I want to talk about the tension between creating a fair market for TTRPG products and hobby design.
First, let's talk about the value of not-for-profit game design.
Par for the course, I want to start with the psychology side. In the 20th century (and unfortunately still now) many people believed motivation came down to rewards and punishments. In the area of production/labor, this meant if you paid people they would be more motivated. Except Industrial Organizational psychologists found something different. In experiments in the mid-20th century, people engaged in an activity and then rated their enjoyment. Later, they engaged in the activity, received money for it, and rated their enjoyment.
Their intrinsic enjoyment went down when they were paid for it.
This launched a new line of study into motivation spanning the past 70 years. To summarize the main findings: how we motivate ourselves to do an activity impacts our enjoyment and level of "will power"/motivational energy to engage in more activities. You could do the same activity under the same conditions, but the reason you tell yourself why you did it changes everything.
So it turns out, it isn't that making money from labor decreases your enjoyment and motivation, it's that telling yourself you are doing it for money will.
So point one: creating games primarily for money is setting yourself up for burnout and decreased enjoyment.
Now, everyone can make games, charge money, and tell themselves they do it for fun and not money so...problem solved?
Except, I would argue, there is significant value in having hobbies. When we make all of our hobbies money-making endeavors it communicates, unconsciously if not completely consciously, that production is the most important goal. Rather than say...leisure. Fun. Play. And pushing a production mentality onto people's leisure feels like a gross way of pushing capitalistic structures onto people's hobbies.
It's the equivalent, conceptually, of saying "Well if you play video games you should stream them on Twitch to make money." Except...no. I'm not playing video games for business, I'm doing it for fun.
But Cass, you playing video games on your own doesn't undercut the value of streamers!
So what about the argument that releasing free games tanks the market?
I think this is a valid concern within a specific context.
Markets and value are heavily influenced by expectation. Let me step outside the game design world for a moment. There are communities, websites, and personal pages dedicated to fan fiction. Or dedicated to hobby-level fiction. When I go to those sites to read stories, I expect to read free fiction. I don't expect to pay money. I also don't expect to get the same experience as say, reading a John Scalzi book. That isn't to say the fan fiction isn't well written; much of it is. But it's a fundamentally different style of writing and experience, and it has a fundamentally different level of production (editors, art, marketing, etc.)
When I go to a store front like Amazon or Barnes & Noble, I expect to read paid content. With that paid content, I also expect different levels of production as described above. I also expect different levels of support for the content ongoing (e.g. a series will be finished, there will be a somewhat predictable release schedule).
There is a third space within these ends of the spectrum from fan fiction to traditionally published fiction: self-published fiction. When I look at self-published books in the Kindle store I have another set of expectations. I expect the story will be complete, I expect a certain level of quality, but I don't automatically expect the same consistency/commitment of a traditionally published book. That said, I do expect that self-published fiction is priced in a way that reflects its level of production. If the book is on par with traditional publishing, I expect to pay as much; if the quality is a step below, or the editing is less consistent, or the series is never finished, I expect to pay a lower price.
Right now it seems like some of the tension around itch.io comes from a shift in expectations. Back in January/February I pointed out that the vast majority of games on Drivethrurpg are pay-only, whereas on Itch the overwhelming majority of games were pay what you want or free. This (based on my own experience and talking to people) impacted people's expectations when they visited those sites. People generally expected to pay money for publication-level games on Drivethrurpg. People expected to pay nothing or offer tips for more experimental, in-progress, or hobby-based games on Itch. (Also microgames, but I think that's a different topic; microgames deserve more respect in the professional game design sphere).
This dynamic on Itch has shifted partly because designers realized Itch offers significantly better rates for designers, and people (myself included) have advocated for pricing games on the site. As a designer trying to make money, I really like this trend on Itch. Itch has made me significantly more money than DriveThruRPG.
As a member of the gaming community, I worry about how this shift will impact people who want to design for fun. Who want to share their games with friends. Who want to keep design as a hobby. Because those people and their interest in design is extremely valid. There needs to be a place for them.
I don't have a good transition for this next part so I'll just add it: if I'd heard this conversation about design and money a few years ago, I never would have released my Blades in the Dark hack...and would never have become a game designer. For three reasons.
One, and this is personal, I already went down this road with novels. More than a decade ago several professionals encouraged me to sell my writing. While it was flattering they thought it was "good enough" I was also aware I was young, developing as a writer, and not yet decided on my writing voice/genre aims. Additionally, the business of writing is a whole different skill set than writing itself. It felt overwhelming to try and tackle selling my work while also still developing my skills. Also, worrying about the business side decreased my ability to just enjoy writing because I wasn't at the stage I wanted to sell my work. But people made me feel like I needed to sell my work, putting pressure on the situation. It's not the only reason I stopped writing novels, but it was a big part of it.
Even people who want to be professional designers some day should have the time and space to not worry about the business side of games. They should be allowed to experiment, grow, and develop their voice as a designer. Designing as a business is a different skill and requires a learning curve of its own.
Second, (and related) if I thought I needed to charge money for my first game, awareness of the gap between my skills and published designers would have kicked me right out of the process. I was a baby designer. I was figuring things out. I knew there was a huge gap in between me and say, John Harper. I shared my game on the G+ site because that site had a culture of experimentation and sharing and community, not a culture of production. And the truth is: that was an accurate perception. My first game was nowhere on par with John Harper's games.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly: I wasn't looking to start a business with my hack; I was looking to have fun. It was a hobby. It was my break from my job. It was interesting. It took me years to consider moving from hobby to making money and a lot of factors went into that. I can see many situations where people, for very valid reasons, don't ever want to shift into designing games as a business.
Now, all of that said, I think people need to be honest with themselves on what they want. If someone wants their game to make them money, but they price it for free hoping it will be discovered and become a huge money-making success, that's problematic on many levels. It muddles marketing, it under cuts value, and it's disengenuous. But that's outside the scope of this one post.
So what is the solution?
I think a lot of it comes back to the idea of expectation setting and platform. We need to have spaces where people can share games for fun and as a hobby. We need to have spaces for games intended to be sold.
I wish itch.io had a clear way for creators to mark their games as "professional store front" vs. "sharing a game / experiment." I would love if I could, for example, mark Tides of Gold to show up on a store front, but my game jam Knights of Remedy to show up in a more design community/hobby space. One was created for professional sale, the other was created as an experiment to share with friends.
Right now the sorting/discovery options on Itch blur the lines between the games. And I think ultimately, that's a disservice to everyone involved.
Update: After some Twitter talk with Dee, I think it would work well if Itch.io separated physical games into a "Store Front" section for selling games and a "Workshop" section for sharing games. Discoverability would separate the two. So "most popular" in the store front would be separate from "most popular" in the workshop. This way designers and players would have set expectations for browsing each section. To add a helpful layer, in people's profiles it could clearly mark the games as store front or workshop.
(Creators would have the same control over price setting in both.)
I'm known for going on tangents. The only consistent thing in my life is that I spend most of it creating things: novels, games, graphics. I love taking apart how art and games work, then reconstructing my own version from the pieces. I'm also enough of a layout perfectionist to adore eraser shields.