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Useful Notes / Shovelware

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Image taken from The Punk Effect.

"Shovelware preys on consumers who are attracted to the low price and general cover art. You mainly see some parents buy their kids this stuff because hey, it's cheap, it looks like kids would enjoy this, and they really don't know what a high quality game is compared to shovelware. Most parents don't know the difference between Gummy Bears Minigolf and Metroid Prime 3."

Shovelware, also known as "crapware" or "trashware", is lowest-common-denominator software. Perhaps the software was created to take advantage of a fad. Perhaps it was made to cash in on a bit of marketing share of something eminently useful. Or perhaps it was an actually good or clever idea that either suffered severe budget cuts and time constraints, or was simply made as an afterthought in the developers' spare time. The term is also used (especially in the past) for game bundles of very low-quality games where quantity is regarded more important than quality (a common form of this was game bundle CDs shipped with game magazines). Regardless of how it was made, almost all examples of shovelware are made with very little thought or care, as if they just scooped up a load of software from a trash heap, dumped it on a table and slapped on a price tag, hence the name.

The term originates in the CD-ROM boom of the early 1990s, when distributors started packing a bunch of older games onto the then unheard-of 640 megabytes of a single CD-ROM. The word "shovelware" denoted CD-ROM compilations of mediocre-at-best games that had been released years before. It later became associated with CD-ROM collections of shareware that packed hundreds or thousands of games or art assets onto them. The sheer scale of these CDs meant that any given distributor quickly ran out of "good" games/art assets, and had to go hunting across BBSes and the then early Internet for new assets to fill them up, thereby lowering the reputation for the word even further.

A '10s re-interpretation of this phenomenon is the "Asset Flip"; the name being a portmanteau of "game assets" and "flipping" (as in, buying just to sell for a quick profit) that was coined by James Stephanie Sterling of Jimquisition fame. These are "games" made using a build-it-yourself game engine and use unaltered stock or store-bought assets like character models, sounds, and maps within them. They are a common form of shovelware on digital storefronts, most notably on Steam via the now-defunct "Steam Greenlight" program, and the slightly less broken (but still alive) "Steam Direct" and "Steam Early Access" programs. While Valve has a hard time of taking them down on their own store due to their "hands off" approach to their marketplace, it has also proliferated onto the likes of the PS-store and the Switch's eshop.

The issue with asset flips is not the use of pre-made assets by themselves, which are invaluable to indie and AAA game development. The issue lies in the whole core experience of the game being made up solely of assets with little to no artistic coherence simply to sell a game for a quick buck.

The Unity engine, and its associated asset store, is a top pick for these sorts of games. The engine itself nowadays has a serious image problem, as the sheer amount of shovelware displaying the Unity logo puts a lot of players off from all games that use it. Despite this stigma, Unity itself is a great tool that has been used to create critically acclaimed games such as Hearthstone, Cities: Skylines, Ori and the Blind Forest and Kerbal Space Program, just to name a few titles. However, its greatest asset is also its greatest curse; the engine is free and easy to use. This led to the barrier of entry for game development being greatly lowered and why so many people abuse it to make asset flips, and so it suffered greater than other game engines. Unity is most infamous for having no financial barrier of entry, but this has happened to just about any game engine that's cheaper to license than comparable engines; LithTech was about as infamous around the turn of the millennium, as outside of one or two surprise hits it seemed everything that used it from 1998 to 2002 was a rushed Obvious Beta and/or the lowest of low-effort and -budget. Speaking of which, Cryengine and Unreal Engine also have similar asset stores and are also susceptible to the same asset flip issues as Unity, but these game engines were established by high-quality games made in those engines from years past (Crysis for the former, Unreal for the latter), and so have less of a problem when it comes to their image; at worst, the most common complaint about Unreal-engine games are that a lot of them in the late 2000s were too brown.

Many movie tie-in games are considered shovelware, though there are exceptions.

Shovelware on a grand scale was a major factor in The Great Video Game Crash of 1983.

Some common characteristics:

  • Usually found in discount bins in stores, even if they've only been released a week ago.
  • Marketing is little to non-existent. Blurbs from the developers will either overstate the quality, or try to play it off as "ironically" bad.
  • Has similar appearance to other, more popular or refined products, such as the "Tycoon" series of games. Essentially, one cousin of the Shoddy Knockoff Product.
  • Quality of gameplay usually ranges from mediocre (boring gameplay, unimpressive visuals, copy of another game) to abysmal (janky controls, unclear goals, unbalanced/impossible challenges). Bugs and glitches are almost guaranteed.
  • Sold in bundles of several products, like those five-dollar "50 Great Arcade Hits" discs at discount stores that are neither great, nor arcade games, nor hits. This was, in fact, the original definition of shovelware. Some bundles may even have games that are clones of other games within the bundle as an artificial boost.
  • Usually comes with glaring, colourful, and sometimes obnoxiously designed box art, as with the case of casual and budget games for the Nintendo Wii.
  • Most of them are Western-developed, but there are also some Japanese and Asian ones, like the Simple 1500/Simple 2000 series.
  • Often based on movies, TV shows, toys, or even celebrities and game shows. These are often made with small budgets and development times, and usually end up becoming simple platform games. See The Problem with Licensed Games. Some are also made just to advertise certain products; people in business and marketing like to call this "advergaming".
  • A common theme with "asset flips" specifically is that they typically have little-to-no visual cohesion or unifying style, having clashing character designs, settings, sounds, and art styles hastily cobbled together, because retexturing the assets for the sake of cohesion would be effort, and effort delays the submission to Steam. This has led to, among other things, USPS postboxes being found next to London phone boxes.
  • Sometimes, all the money comes from people uninterested in actually playing these games. Customers know they are garbage, but they buy it for the Bile Fascination, Guilty Pleasure, or as a cruel joke, like gifting the game to their "friends", or getting easy achievements, collecting, and more recently, bonuses that come from owning these games, like the Steam Trading Cards (which are crafted into badges, used to gain Steam XP, or sold for credits for games). A few have even been lucky enough to become "popular" in the modding and piracy scene for containing glitches that allow one to root their console and run homebrew apps, or even outright pirated games.
  • Many are only known, and sometimes even beloved for how bad they are, after having been found, played, and mocked by a popular Lets Player.