To describe asset flipping, imagine painting a portrait, painstakingly perfecting each stroke and toiling over mixing the oils to get the exact colors for months on end. Now imagine someone walking up to it, snapping a picture of all your hard work and selling prints of it while proclaiming “this is mine.”
This happens sometimes in the fine arts scene but for indie developers, it’s commonplace. Not necessarily the theft of baroque oil paintings but the theft and misuse of digital art. Game assets they worked on for months or years, often solo, only for them to be ripped and used in unauthorized ways.
It would be hard to steal and fence the Mona Lisa but it’s easy to steal and use a character model from an indie game. Museums have advanced security measures to prevent art theft but indie developers don’t have anything to protect their intellectual property.
Art theft happens so often in the indie games world it has some developers seeing it as part of the business. However, other developers work extra hard to protect what they’ve created.
The Cost of Creativity
“When I started I knew the character was going to be particularly important,” Cripps says. “I was inspired by games like Ratchet and Clank and Sonic the Hedgehog. Games with distinct mascots. I knew I couldn’t do a first-person game. It needed a character with a specific design.”
Cripps started working with the Unreal Engine to bring his character to life. Since he started on this project, he says he’s learned a lot — not only about the programming side of game development, but the art side as well.
As a solo indie developer, Cripps is not paid for his work. He bears the cost of his passion project entirely on his shoulders. The fiscal and the emotional.
“Game development is very emotionally exhausting,” Cripps says.
After going through a creative burnout phase in 2017, Cripps decided to hold himself accountable for Project: Feline so he started to upload videos of his development progress.
“If I felt like I wasn’t doing well I could go back and look at where I was and where I am now and motivate myself by seeing that progress,” he said. “Working solo creatively takes a lot of cognitive energy to figure out how to solve problems.”
“It’s difficult to design a game, especially with everything that goes into it. The art department, the programming and the design. You might be doing well in the art but notice a massive design flaw. Managing all that can be really overwhelming,” Cripps added.
It’s especially difficult because he’s got an audience involved, he adds.
One fan even went so far as to calculate what Cripps would have been paid if he was working for a studio. At minimum wage for 200 hours spent making the character and the videos, Cripps would have been paid about four thousand dollars.
Asset Flipping: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
“Asset flipping” is a term coined by YouTuber Jim Sterling in his notorious review of Digital Homicide’s The Slaughtering Grounds. In an interview with The Daily Dot, Sterling described these kinds of games as “Not so much ‘developed’ as they are pieced together, Frankenstein’s Monster style, from bits of pre-built assets,” and “a hodgepodge of character models, environments, and systems taken from other peoples’ work.”
Free and accessible game engines such as Unity or Games Guru sometimes have built-in shops full of pre-made assets for developers to buy and use. Buying assets can save time and money and let a developer focus on more important parts of game development, according to PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds developer Brendan Greene at a 2018 interview at E3.
There’s nothing wrong with using a premade asset to build off of and learn from but sometimes developers make shovelware games — low-quality games often made in a short amount of time.
It’s entirely possible to make a game with nothing but pre-made assets, either purchased for cheap from an engine’s store or even just pirated. Throw a little basic coding in and boom—easy shovelware games and quick profit.
Asset theft sometimes happens with more major titles. Limbo of the Lost is known for taking assets from The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Thief: Deadly Shadows and World of Warcraft as well as using footage from several feature films. When the use of stolen art was discovered it caused two heads of the development team to cut ties with the studio.
The Steam Store, once viewed as Shangri-la for indie developers to have a place to sell and show off their games, became a mucky bogland of shovelware. Valve attempted to fight back this infestation with systems like Steam Greenlight and Steam Direct, but they proved too easy to exploit and shovelware continued to plague the store.
In a particularly egregious example, Silicon Echo Studios managed to publish 173 shovelware games to the Steam Store using dummy accounts.
The ease of making low-quality shovelware and flaws in Steam’s Greenlight system, like allowing bots to vote for a game, flooded the market with cheap, barely functioning games, tarnishing the very idea of indie games and pushing out legitimate indie developers.
Not all intentions for digital art theft are as nefarious as profiteering. Some people just want to use an asset like a character model for personal use but even this is unethical and has wide-reaching implications.
Taking a model or other asset from a game is called asset ripping. It differs from asset flipping in that the model isn’t necessarily being used to make a cheap game.
In October of 2019, Cripps had been working on his character design for three months and started shading the model, posting updates along the way.
His dev log led to a fanbase for his game and also the desire for his art.
Cripps says he began to receive messages from people asking him to release the model so they could use it. Including a direct message on his Discord server.
“Someone was asking ‘@Raymond, can you give me the model,’” he said. “He didn’t ask nicely or politely so I said no, it’s for the game. He then said ‘it’s alright I’ll just steal it from the next build.’”
Cripps doesn’t think that is a reasonable question as it’s similar to asking Bethesda to release the source code for Skyrim.
Frustrated by these demands, Cripps made a post to Reddit and a YouTube video discussing his feelings on the matter. Some of the comments were supportive but others were dismissive of the issue.
“I wouldn’t worry too much about it. As others have said, you can’t stop them,” One comment reads in part. “Your creations will always be misused. Accept it and focus on your creations,” reads another.
“They’re right, it is going to happen,” Cripps said. “But that doesn’t make it OK.”
One of Cripps’ videos on animation was recorded and posted to another YouTube channel with anime music played over it. Also, his dev logs were re-uploaded to a completely unrelated Instagram account.
It’s unclear what the intent behind the re-uploads was exactly but the Instagram uploader offered the flimsy excuse that he was trying to give Cripps exposure.
“Solo devs are easy to take advantage of,” Cripps says.
He understands people want the model to learn from but says the tutorials he’s released should be a sufficient teaching tool. Threats of ripping the model off a build has made him use an older, less good model in place of the real one in addition to copyrighting and other precautions.
“I know people want to use the model innocently,” Cripps says. “However, it’s difficult to give the model to someone for one purpose and not have others use it for other reasons.”
A Reason to Create
Having an asset stolen is something all game developers may have to deal with. It’s trouble to think about — something which took so much work could so easily be taken and used by someone else.
For Cripps, the real reward is creating something in the first place.
“As a developer, I think it’s really cool to have your own thing that you can do whatever you want with,” he said. “I feel very rewarded and that’s why I make games. I’m very passionate about that process.”
When he got stuck or didn’t understand how to do something, Cripps would learn how through tutorials online. He says he hopes more people would learn how to make their own creations, rather than steal someone else’s, and understand the work that goes into it.
“Whether it’s six months or a week that goes into creating something I think it’s still just as valuable,” he said. “No matter how long it took, a character model is something someone could have poured their heart and soul into. I wish more people would understand that.”
“Like a flower, artwork should be appreciated from a distance because if it’s plucked from the earth it will die,” he said.
There’s not a lot that can be done to protect a developer’s art, especially for indie developers who often don’t have a lot of money or big legal teams. Cripps says the best thing to do is anything you can.
“If you want to protect yourself from this sort of attention, really read up on what your rights are,” he said. “There’s a lot of information on copyright and some of it’s right and some of it’s wrong so do some research on how to protect yourself.”
Despite the constant threat of his art being stolen, Cripps says he won’t stop creating.
“Despite all the frustrations, I can’t see myself doing anything else,” he says. “I just have this thing in my heart saying I have to make this game.”
At the time of publishing, Valve Co. had not responded to requests for an interview.