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There's a sea of hentai junk games on Steam, and then there's Crush Crush

Some of the girls of Crush Crush
(Image credit: Sad Panda)

Since Valve changed its stance on selling NSFW games a constant stream of them has been arriving on Steam. In December of 2020, 75 new games appeared in the sexual content category, not counting DLC or games that had clearly been tagged as a joke, like Halo Infinite. Some are part of an endless supply of hentai puzzle games. Others get filed under "visual novel," where anime-looking games end up by default.

Have a look at Steam's page for visual novels, sorted by concurrent users. The first result, higher than well-known examples of the genre like Danganronpa and Doki Doki Literature Club, is an idle game—a clicker—called Crush Crush. 

The Sad Panda story

Crush Crush had already been available on Steam for over two years when Steam began allowing and categorizing NSFW games. It first launched with no adult content on Kongregate—it was only after being approached by adult game publisher Nutaku that Crush Crush's creator, Sad Panda Studios, began to work on an 18+ expansion. 

"At the time, Steam did not yet support adult content, so we had to be careful about making that available post-launch," Sad Panda founder and art director Morgan Long remembers. "We used a coupon system in conjunction with Humble to offer the DLC via our website, and did not actually host any adult content at all on Steam." Now things are different, and the 18+ Naughty DLC is sold right there on its Steam page.

In Crush Crush players level up their relationships with various ladies by buying gifts or going on dates, with new characters and certain upgrades gated behind stat improvements. Those stats go up by allotting 'time blocks' to character-building hobbies that level up automatically over time, or by taking on jobs that award money or appeal to specific characters.

(Image credit: Sad Panda)

...if a game contains content where people have consensual, enthusiastic, loving relationships involving any hints of sexuality… Well, those games get shunned.

Before creating Crush Crush, Long and several other developers at Sad Panda worked on one of the most popular idle games on Steam: AdVenture Capitalist. (Before that, Long spent seven years working at Disney on art for the MMO Club Penguin.) It was during her time at AdVenture Capitalist studio Hyper Hippo that Long began dreaming up the personal project that became Crush Crush, and which necessitated the founding of a new studio.

"We took a gamble on a riskier idea with far less resources behind us, because we felt we had something interesting and worthwhile to pursue," Long says. She describes Crush Crush, and its spin-off featuring anime boys Blush Blush, as being different to other NSFW games in part due to the studio's approach to writing, which she speaks about passionately.

"We always start with a desire to create charming, interesting, believable characters. Even when the context of a character is fantastical, (like a robot girl from space, or a demon boy, or something) we want the dialogue to flow naturally. To use humor as a basis to establish familiarity, and to edify the player, before transitioning into a character tone that feels sincere and engaging."

That's why Crush Crush's characters include a narcoleptic obsessed with philosophy, a stalker who is introduced murdering your high school sweetheart 'Generica', and Bearverly, who is a bear in a dress. Meanwhile, the cast of Blush Blush have all been placed under a curse that can, of course, only be broken by love. They include a wolfman with personal space issues, and a Pegasus who seems pretty happy staying cursed.

(Image credit: Sad Panda)

"There is a tendency in games with sexual content to play directly to a specific kind of power fantasy," Long says. "They set up threadbare scenarios with their characters that immediately lead to explicit sexual encounters, which give the experiences a 'blow up doll' type of feeling. We take a very different approach. Our players love that our characters have quirks and personalities. That they have hang-ups, or moments of soulfulness, or are silly or shy. We try to create a rounded character dynamic in the 'story' of our worlds, and then invite players along for conversations that vary and speak to feelings of attraction of all different personality types."

Dating sims face unique challenges, particularly ones that incorporate sexual content. There's a double standard at play in the way they're treated by the storefronts that profit from them, as Long describes.

"As any gamer will tell you, there are lots of games where tangential sexual content is used as a selling feature—that is, think of all the fighting games with girls in skimpy costumes. There are games that have nothing to do with relationships that have barely clothed female characters telling you to 'Come play, M'lord' and all that. In terms of appearing on app stores or game platforms, these games are given a solid pass. But if a game contains content where people have consensual, enthusiastic, loving relationships involving any hints of sexuality… Well, those games get shunned."

(Image credit: Sad Panda)

Filthy lucre

Crush Crush is a free-to-play game with optional microtransactions. There's a premium currency in the form of gems, which can be used to speed up timers, purchase time blocks, or increase job income. Long says that Sad Panda was against modeling games as 'infinite sinks' for player money, focusing at most on short bursts of purchases closer to $10. There is one expensive item in its store, however—a gem package for $100. 

After stressing that Crush Crush can be completed without spending any money, Long explains the reasoning behind it: "We're not literally requiring them to spend $100 to finish the game—it's just a handy visualization tool for how much it takes to trivialize a 6-9 month idle game into one 20-minute gaming session."

It's not, like, filling a money bin with gold that we get to swim in

A unique feature of Sad Panda's games offer is their 'reset button.' Both Crush Crush and Blush Blush allow the player to start over at any time with a multiplier applied to progress bars. It isn't a perfect system, with progression walls requiring a significant wait for the exponentially higher skill levels or cash amounts needed later, but at its core the reset button is a smart answer to the problem of compulsion: it allows players to repeat the dopamine high of hitting early milestones while also making faster progress.

(Image credit: Sad Panda)

Crush Crush has been profitable enough to provide a foundation for the studio's future projects, as well as sustaining the developers. "It's not, like, filling a money bin with gold that we get to swim in," says Long, "but we've tried to pour everything back into the studio to make more and more stuff." 

That includes future additions to Crush Crush and its boy-focused spin-off Blush Blush, which is predictably less profitable. "The fact that we get to build stuff that's not exactly 'mainstream', and support ourselves doing it, is probably our proudest achievement. Blush Blush is like the little brother to Crush Crush and doesn't have as large of an audience, but it's still doing really well and will continue to get updates from our studio."

(Image credit: Sad Panda Studios)

Sad Panda is also planning a follow-up, which will have more visual novel elements in addition to time management, called Hush Hush. It will also be a tonal departure from the team's previous work, dealing with one taboo that videogame marketplaces typically have no issues with: killing people.

"Given that it's part dating sim and part murder mystery, you can't really have a murder mystery without some murder…" Long says. "Although we have characters in Crush Crush and Blush Blush who dabble in murder, these are treated with more darkly comedic tones. Hush Hush will feature some crazy stuff. It remains to be seen if our fans will enjoy the departure, or guide us back [toward] more light-hearted, flirty content. Either way, it'll be fun and rewarding to see their reactions."