What is Shovelware? [Gaming Definition, Meaning]

Nobody goes into game development with the intent of making a bad game. Okay, maybe there are some stories buried in the sands of the endless desert of production woes out there that mirror Mel Brooks’ classic movie “The Producers”, but more often than not, designers, artists, and programmers want to make something that people will enjoy and fondly look back on. However, sometimes, due to rushed production schedules, they’ll fall short in hammering out the small details. Maybe the level designers didn’t have time to find the perfect spot for that one collectible item that would make discovering it all the more satisfying. Perhaps the programmers didn’t have a chance to iron out the framerate in one of the worlds.

These are not the sort of games we’re discussing here today. No, shovelware is the type of game that might actually confirm your own fears about development. Shovelware is the worst of the worst; not only are they deeply flawed at the mechanical level, but also a type that only functions in the sense that it starts when you boot up the game. It’s the kind of game explicitly made with the sole intent of scamming someone out of their hard-earned money. No one wants to make a bad game, but in the case of shovelware, that doesn’t mean quality is a priority either. It’s more of a happy accident.

Hiding its quality behind familiar brands

It’s December 1999. Grandma is out doing some last minute Christmas shopping, but she’s been having a rough time with her hip surgery rehabilitation and hasn’t had the ability to see you lately. She knows you like video games because you were always playing that Mary-Oh game on that Nintendo 64 system her daughter got you. She doesn’t know what Mary-Oh game it was, though, and, oh geez, there are so many different ones. It’d be a shame if she got you one you already had. Your mother has been telling her that you’ve really wanted this Banjo-Kazooie game for a while now, so she’ll grab that so she knows you’ll be happy, but it HAS been a while since she’s seen you. She wants to do a little more for you. Hey, EB Games is running a Buy 1, Get 1 free promotion on Nintendo 64 games! The clerk tells her that critics have been raving about this Ocarina game, but she doesn’t really know if you’ll like that. Oh! But she’s seen you watch that Superman cartoon! They have a game for it! Perfect!

Sometimes the story above plays out with the cashier informing the grandmother that Superman 64 is an awful waste of the promotion and her grandson will probably put it down after five minutes. That’s fine. Publishers of shovelware expect that to happen every now and then. No big deal. Because for every story where the store clerk makes the effort to steer Grandma in the right direction, there are another 5 where the clerk has inventory due by the end of the day and Grandma is holding up a growing line. Who cares if she didn’t even pay for it? Publisher got their money upfront when the brick & mortar stores made their original order. The store itself is trying to clear product out of the store, and, frankly, stores need trash games like this to have product for these sorts of promotions in the first place. It keeps people coming back to their store because of the illusion of a good deal. The only person who lost here was you.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

  • System: Atari 2600
  • Publisher: Atari
  • Developer: Atari
  • Release Date: December 1982

Perhaps the most famous example of shovelware in the sense that you actually need a shovel if you’d like a copy. E.T. didn’t even sell half of the 4 million cartridges that were produced over Christmas, so the remaining copies were buried in a landfill in New Mexico. The 1.5 million copies that were sold were almost all exclusively sold in the initial month of release, riding off the hype of the movie and the holiday shopping season. It was famously created within a span of 6 weeks from the end of July to September to be shipped out for the holiday season with exactly one staff member: then-industry hot-shot Howard Scott Warshaw.

E.T. is often credited for the 1983 collapse of the home video game market, but, really, that’s not entirely fair. E.T. was only the crowning moment of a series of failures from Atari that stemmed from quickly buying out popular licenses and slapping together a game in increasingly shrinking development cycles. However, E.T. is most notable because of how perfectly it encapsulates how shovelware gets sold on such a massive scale. It sells based solely on brand name alone and is quickly cobbled together to be sold to meet a targeted sales period, nothing more. Honestly, how E.T. actually plays is entirely inconsequential to how it was made or sold.

Barely functions as intended

It’s all well and good to talk about how shovelware is normally produced, but frankly, licensed games are hardly the end-all, be-all of terrible games. They used to be a good indicator, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes, a game just has incredibly troubled development, gets thrown out into the wild, and the publisher just hopes for the best. And, hey, we don’t want to just fully blame the publisher here either for rushing along development; maybe the developers’ hearts just weren’t in it and didn’t have the passion or even the technical know-how to get their project up and running.

These sorts of rush jobs are the worst kind of shovelware because they’re not just unpolished, but completely, technically inept. The sorts of games where doing anything outside of what was specifically intended and stated by the game will lead to off-the-wall results. We’re not talking about just minor bugs and glitches; we mean the game almost entirely coming apart at the seams. We’re talking about games that look like the artists didn’t have the chance to figure out how a building or animal should even look, let alone how they should be lit or animated. Physics that come undone at the slightest test of what they can do. Not that they’d be any better if they played correctly anyway.

Big Rigs: Off-Road Racing

  • System: PC
  • Publisher: GameMill Publishing
  • Developer: Stellar Stone
  • Release Date: November 20th, 2003

Notorious for holding Metacritic’s all-time lowest aggregate rating, Big Rigs isn’t even a game you can call functional. Nobody is even sure what the failure looks like in Big Rigs, as in the original release, your opponents wouldn’t even move from the starting line. Going in reverse for slightly too long blasts your big rig right off the race course and into an infinite gray void while accelerating at speeds that would make NASA jealous. You can’t even call Big Rigs unfinished when it was barely started to begin with.

Big Rigs is one of the purest forms of a game made squarely for a certain demographic of the time and not much else. Racing games were huge business in the early-to-mid 2000s with Gran Turismo, Need for Speed, Burnout, Midnight Club, and literally dozens of other big name racing games making a name for themselves. However, PC gaming was on a terrible downswing at the time, with many big name series receiving lousy port jobs or skipping out on the platform entirely. As a result, you’d see games like Big Rigs filling a niche for racing-starved PC fans, hungry for anything with four wheels. You can’t say the strategy didn’t work either; according to Gamespot, Big Rigs managed to miss out on their “Best Game No One Played” list due to selling over 20,000 copies. Not that many overall, but with a measly $15,000 budget, Big Rigs certainly made a return on the initial investment.

Has adapted with the times

The term “shovelware” actually comes from how the content of the medium is almost lazily shoveled onto the disc, making it a giant waste of space. This specific terminology does not actually hold up anymore because, frankly, the era of cheap, quickly produced licensed console games is mostly over. You might find the odd Cars or Kung Fu Panda game for your PS4, but inflated development costs have pushed these sorts of games off of traditional consoles and instead have been reinvented as free mobile games meant to advertise their respective licenses rather than as a quick cash grab. Licensed console games have become a respectable pursuit like with the recent Batman and Naruto games getting the budgets and development time franchises of their magnitude deserve.

That does not mean shovelware has disappeared. Far from it. Rather, it changed forms. No longer does shovelware hide behind famous movie or TV licenses pushed by publishers and licensors looking for a quick buck. Instead, shovelware is mostly produced from small time studios taking advantage of the prestige that comes from being released on a digital platform. After all, it certainly sounds quite impressive. Sony or Nintendo specifically vetted YOUR game amongst a sea of crap and allowed it to be sold on their platforms. It has to be good… right?

Getting a digital release is a shockingly simple process. All you have to do is register with the company of your choice, hope you get approved, and then pay the platform holder a few thousand dollars for the development tools. The several thousand dollars is a deterrent for most, but all it takes is a small bank loan or a well-off family member fronting the money to get on any of these platforms. Steam is even easier thanks to its crowd-based system where all it takes is around 100 users or so to say they’d buy your game and a down payment from you of $100.

Life of Black Tiger

  • System: Playstation 4
  • Publisher: 1Games
  • Developer: 1Games
  • Release Date: January 17th, 2017

Billed as an interactive story about the harsh realities of wildlife living by the rule of jungle, we’re sure 1Games had high hopes when they began Life of Black Tiger. Unfortunately, one look at the trailer and watching the titular tiger clip through a trio of hunters, take a swipe that lands about 15 cm away from anyone, and killing all three pursuers in the process makes it pretty clear that the staff involved simply didn’t have the time, the budget, the knowhow, or the drive to make their vision a reality.

Life of Black Tiger is unnerving in how its poor quality has unintentionally become an advertising method. The trailer has over 1 million views. That’s more than even some games released by big name publishers like Nintendo and Sega. It was briefly a trend in the Let’s Play world back in January when it first released. Life of Black Tiger didn’t just fade into obscurity; people actually heard about it. And it’s still up on the PSN store now, meaning it didn’t damage either Sony nor 1Games reputations enough to even have it pulled like what happened with Afro Samurai 2. Despite the hatred thrown at this game, people bought it ironically so they could talk about how bad it was. And in the end, 1Games still got their money for it.

Life of Black Tiger – Preview Trailer:

Final Thoughts

We only remember the games we love, so we forget that over 90% of the games that are released are actually not that great. That’s why it’s important to stay vigilant and up-to-date on gaming news and trends. You don’t want to waste your money on a scam.
Any other notorious pieces of Shovelware we missed here? Have a story of a time you or a loved one got scammed by a terrible game? Please, let us know in the comments below!

E.T.-The-Extra-Terrestrial-game-300x413 What is Shovelware? [Gaming Definition, Meaning]


Author: Matt Knodle

I come from Indiana, where I grew up near a video rental shop that proudly stated “The widest selection of anime in the state”, setting me on a course to enjoy as much anime as possible. I’ve devoted myself to over-analyzing various sports anime and video games probably more than they were ever intended. I currently co-host a weekly sports anime fan podcast called KoshienCast with my good friend, Matt.

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