Asset Flipping: The Ethics of Reuse in Video Games

Asset flipping, sadly, not involving actual flips...

Jimquisition LogoBack in March of of 2016, video game critic and commentator Jim Sterling was sued by the video game developer Digital Homicide. The allegations were that Sterling had defamed the company and its co-founder, James Romine, in a series of posts and videos criticizing the company’s games.

The lawsuit drew a great deal of publicity as the lawsuit was eventually dismissed in February 2017 after an agreement from the two sides. However, in the 11 months between, Digital Homicide had attempted to sue 100 anonymous Steam users for defamation and, as a direct result of that action, had all of their games removed from Steam.

But while the lawsuit against a critic appropriately gartered a great deal of attention, what received significantly less attention, at least outside of Steam communities, was what the criticism was about.

According to Sterling (and many others) Digital Homicide wasn’t just producing and selling bad games, they were doing so through an unethical technique known as asset flipping.

But while Digital Homicide and its lawsuits may be dead, asset flipping is not. If anything the practice has only grown and it seems Valve, the owners of Steam, are either unwilling or unable to stop it.

Understanding Asset Flipping

Asset FlippedAsset flipping is a term created, appropriately, by Sterling himself as a means to describe what he was an epidemic of shoddy games being pushed on Steam and similar platforms. It compares asset flipping to house flipping, where someone buys a home on the cheap, puts in a small amount of work, and then sells the house for much more later.

But to understand how asset flipping works, one first has to understand a little bit about video game development.

In 2017 its rare for games, at any level, to be built completely from scratch. They are usually built with engines such as the Unity Engine or the Unreal Engine that take care of a lot of the low-level programming so the developer can focus on other things.

To speed up this development, most engines offer some form of asset store. For example, Unity has its Asset Store and Unreal Engine has its Marketplace. These stores contain a wide variety of pre-made content that developers can use such as 2D artwork, 3D models and even complete projects that include gameplay and AI.

Though many of these assets are free, most sell for somewhere between a few dollars and a few hundred dollars, making them an inexpensive way to build a video game.

The idea behind these assets is that they are intended to help developers either speed up work on their games or by teaching new developers how to code and build a game.

However, some developers took to buying (or pirating) those assets and simply repackaging them as new games. These games would then be sold on Steam, usually for a few dollars or less, making it so that, even with just a small number of sales, they can recover costs.

This also enables small developers to rapidly produce a large number of video games. According to Sterling, Digital Homicide, through its various aliases, either published or attempted to publish some 19 games in just over a year.

But developing games this way doesn’t make for good games. They tend to be buggy, have low quality graphics, limited gameplay and it leads to many near-identical games being uploaded and sold at the same time.

But what about the ethics of this and what can the video came community do to stop it.

The Ethics of Asset Flipping

To be clear, these developers are not doing anything illegal. The terms of use on these assets expressly allow them to be used in the development of other video games and there is no rule that says they can’t simply be repackaged and sold. As long as the assets are legitimately purchased and not pirated, there’s no infringement here.

It’s also worth noting that this isn’t necessarily a form of plagiarism either. These assets are intended to be used without attribution, they’re building blocks intended to be come a small part of a much larger game. According to industry norms, attribution is generally not required.

What’s new is that unscrupulous developers are putting minimal efforts into these assets and are spamming out large numbers of low-quality games in hopes of earning some quick money.

In that regard, asset flipping is akin to spamming, but with an added layer of content misuse. Taking a building block intended to aid development and shooting it out as a completed game may not be illegal, but it is certainly against the wishes of everyone involved (including the asset developer) and is harmful to the industry.

Because of this Valve and other platforms have tried to strike back. In September, Valve removed some 200 fake games from Steam. These games belonged to the developer Silicon Echo Studios along with other names they were operating under. According to Polygon, during July and August, the company accounted for over 10% of all new games published on Steam, with 86 titles during just those months.

But while Valve has taken steps including purges and changing the incentives around their trading cards, the problem continues even today. Just last week that Valve removed the asset flip Piccled Ricc due to a copyright complaint from the makers of Rick and Morty, which the game was based on. That game was shown to be an asset flip on top of being an almost certain copyright and trademark infringement.

If a game as clearly questionable as Piccled Ricc can slip through the gates, it’s clear there’s a lot of work to be done in this area.

Bottom Line

For the unscrupulous, asset flipping sits in a sweet spot. It’s completely legal, it’s easy to do and it promises a very quick profit on a very small investment. If you have no scruples about putting out low-quality titles (likely for the purpose of farming trading cards) and using assets in a way they were never intended, then profit likely awaits.

While it’s unclear how much money asset flippers are making, it’s clear that they are turning a profit because more and more continue to try their hand at it.

Though the Steam community, through groups such as Sentinels of the Store, are attempting to combat this problem, it’s going to be up to Valve and other marketplace operators to really put a stop to it.

But there is the problem. Valve has little incentive to do so. Not only do they receive a share of the profits from these games, but any action they took would likely harm some legitimate small developers.

So, an answer to this problem may not be coming anytime soon. Despite the attention on asset flipping in the Steam community, Valve has been unable or unwilling to solve the problem and the store remains inundated with low-quality games built with misused assets.

As frustrating as that reality is for gamers, it’s apparently the price we pay for living in a golden age of gaming where anyone can publish a game (good or bad) and find a place in the open market.

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