Evan Torner: Paradox and Promise of “Physical Games” on itch.io

A screenshot of the recently wrapped Hot Horror Jam, hosted by international members of the RPGSEA movement on itch.io.

Written by Evan Torner. This post is a part of an ongoing blog series by members and alumni of the CoE. See the full list of published posts and the introduction to the series.

Since 2013, game platform itch.io has become well-known among game scholars as an outlet for short, indie video games. Developers such as Anna Anthropy and Paolo Pedercini, as well as amateurs and professionals alike, have used it to distribute their small poetic and political video game work. Yet itch.io is now increasingly home to the development scene producing the most interesting (and rapidly evolving) tabletop role-playing games (TRPGs), labeled under “physical games.” As stalls become markets and homes become communities, network effects have permitted the loosely-affiliated game-business webpages on itch.io to become a thriving creative hub. The rise in prominence of “physical games” on itch.io testifies to the impact of (online) ecosystems, iteration, opportunism, and genealogies on game creation, as Annakaisa Kultima has highlighted in her must-read book Game Design Praxiology. The same forces that affect digital games, it turns out, affect non-digital games as well, such that the objects and relationships in play make this distinction between “digital” and “physical” extremely fuzzy.

Being mostly creator-owned and distributed, TRPGs have struggled with visibility and market viability from the beginning. Bargains that Gary Gygax initially struck to offset print costs in the 1970s would precipitate his total loss of control over Dungeons and Dragons in 1985. Ron Edwards observed in 1999 that indie TRPG creators would be better off making a little money off a low-gloss product circulated solely in small circles on the Internet than dreaming of a “spiffy book with glossy covers, in hardback or clothbound.” This sentiment catalyzed a number of different spaces devoted to indie TRPGs: The Forge, Story Games, Fictioneers, The One Shot Podcast Network, The Gauntlet, and RPG-related circles on the now-defunct Google+. Making small amounts of money from indie TRPGs became an evolving artform. The 1990s was an era of mailing checks to real-world addresses and freely accessible text on HTML websites. The 2000s saw the rise of secure Internet payment through PayPal and the PDF (through sites such as the unstore or DriveThruRPG) as primary distribution format. The “ashcan,” or informal self-printed copy of a game, would sell at conventions for $5–10 (USD), and a later published small indie book would sell for $25. Indie TRPGs were then some of the first entities to take advantage of crowdfunding through Kickstarter and IndieGoGo (indeed, the Kickstarter game division lead is Luke Crane, a well-known indie TRPG designer), and early adopters of creator-support site Patreon. As the crowdfunding sites promoted glossier and well-networked TRPGs, Patreon would support all the shorter, more intimate projects: first nano-games, then TRPGs under 200 words, and so forth. Whenever new network opportunities arise to promote indie TRPGs, creators opportunistically rise to meet the challenge.

Flower Magic, a game by Kira Magrann created as part of their 2019 Earth Empathy Jam, as depicted on itch.io.

Itch.io has now connected these multiple indie TRPG diaspora communities through cultures of mutual creation (game jams) and mutual support (micro-transactions). It feels as though the ashcans have been reborn: the sheer quantity of creation and circulation of work in this space has been breathtaking. Since itch.io is primarily structured around the game jam, frequent jams produce anywhere from 10–200 distinct games, variably anthologized or sold separately as a PDF for anywhere from “name your price” to $20. These small games usually have small player counts – solo and pair TRPGs are common – and embrace the DIY desktop-publishing ‘zine aesthetic. Clear aesthetic lineage for mechanics and thematic focus can be found in Vincent and Meguey Baker’s Apocalypse World, John Harper’s Lasers and Feelings and Blades in the Dark, Avery Alder’s Dream Askew, and Alex Roberts’ For The Queen. Community leaders such as Takuma Okada, DC, Nora Blake, and Flowers advance the discussion, community, and jams across the itch.io forums, Discord, and Twitter, emboldening particularly marginalized creators – non-white, non-western, non-male, non-straight – to realize their own visions in the TRPG space. The Google+ diaspora and veteran industry creators now rub shoulders with high-schoolers from Indonesia and game design students from Los Angeles. Although the objects they create are called “physical games,” they ironically may never leave the PDF format and are frequently played online via video chat. Where cost margins and attention are razor-thin, this ephemerality turns out to be a feature, not a bug.

What do game scholars do with such a wealth of material? Do digital humanities methods, with their batch processing of literary texts, also do this content justice? I myself am slowly working through plot ARMOR, a solo TRPG that creates the arc of my own mecha anime series, and Alone Among The Stars, a solo TRPG about space travel, because these games are reminiscent of our own 2011 solo TRPG competition. I downloaded the Big Bad Con 2019 Game Jam anthology and am deciding whether or not to run this game about selkie trauma for my friends. My own research questions, I suspect, will emerge from play of enough of these titles to grasp the zeitgeist, until it yet again slips through my fingers in the next flurry of game jams.

Evan Torner (PhD) is Assistant Professor of German Studies at the University of Cincinnati, where he also serves as Undergraduate Director of German Studies and the Director of the UC Game Lab. He co-edited the book Immersive Gameplay (2012) with William J. White, and co-founded and is an editor of the journal Analog Game Studies. His fields of expertise include role-playing games, non-digital games, science fiction media, East German genre cinema, German film history, media pedagogy and critical race theory, while maintaining active fandom of fighting games and point-and-click adventure games. In the realm of game studies, his current projects concerns the interpretation of role-playing games and larp, and interdisciplinary games studies methodologies in the humanities.