The emergence of visual novels into the gaming mainstream has been a joy to watch over recent years, but Valve’s recent actions towards certain developers has brought into question the future of the industry in the West. Developers have always been left in the dark as to whether adult content is allowed on Steam, with Valve’s policy being very unclear and at times contradictory. There were some games such as Huniepop that featured sexually explicit content and were able to be published on the platform, yet, others were forced to make changes.
This problem was never as widespread as it had the potential to be, as it was always the perceived wisdom that games with sexual content wouldn’t sell well in the West. It was largely because of this belief that many of the visual novels that first began to appear on Steam, such as planetarian and Nekopara Vol. 1, did not feature sexual content – even if the original Japanese version did.
With that being said, the fan demand for adult content was satisfied through patches that developers often provided themselves, downloadable via third party websites such as SourceForge. Many high profile visual novel releases benefited from this, such as the seminal science-fiction visual novel Muv Luv, which was followed up sometime after release with an official 18+ patch. Links to such patches were often posted in public, on the Steam forums, which further muddled the boundaries on the issue.
Therefore when Valve contacted many developers, including industry leaders MangaGamer and Sekai Project, last week with an ultimatum – remove the adult content from your game within two weeks or it will be deleted from the platform – many were surprised, to say the least. Beyond a move last year to prevent developers posting links to 18+ patches on Steam forums, Valve had never before attempted to address the long-standing issue or clarify it’s policy on the matter.
Following outrage from many developers, Valve has now seemingly backtracked on their ultimatum, and will now manually review the games of the developers it has contacted. Even so, the company has not yet announced publicly any move to clarify their policy on adult content, only meaning that the problem will only persist, only that now developers are aware that their future on the platform can suddenly be put into question without any prior warning from the company – meaning that many are now reconsidering their options in terms of the distribution of their games.
The recent exodus of visual novels to DRM-free site GOG.com is a clear showcase of this. MangaGamer’s localization of the Higurashi no Naku Koro ni series and Sekai Project’s Fault and Sunrider series suddenly appeared on the platform at a discount yesterday, and I’m sure that many developers will be considering following suit. This doesn’t mean that visual novel developers are planning to forsake Steam immediately, but that they are exploring options other than it – putting into doubt the future of visual novels on Steam in the long-term.
Frankly, Valve’s confusing and contradictory policy has long risked causing a scandal such as this. The brash action that the company took, although now reversed, has shown that they aren’t on top of the situation or sensitive to the needs of visual novel developers, which has rightly shaken the confidence of those who choose to publish on Steam. This damage seems irreversible without a clear change in policy, and will almost definitely change the landscape of visual novel development and publishing in the future.