If you’ve spent enough time consuming content from the “gaming YouTube” subculture, you’ve probably heard a commentator or two lament the tragedy of “asset flip” games on Steam. That’s a catch-all term for any game that people perceive as low-effort because it uses art, character models, and animations that are available to purchase from the Unity game-engine store. Some developers slap games together using these assets, and then sell them on Steam.
And people hate that.
If you search YouTube for “asset flip,” you’ll find hundreds of videos talking about how these games have taken over Steam and how they represent the basest, most vile greed. On Reddit and other forums, people regularly use “asset flip” as shorthand for a game they find unacceptably buggy or cheap looking.
Are they really a problem, though? And do they have any redeeming qualities? I think that depends on who you ask.
The problem with asset flips
For gamers and YouTubers, the anxiety around these low-effort games seems to stem from the fear of missing out. They worry that a deluge of bad games are burying something amazing — although the criticism usually comes in the form of scolding asset flippers on moral grounds for their abhorrent behavior.
But what about developers? Well, they definitely see asset flips as part of a larger problem — and that problem even has its own name: the Steampocalypse. Last year, developers released 7,600 games on Steam, which is an average of nearly 150 new games every week. That’s a hell of a crowd, and it’s one that indie developers are struggling to stand out from.
And Auroch Digital design director Tomas Rawlings, the creator of Endgame: Syria, sees asset flips as indicative of those issues.
“Asset flips are the tapeworms of Steam,” he told GamesBeat. “They offer nothing but damage to the whole body of gaming.”
Indie developer and Active Up Games president Dan Williams feels similarly to Rawlings.
“For games that are essentially the same game reskinned and released 5 times, I think that is a huge problem,” said Williams. “And I think those are what draw most of the ire of people who refer to ‘asset flips’ in a more derogatory manner.”
If people hate these games, you might expect that Valve, which owns and operates Steam, would want to take action to eliminate them. But its position is more standoffish. In an effort to clear up its Steam Direct policy, which permits anyone to launch a game on Steam for a $100, the company said it shouldn’t get to pick and choose what you have access to buy.
Williams has a quick and thorough explanation for why that kind of curation is so complicated, which might reveal why Valve is afraid of doing it.
“I think there is value in allowing anyone to release a game, but with regulation,” said Williams. “We want people to release games who care about them and the artform, not just those who are trying to make a quick buck and take advantage of less-informed consumers. But setting the line for what is ‘too low of an effort’ or a ‘wrong effort’ is where we will find ourselves at crossroads. Early game developers, especially ones who are not artists and can’t afford to pay someone, will need to rely on those types of assets, and I wouldn’t want to shut them out. In addition to artistic assets, we now have whole engine prefabs, and I think that will just complicate matters further.”
In a blog, longtime Valve engineer Erik Johnson tried to help Steam customers understand its position. He said that the company is going to permit every game on Steam unless it is illegal or a blatant troll. It went on to clarify that it would still block games like the school-shooting sim Active Shooter because that is an obvious troll, and it has since removed games like Asset Flip Simulator for similar reasons.
But many games that a lot of critics and gamers consider asset flips are still on Steam and will continue to get on the platform, and Rawlings explained why that is so harmful.
“[Asset flips] hurt players because they spend time and money on them,” he said. “They hurt Steam because they damage the player experience. Even if you get a refund, you still have to spend time dealing with it. And they hurt developers as they make it harder for players to see actual games.”
Rawlings thinks that Steam’s $100 Direct fee for every game a developer submits is too low. He wants Valve to raise that barrier of entry.
“Valve needs to make it unprofitable [for a developer] to hurt gaming in this way, or else the number of worms will continue to grow and spread,” said Rawlings. “I think if Valve were to put the cost of Steam Direct to say $500 it is not really going to stop someone who has been pouring their heart and soul into making a game, but it is going to hammer the bottom-feeding profits of asset flips.”
And Valve has considered different prices for its admission fee before. When the company announced Steam Direct, it asked for feedback on setting it at anywhere from $100 to $3,000. It also said that the whole point of the fee is to introduce friction to discourage low-effort trolls. And if your game makes enough money, Valve gives the fee back, so “real games” should do just fine even if the fee is higher.
The value of asset flips
I don’t know that a $500 or $1,000 would do more to discourage trolls any more than $100, but I do worry that it could be enough to turn away someone who may have some interesting new ideas but may rely on asset flips to experiment with those gameplay mechanics.
And that’s one of the problems that QWOP and Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy developer Bennett Foddy identifies with attempts to ban asset flips from Steam.
“People are not all of one mind on what counts as an asset flip,” Foddy told GamesBeat. “My game, Getting Over It, could be reasonably described as an asset flip. Many people called Flappy Bird an asset flip even though all the audiovisual assets were original. PUBG launched with a very large number of Unreal store assets in it. Banished uses assets very heavily. A lot of these games have a huge amount of work in them when it comes to code and design and ideas, and it should go without saying that I think they are wonderful games, but they can also reasonably be argued to be ‘asset flips’ because the 3D visuals are constructed out of bought or free assets. And for sure, you see people complaining about all of them under that banner.”
Foddy’s claim that people lob the “asset flip” pejorative at all of those games has merit. Flappy Bird was the arcade-style oddity for mobile phones that had you guiding one of nature’s less gift avian creatures through a series of green pipe obstacles, and it looked a lot like Super Mario World in its visual design. This led some critics to say that no one should play it because it was a cheap ripoff.
And PUBG is dealing with its own backlash right now from players who think it is an asset flip.
“I feel like ‘asset flip’ has come to be what gamers call discordant aesthetics, similar to how all voxel or cubic games are ‘Minecraft clones,’” Glass Bottom Games director Megan Fox (who oversees voxel brawler Spartan Fist) told GamesBeat. “People don’t spend a lot of time analyzing what they dislike, so they need a convenient bucket to throw it in.
But most reasonable people don’t mean PUBG, Getting Over It, or even Flappy Bird when they say they don’t want asset flips on Steam. Foddy, however, says he still sees worth in games that meet the purest definition of the term.
“Asset flips have developed inside an ecological niche on Steam created by the conjunction of low cost of publishing and astronomical cost of development,” Foddy explained. “You can make a game that expresses a single idea quite fast — weeks or months — and pop it up on Steam and make a little bit of money. As Darwin would have predicted, the games in that ecological niche have developed unique adaptations to it — a unique visual style, a unique set of design and commercial norms. It’s its own micro-culture.”
And while a lot of people hate what comes out of that micro-culture, others exist who find it fascinating and enjoy those experiences.
“Sometimes asset-flip-looking games are good,” said Fox. “Look at Sword With Sauce. It did great, and it’s literally just the demo/free characters from UE4 on grey polygons. So blanket-banning them? Nah.”
Blocking these games from Steam to protect the sensibilities of one group would mean taking them away from another. Of course, that makes it sound like it’s impossible to establish a quality baseline that makes sense. Fox doesn’t agree with that.
“I think a quality baseline is very possible,” she said. “But that would require hiring humans, which Valve seems allergic to. So probably not practicable.”
Foddy, however, thinks the idea of a quality baseline is a lot more murky.
“It’s not possible for books or music so I don’t see why it should be possible with games,” he explained. “Wherever you see people arguing for quality gatekeeping, you’ll notice that they either implicitly disagree about what constitutes a ‘high quality game,’ or that they subscribe to a very particular set of quality norms endorsed by pundits like the late Totalbiscuit.”
John “Totalbiscuit” Bain, who died of cancer in May, built an empire on YouTube talking about games with an authoritative voice (as well as for more unseemingly reasons like legitimizing reactionaries in the GamerGate hate group). He would always start his videos by looking in the settings for options like a field-of-view slider, and he would never fail to call out a game that left that tool out.
For Totalbiscuit, a good game was one with a FOV slider. Maybe you agree with that, but not everyone does.
Williams also acknowledges that when most people talk about “quality,” they are referring to a narrow perception of what a game should be.
“I think the loudest and most demanding game consumers in particular want realistic graphics and effects,” said Williams. “But it’s a catch-22 because those take more effort to create and an M-22 is going to look the same in any game that has one, so of course smaller developers have to rely on asset flips.”
For Foddy, the concept of “quality” is much more broad.
“For me, a game can be ‘high quality’ on the strength of its ideas, its music, its rule design, its gamefeel, its use of color, or its writing, even if every other element of the game is minimal or slapdash,” said Foddy. “So if we want to gatekeep based on quality we either have to use a hazy subjective understanding of quality — which would be wildly unjust to developers and fans — or a set of objective standards — which would eliminate a huge proportion of what is valuable in the medium.”
Foddy questions who would benefit from a “quality baseline.” If visual fidelity is the biggest determining factor on whether or not you think a game is worthy of your time and money, you can quickly determine if a game provides that through trailers, Twitch streams, and reviews.
And while Rawlings rightly notes that getting a refund on Steam does take some time, it is a viable option for any game you purchase. And in an era when we all spend hours researching the best possible silk boxer shorts to buy online, taking a few minutes to get a refund is not that much of a hassle.
So if Steam suddenly had a strict quality baseline, that would only make it moderately easier for a certain group of people to find the certain games they like. That’s all it would do.
“But even with draconian gatekeeping, those people would still be absolutely swamped in games that clear the quality bar,” said Foddy. “We’re never going to go back to the days of stores with just a handful of games, like the early days of Steam or XBLA.”
Foddy also thinks that it’s a real possibility that Getting Over It wouldn’t have passed a quality baseline. He makes strange games that have found wide appeal, but he believes that putting up more barriers between making games and releasing them on Steam will only hurt other developers that are more marginalized than he is, or who don’t have the economic resources.
“That will mean people from countries outside the U.S./Euro/Japan videogame axis, female developers, queer developers, non-white developers, and people making games that just do not neatly fit into orthodox videogame genres,” said Foddy. “And I think we might reasonably suspect that a few of the people most vocally calling for quality control would not mind at all if those games were eliminated from the market.”
Finally, I asked Foddy if he thinks Steam is getting worse for consumers and developers.
“First of all, let’s say ‘players’ rather than ‘consumers,’” said Foddy. “Games are artworks that you play, not ‘content’ you ‘consume’ — calling players ‘consumers’ buys into that whole consumerist critique of games that are purported to be ‘low quality’ because they have pixel art, or asset store graphics, or because they don’t have an FOV slider.”
But no, the Getting Over It developer doesn’t think Steam is getting worse for players.
“I think people overestimate how important the storefront is for players and developers,” he said. “Steam itself offers a range of curation tools like friend lists and curator pages, but it also intertwines seamlessly with the entire internet, which is where most of the actual curation happens. I doubt any really significant good game has ever failed commercially because people bought poor-quality — whatever that means — games by accident. The problem for developers, I suppose, is that there are an enormous number of great, interesting games coming out every week on Steam — far too many for people to be aware of, let alone play.”
Fox echoed that sentiment and compared Steam to the current iteration of Amazon.
“We don’t expect Amazon to tell us what napkins to buy. We probably know which ones we want when we go there,” she said. “It tries to suggest extra stuff, and that’s useful, but few just browse Amazon looking for gems. I think you can say that the only stores still curating content have significantly fewer releases. So to make Steam not that, you’d have something that looks more like a console. And there are tons of games I love that either aren’t on console, or took forever to get there, but were on Steam from the start.”
And Valve’s position — although somewhat muddled — seems to align with Foddy and Fox. It wants to give you the tools to make decisions for yourself, and it wants to remove itself as a factor in your purchasing decision. None of this means that Rawlings is wrong, of course. Too many games, and especially too many games that people perceive as trash, may burn some people out. They may go looking for more curated experiences, which exist on platforms like Itch.io or GOG.
But as long as Steam is the biggest platform for PC gaming in the world, it probably should continue making it as easy as possible for anyone to release a game because I don’t want to miss out on the next Flappy Bird, Getting Over it, or PUBG.