Shovelware has a bad reputation for its “fast fashion” method of creating video games. It’s polarizing and is usually a far cry from a quality game. The tactics used to get people to buy shovelware games is awful, but shovelware’s existence still matters because of what it represents: accessibility, nostalgia, and opportunity.
Since there are many opinions of what shovelware is on the internet, it’s important to provide a clear definition. Some gamers define just about everything but a perfect game, shovelware. But shovelware isn’t an inherently buggy or amateur title. Games in these categories, one could argue, are more likely to be created with good intentions. Shovelware are games created not only as a cash grab but also are associated with a licensed title or generic titles that lack proper mechanics, features, and plot.
One such example is the infamous Japan-exclusive Pepsiman, a company-branded game that had commercials between each stage. It was cheap, and it was one large ad.
Other company-branded games like Chester Cheetah: Too Cool to Fool and Pringles Game were all made to get people to buy more products. There are other strange licensed games of the same quality, but one thing is for sure: Shovelware not only has a long history, it’s also unlikely to ever stop.
Here’s why that isn’t such a bad thing.
Shovelware games, as defined, are still valuable to a lot of people, specifically children. Relatable titles like Barbie or SpongeBob get younger children into games, and it allows the children who need to learn how games work the opportunity to grow. Of course, there are people who would say a child is better off playing a “harder” game because it builds character, but this isn’t inherently true. Every person has different needs.
At the core, a shovelware game is so stripped down that your only focus is to beat the game. When that’s the goal, skills like spatial awareness can be learned through gaming. Additionally, playing a game and learning the basic mechanics or concepts of gameplay can do wonders on a child’s self-esteem.
One of my favorite shovelware games came from a licensed title, M&M's Minis Madness.
In it, you play across several stages with the red, yellow, blue, and green M&M's to shut off switches to fix the central computer system. This 20 minute or so game took a week for me to complete, but it was fun even with all of its terrible mechanics. That game alone, taught proper reaction time, problem solving, patterns and never giving up on hard concepts. This all would serve me well once I could buy popular games that required my attention.
What I didn’t realize that I do now more than 15 years later was that shovelware games was my access to gaming period. My family could not afford major gaming titles, but we could afford a few dozen games tied to movies like Monsters Inc and Atlantis: The Lost Empire and those games filled in as our chances to connect to movies we couldn’t afford to see as well as feel included around our friends who had games. These choices to purchase these games led to something that was just as important to my life—nostalgia.
As adults, most of us would never play shovelware games as a first choice, but we often turn to these games as a reminder of a memory, usually of simpler times. Shovelware has a place for people looking to relive something that we all could use a bit more of: happiness.
Yes, more popular titles provide similar feelings of nostalgia, but there is something to be said of playing a game that was tied to a popular movie, cartoon, or food brand. Playing shovelware games helped solidify connections to ourselves at that time and reminded us who we were and who we are now. A popular title that is making a resurgence in the media is Rugrats. This 29-year-old cartoon has many fans, new and old. One of its more memorable shovelware titles was Rugrats in Paris: The Movie, a 20-year-old game published by THQ where you played mini games to win tickets throughout EuroReptarland.
It’s a game that is absolutely fun if you played it back in the day. It was not the best in graphics by today’s standards, but it was enough back then. A big reason for why nostalgia matters is that it can offset emotions like anxiety and depression while giving us hope. When you think about it, there is a reason why we sometimes find ourselves longing for the past and clinging to something meaningful: It helps us have meaning in our lives. However, fleeting those memories may be, they are what shaped us.
Of course, a shovelware title usually was not top tier back in the day, but a lot of people including myself couldn’t tell the difference and see them for what they were. At the core, shovelware is relative. If you like it, great, and if you don’t, there is something for everyone.
On the other side of gaming are the people who create it. A team on a shovelware game, including designers and developers, can always learn something from working on a shovelware title. Considering that every person doesn’t get the opportunity to make a winning game, creating a shovelware title can be fulfilling because it teaches people what not to do and what works when designing a game.
It may be enticing to try and jump to a big named project or a well-known company, but it is harder than it looks and may not be the dream that you think it is as an employee. So working on games that you would never play serves a certain population can be a legitimate first step to something bigger down the line.
The work he’s done with licensed titles taught him the amount of work that goes into shovelware titles and that working on a big company’s game means you don't necessarily have autonomy because you’re bound by a rigid set of rules that dictate how games have to be when they’re tied to a popular title. So working on licensed games drew him closer to indies and his career took off from there after a stint at Universal and other popular companies like Disney. It is possible to start with shovelware and create something great with time and ingenuity.
This obviously doesn't mean a person interested in working in the gaming industry has to start with shovelware as a portfolio builder, but it certainly won't hurt to learn and grow from these experiences either, because everyone starts somewhere.
Where do we go from here? If you dislike shovelware because it bothers you and doesn’t fit your view of a quality game, there will be no argument here. But shovelware will always exist because people buy it and it meets the needs of those who enjoy it. The case for shovelware’s existence is one that isn’t separated from the company’s cash grab; it acknowledges it, but realizes it's bigger than money for people. It’s about the experience.