It’s no secret that the Nintendo eShop is awash in “shovelware,” low-quality games that seemingly only exist to take up space (and maybe turn a quick buck for the publisher). But over the past year or so, the eShop is facing an even more insidious publishing tactic: the so-called “asset flip.”
Asset flips describe a game that’s built entirely using premade models, environments, and sometimes even whole templates or demonstration builds. Typically, these assets are purchased with full rights, totally above board, through stores like the Unity Asset Store.
There’s nothing wrong with using premade assets in a game, of course; independent game studios are often strapped for resources, so they can pick up premade assets and then use them for their own games, slashing development time and keeping overhead low. But some publishers simply license assets and flip them onto a digital storefront—in this case, Nintendo’s eShop—as if they were a full, totally new game, sometimes without changing a thing.
The practice is technically legal. It’s also widely frowned upon.
“Many people don’t have the necessary skill sets to produce every element of their games, and the sites that sell assets are incredibly valuable,” Luke Wild, who runs the YouTube channel StarorShovelware, told Kotaku in an email. “But creating a game entirely from assets—or even worse, using a...complete game template, not modifying any of the base assets, and then publishing it as a ‘Game’ on the eShop—is just wrong in my mind.”
Asset flips aren’t exactly a novel problem, and have in fact troubled the PC gaming community for some time. In 2017, Steam removed more than 170 games that were considered asset flips. (One game that hasn’t been quashed yet: Asset Flip. It’s in early access.)
But in recent years, the practice has proliferated on Nintendo’s storefront. Wild has dutifully chronicled the growing scourge, and documented his efforts in a video posted this weekend:
As Wild detailed in an extensive spreadsheet, around 90 games that have been published on the eShop thus far in 2021 can be qualified as asset flips. Of those, the mobile publisher Pix Arts—which you may know as the outfit behind such gems as Jumping Stack Ball and US Navy Sea Conflict—is far and away the greatest offender, having published 34 bona fide asset flips.
A few weeks back, Wild actually dedicated a whole video to shedding light on the company’s practices. Pix Arts’ Benoît Varasse, who’s listed as the developer on many Switch-published Pix Arts games, chimed in in the comments, writing:
There’s absolutely nothing illegal nor immoral in buying assets from the Unity Asset Store or graphics from TurboSquid and [making] games out of them. It is also legal to buy a mobile game licence from the Unity Asset Store and make an adaptation on other formats. In fact, it is exactly what the Unity Asset Store and its ecosystem is made for.
Pix Arts did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Kotaku.
Spotting an asset flip is both an art and a science. Wild first organized games on the eShop in reverse chronological order (via the e-commerce site Deku Deals). He then pinpointed any fishy-looking games. (Wild has “developed a knack” for spotting this sort of thing.) From there, discerning whether or not a game was an asset flip boiled down to either reverse-image searching or trawling asset-selling sites. In some blatant cases, the developer wouldn’t even swap the name of the original asset. Whoopsies.
Critics of asset flipping believe the practice, though above board, is shady at best—yet another deceptive business practice designed to hoodwink consumers into buying a subpar product with an enticingly low sticker price. Wild, for one, thinks it should stop.
“Nintendo needs to step up and take some kind of action when it comes to both the asset flips and shovelware that populate the e-shop,” Wild said. “I would also love to make more people aware of the issue in the hopes that they would be a little more cautious with what they buy and who they buy from.”
When reached for comment, a representative for Nintendo said the company has “nothing to announce on this topic.”
Update, 9/8/2021 9:30 a.m. ET: Pix Arts provided Kotaku with this statement:
We do not understand the concept of ‘Asset Flipping’. The Unity Asset Store, amongst other stores, has developed an economy where asset creators sell graphics, code libraries, sounds.... Many companies buy those assets to develop games around them. If they wouldn’t do it, there would be no asset economy and asset creators would not be retributed for their work. Pix Arts, for some of our games, have purchased assets and their respective licences to use them (see Unity Asset Store licence) in commercial products, and developed games by adding graphics, specific codes and doing level building. This is perfectly legal and is to the benefit of the asset creators that are retributed by the Asset Store through our purchases, as well to the end users that can enjoy good games at a reasonable price.