Visual novel developers who have mature-themed games on Steam are reeling from what developer MangaGamer is calling Valve’s “sudden and abrupt policy shift.” Valve, which owns and operates the Steam PC gaming service, has notified MangaGamer and certain other developers that they have until the end of the month to remove pornographic content from their games. This is a reversal from Valve’s publicly stated position that it does not want to decide what its customers can buy or not as well as its desire to remain transparent to its development partners.
Valve’s new policy (or its newly enforced policy) affects almost exclusively games with anime-style characters and artwork. MangaGamer’s Kindred Spirits line, for example, is a visual novel about setting up couples in a school. The developers of these games all admit that they deal with sexuality, but most argue that they are not pornographic. That is MangaGamer’s position regarding its products on Steam.
“We went to great pains to run the game’s content by Valve representatives — including sending along every potentially questionable graphical asset along with advanced builds of the title––to ensure that feeling was mutual,” reads a MangaGamer blog post. “The game would have never appeared on the platform if we had not confirmed with Valve representatives that they did not feel the content was pornographic and was appropriate for the platform.”
And to be clear, this is a matter of defining a line that distinguishes pornography from other mature-themed content. Valve has always prohibited pornography. When I visited Valve in March 2017 as part of its announcement of the Steam Direct option that enables developers to put just about anything into the Steam Store, the company said then that it would have deny pornographic material.
“When you start talking about more explicit content, like pornography in particular, there’s potentially some legal issues,” Steam developer Alden Kroll explained back in March 2017. “With Steam Direct, there’s going to be certain kinds of content where we have to say, ‘we can’t support that right now.’ It’s important to think globally, because almost every country and every state has different ideas on how to regulate pornography,”
But Kroll also said that Valve was working to make Steam powerful enough that people could choose to exclude sexual material from their searches and suggested games. This would enable others to still have access to it if they so choose.
“We’ve made a lot of progress with the kinds of tools that people have to filter out that kind of content,” said Kroll. “So we’re more comfortable accepting a lot more of that content up to the fuzzy line of what pornography is.”
And Valve has spent the last year or so arguing that it should not insert itself into the curation process. It doesn’t want to break the laws of any of the regions that it operates within, but it also doesn’t want to decide which games its customers are allowed to buy. As I explained when I wrote about Steam Direct, this is because Steam has such a stranglehold on the market that if excludes a certain kind of game, that kind of game’s addressable market will shrink significantly. In that case, Valve denying a game from Steam could mean that developers make fewer of those games going forward.
Valve is aware of its influence on the market, and it explicitly said it doesn’t want to wield that power.
“We don’t want a world where people feel like they need somebody from Valve to give a game a stamp of approval or a thumbs-up for it to show up in front of customers,” Valve developer relations specialist Tom Giardino said in March 2017. “At this point, there are games that launch every day that nobody at Valve has played before, but they end up on the front page of the store.”
The company even used visual novels of an example of how it is not equipped to properly curate Steam for its diverse customer base.
“It’s really hard to define a bad game,” said Giardino “The customer who has 25 visual novels in their Steam library is really hoping we’ll release more visual novels, while the person who plays other games is never going to buy a visual novel no matter what. Those customers are just looking for different things, so it’s less about us trying to define the quality line — or here’s a bad game and here’s a good one. And more about saying that if you have a great idea if you have a great concept, you can bring your game to Steam and find customers who are excited about it.”
But now the crackdown on visual novels has muddied that vision. The problems, according to developers, is that Valve isn’t providing an easy-to-understand policy for why some games are OK by its standards and others are not. While many visual novels feature breasts and sexual organs, that is a type of content that is not exclusive to anime-style games. Far Cry 3 opens with a topless woman thrusting her chest at the camera. The Witcher III: Wild Hunt and Wolfenstein: The New Order both have multiple sex scenes in them.
You can also find the “raunchy comedy adventure” House Party from Eek Games on Steam. This game is notable for enabling players to sexually assault women at a party by exposing your penis to them without consent.
Eek has said that Valve has not asked it to change its game so far.
We actually worked with Steam last summer to ensure House Party met the requirements. As such we have not received any recent communication regarding this.
— Eek! Games (@EekGamesLLC) May 18, 2018
The confused messaging coming from Valve is made even worse because not even all visual novels are dealing with this issue.
“As of right now, none of my games have been affected by this,” visual novel developer Christine Love wrote on Twitter. “If in the future we are asked by a storefront to censor the content that was the reason players bought the game in the first place, we won’t do it. Even if a game ends up delisted, if you own it, you can play it.”
Love produced the erotic visual novel Ladykiller in a Bind, which is just as concerned with sexuality as Kindred Spirits.
I’ve reached out to Valve for answers — as have many of the affected studios — but the Steam company is staying quiet for now. The company is known for its silence when it comes to how it runs it store and products, but that’s something it has also said it wants to get better at.
“When we get questions from developers, our hope is that we can talk with them,” Giardino said back in March 2017. “One of the things we need to always work on is making sure we are approachable to devs so it’s not a mysterious thing.”
But the reason I’m using quotes from March 2017 is because Valve’s inner workings still remain a mystery. And that could lead to the decimation of the visual novel genre.