In Mario Kart, red shells target your nearest rival and ruthlessly stop them in their tracks. Marketing company Red Shell, meanwhile, helps video game companies more accurately target you. This fact has not sat well with some players who have recently discovered the software in a veritable kartload of Steam games.
Image: Red Shell
According to Red Shell's website, their software is meant to help game companies "measure the effectiveness of their marketing campaigns" by "tying information from marketing campaigns to in-game play".
Basically, it's installed alongside games and tracks information about your devices (operating system, browser version number, IP address and so on) in order to ascertain how effective advertisements for that particular game are. The company swears up and down that it doesn't collect personal information.
"We don't collect names, emails, or addresses," Red Shell says on its website, noting that games can offer an opt-out to players if developers so choose. "Our service basically says 'this computer clicked on a link from this YouTube video and the same computer played your game.' We have no interest in tracking people, just computers for the purposes of attribution."
The software has been discovered in over 50 games, including The Elder Scrolls Online, Conan Exiles, Hunt: Showdown and Civilization 6. For the past couple of weeks, a contingent of players have dedicated themselves to weeding it out, decrying it as "spyware" that many companies failed to disclose.
"Red Shell is a spyware that tracks data of your PC and shares it with 3rd parties," Redditor Alexspeed75 wrote last week in a thread that's became something of a rallying place for aggrieved players.
"On their website they formulate it all in very harmless language, but the fact is that this is software from someone I don't trust and whom I never invited, which is looking at my data and running on my PC against my will. This should have no place in a full price PC game, and in no games if it were up to me."
Since then, players of the aforementioned games and many more have started irate threads in Steam forums and subreddits. In many cases, they have gotten developers to pledge to remove Red Shell.
"We integrated Red Shell with the goal to track the efficiency of our marketing campaigns (how many players clicked on our advertisements on social media platforms and then purchased the game afterwards). There was never any intention to sell data to third parties," said the developers of multiplayer horror game Dead By Daylight, expressing a sentiment similar to many other developers who've removed Red Shell from their games.
"That being said, we have seen the player frustrations expressed about the use of this technology. Our passionate and dedicated fans are the reason why Dead by Daylight is a success, especially the ones who have been with us from the beginning. We have removed Red Shell from Dead by Daylight in the 2.0.0 update."
As of now, 16 games have either removed Red Shell or have pledged to do so in the near future, including The Elder Scrolls Online, Conan Exiles, Hunt: Showdown, Battlerite, Secret World Legends, Total War and Warhammer: Vermintide.
Red Shell’s Adam Lieb responded to our request for comment, saying that he feels like Red Shell has been mischaracterised by some players.
"We are disappointed," he said in an email, noting that Red Shell does not sell data to third parties, nor is it used for ad targeting in the traditional sense (rather, it helps companies sort out which ads they’re already running are worthwhile).
"We are gamers. We love games. We do what we do because we love working with game developers to help grow their games and build their communities. The last thing we’d want to do is anything that is going to upset their communities."
He added that, contrary to some people’s belief, Red Shell doesn’t run on your PC in the background when games aren’t open. Data collection, meanwhile, is in service of attribution, rather than more nefarious ends some players have suggested.
"We collect the minimum amount of data necessary to do attribution," he said. "Our customers rely on us to tell them which activities they’re engaged in are working and which ones aren’t. Any information that doesn’t help us make those matches we don’t collect."