Why are some adult games being rejected manually by Steam?
Don't kiss behind the bleachers in Naughty List News #68
This week’s Naughty List News was sponsored by Paradise Lust. Read on to learn more!
Valve has never exactly been clear about whether they want adult games on their platform or not. Deciding to sell adult games on its digital games storefront in 2018 has haunted the game maker and publisher ever since.
Every week I strive to bring you sex-positive reporting about the people behind the adult games you love.
Today, adult game developers report being less than pleased about the situation as well. Their games receive intense scrutiny before being allowed on the store while receiving very little support and promotion from Valve in return.
What is the cause of this discrepancy? And can anything be done about it?
The history of adult games on Steam
In 2018, HuniePop developer HunieDev received a cryptic email from Valve claiming they had violated Steam’s guidelines on '“pornographic content.” As a result, HunieDev’s games would be purged from Steam unless they complied by removing the offending content.
Valve later reversed their stance on HunieDev’s game and admitted it was a mistake. The company wrote about what they were trying to grapple with in an official blog post:
The challenge is […] not simply […] games with adult or violent content. Instead, it's about whether the [Steam] Store contains games within an entire range of controversial topics - politics, sexuality, racism, gender, violence, identity, and so on.
Valve made it clear then that they didn’t want to act as gatekeepers. So instead, the company explicitly permitted all games to be sold on their platform. And instead of manually reviewing each title in their queue, they would leave it up to the community to decide:
[W]e've decided that the right approach is to allow everything onto the Steam Store, except for things that we decide are illegal, or straight up trolling.
By taking their hands off moderation, the company pushed that responsibility to its community instead. They realized this could cause problems, so they started working on better tools for games to find an audience on Steam. In many ways, Valve's experiments with Steam Labs flow directly from their decision to leave moderation up to the community.
But even though they might have left the moderation of most games on their platform up to the community, adult games were not so lucky. They must still be reviewed manually by Valve.
Hiding behind graphs
Since the debacle with HuniePop four years ago, Valve has made many changes to its Steam platform. Among other changes, the company added new tools for players to filter on games, including adult ones. But Valve still needed to find a way to combat what they call “fake games,” low-quality projects designed to churn out achievements and Trading Cards.
User reviews have now become an essential metric for Valve to figure out whether a game is real or not. And reviews also decide whether Steam should promote a game to its userbase. The excellent How To Market A Game blog recently wrote about how much weight Valve gives to a game’s first ten user reviews, nicely depicted in this graph for views on a store page:
The graph shows that the example game was not promoted by Valve at all until it gathered at least ten “real” reviews. Valve reasons that low-quality games will not have a fanbase behind them. So if these games cannot cross the threshold of 10 user reviews, Valve doesn’t have to bother to promote them either.
It seems straightforward enough: Prove that you’re a “real” game by getting ten people to spend their own money on it and leave a review. Of course, that isn’t always easy, but it’s not an impossible task either for most games.
But adult games have an additional hurdle to cross. Unlike every other game on the store, Valve must review them manually before being let in. But adult game developers complain that their games are being rejected without an apparent reason.
Say It Again
Gaerax is working on the visual novel Say It Again, an unconventional love story between a socially challenged content creator and her new roommate. The game is already available on itch.io, and Patreon and Gaerax submitted it for review to Steam.
But Valve rejected the game, stating that Say It Again could not be sold on Steam because Valve will not “distribute content [that] depict[s] sexual conduct involving a minor.”
The developer of the game assured me that their game does not feature underage content. But what they suspect happened is that Valve has taken umbrage with a scene in which two teenagers kiss while fully clothed:
Valve also states in the email that they are “not interested in working with partners that dance around the edges of what’s legal.” Does that mean that Valve is actually reviewing the content of the adult games in their submission queue?
Valve’s rejection of Say It Again implies that the company has an internal list of criteria for adult games. And perhaps Gaerax fell afoul of one or more of these requirements. But what I find concerning is that Valve, to my knowledge, has never published such a list of requirements for adult games.
This lack of clarity causes a lot of anxiety in the adult game-making community. Developers try to reverse-engineer the requirements based on the limited amount of information they have. They are left to trade rumors like these among themselves:
Steam is very specifically opposed to schools and almost nothing else. If you can just make it really feel like it's definitely a college-aged interaction you should be good.
Developers share these rumors because they’re afraid to be the next one who is rejected by Valve for some unknown reason. It gives them some semblance of control over the situation.
It could be that Valve has an especially extreme bias against school settings. In the rejection email, they do specifically say that setting your game in a high school but aging the characters up in the story is unacceptable. But without confirmation from Valve, this is all just hearsay.
Broken games are not the problem
It’s important to note that Valve does not do quality control on any other type of game. The company reasons that making sure the game works is up to the developer. Steam does not publish these games, they only distribute them via their storefront.
Valve’s lack of quality control on what they put up for sale does not always go over well. There have been instances of games being launched on Steam that did not provide a game executable at all.
If Valve has no problem with selling products that are obviously broken, that makes it all the stranger that the company is being so tight-lipped about their requirements for adult games. If they would simply tell adult game developers what they deem acceptable, game makers could resolve many of the problems with their content before submitting their games for review.
UPDATE: A developer shared Steam’s Adult Only Sexual Content policies with me after I published this article. While this does dampen my criticism of Steam significantly, I still feel these guidelines are rather vague.
It seems likely that Say It Again fell afoul of the third point, which reads:
If your game contains non-explicit sexual themes involving minors, the context surrounding it will determine if we’re willing to ship it.
Adult game developers cannot play a game of “will they, won’t they” with Steam forever. At some point, Valve needs to come clean about what they want and expect from developers. We’ve already seen this year what havoc a store pulling adult games from its catalog does to the adult gaming community.
Just tell us what you want, Valve. I’m sure we can figure something out!
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Writing Wrap-Up 📖
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