Content Warning: Contains screenshots from the affected games. These may be explicit in nature – reader discretion is advised. 

A Shocking Notice

For many, May 17, 2018 was a day like any other. Workplaces buzzed with countless employees, while schools and campuses found themselves packed with students. For many, the day was just Thursday, which was similar to Wednesday and the many days before it.

In short, it was just another lazy spring day.

The normal doldrums were suddenly rattled that evening, though, when developers of erotic games started to announce that they’d received notifications from Valve Corporation’s Steam store. HuniePop studio HuniePot was the first to sound the alarm.

“IMPORTANT NOTICE”, HuniePot stated in a tweet, “I’ve received an e-mail from Valve stating that HuniePop violates the rules & guidelines for pornographic content on Steam and will be removed from the store unless the game is updated to remove said content.”

Two hours later, Mutiny!! developer Lupiesoft confirmed that they would feel the wrath of the takedown. “We’ve just received some troubling news today that [Steam] has decided to pull down our titled “Mutiny!!” within 2 weeks for ‘reports of pornographic content’.”

As the night went on, more and more developers confirmed that they received a notice from Valve Corporation. MangaGamer posted the news on their blog, while outfits like Sekai Project, Dharker Studio, NekoWorks, and Winter Wolves made the reveals over Twitter.

Though the wording was different across the board, the message came fast and consistent from Valve: the games were deemed in violation of Steam’s rules for “pornographic content,” and would be removed within two weeks if major changes weren’t made.

Confusion Reigns

In the immediate aftermath, developers and fans alike issued a collective “Huh?” Many developers were quick to note that they were within Steam’s posted rules. “Lupiesoft has been one of the strictest developers in terms of following Steam’s guidelines, and absolutely nothing in Mutiny!! violates their guidelines,” Lupiesoft stated in a Tweet, “After our Steam publisher MangaGamer met with Valve in person, they were told that ecchi content was fine on Steam.”

MangaGamer, whose acclaimed Kindred Spirits on the Roof received a similar notice, expressed a similar sentiment. “We went to great pains to run the game’s content by Valve representatives––including sending along every potentially questionable graphical asset along with advanced builds of the title––to ensure that that feeling was mutual,” stated MangaGamer in an official blog post, “The game would have never appeared on the platform if we had not confirmed with Valve representatives that they did not feel the content was pornographic and was appropriate for the platform.”

The news quickly went viral across the web, as outlets like Kotaku, IGN, PCGamer, and Rock, Paper, Shotgun chronicled events as they began to unfold. Outside of the mainstream haunts, pundits like Jim Sterling and rallied their own followers, as untold amounts of chatter began to unfold on social media, message boards like Resetera, and even Steam’s own forums.

At the time, nobody knew why the takedowns were occurring, and Valve appeared to be all but unreachable. “We were emailing writers at Polygon, TechRaptor, Destructoid,” stated Lupiesoft head Peter Rasmussen, “They were reaching out to Valve, and not one peep or reply we sent them asking for reasons or even to know what they found objectionable.”

They were reaching out to Valve, and not one peep or reply we sent them asking for reasons or even to know what they found objectionable.

Peter Rasmussen, Lupiesoft

Lupiesoft’s Mutiny!! was one of the first games announced to be affected by Steam’s wave of takedowns.

Winter Wolves’ Celso Riva expressed a similar sentiment, commenting that “I am a bit disappointed, but also confused, since this sudden change of direction, especially for games that are on the [Steam Marketplace] for months/years is confusing.”

While this sounds like a scandalous lack of transparency, it appears to be a fact of life for smaller developers. “Valve is generally pretty opaque when it comes to what they will allow on their store and why,” noted Lupiesoft writer Colleen Potvin, “When MangaGamer had to remove one of their Sono Hanabira games a few months ago, Steam never gave an explanation.”

Top Hat gaming, in a statement, issued a hypothesis on the wave of notices. “We would like to think that given this dichotomy,” the comment reads, “the issue likely lies in Steam now retroactively trying to normalize the level of censorship that they’ve been keen on pushing onto new releases for the past, more recent months.”

Valve is generally pretty opaque when it comes to what they will allow on their store and why […] When MangaGamer had to remove one of their Sono Hanabira games a few months ago, Steam never gave an explanation.

Colleen Potvin, Lupiesoft

Roommates (WinterWolves, 2014)

An Intense Fury

In the immediate aftermath, confusion reigned among gamers and developers alike. The scattershot warnings, combined with a lack of communications from Valve created a situation in which nobody knew where the shoe would drop next. Some fans kept lists of titles as the notices rolled in. Others, meanwhile, tried to lobby Valve on Twitter. HuniePot took to using the cheeky hashtag “#waifuholocaust” to describe the situation.

Other developers, expressed anger at the apparent double standard levied at their projects in comparison to mainstream darlings. “This is terrible news for everyone in the visual novel industry and the gaming industry as whole,” stated MangaGamer PR Director John Pickett in a press release, “We followed every guideline provided to us by Valve to the letter, so there is no reason for this title to be cut off when it has conformed to the standards provided.” He elaborated, explaining that “The sexual content present in Kindred Spirits is no worse that [sic] what can readily be found in titles like The Witcher series, yet those remain unaffected. When we launched Gahkthun of the Golden Lightning on Steam, we took it through the ESRB rating system because it featured content that was slightly more explicit than that of Kindred Spirits, and that passed review with a Mature rating, not AO.”

Meanwhile, Lupiesoft reduced their price for Mutiny!!, offering the game and all DLC for just a dollar, as a means of protest against the notice. “If you buy Mutiny!! for a dollar and follow us,” Lupiesoft head Peter Rasmussen stated on Twitter, “that means the world in terms of being able to keep making games even if Valve no longer wants games like Mutiny!! on their platform.”

Outside of the development community, people quickly began to turn their anger in other directions. On one end, folks began to speculate that PayPal’s policies were to blame for the sudden moves.

On another, though, things had grown far more virulent. A number of fans had singled out a blog post by advocacy group The National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE, henceforth), which championed the move. The post, which was written by Senior Vice President and Executive Director Dawn Hawkins, explained that the takedowns hit after “a two-year aggressive campaign” by the NCOSE, and described the action as “a major step in creating a world free from sexual exploitation.” A tweet by Hawkins was similarly jubilant and stated that they were “a real solution to our culture’s #MeToo problems.”

At the time, there was no indicator on what, if anything the organization had actually done. The article noted that they had begun a “grassroots campaign” on May 10, which was presented to readers as a letter-writing campaign against explicit game House Party.

Within an hour of the tweet and blog post going live, Hawkins found herself bombarded by a handful of complaints. Not long after, the NCOSE website was taken offline.

At the end of the day, though, there were still no answers. Valve hadn’t commented on the issue, and developers were still in the dark.

On the evening of May 18, publisher Top Hat Studio issued a statement regarding the notice they had received from their own game, Karmasutra . “As you all have likely heard,” they began, “a recent panic has spread across the community of both players and developers alike regarding the prospect of censorship on Steam.” The statement explained their situation in detail. “Our last several games on Steam were put up against a rigorous approval process to make sure that there was no “adult content” in game. We followed Steam’s guidelines as closely as we could, and thus, those games have not been striked or threatened to be pulled.” They noted that titles like Episicava and bawdy comedy Analistica Academy remained safe from the ensuing wave of Steam strikes.

The publisher singled out Karmasutra as the sole title to fall under the weight of the hammer and explained that the title had been added during a time when Steam’s approval process was far less strict than it was at the present time. We can only speak for ourselves,” Top Hat made explicitly clear throughout, “and we are not trying to put words in the mouths of others – we are simply talking from our own perspective and experience.”

We would like to think that given this dichotomy, the issue likely lies in Steam now retroactively trying to normalize the level of censorship that they’ve been keen on pushing onto new releases for the past, more recent months.

Top Hat Studios, Inc.

Karmasutra (Top Hat Gaming, 2017)

Much at Stake

Behind the rhetoric, the protests, and the anger, there was a real sense of worry that filtered through several smaller studios. For many, Valve Corporation’s digital storefront has become synonymous with PC gaming, as a whole. Steam reaches more than 125 million gamers and has seen peaks of more than 18 million concurrent users as of late. To be disconnected from this massive marketplace could easily mean death for a smaller studio.

“It’s been frustrating and frightening,” commented Lupiesoft’s Colleen Potvin, “as a small queer developer I genuinely was worried that I was about to be out of a job.” She added that, “[i]f Lupiesoft does lose the Steam platform, it will definitely represent a large hit for us, both financially and who we can reach with the stories we tell. Right now we’re all unsure of what is going on and are left waiting to see what will happen.”

MangaGamer’s John Pickett echoed the sentiment in the company’s public statement, stressing the perils that smaller developers face: “It is dangerous for every small, indie development team when a major entity can just cut off the revenue streams they rely on like this, even after they have followed all proper procedures and conformed to the standards and guidelines provided by the retailer. Especially when no clear guidance or notice is provided when new standards are being implemented.”

It is dangerous for every small, indie development team when a major entity can just cut off the revenue streams they rely on like this, even after they have followed all proper procedures and conformed to the standards and guidelines provided by the retailer.

John Pickett, MangaGamer

Kindred Spirits on the Roof (Liar Soft, 2016)

A Sudden Reprieve, A Loss of Trust

Just as soon as it had begun, the crisis seemed to have averted itself. On May 19, affected publishers received a second round of notices from Valve. All affected parties, from Nekoworks, to Dharker Studios, to HuniePot and Lupiesoft, began to report that their titles were being re-reviewed.

At the time, the internet seemed to breathe a small sigh of relief. For many of those affected, though, the damage had been done. “A lot of people are wary of making erotic games,” noted Lupiesoft’s Colleen Potvin, “and with the way Steam is acting I don’t think that will change even if all the threatened games stay up on Steam.”

Winterwolves’ Celso Riva expressed a similar sentiment, stating “the worst thing is not just the censorship itself, which I understand sometimes can be due to laws or other external factors, but the worst is changing the rules a day to another. Developers cannot do their job if they don’t know what [the guidelines are].”

Through all conversations, it was incredibly clear that a bond of trust had been broken that weekend. “I hope Valve understands the way [we] feel, and sees this sudden takedown issue seriously and does something to try to win confidence again,” said Peter Rasmussen, “especially since we went through the right channels, we followed their guidelines, we were told it was okay, then it wasn’t. That’s really what set this off, because many devs felt betrayed. Just a simple reversal and a woopsie won’t make that bitterness go away.”

Indeed, the entire situation, from its origins to its resolutions, raised the flags of mistrust within the greater development community. Though the events ultimately proved to be a false alarm for many players, it began to raise questions on where they would go if this were to happen again. “Other developers will choose to abandon Steam (or promote it less heavily),” observed Potvin, “which due to how big Steam and its userbase is, means catering to multiple groups of smaller audiences.”

Other platforms, meanwhile, began to send out feelers, noting that they offered a safe haven for risqué content. On May 17, adults-only distributor Fakku! Issued a statement on Twitter, encouraging the affected while highlighting their “all games welcome” philosophy.”

Meanwhile, developers began to announce new venues for their content. Lupiesoft that they’d appear on Steam competitor itch.io, in addition to their presence on Fakku! MangaGamer, meanwhile, made a major reveal on May 20, stating that they were bringing their titles to popular storefront GOG.”Steam has now proven that it’s growing unreliable for small and independent developers,” commented MangaGamer’s John Pickett, who expressed plans to eventually bring the entire MangaGamer library to GOG.

HuniePot, meanwhile, announced that they’d be joining the Fakku! family.

Though Steam would still be a major marketplace for publishers of erotic games, it was clear that the tides were beginning to turn, and attitudes were changing across the board. “Today Valve deescalated the issue a lot,” said Peter Rasmussen, “but it’s not fully gone yet. If this situation does indeed get resolved and Valve doesn’t give some sort of apology than it will have a chilling effect as small devs will feel less safe about investing in it.”

Lupiesoft expressed similar sentiments, stating, quite simply, “do not trust Steam, do not rely on Steam to carry you.” They encouraged developers to “become an octopus,” and reach out to as many markets as possible.

HuniePop (HuniePot, 2015)

The Immediate Aftermath

In the wake of the events, it was clear that something had changed within the subculture. A new light was being cast upon mature-themed titles, as outlets from the niche to the mainstream took up the cause.

Some saw it as a sign that tides were changing. “I think overall we’ve seen a huge increase in how main stream media sources like Polygon or IGN view our medium, and our subject matter,” commented Rasmussen, “There was a lot of understanding that this scene and MangaGamer in particular negotiated hard to get mature [Visual Novels] respected on Steam. I want to see that outpouring of that support continue as [Visual Novels] become mainstream.”

“I am extremely thankful for the outpouring of support I and other developers have received over the past two days,” commented Colleen Potvin.

For some, though, the increased attention created questions of how the incident would paint the overall erotic games niche.

“Honestly, [the coverage] also puts my game in a negative light,” commented Winter Wolves’ Winter Wolves’ Celso Riva, “I mean, personally I have no problems with purely fanservice games. Games that can be finished in less than 20 minutes, and whose ONLY goal is to unlock erotic CGs […] But Roommates isn’t such game. There are 250,000 words of writing, a stat raising, a lot of funny / touchy moments, [and] a well written story (it’s enough to read Steam reviews themselves). So, comparing Roommates to one of the various other games is greatly reductive IMHO.”

Others, like Lupiesoft’s Peter Rasmussen took a different view on the situation. “I think it’s exposed a lot of people to these games,” he said, “they aren’t schlock in the bad sense, but it’s the good kind of smutty schlock that makes people happy, and is also super positive.”

Lupiesoft’s main Twitter account expanded on this sentiment. “For Lupiesoft’s entire life within the [Visual Novel] scene and on Steam we were regarded as sleazy for the types of games we made,” the account tweeted, “I think people have realized that people who make adult games aren’t trying to abuse the system, we’re following the guidelines and fighting for everyone’s [visual novels].” The studio added that they feel that “after this week that perception has changed and people have new respect for sexy/mature game/[visual novel] developers now.”

I think people have realized that people who make adult games aren’t trying to abuse the system, we’re following the guidelines and fighting for everyone’s [visual novels].

Lupiesoft, Official Statement

A Complete 180°

Though the incident lasted but a few days, it seemed as though the world was beginning to return to its normal rhythms. Steam had reversed course, the greater enthusiast press gained a newfound appreciation for mature-themed games, and developers of risqué games were beginning to engage new markets and new audiences.

Everything changed, though, on June 6, when Valve Corporation announced that they would be overhauling their content policies for Steam. To make a long story short, the company would be stepping back from their typical standards and allow all content “except for things that we decide are illegal, or straight up trolling.”

“Recently there’s been a bunch of community discussion around what kind of games we’re allowing onto the Steam Store,” Valve’s Erik Johnson stated in the post, noting that “[…] the discussion caused us to spend some time examining what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how we could be doing it better.” Valve reiterated that they hadn’t automated the marketplace, adding that humans were “very involved”, and “looking at the contents of every controversial title submitted” to them. The publisher also denied that the recent actions were “heavily affected by our payment processors, or outside interest groups.”

With this ideal in mind, Valve Corporation argued that the only correct approach “is to allow everything onto the Steam Store, except for things that we decide are illegal, or straight up trolling.” According to Valve, this would allow the company to “focus less on trying to police what should be on Steam, and more on building those tools to give people control over what kinds of content they see.”

The company admitted that they are welcoming controversy, adding that “[T]he Steam Store is going to contain something that you hate, and don’t think should exist. […] But you’re also going to see something on the Store that you believe should be there, and some other people will hate it and want it not to exist […] it also means that the games we allow onto the Store will not be a reflection of Valve’s values, beyond a simple belief that you all have the right to create [and] consume the content you choose.”

The reaction was immediate and swift, as voices across the board began to sound off. News outlets, developers, and publishers alike published their views on the decision.

Itch.io creator Leaf Corcoran stated that “A platform that allows ‘everything, unless it’s illegal or straight up trolling’ is ridiculous,” before asking people to not submit “malicious, derogatory, discriminatory, bullying, harassing, demeaning content” to his platform. In a follow-up tweet, he added “It’s sad that most of the people in that thread are worried about asset flips. What about the fact that valve is effectively authorizing toxic people to exist on their platform? It’s so out of touch.”

Robert Yang, openly gay developer of games like Cobra Club, questioned the move on Twitter. “[Y]ou’re assuming this is still some kind of abstract ‘slippery slope’ hypothetical?” He asked, before adding “they’re *already* picking bad moral norms, they’re already governing, they’re already giving tacit support to steam nazis to call me a degenerate, these corps are already punishing trans people.”

They’re *already* picking bad moral norms, they’re already governing, they’re already giving tacit support to steam Nazis to call me a degenerate, these corps are already punishing trans people.”

Robert Yang,

Kotaku‘s Nathan Grayson, meanwhile, argued that “Critics’ fears that Steam will become a cesspit of gross content aren’t just hypothetical: Steam isn’t just a store, and Valve has already done similar things with other portions of Steam, often to disastrous results.” In his article, Grayson argued that, while corporations shouldn’t be arbiters on “what is and is not moral or ethical,” Valve Corporation had failed to provide even basic safeguards against scammers, hate groups, and other toxic elements. “Over the years, Valve’s particular brand of openness has repeatedly resulted in messes that, somehow, the company evidently hasn’t learned from,” he stated, highlighting the Digital Homicide fiasco, the Counterstrike GO gambling rings, and more that had cropped up under the company’s watch.

Eurogamer‘s Oli Welsh, meanwhile, called the decision “arrogant and cowardly.” In his article, Welsh stated that “Yes, game creators have a right to free speech, to make games on any topic they like, as transgressive and offensive as the law allows. But they do not have a right to publish these games on Steam.” He added that “what Valve is is an unusually influential actor in a cultural establishment,” comparing their position to one of the key players in the film world. He admits that “Valve is certainly in a tough spot. The means to make and digitally distribute games are extremely accessible and the barrier to entry is so low that, with Steam, the company finds itself forming almost every link of that chain on its own. As such, it would have to both set norms and challenge them itself.”

Tropical Liquor (2018, Tentacle Games)

Ultimately, Welsh argued that “Valve has not made this choice because it thinks it is the ethically correct thing to do. It has made this choice because it does not want to think about ethics at all, and because it is afraid of making the difficult decisions that a company in its position must face.”

On the flip side, several erotic games developers expressed optimism toward the move. “We’re working on our streaming mode for Mutiny!!, it could be that once the new Steam guidelines/filters are in place, Mutiny!! could be completely uncensored everywhere,” Lupiesoft stated on their Twitter account. The developer added that “[w]ith more storefronts popping up and sites like @FAKKU supporting western adult [visual novels], the future could be bright for mature content devs […] And Lupiesoft who’s been pushing the boundaries of content guidelines since we started will be right there to set precedent.”

HuniePot expressed a similar sentiment, stating “Serious props to Valve for letting developers and players choose what to make and what to play. This is Steam as it should be. A free market.”

Other involved developers expressed a more cautious sense of optimism. WinterWolves stated that they’d keep their current methods in place for the time being. In a tweet, the developer noted that “if they change their mind again (possible, it happened in the past SO MANY TIMES!) for me updating them all in a hurry would be a pain.”

Top Hat Studios conveyed a similar sentiment. On their Twitter account, the studio stated that “We were asked less than a week ago to remove links to patches, so something isn’t making sense to us. If we can get confirmation that our full games are allowed uncut on Steam, then we will patch them to include full content. However, the viability of that remains up in the air, as outside the blog post we have not received any specific word from Valve. Until we get confirmation, we will continue to do things we we’ve done them.”

Re;Lord 1 ~The witch of Herfort and stuffed animals~ (2018, Escu:de/Element)

Looking to the Future

Over the course of just under a month, we’ve seen some immense shifts in the way Valve Corporation does business. At this point, we can’t say whether their actions have been good or bad, nor can we really say what the overall impact will be.

Rather, the industry appears to be in the midst of a paradigm shift, which will ultimately shape the way we view gaming content going forward. Steam is changing and evolving, which will ultimately have a bearing on the ways we interact with games as a whole. There will be winners and losers, but this appears to be a pretty big win, in and of itself, for creators of racy content.

How these developers can work within the new confines of the gaming world going forward remains to be seen. New support structures have risen up to give a platform for these talented teams. Now, all we can do is hope that the horizon continues to remain as bright as it does now.

We reached out to Valve Corporation and the NCOSE for comment but received no response.

Thanks to everybody who  spoke with us for the article. It’s super appreciated, and we wish all of you the very best.