Itch.io and the Very Big, Extremely Large Bundle

So itch.io had a bundle a while back, called the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. It took place during the height of the BLM protests in the States, and all the proceeds went to the NAACP and the Community Bail Fund. It ended up garnering over $8 million USD. I’d actually say that the response overall from the gaming community to the BLM protests has been pretty positive – lots of big companies have made meaningful contributions, and even the companies that have been relatively tokenistic in their support are still, you know, saying anything at all, which is a net gain. As a point of reference, last year I was talking about The Division, where you play a government agent shooting looters in the aftermath of intense civil disturbance. There’s something about a virus, and there are looters, and you kill them for looting, and they’re all pretty strongly racially coded – all the ‘civilians’ have like gumboots and warm little pink parkas, while the ‘looters’ wear masks and hoodies and caps and shit. The second Division game, released in 2019, even takes place in Washington DC, a location that is definitely politically neutral and has nothing at all to do with American politics.

Anyway, contrast that with the response to the recent BLM protests. You can read about some of the things that different companies have done here: Humble Bundle set up a million dollar fund for black game developers, EA donated a million to the NAACP and other similar organizations, and Ubisoft, who made the Division games, also donated $100,000. And itch.io set up a charity bundle with over 700 games. As far as I know, it’s the single biggest games bundle of all time, with all proceeds going to charity, and hundreds of game developers offering up their games for free. There really isn’t anything comparable out there – I mean, we had the Fire Relief bundle, with the awful fire season here in Australia over the 2019-2020 summer – oh, that was January. Man, fuck 2020. Anyway, that bundle had 30-ish games in it, and that was considered substantial. 700 is, to my knowledge, utterly unprecedented. We might have had some bundles of a similar size within the, like, bargain-bin shovelware tier of game design (unrelated: I’ve recently launched my own games, which you can play here), but in terms of the caliber and quality of games gathered together in one place – it’s mind-boggling. And that’s before the bundle swelled to 1,741 games.

So the process for accepting games was pretty open. The itch.io guys put up a thread where people could link in their games (here), and they’d go through and add them to the list. There were some guidelines around not flooding the list with spam – you could volunteer either one free project or up to three paid works – and mostly that seems to have worked. We’ve ended up with 1,741 projects from 1,391 creators, suggesting that most people did just put in one game. I imagine the itch.io team did some judicious culling as well. Even so, I actually think the bundle is in some ways a misstep. I mean, in the biggest and most important ways, it’s obviously a wild success. The world’s biggest bundle, eight million dollars raised – they’ve done fine. But I also wonder about the broader problems of curation here. Why not stop at 700 games? What’s the benefit to the additional thousand? It was already the biggest bundle anyone has ever seen. Beyond that, it’s not clear that you’re adding value. Nobody looked at 700 games and thought ‘ehh, I’ll hold out to see if it gets bigger’. Really, when you go past 700, it’s purely for the novelty value. It’s the constant media circuit of ‘Hey, you know that ridiculous bundle? It just got more ridiculous!’ These additional games came through in maybe three or four separate updates – the first update was maybe 400 new games, if I remember correctly, and then they’d stick in another couple hundred each time after that. And every time the number jumps up, they get a fresh round of people tweeting about it. But at that point it’s not really about the games. It’s about the numbers. And that feels a little weird.

I guess part of my discomfort here is a question about value. If you have a normal bundle with, say, twelve games in it, it’s easy to estimate value. You can look and get a sense of everything, get a sense of how much they’d all cost individually, and you can go right, great, I understand what sort of deal this is. I understand what I’m paying for, and how much it’s worth. But with this bundle – it’s too big for that. 700 games was already too big. Nobody really had a sense of what the value was. And I think that ultimately cheapens both the games and the cause. I mean – just think about the pitch. Donate $5+ to the NAACP, get 1,741 games in return. The price is so disproportionate to the reward that it sounds like a trick. Are the games all really shitty? Why are there so many of them for such a low amount? And how important is this charity drive? Is it like a Serious Thing, or is it not that important? It’s only $5, which doesn’t seem like a lot. As a point of contrast, when the Fire Relief bundle came through in January, it was $25USD for 31 games. That’s, like, a little under $40AUD. It’s not obscene, but it’s also not something that you just drop without thinking about it. You maybe check the cause a little more closely, think about where the money’s going and whether it’s really something you support. And I get that the itch.io guys wanted everyone to be able to donate whatever they could. A $25USD price tag probably would have put off people who can only afford $5 or $10 out of their weekly spending. But the consequence is that the bundle seems wildly out of proportion – and I suspect it’ll be difficult for people to find a sense of value in the games they’ve received. Most of those games probably won’t be downloaded and played. There will be a top tier of creators who get the lion’s share of downloads – the front pagers – and most of the other games will just end up discarded.

And you might be thinking – well, so what if they are discarded? Isn’t this really about raising money for charity? Who cares whether the games are used? And fair enough: at the end of the day, the NAACP and the Community Bail Fund are $8 million richer, and that’s a good thing. All I’m pointing out is that itch.io didn’t just ask you to go to the NAACP website and donate money there. They incentivized a donation through their platform and offered games as a reward, drawing on the culture and mechanics of their vendor-customer relationship with you. And that tells us how they think about a bunch of different things. It’s a comment on their customers, their creators, the Black Lives Matter movement, protests, economics, human rights – all of it. And to be clear, what they’ve done is generally really encouraging and positive. All I’m looking to do is draw out some of the nuances around how their actions reflect on video games and the people who make them. It’s a relatively minor discussion, in the broad scheme of things, and it might seem nit-picky to people who just want to read the headlines and move on. And that’s okay. Itch.io have done a cool thing, and raised a bunch of money for the NAACP, and that’s great. Good on them. I just have a couple of lingering questions about how that fundraising reflects on the value of video games – and how in turn that value might reflect on the BLM cause. We’re living in the age of No Man’s Sky. There is, officially, too much games to play. Supply is greater than demand, meaning that the financial value of games is falling and game developers are being pushed to further extremes in order to make ends meet. Crunch and burnout are worse than ever. Given that context, I even just question the optics of offering 1,741 games for $5.

As a point of comparison, let’s return to Humble Bundle. These guys have their own place in the history of video game supply and demand: they got famous with their Humble Indie Bundles back in 2010, where they would curate a bunch of indie games and offer them at a cheap price. They arguably popularized the format that itch.io is using here in 2020. In the wake of the BLM protests, Humble released their own bundle, the ‘Fight for Racial Justice’ bundle. It’s closed now, but they leave the page up with some stats – you can find it here. They offered 50 games and 25 e-books/audiobooks, with proceeds again split between the NAACP and other similar organizations. The base cost for the bundle was $30USD. They raised $4 million USD in a week. As with the itch.io bundle, the developers didn’t see any of that money, but as far as a charity gig goes I’m a lot more comfortable with the implied value of that exchange. In the Humble Bundle, 75 developers offered up $1,200 of freebies to encourage you to make a $30 donation. In the itch.io bundle, 1,391 creators put up 1,741 games (priced collectively at $9,500USD) to encourage a $5 donation. It just prompts a slight ‘hmm’. Plus, you know, now I have to figure out what to do with all these fucking video games.

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