Over the last several years there's been a growing influx of 'eroge' on Steam—sexually explicit games, many of them visual novels, either Japanese or inspired by Japanese works. These games focus on romancing flirty anime characters, and sometimes contain graphic sexual content as a key part of narrative progression. But their days on the platform may be numbered.
In May, several developers and publishers—including Lupiesoft (opens in new tab), HunieDev (opens in new tab), and MangaGamer (opens in new tab)—said that Valve informed them their games would be removed from Steam unless sexual content was censored (opens in new tab). Less than a day later Valve walked back the notices (opens in new tab), issuing an apology to the developers involved for causing confusion, and telling them to disregard the initial emails. Even so, the move sparked outrage in the visual novel community.
Most eroge games on Steam are already heavily censored to fall in line with Valve's community standards. Previously, developers were allowed to include information on their community discussion page explaining how to restore the censored nudity using a patch. Recently, this has also begun to change, with Steam representatives reaching out to the developers of Galaxy Girls (opens in new tab) and Sunrider Academy (opens in new tab) to suggest that they remove any information about content restoration patches from their community pages.
According to Taosym from Lupiesoft—responsible for Mutiny!!, a visual novel about a pirate captain who romances her nonhuman crew—there was no explanation given as to why Valve threatened them with removal. This was echoed by the director of PR for MangaGamer, John Pickett, who confirmed that they have received no further information about why their game, Kindred Spirits (opens in new tab), was reported for violating community guidelines.
"We have yet to receive any further notice or information from Valve since the initial one we reported on in our press release and a follow-up email telling us to disregard it after the news was first covered in the press. According to the disregard notice the product is still under review and may potentially still face removal," Pickett says.
"Considering we had Kindred Spirits thoroughly reviewed by our Valve representative prior to even trying to get the title hosted on Steam, we expect it to pass and remain on the storefront without edits or censorship. Anything less would mean a true backtrack on previous standards and policies."
Taosym also expressed confidence in the outcome of Valve's upcoming re-review of Mutiny!!, suggesting that taking the game down would result in "an even bigger backlash". As Taosym explains, "We made a protest discount in order to get as many people playing our game as possible to see how really tame it all was in the end compared to games on their service that are way more explicit. We're not out of the woods yet, but I think this issue did create greater visibility for Lupiesoft, and we saw a giant increase in players playing our game, and new fans following our games now."
Taosym admitted that a potential crackdown on sexual content by Valve could have disastrous consequences, as Steam sales account for 80 percent of Lupiesoft's business. "If our game did get pulled... it could completely ruin us long-term. We have had to rethink our strategy by adding our games to other stores and prevent an issue like this from affecting us in the future. However, it does suck that the company with the biggest market share in game sales is this reckless with their business decisions."
Valve's aborted takedown blitz appears to have alienated a considerable section of the community, with MangaGamer revealing it will also be revising its "future strategies for retailing on Steam", in the wake of the upcoming re-review of Kindred Spirits.
"We've received a lot of positive press and response from fans who are equally upset to see Kindred Spirits and other titles threatened this way, but this certainly makes it hard to trust that Steam will hold to the results of its reviews and serve as a reliable storefront for our titles," Pickett says.
"This incident has given us more reasons to be grateful to GOG and excited for the opportunities to retail our titles there as well. Luckily for us we also sell our products in their completely uncensored and uncut form on our own storefront—MangaGamer.com—so we'll continue doing so there without any changes, but going forward we're going to have to reconsider what degree of content has to be cut in order to retail on Steam. That includes making the decision to withhold certain titles from Steam that we would have sold there otherwise under the old policies and content guidelines."
Steam users are also finding their own way around Valve's content standards, with curator groups such as the Cut-Content Police (opens in new tab) dedicated to warning players about games that are "censored due to cut, edited, changed, or overall modified content".
According to the group's creator, Marusame, it's unfair to customers when a game's content is censored or removed, although he does acknowledge that some sections of the community are indifferent to the issue. "Consumers are being cheated when stuff is censored or removed," Marusame says. "Though many say they do not care about removed content so long as they get the game or experience they came for."
Marusame believes that the pressure to censor content on Steam is partly the result of meddling from the online payment processing giant PayPal. Historically, Paypal has taken a relatively hard stance against adult content, leaving websites like MangaGamer limited to credit card purchases.
"I believe that many censorship decisions are simply made because of the whims of payment processors not wanting to accept such transactions. I see no reason why Steam couldn’t have an adult section that takes credit card only. Websites like eBay already have adult sections… but with family sharing, and Steam's most likely outdated system, implementing all of this would be a huge hassle, so I feel they made the decision to simply self-regulate and self-censor," he says.
"The choice we have now is a very flawed system, as patch links go down, patches can be lost or no longer supported for newer versions of the games, sometimes requiring mods or simply being lost to time," says Marusame. "In a perfect world we would have the choice to simply pick the censored copy or the uncensored one, or have options in the games menu."
PC Gamer contacted Valve regarding the recalled takedown notices during our initial reporting of the story, and the company declined to comment. We'll update this story if Valve makes any further statements about its policies.