There is something on the E-shop you might have noticed. Between the sales, between the ported triple-A games and indie darlings, there is something else, and it stinks.
As you might have guessed from the title, that ‘something’ is shovelware. Once a small corner of the video games market, asset flipping and shovelware games are now at the peak of their saturation, with multiple titles released every week.
You might be wondering; how did we get here?
While you can find examples of shovelware pre-Ninjabread Man, the release and reception of the title best sets the scene.
Released by Data Design Interactive in the summer of 2005, the game is an action platformer in which the titular character explores a candy kingdom. The in-game worlds don’t look horrendous, and the gameplay looks like that of the popular SpongeBob SquarePants 3D platformer titles of the time. Sounds fun, right?
Well, it’s not. Not even slightly.
The game is impossibly short, with only a tutorial and three levels. That is if you can make it that far considering the mechanics are as bug-ridden as the old tree outside your local weirdo’s house. In the opening moments, the visuals aren’t super disappointing before you realise that the assets you can see are doomed to be re-used and appear in all their glitchy glory across the entire experience.
Also, it is nearly entirely motion controls, so yeah, no fun.
What’s worse is that DDI followed up on Ninjabread Man, almost straight away, with a slew of copycat asset flip games. For example, Anubis II is the same game as its gingerbread land predecessor but with ancient Egyptian assets in place of candy canes and gumdrop buttons. Then there are Myth Makers: Trixie in Toyland and Rock and Roll Adventures, Data Design Interactive’s third and fourth reskins of the original Ninjabread man, each with easily guessable and equally unimaginative reskins.
It’s important to say that DDI was not alone in their ware-shovelling and that multiple small studios were picking up at the time, something that would become top-class fodder for vloggers some years later. Nor were Nintendo alone in selling such titles. For example, Ninjabread Man first appeared on PC and PlayStation 2 in 2005, though this makes the fact that someone thought the game worthy of a port two years later even more worrying.
It is also worth pointing out that the studio never tried to sell the games at full price. Instead, they each marketed for £9.99, around $20 equivalent for the time, about a third of the average price of £30.
For better or worse, a price point and a trend were established. Then, with no regulation from the gaming authorities, the waters began to rise, with the floodgate shattering digital marketplaces right around the corner.
Then, surprisingly, in 2012, Data Design Interactive was dissolved.
Just because DDI died doesn’t mean the shovelware industry did. If anything, the concepts established by the designers, asset flipping and minimal bug-checks, became something of a how-to manual for prospective asset flippers now working exclusively on digital content.
It’s only really with the recent success of the Nintendo Switch that it has been more evident how blatant the issue is and how little Nintendo are doing about it.
Fast forward fifteen years, and you’ll find an E-shop teeming with shovelware content, much of it for £0.99 or less when on sale, scattered amongst the well-meaning and well-crafted titles. Nintendo has made little to no effort in curating their digital marketplace since its initiation, and that has only bolstered the developers who had been quietly waiting in the wings for something to slip.
Seemingly, Nintendo has only welcomed this onslaught.
At the 78th Annual General Meeting of Shareholders in June of 2018, Nintendo executives announced their plan to widen independent launches on the Switch to offer "around 20 to 30 indie games on Nintendo Switch per week". Though you can see from well before this statement that Shovelware was steadily making its way onto the marketplace, this is the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The promise of 20 to 30 indie titles sets a quota. Nintendo has largely kept to its promise, but that’s not necessarily good news. Filtering through with the quality indie titles are one-person developed wonders that are almost always horrendous if not unplayable.
There is also a new big player like Data Design Interactive. As seen in the below video, YouTube channel Star or Shovelware has dedicated an entire exposé to the seemingly shady asset flipping enterprise.
From a list of 90 titles worthy of the shovelware title, over a third were supplied by Pix Arts. They are porting multiple titles almost directly from the Unity store a month.
There are lots of reasons, but here are three key reasons why this is an issue.
1) Classifying shovelware as an ‘indie’ hurts the indie scene, and the saturation of shovelware titles keeps hidden gems hidden.
2) Shovelware is often created for and marketed towards children. This is a problem when being kid-friendly is key to your brand.
3) It is an evident sign of a lack of quality control—also, a problem when that facet has been key to your long-term success as a brand.
So, what will Nintendo do about it?
Regardless of quality, the company makes roughly 30% on selling any title published to the Switch.
That might not be a great look, though, because it’s clear Nintendo could do something. They have long resisted both the trends of the industry and the detractors. If the company applied the legendary might behind its anti-piracy division to either digital marketplace curation or even just plain old quality control, the brand would only stand to benefit from the goodwill of the people and the press.
Until then, shovelware and asset flipping is not going anywhere, and Nintendo appears to have no plans to bury the hatchet.