Last month, multiple developers and publishers with games published on Steam that included adult themes suddenly received warnings for "pornographic content." Now, with the warnings retracted, both affected and unaffected developers still don't feel secure.
Valve's warnings told creators to censor the unspecified "pornographic content" in their games within two weeks, or their games would be removed from Steam entirely. Many of the targeted games had been on Steam for years. Some had nothing more risque than bare breasts, despite other games on Steam with more explicit content not receiving warnings. At least one, Kindred Spirits on the Roof, had been discussed in-depth with Valve representatives before publication on the platform to ensure all content was acceptable. It was targeted nonetheless.
A few days after the warnings were sent out, Valve retracted them and apologized, but told all creators involved that their games would be subject to a re-review process. Now, over two weeks later, Peter "Taosym" Rasmussen of LupieSoft - developer of Mutiny!!, one of the flagged games - still has absolutely no idea what that means, or why his game was flagged in the first place.
When I asked him about his communication with Valve, he said he had heard nothing beyond the initial warning and the follow-up email reversing the decision. With the mention of the re-review process, he isn't sure if his game is safe.
"I assume maybe they're going to play it privately," Rasmussen said. "It seems like a bit of a walk-back. They realized that they affected games that had been on the platform for a long time that were completely tame, and there are games out there several orders of magnitude more extreme than what we had put out. When we were doing our game, there was already content and games on Steam that were gory or sexual or depicted actual sex scenes in it. That's way beyond what we did."
Rasmussen, like MangaGamer and other developers, has been left in the dark. With no word from Valve on what the problem was in the first place, developers like Ramussen can only speculate as to what the sudden warning was about. One common theory revolves around the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, which changed its name from Morality in Media in 2015. In a blog post, the organization implied that Valve's action was a result of a two-year campaign on their part to get Steam to remove "sexually exploitative content."
Without a statement from Valve, no one can say whether or not this was a result of the campaign or not, but Rasmussen acknowledged it was a real possibility.
"Let's not use the word 'policy.' That implies something actually exists"
"It could be that they're claiming responsibility for publicity's sake and they weren't actually the cause, but it does make sense if they were to talk to PayPal and say, 'Valve is hosting these horrifying games that train people to be sexual predators.' That's the argument that they used. I think without checking, PayPal might have talked to Valve and not assumed one bit that the people who were making the initial argument were lying or had some kind of agenda of their own that they were trying to push."
Valve's warnings only seemed to target games with anime art styles, visual novel elements, and adult themes. But the sudden removal and retraction has aggravated an existing anxiety among other Steam creators frustrated with Valve's general lack of communication. When I asked Christine Love about her experience with Valve's content policies when she was bringing her "erotic romantic comedy about social manipulation, crossdressing, and girls tying up other girls" Ladykiller in a Bind to Steam, she told me there was no policy to discuss.
"Let's not use the word 'policy.' That implies something actually exists," she said. "There are no formal policies at all. In my case, we talked to Valve and we did discuss the content in detail. I basically went through the game and put together some video and some screenshots that showed what the content in the game would be about. It sounded like they discussed it internally and decided it would be okay."
Similarly, when Robert Yang went through the Steam approval process for his game Radiator 2, there was a checkbox indicating the game contained adult content that he initially forgot to mark off. After weeks of radio silence from Valve on the status of his game, he eventually spotted the error, but to get that changed he had to reach out via the Steamworks developer forum to get someone to re-approve it. Yang said the whole process of even getting hold of someone at Valve for issues like this is consistently a shot in the dark.
"Usually there's little acknowledgement that they're reading it, or even acknowledging requests," Yang said. "If you're a Steam dev and email Valve, it's really hard to get hold of them. Even if you're a big name, sometimes they don't really talk to you. It's hard to talk to Valve in general."
"Even if you're a big name, sometimes they don't really talk to you. It's hard to talk to Valve in general"
Yang is currently working on a second game that he intends to submit onto Steam, but it's taking a long time. Part of that is just the challenge of development, but Yang said at least some of the delay is on Valve. Yang, a creator of games about gay culture and intimacy that often include sexual content, says he has spoken to one Valve representative to see if the content he wants to include in the game is acceptable on Steam. He was told the content would be acceptable, but that may not be the final word.
"I've talked to one Valve rep, and I'm like, 'I want to put this kind of content on Steam,' and the Valve rep responded, 'Yeah, that seems okay, I'll let you know if we change our mind.' Which doesn't provide any certainty. It puts developers in a weird position because we have to guess how Valve's mind will change on something. It's like three layers of guessing.
"I almost kind of wish Valve would tell me 'no, that content will never be allowed on Steam ever', because at least that would be certainty. That's the reality; they don't want to do heavy content moderation, but then they end up making these random decisions that don't benefit anyone."
In the wake of the wave of warnings, many visual novel developers indicated they might move to other platforms such as itch.io, Humble, or GOG. All three are smaller than Steam, and none of them has a clear official policy on mature content, either. However, Love says her games have had no trouble at all on Humble, and Robert Yang says itch.io's willingness to communicate makes a world of difference.
"[Itch.io] is very small and you can talk to the creator literally on Twitter whenever you want," he said. "If there are problems, I can get hold of them pretty reliably and talk to them. The difference in scale is very different."
Rather cheekily, GOG brought a wave of new visual novels onto its platform mere days after the Steam warnings went out. Unlike Steam, GOG isn't as open a platform for any content that passes a basic functional test. GOG is more selective, but with that selectiveness comes better communication. Lukasz Kukawski, head of global communication at GOG, told me that while the platform isn't interested in adult content "just for the sake of it," such content in service of art would always be acceptable.
"Our main policy in terms of the curation process is that we're looking for good games that fit in GOG's offer. First and foremost, we're looking for titles which go along with our users' tastes, like story-driven adventures with nicely developed characters, games with innovative and cool mechanics, engaging gameplay, or basically the ones that are requested by the large part of our community.
"If it got taken down, it might have killed our business. We would basically be set back several years in terms of development"
"If a game is extremely beautiful but the mechanics are very simple and the gameplay is limited, we won't be interested in adding such a game to GOG. The same goes for titles with mature content. If the game itself represents something more than just nudity and sex, if it has a story that is engaging, or gameplay that will tie you to your computer for hours, we'd like to offer it to our users."
Despite other storefronts being relatively friendlier, there's no arguing that Steam remains the big cheese of the industry. Love says that while developers with a following can find success off Steam, new developers have much lower chances if they can't get onto the platform.
"If you don't have your own built-in audience, if you don't have a fanbase that will follow you from platform to platform, being on Steam is absolutely vital," she said. "I want to see more competition and more pressure put on Steam, because if every other platform has a very clear policy that would hopefully force Valve to think the same way, whereas if everything is just on an ad hoc basis then it's just business as usual."
Ramussen is in that exact boat. Though Mutiny!! has enough of a following that it wouldn't destroy LupieSoft to lose Steam, it would still be devastating for future projects. "When this first came down, I went to Steam and I was very open about how Valve and Steam accounts for about 80 per cent of our business right now and we rely on it in order to keep making games and to pay everybody on the team," he said. "If it got taken down, it might have killed our business. We would basically be set back several years in terms of development."
Rasmussen and Love both described a "chilling effect" that these unclear policies could have on small developers. They told me that because visual novel developers often make more "risky" games about weighty cultural topics or that embrace sex positivity, this uncertainty could stop them from taking those important risks.
"My big concern here is that I worry about developers putting a lot of time and energy into stuff that will push and elevate the medium, and that effort goes to waste," Love said. "A lot of these [visual novel] developers are marginalized, queer developers and if they're being disproportionately affected by policies, that has a really unfortunate impact."
"I understand crafting these rules is difficult, but that's not my problem. That's their problem, and they need to devote resources to fixing it"
Rasmussen agrees. "If our games went down it would create a chilling effect. People would not feel safe investing money into a platform like Steam. With Steam in mind, we have to make choices about what kinds of games we want to do. It would hurt the entire medium of visual novels in the West as a whole. We fought for the rights to even put visual novels on Steam, and we fought for the rights to have visual novels treated just like every other kind of game on Steam. It would hinder visual novels everywhere, not just the mature ones, because people would not feel safe. They would feel like Valve could take down their game at any moment for any reason."
So what can be done? Yang suggests a clear, concise content policy, stating that he'd rather have strict guidelines so he could decide if he wanted to put his content on the platform or not, rather than this strange scattershot approach. "I kind of get from a legal standpoint they wouldn't want to define any of that; it might make them responsible for something and it might open up weird liability things," he said. "I understand crafting these rules is difficult, but that's not my problem. That's their problem, and they need to devote resources to fixing it."
Love is wary of an excessively strict content policy, but agrees with Yang that it'd be better than nothing at all. "I don't think it's necessary for there to be super strict formal guidelines on exactly how much of a breast you can show before it counts as mature content, but I do feel that it's hard for small developers, especially if there's no assurance that what you're doing will have a home at the end of development.
"If you can only find out that content isn't going to get you in trouble by finishing it and sending it to a storefront, this cuts out people who don't have access to these resources. I think if this has to turn into a meeting just to have any assurance at all that you can make this game, I can see how that's gonna have an effect where it pushes people away from wanting to take risks.
"I especially worry with Valve now. If talking to a person and getting written assurance that it's fine isn't actually a guarantee that they won't go back on their word a year later, I definitely worry about the chilling effect of that."
Valve has not responded to our requests for comment. The only clue as to how the company will handle its lack of clear content policies came as part of another story last week, in which it removed school shooting simulator Active Shooter from Steam entirely. In a statement to Kotaku, a Valve representative cryptically said, "The broader conversation about Steam's content policies is one that we'll be addressing soon."
Update: Hours after this piece was published, Valve announced that it will "allow everything onto the Steam Store, except for things that we decide are illegal, or straight up trolling."