October 25, 2021

The Subjective Term of ‘Shovelware’

This is not the market you are looking for…



A derogatory term for software created either haphazardly with speed, or ported with little regard for the strengths and/or weaknesses of the platform being aimed at. The term first rose to the surface in the early 90’s, as the at-the-time new-fangled CD-ROM and the increased storage space allowed for extras to be bundled with games still designed for smaller storage mediums – as in, that they shovelled in anything that would “add value” to their product, which in turn actually cheapened the product – be this sloppy journals, cheap interviews or sneaky added software of dubious value and use (oh hey DRM! No, I am totally not talking about you today, you can go back to teabagging the marketplace now!). Today, shovelware is more commonly associated with platforms such as the PlayStation 2, Game Boy Advance and Wii platforms; the relatively cheap entry point and licensing arrangements coupled with a considered lack of power ensured that many titles were done as cheaply and quickly as possible, with little regard to the outcome. Notable examples of this would be the likes of Resident Evil Gun Survivor 2 Code: Veronica X, or Chicken Shoot.

Both of the aforementioned games are terrible, and herein lies the first problem; when is a game shovelware, and when is it just plain rubbish?

There are easy cases to be made, of course; Goldenballs. A game based on the frankly terrible game show hosted in the UK by Jasper Carrott, it had a few years of inexplicable popularity and got six series before it was, thankfully, binned from our screens (only for Challenge to show repeats for all eternity, perhaps to prove how bad it was?). The video game version lacked any inherent charm or intelligence and was clearly designed to ride on the success of the show, which is for some the definition of shovelware. Cheaply made, rushed out on the Wii, no-one batted an eyelid as it sank without trace. It was a truly horrible game, but then, the material on which it was based was hardly Citizen Kane, was it? Sometimes you can’t engineer your way across a hole. Goldenballs proved this (incidentally, the show attracted some ire as the title was inspired by an affectionate nickname Victoria Beckham gave to her husband David Beckham, which caused some confusion when it was just a cheap and poorly-done game show!).

Technically speaking, the PS2 version of Resident Evil 4 was rather "shovelware"...
Technically speaking, the PS2 version of Resident Evil 4 was rather “shovelware”…

So was it shovelware? Well, that’s the thing. It got made, quickly, so quite likely yes. But then you come to games such as the Disney Sing It! titles. They seem completely pointless to me, as do most music games (I am one of those snooty people who thinks all the time people put into getting good at Guitar Hero could have been spent getting good at an actual guitar, but hey, that’s my personal viewpoint!). It would be easy for me to point at this and go, “It’s shovelware!” – however, here’s the question. Is it? It sold, decently. It has a market, there are people out there who buy it and I assume enjoy it enough to buy more entries. So is it fair for me, as someone who likes ‘games’ to question the buying habits of those who… well… don’t?

The problem for me comes with the term itself, and how – like “Core Gamers” – it has become far removed from its original conceptual ideology. Remember that “Core Gamers” used to refer to a platforms core market, their main strengths. Now… well, it can mean anything you want really. What is a “Core Game” nowadays? It seems difficult to nail it down anymore, and likewise the term Shovelware. We interchange the word in place of certain vulgarities that we perhaps should be using instead to denote something of actual poor quality, of worthlessness, of something without merit. It’s how broad the term is in its definition that actually, for me, renders it a word that is itself no longer of any actual value.

For example, let’s take some more games. For example, let’s go for a recent one. The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct. I liked it, but there’s no doubt that it carries all the hallmarks of what shovelware is: made cheaply, quickly, rushed to market to coincide with a new series of the show and riding on the coattails of the much more popular Telltale episodic games. It’s full of glitches, errors and anomalies that you wouldn’t expect to find in a title of much larger budget which had time to mature, say, BioShock Infinite. And yet, yes, I had fun with it. For all its faults, there’s sometimes just as much fun to be had in a bad game as there is in a good one, and in spite of many knocking the title, it has so far sold a fair few copies. There’s obviously a market; whether the market would buy another one is another matter entirely, but we knew what it was before we walked in. It took a year from planning to make a game to an actual release. So, is it shovelware? Or was it, as I feel, a missed opportunity? A game rushed, put upon by a business struggling to come to terms with the idea of quality over quantity?

I’d also like to slip in a port here, if you don’t mind. And I’m going to anger many by focusing on Resident Evil 4, and in particular, the PlayStation 2 version. A system that lacked the heft of the Gamecube – which itself struggled to run the game outside of letterbox – and they made it full-screen. This meant that yes, you got more detail, but the game was frankly a lot uglier, blurred, tearing at the seams. The controls were less responsive. The quick-time events harder to deal with. Shovelware? Or just the first in a long line of shoddy ports by Capcom, who only recently seem to have realised shoddy ports don’t do anything any justice (just a shame the titles they’ve been “improving” are ones that might be beyond repair in the first place!).

And how about other games wheeled out every year without fail? The FIFA series, Call of Duty, Battlefield and their ilk. They are made quickly and as cheaply as possible, although the budgets are obviously mammoth compared to the likes of Goldenballs. At what point do we draw the line in terms of what is shovelware?

You might think the PlayStation 2, Game Boy Advance and Wii are somehow exclusive in this. But no, look into your favourite consoles and there’s a wealth of cheaply made, quickly churned-out video games lurking in the bowels of the systems output. The PlayStation 3 has such wonderful examples such as Order Up!, Kung Fu Rider, The Punisher, Dark Void and Lair. The X-Box 360 kicked its life off with the frankly craptastic Bomberman: Act Zero, the upscaled Jumper: Griffin’s Tale and Vampire Rain. This is scratching the surface of a particularly large iceberg however, and there are genuinely lots of “shovelware” games on every single platform. It was the case back as the games market crashed in the mid-80’s, it was the case with the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive, and it is the case now.

Of course, all of these are truly bad games. So why not just call them by that tag? They are bad games. Badly made, not very interesting, not much fun and quite nasty to boot. Why do we need a term such as “shovelware”, in all its broad definition, to encompass something that frankly should be easy to say anyway? For example; let’s take two sentences.

  • That game is crap.
  • That game is shovelware.

Now, with the first, you have a definitive opinion. The person believes the game to be crap; you can ask why, they can allude to their reasoning, but there’s no mistaking the intent of the term. They are saying they did not like the game, that they believe it is “crap”. Okay, that’s very easy. Now to the second. What does that mean? Does it mean it’s bad? Is it a remark on how it was made? All the person is saying is that it’s “shovelware”, and again, with such a broad scope of definition, that could mean anything. It doesn’t really say anything at all, does it?

All that said, there’s one thing we might just need to clear up as well; that is, what we call shovelware might not be at all.

The thing is, most Disney games are not aimed at me. I am a thirty-something single man with a penchant for story and substance, who likes a game to challenge and educate as well as provide fun. The only games in a long time Disney have been involved with even remotely close to that would be the Kingdom Hearts series. However, just because Disney’s Princess Adventures isn’t pitched to me, it doesn’t mean that it is without merit or, importantly, without a market. Sure, it may not be as well made as Zelda: Twilight Princess, or have the depth and complexity of Xenoblade Chronicles, but you can count on one thing; my five-year-old niece, Willow, would be all over it. She loves Disney – not surprising, really, we all do at that age – so it’s something she’d obviously love to try and experience and play. The Wii and the PlayStation 2 collectively expanded the video game market and opened it up to arguably markets which aren’t quite “gamey”, shall we say. Not in the traditional sense. However, does this mean that these people – who buy Wii Sports, Just Dance! and Sing It! in their droves – are without merit? Should we look down upon them with scorn? Or should we start accepting that in a modern world, with such an open playing field and so many people owning games consoles, that by nature there will be different markets. And a game that isn’t aimed at us may not always be “shovelware”, regardless of whether we feel the label is accurate or not?

This is a screen of Little Britain: The Game. I could tell you it was awful but I think the image does a better job.
This is a screen of Little Britain: The Game. I could tell you it was awful but I think the image does a better job.

Some argue that Shovelware companies are effectively doomed. The counter to that argument is FROM Software. Let’s face it, they are no strangers to the world of quickly-made content; they gave us plenty of not-so-great Tenchu games, after all. But, here’s the thing; Echo Night. Demon’s Souls. Dark Souls. The company can, and does, make some cracking games as well. It’s difficult to square the two off sometimes, but FROM Software is a successful studio. Even considering its chequered history, they’re hardly doomed. If anything, they are currently one of the most respected video game houses in the market, arguably off the back of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, but then – they’re two incredibly strong games in a market that rather needed that sort of experience. This generation, it has created arguably it’s own brand-new genre of game; a bit Metroidvania, a bit Vagrant Story, a bit Survival Horror. That doesn’t strike me as a company in any real danger, even if they can put out such utter tripe as Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor.

Bad games happen. It will happen. It always has, and always will. Whilst I will obviously still feel that Gears of War is a bit rubbish, that’s my feeling towards it. I can’t deny it has millions of fans though who would argue with me to the end of time that I am wrong to feel this way about their baby, but what can you do? For me, many games quickly turned out on third-party game engines fall into the Shovelware category. My definition is personal; bad games quickly made. Obviously, the recent Aliens: Colonial Marines falls into this category too. But my differentiation there is that they had plenty of time, and wasted it passing the buck and not making a good game. What was left was a game which had no attention paid to it, was hateful and horrible and stupid and is frankly a disgusting game. That’s it. It’s a terrible, terrible game.

But we need to let go of “shovelware”, as a term. It… it’s too far gone. It’s too much a personal opinion, too vague, too open to interpretation. Not all shovelware games need to be crap; just as not all big-budget triple-A games will be good. Like the term “Core Gamer”, it’s just a term that sounds nice and is thrown about by people pretending to know everything and acting pretentious and cocky with it. But that’s all it is. What it used to stand for has been stretched, and stretched, and now I don’t think you’ll find anyone who has the same opinion of what Shovelware is (unless they read off Wikipedia, which isn’t really an opinion, is it?). We’ve kind of broken the term. We’ve used it, we’ve abused it and now much like certain games in the market, we’re milking the term long after it’s pretty much stopped meaning anything at all. When you can be so much more direct, so much more concise and with such simple words such as “bad”, and “not very good”, why do we continue to use it? And often, when we do use it, use it wrongly.

Whether a game is good or not is always going to be subjective – no two people are the same. But the words we use need not be subjective. And if we’re going to communicate a point, then perhaps it is time we stopped using such terminology and started speaking in plain English. Or whatever language you wish to speak, all fine with me. The industry has lost its way; but we, as gamers and critics, have also lost our way. And it’s time we grasped the basics of language once again and stopped bamboozling people with big showy words and feigned intelligence. We only ever look pompous and stupid in the process.

And when we’re done, let’s grab a shovel and give a proper burial to “Shovelware”, the term that sank a thousand games.

I, for one, won’t miss it.


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