Once upon a time, visual novels were not allowed on Steam. That all changed with the release of indie titles such as Dysfunctional Systems: Learning to Manage Chaos and Analogue: A Hate Story. With the aid of Steam Greenlight, more visual novels and dating sims slowly trickled out. Things took a turn for the interesting when the likes of Sakura Spirit and HuniePop arrived on the platform. These games put their sexuality at the forefront and tested Valve’s guidelines — whatever those guidelines actually were. HuniePop in particular introduced gamers to the concept of an “uncensor patch” which would turn the game from an iffy but “all-ages” version to offering nude artwork.
More companies joined the patch bandwagon because it finally allowed them access to the Steam marketplace. It meant they could release an all-ages title on Steam and offer a free or paid off-site patch to turn it into the adult version. Things were getting perhaps too wild on the platform, but Valve didn’t seem to mind. Eventually, both Sekai Project and MangaGamer had direct talks with staff at the company to ensure that what they were publishing to the storefront was acceptable. MangaGamer took especially careful measures, going so far as to show the sex scene artwork from Kindred Spirits on the Roof before getting the okay from Valve to publish it in full on Steam. Other developers, such as Christine Love, also received Valve’s assurance which led to her move to release Ladykiller in a Bind uncut on Steam after initially releasing exclusively on the Humble Store.
From 2014 onward, the presence of visual novels on Steam increased tremendously. Within just a few years, copious indie developers brought their titles to the platform. Established Japanese companies either had their work published by a North American company or went right ahead and self-published. Things were looking up for fans — but then cracks started to appear. Last year, Valve updated their stance on patches. While patches were still allowed to exist, developers could no longer mention or link to them anywhere on the game’s store page or in the forums. It was a sensible move, and for the most part, fans checking out these games already knew if and when a game release offered a patch.
The most worrying event was back in April when A Kiss for the Petals: Maidens of Michael was suddenly removed shortly after launch. MangaGamer, who had previously had face-to-face talks with Valve to ensure their content was Steam safe, couldn’t get in contact with anyone about the decision. Folks speculated on what the reason could be, but Valve never explicitly explained. It appears this move was just a precursor for what is happening this week. First, HuniePop developer HuniePot received an email from Steam stating that their game violated the terms and conditions. Without cutting offending content, the game will be removed from Steam by the end of May.
This enforcement action at first seemed extremely late (HuniePop has been out for three years at this point) but understandable. After all, you only need to change a flag in a file that comes with the game to get access to naked anime characters. But then Lupiesoft was targeted over their game Mutiny!!, which was a real slap in the face. More than most, this company followed both the letter and spirit of Steam’s poorly-defined rules. From here, it just gets more nonsensical. Kindred Spirits on the Roof — a game lauded for showing Valve’s acceptance of frank, sexual content on their storefront — was targeted for takedown if it does not censor itself. This means that Valve has made a complete 180 since speaking to MangaGamer staff in person assuring them the game was okay as is on the Steam platform.
It’s now clear that this is not just a slight course correction on a few games that pushed the boundaries too far. NEKO WORKs, developer of the Nekopara series, received word that Tropical Liquor also contains offending content. Massive visual novel publisher Sekai Project somehow only received one warning/censorship email (thus far) and it concerned their game Re;Lord 1. Dharker Studios were told to censor Battle Girls and Galaxy Girls. Winter Wolves also received one regarding their game Roommates which offers optional nudity in a few scenes. Winged Cloud, the developer which helped usher in an era of short visual novels with sexually-provocative artwork (thanks, Sakura series), is also affected. Erotic games that don’t fall into the visual novel category are starting to be hit as well, such as VR Kanojo and shooter Deep Space Waifu.
The thing is, none of the games which have been hit so far feature pornographic content by default — the user must find and download an off-site patch. A few have no patch at all. Once again, Valve has known for many years that patch occurs and had allowed it as long as there was no overt marketing of the adult version and that it was not included and unlocked in the Steam download files. A surprising amount of the developers who were threatened are hardly pushing the boundaries when it comes to erotic content. Kindred Spirits on the Roof in particular is incredibly tame in its default 18+ form than many other releases still on Steam. That’s probably why Valve accepted it with open arms in the past.
Is there any common ground between all the targeted games thus far? Most of them at some point show a woman’s nipple uncensored. Not all use patches to show 18+ content and the majority are not ridiculous in their sexual depictions. Very few of these titles ever show genitalia even after a user applies an 18+ patch. As such, it’s not all about patches. It’s also not all about the severity of content since most of these games would be considered softcore at best. Why were these games hit and not others? Why are small developers suffering while other, larger companies can showcase their “artistic” sex scenes and nudity? For some of the affected visual novels, optional, user-downloaded sexual content is not even the focus — the story is.
Valve is within their rights to make totally erratic policy changes as they see fit. Steam is their platform and they have the ability to limit the games on it. This sets a precedent, however, that makes little to no sense. Valve still have not given explicit explanations as to what classifies as “pornographic content” — so how do developers even know how much censoring will be enough? Some developers are more than willing to accept Valve’s request as the Steam store is the most profitable PC gaming storefront out there. Others, such as Lupiesoft, aren’t going to abide by a clear double standard. Instead, they’re selling Mutiny!! for just a dollar until it is removed from Steam. MangaGamer is even hinting at upgrading their website in some way to provide an alternative for more visual novel developers to sell their products.
The storm is not over. It’s likely that many more game developers and publishers are being sent the same email from Valve. It is also likely that Valve will continue to keep their store standards as mysterious as possible. Most developers affected immediately emailed the company and have yet to hear back about what their next steps should be. Visual novels, especially ones with erotic content, are not everyone’s cup of tea. If Valve can get away with this sudden change, however, they can then of course enact rules that will unfairly impact other games and genres. Fortunately, all is not lost if developers are pushed from Steam. Alternative storefronts already exist and will only thrive if and when more issues with Valve arise. At some point, one may even become a true competitor to Steam.