“Asset flipping” is a contentious term for video game fans, who often use it to refer to bad games that are cobbled together using pre-made assets. On Steam, asset flipping has been a genuine problem in the past due to a lack of safety measures for preventing garbage from getting on the storefront. But the discussion around asset flipping has apparently given people the wrong idea of how games are made, judging by a recent controversy with the gritty battle royale game PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.
Making wholly original video game assets such as 3D models is a time-consuming and expensive practice that even big game development companies can’t always swing. As such, many developers end up outsourcing work to other countries, or sometimes purchase assets from online stores; the two biggest game engines, Unreal and Unity, both offer popular asset stores. It’s an extremely common practice used by countless game developers, which is part of why video game credits are often so long. Despite the reputation created by some of Steam’s terrible games, using premade assets is not inherently a bad thing. In most cases, these assets simply help developers focus their talents on what actually matters.
But if fans recognize assets from an online store, they’re going to call it an “asset flip,” a phrase that inherently has a negative connotation because it implies that developers are being lazy. “This game is nothing but a glorified asset flip,” reads one Steam forum thread on PUBG. On Reddit, there are occasionally threads discussing whether or not it’s okay for PUBG’s developers to purchase assets for its game.
While that specific discussion has a number of people stating that they have no problem with the practice, the general anger around the idea has apparently worn down PUBG Corp. As reported by Eurogamer, at E3, PlayerUnknown himself — Brendan Greene — clarified that making maps as fast as PUBG Corp does can’t happen without using outside work. Seeing accusations of being an “asset flip” game therefore feels discouraging for him. “I see these comments and I’m like, I want to kill you,” Greene joked.
Last week, furor around the subject brewed once more as the E3 clip of Greene made the rounds on Reddit, prompting PUBG Corp communications leader Ryan Rigney to address the issue directly:
The first thing to understand is that if you’re just starting up a team, you’ve got to lean on asset store work because that’s the only way you can spin up a game fast, and for a reasonable price, to quickly find the fun. Hiring an art team of 40 people to “try a game” and “see if it’s fun” is simply not a smart way to work — this is what the asset store is for! It’s a great resource for teams that want to work smart.
Rigney explained that PUBG’s first map was a combination of asset purchases, outsourced work, and in-house material. According to Rigney, the team stopped relying on store-bought assets as much as time went on, and instead started to use them more “strategically.”
“It just doesn’t make sense to build everything in the game world yourself,” Rigney said. “Why should one of my artists spend two weeks on a generic sculpt if they could instead spend that two weeks adding real value for players elsewhere?,” a lead PUBG artist said. “How many times should a telephone booth be modeled? How many times do we gotta sculpt a cash register?”
Unfortunately, the average person doesn’t understand how games are made, and the anger around Steam’s shoddy practices has primed some people to see the practice of purchasing assets in a negative light. Given the ongoing stigma that game developers try to nickel and dime consumers, or are constantly trying to sell them incomplete and underwhelming games, it’s no surprise that people have banded together against “asset flipping.” If the narrative is that developers are trying to pull a fast one on fans, then supposedly sneakily purchasing assets from an outside source falls perfectly within that conspiracy theory. Purchasing assets is widely not understood for its intended purpose.
PUBG’s creators, for their part, are going to continue doing what works for them, with Rigney stating that the next in-game map will also make strategic use of outside assets.
“This is a good thing,” Rigney said. “These sorts of issues are pretty much always more complicated than the Reddit meme version of the story (‘hehe XD asset flip’) so keep that in mind whenever you see someone telling oversimplified tales.”