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2020’s best gaming deal outshines BLM efforts by bigger companies

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A bundle of over 1,300 games has raised $3M and counting

Night in the Woods - Mae talking with her friends Image: Infinite Fall/Finji

In the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd and nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, major gaming companies are issuing statements in support of the movement. One notable absence? Valve, the PC gaming giant based out of Washington state, one of the protests’ hotspots.

While Valve delayed its summer games event, it never released a statement contextualizing that delay, even as many other companies did. Valve did not respond to requests for comment on the matter. While this is an egregious silence to current events sweeping the nation, it’s actually not much better than companies who have said something vague about racial inequality and police brutality, or those who have pledged paltry sums to certain causes.

Compare this to what is happening over at PC gaming storefront Itch.io, an alternative marketplace full of interesting, experimental games by up-and-coming developers that is manned by a mere six employees. When you load the Itch.io website, one of the most visible banners advertises their new bundle for racial justice and equality. The storefront’s bundle page is also full of user-made deals for Black Lives Matter, or Black game developers.

“I saw a lot of companies issuing statements, which is great, but I think it’s extremely important to look for ways to be impactful while something so terrible is going on,” Leaf Corcoran, Itch.io creator, told Polygon over email. “A black square on social media isn’t going to cut it. I wanted to find a way to use what we’ve built to do something that would really make a difference.”

Itch.io’s bundle, which previously offered over 700 games for a minimum of $5, has now been updated to include over 1,300 games for the same price. There are many exceptional titles in the mix, including Oxenfree, Quadrilateral Cowboy, A Short Hike, Night in the Woods, Oneshot, Nuclear Throne, and Celeste. “We [have] maybe published one of the greatest deals in gaming history,” said Corcoran.

Perhaps the wildest thing about all of this is that the bundle, which has raised more than $3 million, is still taking submissions from developers. The indie outfit hasn’t even finished going through all the existing submissions.

Corcoran put out a call to developers asking if they wanted to take part of a bundle where the proceeds would be split between the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Community Bail Fund. The developer response was enormous, but more notably, it also came from developers who would normally never participate in something like this. While increasingly popular among consumers, bundles are controversial for some developers, who see the practice as cheapening their work.

Corcoran says that some developers, like the studio behind Night in the Woods, broke their “no game bundles” rule to be included in the collection. Some developers, like Oxenfree outfit Night School Studios came onto the storefront for the first time, just for the bundle. The bundle also saw a number of inclusions from the tabletop roleplaying community, such as Blades in the Dark, Dead Friend, and For the Honor, all coming from a space that is normally less visible on the storefront. Overall, Corcoran says that the bundle houses over 500 video games, nearly 200 tabletop games, and around 30 game asset packs, along with a few other types of content.

The outpouring of support is especially notable when you consider how explicit the bundle is about what it’s supporting. Where many gaming companies are issuing vague statements about injustice which sometimes don’t even mention Black people, like this recent one from Epic Games, Itch.io is crystal clear regarding what it’s about and who it stands for.

“We live in a time of racial injustice, inequality, and police brutality against black people,” the bundle description reads.

The mealy-mouthed support of the Black Lives Matter movement from other companies is no surprise. There’s a sense that gaming companies are afraid to piss off potential customers, regardless of background or beliefs. But Itch.io’s strong support of the movement hasn’t pushed away consumers who seem eager to openly support the cause. Instead, the bundle has raised enough money from supporters that it has considerably outgrown donations from AAA gaming companies who have way more cash to spend.

Ubisoft, for instance, has only committed to donating $100,000 to similar organizations. Square Enix will be donating $250,000 to the cause. Many companies say they’ll match employee contributions or double donations coming from fans, but specific numbers haven’t been shared. The only video game company that seems to reflect Itch.io’s ambition is Niantic, which has pledged a minimum of $5 million toward the movement.

Other gaming companies, like Bungie, are showing its support through things like dedicating a highly anticipated reveal to George Floyd. Rockstar temporarily paused its online games in support of BLM, while 2K is offering cosmetics that shout out the movement. Many are promising to scrutinize internal practices in the hope of improving racial inequalities within their organizations. Such commendable acts have had a mixed reception, however. The Rockstar announcement, for example, sees top replies asking if it’s right to withhold access to something that people paid for, or fans asking how this action will solve anything. You can make the case that some of these shows of support don’t go far enough, but fans often seem annoyed that gaming companies are getting “political” period.

Celeste - exploring a cave Image: Extremely OK Games

“If you look at other online communities that put out statements, often you may see in the comments a lot of dissent, people who don’t get it, people being trolls, people who try to say it’s not important,” Corcoran said. “There was none of that here,” he continued, adding that he felt “honored” to have such a community.

Enthusiasm for the bundle has been so strong that keeping up with the response has been a challenge for the storefront, which is run by a company that prides itself in remaining small and scrappy. Corcoran says that Itch.io’s existing bundle system wasn’t designed to accommodate something of this size.

“We’re frantically trying to update our systems to handle the new traffic and make the experience of buying and browsing the games more manageable,” he said.

While more games will be added in the future, these additions will only include paid experiences that will be more curated than early bundle submissions. By then, the fundraising goal may have shifted. When the bundle launched on June 5, Itch.io hoped to raise a mere $100,000. Now the goal is $5 million — a target that will no doubt be shattered, given the sheer number of games inside the bundle.

“We host independent creators that come from many different backgrounds,” Corcoran said. “They are not blind to the suffering that is happening in the world. There are so many people creating passionate and personal experiences and publishing them on itch.io ... the desire to be part of something greater completely blows away the fear that participating in this bundle would devalue their game, they feel the bundle [gives] their game more value.”