Earlier this year, Valve was met with a wave of backlash after removing numerous adult games from the Steam storefront. The discussion around these removals eventually culminated into a blog post from Valve in which the company supposedly shifted their stance regarding sexual content on Steam. However, six months after a pledge to allow anything on Steam except for illegal or trolling content, Valve again finds itself at odds with developers and players over the company's ban on certain adult games from the Steam platform.
On November 13, Imolicious developer Yume Creations posted on Twitter that Steam would not allow the visual novel to appear on its platform.
Yume Creations later received clarification from a Steam representative that the ban was due to the game "containing content that exploits minors", likely referring to the explicit content and young appearance of the game's main characters. Though games with strong sexual content are permitted on Steam, it's rules and guidelines do explicitly forbid "content that exploits children in any way" and "content that violates the laws of any jurisdiction in which it will be available". Yume Creations, however, disputes that the game includes exploitation of minors due to an in-game disclaimer stating that all characters are over 18. In this particular case, it is also worth noting that Imolicious also contained incestuous content and received similar bans from MiKandi and Nutaku for that reason.
On November 14, MaoMao Discovery Team received a similar ban, with the developer Celusis citing allegations of child exploitation as the reason for the sudden removal from Steam. Players, however, argued that the game includes a disclaimer stating that all characters are over 18. Celusis claimed that they were unable to upload an "all age version" of the game due to it being banned.
Developer Top Hat Studios submitted the first episode of Cross Love, a visual novel set in high school, to Steam for approval on November 11. Although Steam's review process typically takes 3-5 business days, the company's response did not come until December 4, when it notified Top Hat Studios that Cross Love could not be approved for release. Steam representatives again cited child exploitation as the reason for the ban.
Top Hat Studios denied the existence of any such content on the grounds that the dialogue and situations in the game clearly establish the characters as 18 and older. The developer addressed some of the controversies in a Reddit post, stating,
[...] we realize the cutesy artstyle has made a lot of people question ages of those in the game. However, we're serious in our stance that the game was not made to cater to that in the slightest - the setting and everything else is made to convey that it's supposed to be a coming of age story. While I understand the claim as well that a disclaimer is meaningless to onlookers, as someone else in the comments has stated, there are specific scenes which convey the characters' ages as being legal - one which is them getting carded to enter an adult bookstore. The cutesy artstyle is supposed to fit the non-dramatic tone of the game.Top Hat later elaborated on the decision to set Cross Love in high school on Twitter, adding,
For most people, this type of coming of age realization happens at turn of adulthood - which is about 18-19. With that said, we had a choice to put the game in either the last year of high school, or the first year of college [...] this was clearly a poor decision.Not long after Cross Love's ban, on December 5, visual novel Hello Goodbye was also removed from the Steam store.
Though neither Steam nor localizer NekoNyanSoft has publicly cited child exploitation as the reason for the ban, the game does include underage-looking protagonists in a school setting. NekoNyanSoft claims that the version of Hello Goodbye sent to Valve for review, however, was entirely censored and contained no nudity or sexual content at all.
Valve has remained silent in response to each ban and did not return our request for comment. This silence has only exacerbated the problem in some developers' eyes. In an email to TechRaptor on December 7, Top Hat Studios stated they had reached out to Valve six times since November 26 regarding Cross Love's review and that none were answered. NekoNyanSoft expressed similar frustration in their blog post, writing that Hello Goodbye's ban "could be a mistake or just a kneejerk reaction of some Steam rep, but the problem is that we have no way of knowing that because Valve is unwilling to communicate, which is beyond frustrating."
That same silence also does little to explain why each game was selected for removal from Steam, given the store already contains games featuring explicit content and girls of dubious ages. For some titles, like Imolicious, the reasoning is a bit more obvious. For others, like Cross Love, maybe a bit less so. How Valve chooses to define "child exploitation" on their own platform is of course up to them, but some argue that that definition is not clear enough, making it impossible to know what line these developers are crossing that other ones didn't.
If Valve has the answer, however, it hasn't shared it. This has apparently left developers in the dark about where they ran afoul, especially considering the library of questionable content that did pass Steam's review. In an email to TechRaptor, Top Hat Studios wrote,
We've gone over a ton of different hypotheses at this point, and in all honesty, we can't find a single consistency. Every time we think we find a smoking gun, we're able to find like several games on Steam that have content that's even more exaggerated or "worse" than whatever's been banned in the recent batch. [...] Is it young looking characters or canonically young characters (not that our game has this, but assuming it was a misunderstanding)? No, because there's still games with "lolis" all over steam, some which contain sexual content still. Is it high school setting games, like many people are saying? We have no idea, because there's still tons of games in high school on Steam. We can link like, at least several examples of each of these, stemming back months prior to just days before our own bans. It's insane, and the inconsistency is the most frustrating thing out of all of this.
With no means of appealing a ban and difficulty soliciting a response from Valve, developers of banned games have little choice but to go elsewhere to sell their product. Bigger contenders like GOG and Humble don't allow adult content, so adult game devs' next option is to go to smaller storefronts with lighter content restrictions like Fakku or DLsite, where the loss of Steam's expansive presence is more noticeable. When asked via email if they would ever consider abandoning Steam as a platform, Top Hat told TechRaptor,
The issue is, the combined sales and outreach of these [non-Steam] platforms are still heavily dwarfed by Steam, to the point where not putting stuff on Steam is such a massive possible loss, it's almost impossible to skip over putting titles on the site. I mean, if Valve comes out and says "all anime is banned", then yeah, we may not have a choice, but until then, we honestly don't have much of a choice. It's where the majority of our demographic is located. [...] Sure, there's new sites popping up for adult games - Fakku's Game section is fairly new, for example - but at best, these sites can be supplementary to the massive exposure that Steam gives.NekoNyanSoft expressed a similar sentiment in their blog post, writing,
You often read people bring up the argument that publishers could avoid going to Steam in the first place, but that's not really an option. There are titles where you can easily make a return even without Steam for sure, but we're going for the big titles with outstanding quality that a majority of the community is asking and wishing for, and these titles are expensive.TechRaptor also reached out to NekoNyanSoft and Yume Creations for comment but did not receive a response in time for publication.
There's a lot of debate to be had about Steam's content restrictions, the company's transparency (lack thereof) regarding its review processes, and the PC giant's influence on the industry, but hey, that's what comment sections are for.
What do you think about Steam butting heads with adult content again? Are they justified in their approach? Does adult content have a place on Steam at all? Does this all just feel like deja vu? Let us know down below.