Feature Article

How A Niche Dev Community Is Improving Self-Isolation

In the face of strange times, these game developers are using their work to cultivate a community of positivity and much-needed escapism.

For every behemoth corporation like EA, Blizzard, or Riot, there are thousands of independent creators making games the way they want to make them. Itch.io provides these developers with a platform, and teems with inspired games about virtual art colleges, turn-based football dramas, and skeletons headbutting lizards.

Although the Itch community is remarkably tight-knit and infectiously supportive, it's relatively self-contained. People who regularly occasion its hodgepodge storefront are likely to experiment with a variety of games, whereas those less interested in its curios might only visit for an ephemeral sojourn, never to return. Those lines have started to blur recently: all of a sudden, games that may have only been downloaded two or three times a week are being played by thousands of people all over the world--daily. Why? Because a variety of Itch creators have championed the benevolent cause of making games as inexpensive as they possibly can--in some cases making them completely free--in order to play their part in helping those who are currently self-isolating. This is how the "Games to help you stay inside" collection was born.

Moshe Linke, an indie developer from Hamburg who specializes in cultivating experiences founded upon neo-brutalism and concrete philosophical exploration, told me that offering escapism has become a concerted effort in the development community. "To help people cope, I want to make my work accessible for as many people as possible," Linke explained. "I saw some of my indie friends doing it and loved the idea of joining the movement." One of Linke's most well-known games, Fugue In Void, is currently available free of charge.

"I noticed a spike in downloads since the sale," he added. "I've gotten some emails from people thanking me--it's heartwarming."

Fellow indie dev Corey Martin's contribution to the movement comes in the form of a plumbing puzzler called Pipe Push Paradise, a game that sees you fix some uncooperative piping serving as the root and cause of malfunctioning showers across an island.

"I have a full-time job at Alice & Smith, a game studio here in Montreal, so I'm not dependent on my own game sales to support myself," Martin said. "I'm extremely lucky and my life hasn't changed very much these past few weeks, so it seemed like a small gesture I could make."

Martin said he was selling precious few copies of Pipe Push Paradise on Itch prior to the collection, and not many more on other storefronts. "Maybe two or three copies of each game per month," he said. "Since putting the games at 100% off, there have been roughly 3,000 downloads." Clearly people are interested.

Pipe Push Paradise
Pipe Push Paradise

A variety of developers have since followed suit. Richard Whitelock's game, Quiet as a Stone, was always intended to be comforting, he said, so it made sense to add it to the collection during a stressful time. "It was a no-brainer to get it out there to more people who might benefit from it by making it free," he explained. Meanwhile, Ben Allen tells me he reckons people need an excuse to stay inside at the moment and this effort could raise awareness around Itch too. "The only time I ever sell copies of my game anymore is when I put it on sale, so this seemed like a nice opportunity," he added. "I think Itch is underutilized by a lot of gamer-types, so I consider this my modest contribution toward making the platform more appealing. It's a win-win for everyone."

Super Skelemania
Super Skelemania

Allen's game, Super Skelemania, was downloaded 1,469 times during its stint at 100% off. "To put that into perspective, I had a demo available when it was still in development four years ago," he explained. "The demo was downloaded 789 times in its entire lifetime." The full game was only bought 91 times prior to its inclusion in games to help you stay inside, meaning that its recent download count denotes an increase of approximately 1,600%.

Another indie dev, Glenn Essex, is offering the award-winning spatial experiment "monad" for free, having reduced it from $10. He said that up until now, monad would only get a couple of views a week, and "absolutely no downloads."

"Since monad was added to the collection, I am seeing several thousand views per day and hundreds of downloads," Essex said. "I have also gained upwards of 50 new followers, most of them new accounts. It has been absolutely incredible and makes me wonder if self-distancing helped people discover Itch."

ART SQOOL developer Julian Glander was already thinking about making his game free, but wasn't sure if people would even care, he said. "The game has been out for a year, so in indie games terms, it's basically at the end of its sales life," he explained. "It had been steadily selling a few copies every day [and] already marked down and bundled a few times, so I kind of assumed that anyone with any interest had already gotten it somewhere.

"So with everyone self-isolating, it felt natural to take advantage of the week before Animal Crossing came out and swallowed the gaming world whole," he added. Glander said that ART SQOOL was downloaded 16,000 times during the first 48 hours of it being free, which amounted to an even higher number of downloads than at launch. "I know that's not even really that much in the big world of games, but as a super-indie-level creator making super-specific games, it felt good to get it into the hands of so many people," he said.


Some developers participating in the collection have been more directly affected by the pandemic. Pietro Polsinelli lives in Italy, where the country has been on lockdown for several weeks. "I have two kids, and in these circumstances, it's not always easy," Polsinelli said. "Moreover, football championships have been suspended."

Football Drama
Football Drama

"So maybe people would enjoy a narrative football game," Polsinelli said, referring to Football Drama, which he describes as "the only football game where you may lose the championship and win the game." Polsinelli explained that most of Football Drama's sales come from the mobile market, but it has experienced a drastic increase in Itch visibility since the price was slashed in half. "I will just say that families in lockdown need all the help they can get, and any little contribution helps."

Essex echoed Polsinelli's point, noting that although indie devs are making their games free for people in need, sometimes they require some help, too. They’re also experiencing the pandemic, after all. "If you're out of a job or your hours have been cut because of the pandemic response, then it’s nice to have free to play [games]," he says. "[But] if your job or income is not threatened, and you're just bored, then I think you should be willing to pay developers for the games they make available to you, even if they are free.”

That’s exactly what some players are doing. In order to express their appreciation with more than just likes and follows, they're supporting Itch developers through the pandemic by providing small donations, even when they get games for free. "I've made a small amount of money from generous players choosing to tip on Itch, so this ended up being a pretty self-serving decision," Martin joked.

Although Linke is offering Fugue In Void for free, he said he's received multiple donations from players after they've downloaded it. Other developers said they'd gotten a few tips from players as well.

"I think in times like these we all have to hold together and show our love inside the community," Linke said. "The people who are playing our games are so important to us. But I also appreciate any donations--I know some indie devs have it very hard these days."

"I hope people will continue supporting this small community--it's a symbiosis in the end," he added.

So if you can afford it, even a few dollars can go a long way--and when those dollars are going to somebody like Glander, they can go even further.

"I was blown away by how many people left a tip for the game," Glander said. "Tippers ended up giving $2,600--it hadn't even crossed my mind that anyone would donate. I ended up passing that along to a local food bank. More than anything I think this is a testament to the generous and kind hearted community that itch.io has built. I really love it there."

If you want to help ensure that this movement goes as far as it possibly can, check out the games to help you stay inside collection yourself.

"I think it's important that we all look out for each other during these crazy times and give what we can," he continues. "I would also add that flipping a switch to put your game on discount is a nice gesture but it's literally the least you could do, and I would encourage devs and gamers alike to go further and do some actual WORK--give money to organizations who are helping combat the crisis, run errands for your elderly neighbors who can't go out, volunteer for meals on wheels, and so on. That said, everyone needs a break sometimes and everyone deserves a little bit of gamer time."

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