-publishing efforts to be a significant source of income. At best, the only effect on my lifestyle would be that I might spend more money on other people’s games (or feel less guilty about how much I already spend). To put the figures here in perspective, my costs (not counting time spent) included about $100 on design and publishing software, about $100 to register for playtesting at Metatopia, $30 on a font I probably shouldn’t have bought, and more money than I’m willing to count on RPGs I bought for inspiration and reference.
And so, being more focused on maximizing fun and minimizing stress, I got involved with game jams on Itch.io: The games are often unabashedly lo-fi, and getting set up on Itch.io feels more like registering for a game-design-focused social networking site than for a storefront. Itch.io certainly feels “friendlier” than the biggest online games storefront, DriveThruRPG, as it lets you set how much of a cut they get, defaulting at a third of DriveThru’s cut, and adjustable to be as low as 0%. I expect to set up a DriveThru seller account at some point too, but not before I have a game ready for print-on-demand; maintaining games in 2 locations will definitely increase busywork on my end without much increasing revenue, so I’m not really in a hurry.
My first game went live just at the beginning of September. (I had tried to submit another one months earlier, but a glitch—or confusing user experience related to posting—erroneously led me to think that I missed the deadline to submit to a game jam.) In total, I’ve posted a total of 11 games—a mix of game jam submissions and rough games created over the last few years, with a few explicitly designated as “in progress.” I first titled the site pretendogames.itch.io, but Itch.io offers free forwarding if you change your subdomain, and I found it was easier for me personally to remember individual creators’ names than their publisher names, so I changed it.
Downloads & revenue
|Agents of the O.D.D.||137||$171||36|
|Advanced Let’s Play Pretend 2nd Edition||260||$12||5|
|Halos & Hellfire||14||$5||2|
|Hit + Die||141||$5||4|
|Searchers of Lost Souls||68||$2||1|
|Odd Luck Charms||41||$0||0|
As I said, I’m not really in this for the money, so I haven’t been going out of my way to hype my games online, go on podcasts, or even set prices. Of the 11 games I have up, 9 are pay-what-you-want (with a recommended price of $1-2), 1 used to be PWYW but was set to free once I realized you could do that (Advanced Let’s Play Pretend 2nd Edition), and only 1 has a price tag (Agents of the O.D.D., for $5, briefly on sale for $3 for the holidays, and recently in a charity bundle that earned me no revenue). Even the one game with a price tag can easily be obtained free, as I offer 1,000 free “community copies” on the game’s page—free downloads to anyone in financial hardship, anyone who helped playtest, anyone who recently donated to charity, and anybody who contributed to the same game jam, no questions asked. (Only 17 free copies of that one have been downloaded to date.)
In other words, if you’re looking at these numbers and thinking, “but I would need to make way more money to make a living on self-publishing,” then yes, but remember that you’re looking at the numbers for somebody who is doing this in spare time here and there, offering most games for free, and not stressing about it. Most of my games are pay-what-you-want because they’re very small and, as far as I’m concerned, unfinished. I put a price tag on one, the longest and most labor-intensive of the lot, mostly as an experiment, even though that one’s explicitly unfinished too. (I’m currently revising it to be more readable, more complete, and suitable for print-on-demand.) But these numbers suggest to me that if the pluses of making money from games (like income!) outweigh the minuses for you (like a net loss thanks to wonky taxes), you should absolutely put a price tag on yours.
And if, by any chance, you look at these numbers and think, “That’s way more than I’ve made on Itch.io,” I should remind you that this is the sole venue for any of my games—with nothing on DriveThru or in print—and that I released 11 games in 4 months. Sales dropped off precipitously after each release. I think I made about $11 in December, when I did not release a new game.
My feature wish list
I’ve been pretty pleased with how Itch.io works, save for a few UX hiccups. There are a couple features I’d like to see expanded, though:
Additional community copy support: Dee Pennyway, creator of the Mnemonic games, provided some hugely useful instructions for setting up free “community copies” on your page. It’s kind of a hack of built-in functionality for “exclusives,” though, and if you want to do anything fancy with it, that’s on you to handle manually. I love that some creators are doing things like offering a free copy for every copy purchased, but I found that to be an annoying amount of overhead, and wished it were built-in. I ended up just tossing up a thousand copies, specifying who was allowed to download them, and trusting the honor system, but that’s a greater risk for someone relying on their games for revenue.
More precise analytics: Itch.io has better analytics than a lot of storefronts, but there are still some areas where it would be really helpful to have more information. Most of all, I wish it were easier to tell at a glance how many individual downloaders/purchasers a game has had, not just the number of downloads (which is tricky if your project has multiple files). Based on that info, or in addition to it, I’d love to be able to say more confidently what percentage of individual downloaders actually tip, or pay something for PWYW titles. And finally, while I appreciate that it shows web referrers, it would be nice to be able to see more than the last 30 days, and top referrers to game jams you contributed to. It’s nice to know that I got a surge of people from a jam’s page on a particular date, but I’d love to know why.
I am kind of terrified of what this self-publishing experiment will do to my taxes, but that aside, I’ve enjoyed putting games online and engaging with other creators. I’ve had very few direct interactions on Itch.io itself—a few comments in game jams, a few comments on project pages, and the occasional notification in my feed that somebody rated my game or added it to a collection named something like “Games I Dig.” But I’ve had a bunch of great interactions with Itch.io creators on Twitter, as people typically post their Twitter profiles on their Itch.io pages. That’s led to many interesting conversations, plus being invited to join a charity bundle (which feels for me like a greater success than actually selling things for revenue for myself). I’m looking forward to seeing what kinds of projects 2020 brings, and I’d love to hear more about others’ Itch.io publishing experiences.