Steam’s Inconsistency is Hurting Visual Novels – How We Can Help

Update: 05/08/2020

Steam has reinstated Bokuten after investigation confirmed the issue with the missed (and inaccessible) CGs mentioned below. This article remains relevant, however, because Steam’s treatment of MangaGamer in this incident was totally unacceptable. Original article follows.


Steam is the largest, most well-established PC gaming platform out there. For many gamers, “PC gaming” and “Steam” are pretty much synonymous.

To put it another way, in much the same way that Grandma thinks that Facebook is “the Internet”, there are many people out there who don’t look beyond Steam as a place to buy new games. And while there are perfectly valid reasons to favour Steam — its social features are pretty good, its frequent sales make gaming very affordable and it’s where you’ll find the largest communities for many online games — there are certain parts of the industry that are being treated extremely poorly by the platform.

One of those is the localised Japanese visual novel sector, which frequently finds itself the victim of Valve’s seemingly amorphous content policies. So it’s time we looked at what we, as a community, can perhaps do a bit differently.

Bokuten – Why I Became an Angel

As I type this, MangaGamer has just had its localisation of OVERDRIVE’s visual novel Bokuten – Why I Became an Angel removed from Steam. The team has, at the time of writing, received no feedback from Steam as to why it was removed, nor did they receive any warning that it was violating any content policies or any requests to adjust content to make it suitable for distribution on the platform.

It’s just gone, eight months after it was originally released and, according to programmer The_Doddler, after the team had already spent “months getting the game sanitised for Steam, cutting all nudity” and “rewriting/skipping anything explicit” in order to meet the conditions imposed on them by Valve’s “harsh review”.

bokuten4
Bokuten – Why I Became an Angel

Update: 31/07/2020

Speaking with The Daily Dot, MangaGamer’s PR Director John Pickett noted that the company had received a communication from the Steam representative responsible for the ban, claiming that MangaGamer had added sexual content to the game that would not have passed Steam’s review process. This claim is untrue, since the game had not been updated since December 19, 2019.

Valve’s VP of Marketing, Doug Lombardi, told The Daily Dot that “in [Steam’s] initial content review, [they] missed content hidden in the game’s depot that features adult content with underage characters” and that while the supposedly offending content was “not accessible in the game itself without an externally acquired patch, [Steam was] distributing that content depot through Steam, therefore the game would not have passed [their] content review.” Lombardi claimed that Steam had “improved [their] content review process to avoid this in the future.”

Pickett pointed out that Lombardi’s claim was also untrue. The adult patch for Bokuten is 1.2GB in size, as it contains the cut content; said content is not, as Lombardi claims, distributed as part of the Steam package of Bokuten. He also noted that Lombardi’s accusation that underage characters were involved in sexual acts was “a serious claim” and “not the first time Valve has made such a false claim, as demonstrated with The Expression: Amrilato.”

However, as reported by LewdGamer, a Reddit user investigating the game’s files found that some erotic image files had been missed from MangaGamer’s editing process, and were still part of the Steam distribution. They are not accessible within the game, however, and most certainly cannot be mistaken for images depicting underage characters. Most Steam users will be completely unaware that these files are still there, or what to do with them.

“We would love nothing more than for Valve to have clear, uniformly enforced content standards,” added Pickett. “If there were clear standards we would happily make every effort to abide by all of them, but there aren’t. Valve is making arbitrary decisions that vary day-by-day, person-by-person, and they’re not applying those same decisions, those same ‘standards’ to other publishers and especially not to major AAA publishers.”

The Key to Home

Steam has been struggling for a while with this sort of thing. In March of 2018, a visual novel called The Key to Home was banned from the platform, supposedly on the grounds that Steam’s approval team believed its core audience consisted of paedophiles.

The issue seemingly arose from the game’s use of child characters (drawn by loli specialist MUK, don’t look them up at work) — and the fact developer Henteko Doujin described it as a “mystery visual novel for every gentleman and gentlewoman who loves little girls”. However, the developers were keen to point out that there is no explicit sexual content in the game, and that its core message is raising awareness of social problems surrounding children. The game also received a “T” rating from the ESRB — though it’s worth noting that as with many digital-only titles, this was done through an automated checklist-based process rather than a manual review.

HuniePop

Later that year in May, a significant number of visual novels and games got hit with a seeming “ban wave” on the platform. These were products that had been previously approved by Valve, and which had been on sale for quite some time in a lot of cases. And it wasn’t just localised Japanese games, either — the delightfully abrasive cult hit HuniePop was hit by this, as were the LGBT-friendly Western-developed visual novels Mutiny!! by LupieSoft and RoomMates by Winter Wolves Games.

Interestingly, at this point, this was before Valve adopted its supposed current “open door” policy with regard to content — you know, the reason why the New Releases tab is perpetually flooded with “Hentai Puzzle” games featuring stolen artwork and Unity asset flips. As such, the versions of these games on Steam were, at the time, “all-ages” versions that cut out explicitly sexual content where it existed, though in some cases patches were available to restore the 18+ content — and in some cases it wasn’t even there in the first place!

Ne no Kami: The Two Princess Knights of Kyoto

During this incident, Valve’s grounds for banning these titles — or at the very least, requesting edits to them — was that they were “pornographic”. But many people were quick to point out that titles such as CD Projekt’s The Witcher series and Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V featured full frontal nudity and explicit sex scenes and had not had any problems; was there some sort of double standard going on there?

We never really got any satisfactory answers, and a little while after all this, Steam seemingly pulled a complete about-face and decided that no, they weren’t going to curate content at all any more, and that, in theory, is the state the platform is currently in, for better or worse.

Evenicle

All good, you might think. You can now buy 18+ visual novels and games on Steam — including some stuff like Eveniclewhich features pretty extreme content at times. Fantastic, right? Well, in theory. Unfortunately, it most certainly hasn’t been that simple since then — particularly so far as localised Japanese visual novels have been concerned.

In June of 2019, SukeraSparo’s visual novel The Expression: Amrilato — another game localised and published in the West by MangaGamer — found itself banned from Steam on the grounds that it “sexualised minors”. For the unfamiliar, The Expression: Amrilato is a visual novel that features a young woman who finds herself pulled into another world where everybody speaks a variant of Esperanto, known in-game as Juliamo. The game is intended to be both an interesting, romantic story and a means of introducing readers to the language of Esperanto. It features no explicit sexual content whatsoever, with the most racy it gets being, in the words of MangaGamer’s PR director John Pickett, “chaste romance between two women”.

The Expression: Amrilato

The situation was eventually resolved — and without any changes being made to The Expression: Amrilato’s content for its Steam release — but the whole thing left a bit of a sour taste in the mouths of a lot of people, particularly as it wouldn’t be the last visual novel to suffer this fate, as we’ve seen most recently at the time of writing with Bokuten.

The problem appears to be with the perceived age of characters. Characters who are obviously underage or in a school setting immediately set off warning flags for at least some of Steam’s reviewers, even if the characters in question are canonically over 18. This is seemingly the case whether or not there is explicit sexual content or just light ecchi funtimes — though this does not explain how certain titles such as Imageepoch and Nippon Ichi’s notorious (and widely misunderstood) Criminal Girls, which features BDSM-inspired sequences featuring loli characters, have managed to survive unscathed.

Criminal Girls

The problem developers, publishers and players alike have with Steam’s amorphous policies is not necessarily that they exist, it’s that they’re not spelled out anywhere, and that they’re seemingly applied totally inconsistently, without any sort of transparency and, as we’ve seen in the case of Bokuten, sometimes completely without warning. Getting approved for release on the store is not, apparently, a guarantee that you will stay approved, and this naturally makes those developing. localising and publishing visual novels extremely uneasy about releasing games on the platform. And yet releasing on Steam is seen as an absolute necessity if you want to get noticed.

Why is Steam important? Well, despite the fact that it historically hasn’t been super-friendly to visual novels, 18+ or otherwise, it is still, as noted above, the main place a significant proportion of PC players get all of their pieces of interactive entertainment from, whether they’re big-budget triple-A releases or niche interest visual novels. If you want PC gamers to know that you have a new game out, you put it on Steam — because most of them will buy it there. To provide a practical example, Meru from Love Lab told me that Steam accounted for 96% of LAMUNATION!‘s sales compared to all other platforms combined — even with the Steam version requiring the download of an external patch to re-enable 18+ content. And this is unlikely to be an isolated example.

LAMUNATION!

Visual novels are in a difficult position so far as broad acceptance and understanding is concerned. Still disappointingly referred to by some mainstream journalists as “anime sex games”, the medium has long struggled with the stigma that all visual novels are, in some form or another, pornography, even though all-ages PC and console releases have been a thing for many years at this point — and even though your average VN enthusiast will happily talk your ear off about the difference between an eroge and a nukige. (See the Glossary page if you’re new to all this and want to know more!)

Some of this stigma is, it has to be said, self-inflicted to a certain degree. Go to a non-Steam online storefront that specialises in visual novels — or a publisher’s own store page — and chances are you’ll see titles with 18+ content promoted primarily (or exclusively!) using the explicit, erotic scenes, even if said scenes make up a relatively minor part of the experience as a whole. It’s a very literal example of “sex sells”, and while it’s probably effective, it’s also a bit of a barrier to some.

Seven Days With the Ghost

On the one hand, when dealing with adult content, it’s important to be up-front about what prospective purchasers can expect, particularly if you’re hoping to create some new fans of the medium. But on the other, it’s possible to do this without the implication that the title is non-stop sex scenes; promoting a game with an emphasis on its erotic content can create an unrealistic impression of what it actually is, and may even put some people off purchasing at all.

Marketing decisions are not something we, as consumers, can do anything about, mind, but they are an important consideration — and one we need to be willing to both look past and talk openly about, particularly when explaining the medium and our favourite works to prospective new fans. It’s part of the reason why, when I cover visual novels here on MoeGamer, I do so in so much depth. There’s so much more to say about them than what the sex scenes are like — though there are often interesting things to discuss about sexual content, too, well beyond “my pp hard”. Perception of the medium won’t improve if people aren’t willing to talk maturely, sensibly and without shame about it — and if others aren’t willing to listen.

The Fruit of Grisaia

Something we can do to help out the visual novel sector in the West is to forego purchasing visual novel titles on Steam, and instead pick up our new reading material directly from publishers such as MangaGamer, Denpasoft and JAST USA. Or we can use alternative storefronts that specialise in curating, promoting and distributing this kind of content, such as FAKKU! and Nutaku — or platforms that have less stringent restrictions on allowed content, such as itch.io.

The hard pill to swallow here is that this will probably mean you’ll have to pay a bit more for your games, since most of these alternative platforms and publishers don’t have the means to provide the same sort of deep discounts that Steam does on a regular basis. But there are benefits to consider, too — both for you as a consumer and for the developers and publishers of the games.

Nekopara

As a consumer, buying a visual novel direct from a publisher or from a non-Steam distribution platform will, more often than not, net you a DRM-free copy of the game as opposed to a version you need to extricate from the Steam ecosystem. While some people are resistant to this because it means ending up with games scattered across several different accounts rather than in one nice centralised library, you can put in a little work yourself to get similar benefits. You could download DRM-free installers and keep them on an external hard drive. If you have some sort of cloud storage solution, you could back them up to one centralised location online. Or, if you’re a crazy fool like me, you could even burn them to Blu-ray disc or DVD, package them up nicely with some custom inlays and have your own physical library of visual novels to display with pride.

In some cases, publisher sites even offer official physical releases of visual novels — both MangaGamer and Denpasoft do this, for example, and many of JAST USA’s titles are available via its partner site J-List. These official packaged releases often come with pleasant extras such as soundtrack CDs, artbooks, acrylic stands and other merchandise, making them highly collectible and suitable for display.

Fate/stay night

From a practical perspective, being asked to pay a bit more for a visual novel will also cause you to consider whether or not you really want it. While it’s important to support your favourite developers and publishers by purchasing their new titles when they release, it’s also sensible to consider your own backlog. Steam’s deep discount sale culture coupled with initiatives like charity bundles have encouraged us all over the years to pick up mountains of games that we never get around to playing, and that often leads to us missing out on wonderful experiences.

Deliberately limiting your own spending and thinking more about what you purchase not only means you’re more likely to actually play the things you buy, but it also sends a clearer picture to developers and publishers as to which things are legitimately popular and of interest to the community, rather than which simply sold well because they were part of a bundle or a Steam seasonal sale.

Casual Romance Club

From the developers’ and publishers’ perspectives, consumers being willing to pay a bit more to buy direct or from trusted platforms means that their work can be valued appropriately. Translators in particular are extremely underpaid for the vast amounts of work they do on visual novels, and this is unlikely to change if the final products are sold at bargain basement prices. These games are mammoth undertakings to localise, and I’m sure there have been numerous occasions where Western publishers have found themselves asking if the sales figures and revenue were really worth all that effort.

Purchasing direct from developers or publishers also means that they see more of your money. Valve takes a pretty hefty cut of all Steam sales, so the people who actually brought the game to you aren’t getting much of what you paid. Factor in sale prices, too, and it’s an even bleaker picture. While it should be about the art and creativity, of course, the fact is that for developers, publishers and localisers to continue doing what they do, they need money. The more you support them financially, the more they’ll be able to do.

Sacrament of the Zodiac

There’s one additional very important thing we can do as consumers, and that is to talk. Talk about our favourite experiences with visual novels. Talk about our favourite characters. Talk about the amazing stories found within the medium. Talk about how 18+ visual novels aren’t just pornography, but that they can, in many cases, make use of sexual content to say something profoundly meaningful. Talk to genre newcomers about how they can get started exploring this fascinating medium, and what sort of things they might be interested in. And, of course, talk to people about where we can get visual novels that are either not available on Steam, or which have had problems with Valve’s platform.

It’s heartbreaking to see those who are filled with passion for the visual novel medium so deflated by the issues they have with Steam, but also so resigned to the apparent necessity of focusing on the platform. Visual novels deserve better, and we’re all in a position to help improve things. In the long run it’ll mean we’re all able to enjoy more visual novels.

Bokuten – Why I Became an Angel

Maybe start by giving Bokuten a look, hmm?


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16 thoughts on “Steam’s Inconsistency is Hurting Visual Novels – How We Can Help”

  1. I think your solution is the correct one. It’s dangerous for Steam to be the be all and end of your market when you can’t even be certain that your games will remain on sale.

    Whether it was driven by a desire to maximise profits or (just possibly) something more noble, it was heartening to see Steam shift towards a more permissive stance on mature content in games. But whether out of fear of falling foul of the law, or of becoming the centre of the latest media moral panic over sex in games, I think it’s inevitable that Valve will hold on to the ability to remove games as an ace up their sleeve.

    Where does that leave developers? It’s hard to say. None of the other major storefronts are likely to start picking up mature games – Steam itself faced a fierce backlash over the decision (interestingly from the press more than from customers) and only really rode it out by dint of their sheer size.

    So it falls to niche retailers, but as you say, by their nature they can’t offer anything like Steam’s reach. It’s a conundrum for sure, but I will take your advice and try to go further afield if it means developers stand to benefit.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I’ve taken advantage of more than enough Steam sales that I’m definitely guilty of contributing to this problem. I need to make a point to start just buying VNs off of other platforms.

    I’d hoped the whole business with The Expression: Amrilato getting sorted out and placed back on Steam was a sign that they were moving in the right direction, but I was certainly wrong about that. I have to guess Valve is afraid of the self-appointed censors on Twitter/Reddit/etc. raging over content in visual novels that they’d never play anyway. That would explain why the games that tend to get hit are ones that feature school-age characters with no sexual content whatsoever like Amrilato or The Key to Home, but stuff with that extreme content like Evenicle goes ignored. These people often seem to have no idea what’s actually in the games or the context involved in them.

    As you say, we just have to keep talking about this issue. Fight weak arguments with strong ones. Decades ago, novels that were banned from being sent through the mail because they were deemed obscene are now considered classics. There’s no reason that a fringe of agitators should get to decide what games we can play, and supporting alternative retailers is a great way to do that.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My issue with buying directly from the developers is that I have to pay about 4x the amount due to my currency being very weak against the dollar (third world country problems). On Steam they offer regional pricing at least. It’s a pity Steam is so inconsistent with this stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “The hard pill to swallow here is that this will probably mean you’ll have to pay a bit more for your games”

    You mean 2-3 times more than what I would pay in Steam for the exact same game? Yeah, thats not going to happen. When they apply regional pricing on their website, we will talk, until then it’s a little bit of money from Steam, or nothing at all.

    I mean, if it’s hurting them that much, they always have the option to only sell on their website and get the sales numbers from before Steam started to sell VN

    Like

  5. And nobody remember “AKFTP: Maidens of Michael”. Was removed and we never got a real explanation.

    Sadly, without Steam regional pricing and the possibility of paying in my local currency I do not think that I would be able to buy games at all.
    In some cases I would pay almost ten times the price.

    Like

  6. Many Chinese indie visual novels was also removed from Steam and had to release on other platforms. One famous example is Sunnyrain Lovestory. Its prequel Tricolour Lovestory was a hit on Steam, but this sequel was banned on Steam right before its release date and eventually released on another new platform for free to players who own the prequel on Steam.

    Like

  7. This is a tough pill to swallow. Moreso for the localization/publishers because you’re not charging “a little more” on your or your partners sites. You’re charging 4-5x more and for those who are international this can cause massive spikes in payment.

    As someone who has suffered from this when living abroad it makes it hard for me to choose. Most VNs I support when they come out at full price whether that be $20-50. But at the end of the day when a Steam sale hits and I can get one that was never on my immediate radar and its on sale for $5-10 thats tough.

    As far as the “Steam rules” problem, we as consumers can only make so much noise to Steam’s execs. I know the publishing and localization teams have also reached out to get insight to no avail but then all I see is them giving up.

    “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Keep banging on the door if you have to. Meet with other localizers and if you can start a massive bombardment campaign with your fans included to demand answers.

    Until we get that I think you all will continue to suffer from this issue.

    Like

  8. I remember one of the Mangagamer staff supported the Key to Home being removed. They can help themselves by not participating in the kind of anti-loli hysteria that will come back to bite them in the ass.

    Like

  9. Addendum:
    I found what I was talking about, that makes it really hard for me to sympathize with them. “Don’t throw stones in a glass house”

    Like

    1. When my friend told me about a year ago that every Western licensers Steam release is an intentional ban bait to justify censorship, I called him crazy. But now I see that he was right.

      This will continue until a post-western market is established, with licensers independently reviewed and legally accountable for changes and both shops and licensers in 100% Japanese ownership(or internal official translations, also independently reviewed).

      Like

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