Scam Games
Image: Sony. Hang on... VG Games?

It's difficult now to remember a time when the Switch eShop wasn't rammed with low-cost, low-quality games making it laborious to find the great new releases amongst all the dross. What began as an immaculately clean, functional store back in 2017 quickly ballooned and before long Nintendo was inundated with software submissions vying for visibility on a crowded digital marketplace. Inevitably, these included titles from less-than-scrupulous developers and publishers looking to make a quick buck.

In recent months, the number of quick-and-dirty 'clone' games seems to have exploded, though. The Last Hope - Dead Zone Survival is a notable example which is no longer on the eShop after it caught the attention of Sony's copyright lawyers. That was an open-close case, perhaps, but the underhand tactics being employed by select publishers make a handful of PC-based bullshots look like quaint, small-fry false advertising.

For seasoned, savvy gamers, this calibre of game is an eShop irritation more than a genuine threat to your wallet, but not everyone will catch the warning signs, and the problem is growing. Luke Wild from YouTube channel SwitchStars has been investigating these 'scam' games for some time now, sifting through them so you don't have to.

"My first encounter with a scam game was with Midnight Works’ Cop Car Police Simulator Chase - Car games simulator & driving in January 2022," Wild tells us via email. "I noted right away that the screenshots appeared too good to be true and after playing the game, I found the description to be highly embellished and had for the most part just been copied and pasted from a Steam game called Police Simulator: Patrol Duty. After a spot of investigative work, I found that the screenshots were mock-ups and one of them was taken directly from a unity asset."

Cop Car Police Simulator Chase - Car games simulator & driving
An eShop screenshot from Cop Car Police Simulator Chase - Car games simulator & driving — Image: Midnight Works

Thanks to his videos, Wild recently found himself on the receiving end of a copyright claim from that game's prolific publisher. Midnight Works is a Moldovan company and purveyor of such snappily titled releases as Street Drag Racing Car Driving Simulator 2022 Games, Zombies Killer Machine - Car Games,Driving,Dead Mechanic Simulator, and Crypto Mining Simulator - Ultimate Trading Strategy Tycoon Craft & Idle Game 3D.

What constitutes a 'scam' game?

Terms such as 'clone', 'shovelware', and 'asset flip' can carry different meanings for different people, so it's worth getting on the same page about what exactly a 'scam' game is. 'Zelda-clone', for example, can be used affectionately (as we do). Likewise, the term 'shovelware' is often thrown around carelessly. We may disagree, but one person's Elves Christmas Hentai Puzzle is another person's Puzzle & Dragons.

"Scam games are a whole other kettle of fish," says Wild. "As with asset flips, these games are usually created using store-bought assets but some amount of effort has been put into modifying them beyond their original design (though usually minimal). Their eShop listings, more often than not, feature fake screenshots - either pre-rendered mock-ups taken from another platform or, in many instances, stolen from other games, as was the case with Instamarketingandgame's Motorcycle Driving Simulator which featured screenshots stolen from GTA 5 and Cyberpunk 2077."

The game descriptions can also be misleading. "They embellish the content and mechanics and often include a plethora of features that are not actually present in the game. [With scam games] we are receiving a product which does not match its screenshots or description, like buying a burger only to receive some chicken nuggets."

Bottom of the barrel

Looking at publishers like Instamarketingandgame's software catalogue, it doesn't make for encouraging reading. Having surveyed the eShop, Wild has plumbed the depths of around 25 'scam' titles so far on his channel. We asked if any struck him as particularly egregious.

"Demolish Derby Nitro-Battle Driving Car Games 2022 Deluxe Driver stands out as being one of the worst examples. Being a huge fan of Destruction Derby I had expected at least a passing resemblance to that game given the screenshots and description. The game is little more than a series of straight jump or point-to-point races, with zero opportunity to 'demolish' as the single level which features another vehicle results in a game over if you crash into it."

Demolition Derby Nitro-Battle

"The screenshots are all completely fake, the description weighs in heavily on the simulated destructive elements and realistic physics despite there being none, and about the only genuine line in it was 'Experience realistic vehicle physics in a mobile game!' – not for the realistic vehicle physics, but the fact they forgot to remove the 'mobile game' part."

Where are these games coming from?

Midnight Works is a holding comapny
A screenshot from Midnight Works' website (June 2023)

While it seems there are several publishers flooding the eShop with similarly suspect games, Wild believes that many of them are linked, with "five main players" operating, including the aforementioned Midnight Works. Previously describing itself as a holding company with investments in firms such as INSTAshop (which specialises in selling Instagram Likes, followers, and comments), other companies such as INSTAMARKETINGANDGAME and VG GAMES appear to be linked.

"Instamarketing & Game S.R.L. has the same listed address on their company profile as Midnight Works. VG Games (West Connection Limited in the US) — Virtual Global Games S.R.L — [is also] linked to Midnight Works as one of the studios they have invested in [and is] also based in Chisinau, Republic of Moldova."

GoGame Console Publisher West Connection Ltd Websites 9th August 2023
"Our motto is the ability to listen to each other!"

GOGAME CONSOLE PUBLISHER is apparently headquartered in London but with possible links to West Connection: "Their single employee and CEO is listed as Romanian-born Mrs. Maria Caraus. Their website contains text copied and pasted from VG Games West Connection Limited website."

Romania-based Dezvolt Games is also on Wild's list of potentially affiliated companies. We've contacted Midnight Works for clarification regarding its exact relationship with these seemingly satellite firms. We'll update this article should we receive a response.

The only communication Wild has had with these companies came indirectly via the complaint submitted to YouTube. The platform reviewed Wild's videos and judged in his favour, and he documented the entire episode in a recent video (below).

It seems like a cut-and-dry case to any sensible onlooker, but we wondered if this lingering threat of claims against him affected his approach to producing videos on his channel in a sustainable way.

"In the past, I have had smaller developers comment on my videos, so taking on a bigger dog it was inevitable that sooner or later there would be a response. From a legal standpoint, there are three primary defences against slander, those being Truth, Honest Opinion and Public Interest, all of which I believe apply here in one form or another."

Potential demonetisation of his videos isn't something he's too worried about. "I’m covered by fair usage on the content I produce unless they somehow try to get me for using their trailers, but they can have the cash, as long as word still gets out. These lingering threats only spur me on. I don’t like being threatened or coerced, especially when I believe I’m doing the right thing and operating for the greater good."

eShop visibility tricks

Publishers have struggled for visibility as the eShop ballooned in size since 2017, and many have employed various tactics to 'game' the system, including steep, near-permanent discounts, releasing multiple versions of essentially the same game, or 'bundles' of several games. It's loopholes like this which result in separate listings for some 37 versions of RedDeer's AAA Clock and its sequel.

AAA (Clock) gaming
AAA gaming — Image: Nintendo Life

With rumours of Nintendo's next console doing the rounds once more, thoughts turn inevitably to how the platform holder can do a better job on its next storefront and avoid this race to the bottom. Wild has several ideas for how Nintendo can switch things up.

"Allow people to filter ALL of the menus, not just the search menu," he suggests. "Add additional genres to sort by, year of release, number of players, publisher, price range, etc." A user-based rating system could be beneficial — something that the 3DS eShop had with its star ratings — albeit while opening up the door to potential 'review bombing'. It's a risk Wild believes is worth it, as a rating system would mean that "quality games wouldn’t be lost amongst the 'best-selling' scam games."

The ability to 'favourite' or mute publishers is another possibility. "Allow[ing] people to blacklist certain developers so they don’t show in the listings and search results would strike an instant blow at the scam game sellers."

Nintendo Switch eShop
Image: Nintendo Life

However, Wild believes that it's Nintendo's failure to properly vet these releases which is the main problem to be addressed.

"From my understanding, Nintendo currently operates under a 'Partner Management System' for both AAA and third-party developers. It appears the Developer Relations manager at Nintendo liaises with verified publishing companies to bring these games to market without the need to go through a lengthy greenlight process. There is some kind of centralised submission and certification process involved which apparently ensures the games are reviewed and have passed their legal requirements, but this is clearly failing. Currently, it appears they are relying on the honesty and integrity of the publishers themselves, which clearly doesn’t work."

How to avoid 'scam' games

While some players might suggest that nefarious titles like these are easy for any halfway-informed gamer to avoid, it's sometimes easy to forget just how broad and varied the Switch's player base is. Having spent more than his fair share of time wading through them, we wondered if Wild has any advice for people who might not have the gaming knowledge to catch key art plagiarising The Last of Us, for instance.

An abundance of words in the title can be a telltale sign when it comes to low-quality or downright dodgy games. "They utilise what I like to call 'Keyword Bingo' – slapping as many SEO-optimised keywords in their title as possible, so they’re pretty easy to spot. However, identifying them as a scam is much harder. Beware of overly embellished descriptions, especially those claiming to have fantastic visuals and realistic sound design. My best advice on these is to avoid the big five publishers I’ve already mentioned, and for the most part, any other games which contain more than nine words in their title."

Scam Games
'Hooligan Simulator - San Gangster Andreas Fight for City, Battle Gangs, Shooter, Police', £12.99 on Nintendo Switch eShop. Just missing the 'auto', 'grand', and 'theft' in that one — Image: Dezvolt Games

There are exceptions — apologies to Aksys' upcoming Mon-Yu, a game making a selling point out of its comically enormous title — and video game naming conventions often result in nonsensical, painfully generic titles. But an overly long name is still a useful red flag to watch for.

Wild also highlights asset-flip games typically advertised with low-effort screenshots that "often look exactly like mobile games because most of them are taken from mobile game Unity templates. Their eShop thumbnails often tend to be low quality too, with basic text rather than a stylised logo."

A mark of quality

Players browsing the eShop may welcome more curation and quality control from Nintendo's side, but there's an argument to be made for an open-door Steam-style approach, too. Obvious legal infringements and clone-game examples aside, does Wild think rough-and-ready games with silly SEO-term titles have a place on the eShop?

"I am hugely supportive of indie developers, so I applaud Nintendo for welcoming them in and giving them the opportunity to showcase their creativity, though I have heard from many solo devs who have been rejected when trying to self-publish and it seems the established publishers who are part of the partner management system are the main in-route. I think silly SEO-term titles have a place but only when they are used ironically or for comedic effect." A reprieve for Mon-Yu, then.

Mon-Yu, Marlene!
Aksys is having some fun with this one — Image: Aksys Games

Ultimately, the responsibility must surely fall to the platform holder to police the content on its store and better curate the games that appear before the experience of navigating the eShop gets worse. As we came to the end of our questioning, Wild highlighted the company's "awful customer service" as a major roadblock in his investigations.

"[Nintendo] should definitely implement a refund policy similar to Steam's. Contact is entirely limited to their pre-defined categories and a web form — their 'call us' and 'chat with us' options are never available. [Replies to my enquiries] felt like AI-generated textbook responses, and they are incredibly evasive, even going so far as directing me to contact the developer themselves about the fake screenshots and descriptions."

We've reached out to Nintendo for comment on its current certification policies. We'll update this article with any response we receive.

And another one, which popped up in Nintendo's eShop email as we were writing this article — a different release from Midnight Works' Prison Life Simulator 2022 - World FIGHT Battle ULTIMATE, which launched with 'GTA' in the title. The trailer for this one on Nintendo's website carries the text 'Actual gameplay differs' throughout — Image: Dezvolt Games

Despite Nintendo's long-cultivated family-friendly image, Wild believes the company's disregard for consumer rights and the current state of the Switch eShop demonstrates a misguided focus on profit above all else. "It's sad to see the same company that practically saved the world from the great video game crash of 1983 now turning its back on gamers and essentially repeating history with their actions, or lack thereof."

The rise and unchecked proliferation of these games make navigating the eShop an unpleasant experience and a serious issue for Nintendo. Ignoring the problem is a mistake that could have repercussions for the platform holder's brand and customers if not tackled head-on with the Switch's successor. Though its infamous 'Seal of Quality' in the NES days was used only to label officially licenced software — not as a badge of approval or marker of a game's subjective merit — perhaps the time has come to bring it back in a new form.

Thanks to Luke for sharing his thoughts on this topic. You can find more information about the Switch games to avoid on his SwitchStars channel — his latest video examines in more detail some of the publishers discussed in this article.