Steam vs itch.io – which one is the best? (and can you even compare them?)

December 11, 2021Posted invideo games

When I want to play a game, I search for it on the web and look for a button where I can “play”, “download” or “buy” it, and often I find what I’m looking for on the game store Steam. Steam is kind of a standard hub for PC gaming, but the thing is that when I click “buy” or “download” on the game’s Steam page, I’m not allowed to play yet. No, I have to download the “Steam app”, to download the game from there! Weirdly, people seem to be totally fine with complications like this, because when I made a short video pointing out the ridiculousness of downloading a downloader, people commented things like “Downloading a launcher isn’t hard!”. And yes, this is true, but do you know what’s even less hard? Not doing it! And by now I’ve heard enough excuses for bad user design to not hold my criticism back anymore, so let’s start with why Steam shouldn’t be able to get away with it anymore.

The blue top bar. (Bonus question: How many different fonts can you find on this single front page?)

Just look at the blue top bar on Steam’s frontpage and how awkwardly out of place it looks. The Steam site has had the same design philosophy since 2011, and tiny details like the blue top bar says a lot about something bigger: about how Steam may think right, but only inside of their little box (which is wrongly adapted to the times). The Steam site didn’t look that bad in 2011, but after ten years of no major upgrades it has lost the little niceness it had. I don’t know why they don’t improve their design, because the people at Steam/Valve don’t seem to be stupid. In a 2021 interview with two Steam programmers(?), it becomes obvious that Steam’s mistakes aren’t because they’re particularly bad or evil (some videos claim they are, though), but more because they’re focusing on the completely wrong things. Hey, people at Steam! You seem to genuinely care about games, but your talk about satisfying developers and players becomes pretty meaningless if you don’t even dare to question whether your “many-clicks” and “launcher-downlading” system really is optimal for delivering games to the masses, and if you haven’t even thought of remastering your user design in ten years. Fixing details is pointless if the total is wrong. How can I be so sure about this? Because sites like itch.io do everything right! (everyting I want Steam to do)

Leaf Corcoran, emperor of itch.io

And while people, including the creator of itch.io himself tells you to don’t compare Steam to itch.io (source), I think you should. They have totally different audiences and goals so they should be able to coexist, but: Everything would be better if all Steam games were on itch.io instead. Why? Because the people at itch.io understand players’ and developers’ wants and needs and fulfill them before even thinking about profit. And technically, itch.io can do pretty much everything that Steam does. Except: automatic updates. That was Steam’s initial purpose back in the early 00s, to allow automatic updates with an app instead of downloading them manually. It’s a good cause, but the thing is, letting a single add-on method like this shape the whole PC game industry is really weird. I may be crazy, but I actually think playing games and not updating them should be what you shape everything around. So except for the automatic updates, itch.io provides both simpler and cheaper methods for publishing, marketing, monetizing and playing games. So why are people still using Steam? I don’t flipping know! It seems to be a standard, a culture, a tradition, and it baffles me. Just look at the reason why people use other sites, for example, despite what you think of Google, everyone (“everyone”) use it because it’s free and superior in performance. Steam has neither of those. And also, forget what I said about automatic updates, because itch.io apparently does that too, but only with a totally optional app.

So, to conclude: On itch.io things are simple and easy (devlogs are on itch.io/devlogs, game jams are on itch.io/jams, games are on itch.io/games). Steam is awkward, confusing and throws obstacles at you when you want solutions, and their main focus doesn’t seem to be playing games (which is very weird). Because of this itch.io wins, and all games should now be released there. Go!

Alden Kroll and Erik Peterson, developers at Steam, answering questions.