Shovelware – The Causes and Consequences of Bad Licensed Games – Extra Credits


Alright, this episode really should have happened by now. Scot, thank you for your patience. Your generosity years ago was downright inspiring. Today we are gonna talk about shovelware, one of the banes of the industry. It’s one of the most soul-crushing things to work on and just terrible for consumers. And yet it may be more common today than ever before, so today we are gonna delve into why. First, let’s define ‘shovelware’, since I’ve seen a number of different definitions out there. When I talk about shovelware, I’m talking exclusively about poorly-done licensed titles or shoddy ports. I’m not talking about the plethora of bug-filled games, amateur games, or any incomplete games out there. I think in a lot of cases, those games began with the best intentions and still have some value to the industry, Often serving as a lesson for the people making them. True shovelware does not have that value. We sort of touched on this in our Designing for Youth episode, but the fundamental reason shovelware is so terrible… …is that most of it is created of the idea that just being associated with the licenced property they are working with will sell the game. When you see a terrible Barbie game or a lousy movie tie-in, it’s a pretty safe bet that… …buying the rights to create that tie-in cost the company more money than they put into the actual development of the game. You see, these publishers are willing to wager that most of their sales will come from brand recognition, rather than the actual quality of the game itself. Therefore, making a quality game is not their priority at all. Instead, these companies try to get the game made and out the door as cheaply as possible… …in order to maximize the the profit margin they make from simply having the license to whatever brand it is they bought the rights to. This in turn leads to miserable working conditions at whatever poor developer actually gets stuck making the thing. The developers end up having to work on a franchise that they probably don’t wanna be working on… And even if they do care enough to make it awesome… …they usually don’t get the resources they need to do anything interesting or even of high quality with the title. Remember, the publishers aren’t paying for something good. They’re paying for something that is technically a game that can go into store with a picture of Iron Man on the front. This often leads to a great deal of outsourcing on the project. Which, as most people in the industry will tell you, is a nightmare when you’re working with something as complicated as a video game. It can be really tough, even if you’re working with a top-tier outsourcing firm where everybody’s really good at what they do. Which of course, none of these probably are because, again: minimal budget. To compound this issue, the publisher or company who actually licensed the game generally has a tight deadline for when it has to be out. You see, companies usually pick out property licenses when they think that they’re going to get some extraordinary benefit… …from releasing a game based on that property in the near-term future, over and above the average day-to-day value of the property itself. This means that they usually pick them up knowing that a new movie in the franchise or some new line of toys is gonna be coming out. In order for them to get the most of marketing value out of their license, they need to have a product on the shelves as soon as that movie or toy hits. Because that’s when that franchise is gonna be on everybody’s mind. Of course, even big companies don’t usually know about these sorts of events years in advance. Which means that these licensed games often end up being put on incredibly tight production schedules… …with huge financial penalties for the developer if they don’t deliver on time. And, as these projects are often work-for-hire, the developers will see little-to-none of the royalties. So, not only are they motivated to deliver the game even more cheaply than what the publisher’s paying them… …they’re also incentivized to kick the thing out the door when the deadline comes, no matter what condition it’s in. They literally can’t afford to care about quality. And in the end, all of this leads to a negative experience for the end consumer. Nobody likes a bad game and nobody likes to be swindled… …but for the most part, that’s exactly what these games are and what they’re trying to do. They’re specifically targeting the uninformed consumer. In the past, these games largely targeted parents who they assumed were not game-savvy… …and thus would simply buy whatever they recognized when looking for a gift for their kids. This practice is bad for everybody involved, including the industry at large. I mean, all of you watching this: we all love games, right? A lot of us grew up loving them, specifically because we weren’t raised on shovelware like this. We grew up on games like Mario and Final Fantasy and Halo and Civilization and The Sims and Minecraft. These are the games that got us to dedicate so much time to the medium. The kids whose parents bought them that Barbie game or the GI Joe games were much more likely to lose interest and take up other pastimes… …because they never got to see all the incredible things this medium had to offer. This industry lost potential life-long consumers so that a few companies could make a quick buck. But that’s often how it works. When there’s an enticing short-term gain staring at you in the face… …sometimes it’s hard to see the long-term damage you’re doing, even if it’s to yourself. And this phenomenon is far from over. There was a time we would’ve associated this type of terrible product with the bygone NES days or the Atari collapse. And maybe with the market dominance of the PlayStation One and Two. But the trend seems to be slowing down over time. As games got to be more expensive to make and modern systems became harder to build for… …it became impossible to simply rush out a product with an inexpensive team. Unfortunately, that perspective is only true if you think of the industry as just the big PC and console players. Because shovelware moved to mobile, and it moved there hard. Shovelware is more profitable than ever and it might be causing more damage than ever before too. Mobile platforms are generally far easier to develop for than our major AAA platforms… …which makes them the perfect market place for shovelware. Games are cheaper to make and take less time to crank out, which makes it way easier to hit those crazy deadlines. And perhaps most importantly, mobile presents a whole new customer base to sell to. One that isn’t necessarily as up to speed on games as the core AAA audience. You see, over the last few decades, those of us who grew up with games started to be the ones to buy games for their kids. Or to be the ones to make recommendations for friends. And so, as a whole, the consumer base became less gullible, making shovelware harder to sell. But that’s not the case yet in the mobile space. Tablets and phones have reached well beyond traditional users. And often, they serve as the first gaming machine for children that might not otherwise have gotten a game system at all. To add to this, at the time mobile really became a thing… …many existing video game license deals didn’t apply to the mobile space. So licenses once locked up by major publishers were picked up cheaply by the emerging mobile giants. And when you throw in some of the exploited free-to-play practices these companies are using to squeeze every available dollar out of these games… …we find that shovelware is actually bigger than it has ever been. And as such, is turning off an entire generation of new players, and setting up the mobile market, not for a crash, but certainly for a contraction. So how do we stop this? Well, the best remedies are education and time. The mobile market is gonna go through the same shovelware-cycle consoles and PCs did… …but we can accelerate that process by helping our younger sibling or friend’s kids get games that won’t try to take advantage of them. But the real solution, unfortunately, lays with the license holders. For years, many of the companies licensing properties like James Bond or Transformers, really didn’t know very much about the video game world. They saw games as just another way to exploit their license for cash, and because they saw it as a niche market… …they didn’t really think of it as affecting their brand, or at least they didn’t see the game’s quality as a major brand concern. License holders have always had huge books full of specifications on how to treat their licenses… …and how to display their logos… …and heaps and heaps of rules that make creating a licensed game all that much more difficult for developers… …who already don’t have the resources to develop a proper game in the first place. So while these license holders would make absolute sure that the developers were meticulous in applying the exact shade of red to their cars… …or making sure that their hero never shoots an enemy blow the belt or something… …they really didn’t understand or care about quality, or how the game played. They didn’t see games as having the potential to turn a new audience onto their product. Or to dampen the enthusiasm of their existing audience. This is starting to change, though. As license holders start to perceive games less as mere merchandise and more on the level of a mass media, like a T.V. show or comic book… …they’re to really understand the long-term value that games have. As more people who grew up on games are now the ones working on these deals… And as some of the companies controlling these licenses see the benefits of breakout successes like Batman: Arkham Asylum… …their policies on who they license to and what they expect from a licensed game will change. Shovelware may never disappear, but when this mindset shift happens… …the volume of shovelware titles will change from a flood to a trickle. And more of our favourite licenses will start getting the good games they really deserve. I’ll see you next week!

100 thoughts on “Shovelware – The Causes and Consequences of Bad Licensed Games – Extra Credits”

  1. sigh if only it had turned to a trickle. Lo and behold; EA, Blizzard, Ubisoft, Bethesda the big ones, they have turned their brands to shovelware.

  2. If you define shovelware as bad licensed games and poorly made ports, what are the massive amounts of purchased assets thrown into a game and put onto Steam that are shovelled out in bulk?

  3. 4:50 what leads you to believe that developing on mobile is easier? In my experience, it's alot harder than to develop for PC

  4. The solution for a lot of these problems is simple… Pay for your games, and don't buy it on sale. If you don't wan't to pay to have a good game, you gonna get a shit game, if the market will not pay for a good game, they are gonna get more bad games.

  5. It's fascinating 2 see how language continues 2 develop: when I was going through the 1990s, "shovelware" meant 1 of 2 things — those "added value" software titles that got bundled with (shovelled into) the box when U bought a brand-new computer system from a retailer, or the numerous free game demos / "sneak peak" beta versions / behind-the-scenes materials you'd find on the compact disc when U bought a PC game on CD-ROM… because oftentimes the nature of those "bonus" features was so random that it seemed some1 just shovelled them onto the disc.

  6. The worst part of shovelware is that some of the licensed titles that are it could have been great like Crazy Frog Racer,one of the worst and poorly designed racing games out there that exist.

  7. 3:50 Puuh, these poor people may had to spend time outside, or even visiting the real grand canyon instead of seeing it in a video about games. 😉 Aah the good old days.

  8. 7:40 -"And more of our favourite licenses will start getting the good games they really deserve"
    I'd hope so. I've love a Nicktoons crossover game that wasn't utter garbage but it seems like that will never happen. 🙁

  9. Shovelware apps in general can be detected easily enough (this means apps that for example are advertised as an building blueprint app but really you might as well just make a plan using paint).
    My problem with the apps is just making sure that I do not just leave them there for several months without touching them.

  10. Oh sorry, I couldn't hear you, I was just playing a bit of Elsa baby pregnant dentist Strange Rope Hero Cup Hand and Head Adventure 2.

  11. To be fair, there have been a lot of good transformers games out there, I will admit the majority were really bad, but you just have to look towards War for Cybertron, Fall of Cybertron, and Transformers Devastation. But there have been some flops like rise of the dark spark and Revenge of the fallen, though I will admit I have enjoyed these games quite a bit. Let’s hope Transformers gets the love it needs again

  12. Strangely enough, terrible games like this only heightened AVGN's interest in video gaming. But i'd imagine he was more interested in how such great licenses that were begging to be adapted into good games ended up so horribly. And plus, he also did grow up with good games alongside them.

  13. There are also those games that are intended to look like another game that is good so dumb kids will download them or unknowing parents will get them for their kids.

  14. I am not really interested in licensed games but it would be interesting if a "Made in Abyss" game would happen.

  15. I've had one – and I do mean one – good experience with Shovelware.

    The game was called Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader.

    The game was developed in 9 months. I poured hours into the game, and I still love it. It's a great space-combat-sim game. I think I got lucky.

  16. Some examples of shovelware:

    Most of the Wii’s game library

    Those mobile bootlegs on the Google Play Store

  17. I think the solution to making the mobile industry better is making better mobile games to raise the quality for the consumer

  18. I think Nick makes the best licensed games because they seem to have effort in their development. But still rip all people affected by shovel ware.

  19. I think with a licensed game as an expansion of the movie, industry can better team up with the game designers to make a double primere, including the code to predownload in the beginning of the movie. Or inside the theater. So you can play the game early when you watched the movie. Or share it with friends. But you have to get the QR Code and use it in a week.

  20. When I think about shovelware, myself and everyone I know thinks of barbie. I mean think about it. And look at it. Barbie shovelware is everywhere,

  21. Blizzard: You guys have phones right?
    We want to sell tripple A original non-licensed f2p microtransaction infested shovelware to hardcore gamers. What could go wrong?

  22. Look at me. I'm a license holder. I bought an idea that a bright person had long ago. When people want to put in a bunch of effort making something awesome with this idea – THEY pay ME! Fear my almighty backwards logic!

  23. Thanks for mentioning Civ and Sims as Good games! In fact, One of the first computer games other than Minecraft was Civilization 5 (although that's all I remember civ5 for because now I have uninstalled it because now I play civ4 and civ6 more)

  24. Your early like 3 years, I remember 2014 had good mobile games, now "mobile game" is an insult. There are still good games tho, like soul knight

  25. You guys just gained a subscriber just because you included a character with vitiligo at minute 3:49.
    This little detail that for many could be irrelevant made me feel recognised and appreciated as one who has vitiligo.
    Vitiligo has so little exposure on social media even if 1% of the world population suffers from that!

    Thanks guys 💕

  26. I have actually found some alright mobile games that are free (of course some of them with Micro transactions but not Pay to win)
    The games are: Mindustry, Night of the full moon, Idle skilling, and Endless Frontier

  27. News: 5 game companies have declared bankruptcy
    Me: do they know what happened to Atari with ET the extra terrestrial game?

  28. Hmm maybe this is why I've had the principle to avoid any game that's based on any IP other than a game series. But recently I've encountered a few good or at least decent titles like that. I don't own a smart phone so :p

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