If you’ve missed our coverage on the ongoing issue with Valve Corporation, the edit requests sent to certain visual novels and other issues with Steam, you can read and listen to those features here and you can read the Steam blog post as well:
- Rant #2: Cancelling the Anime Titty Apocalypse?
- Valve and “Sexy” VNs: What Just Happened?
- Who Gets To Be On The Steam Store?
So, I think the fairest place to start here is with a massive disclaimer. Valve Corporation is a private entity and they are free to do with this products what they wish. If you don’t know, I’m a very clear free-market capitalist and this is about as much of a straight-line, free-market issue as you can get. However, whether that is good or bad in the long-term remains to be seen. All I can do for now is analyze the current Steam position and give y’all some tips on which way to go from here. Oh and a lot of the statement does dip into the realm of bloviating, so we’re just going to try and keep everything in context but not pick apart every single sentence if it has nothing to do with the overall point. Good? Good. Let’s jam.
Yesterday, Valve Corporation released a statement discussing what has happened over the past few weeks and their plans moving forward. For context, at the beginning, I said that the original goal when they started letting ‘adult’ games onto the Steam platform was because the vision was essentially the Wild West: they’ll allow whatever games they can get on with as little curation as could be allowed. This would allow for certain genres to find an audience, but at a cost of being caught in a deluge of games that includes a lot of garbage Valve refuses to remove from the stream. So, imagine my dark humor when I read this in the statement:
So we ended up going back to one of the principles in the forefront of our minds when we started Steam, and more recently as we worked on Steam Direct to open up the Store to many more developers: Valve shouldn’t be the ones deciding this. If you’re a player, we shouldn’t be choosing for you what content you can or can’t buy. If you’re a developer, we shouldn’t be choosing what content you’re allowed to create. Those choices should be yours to make. Our role should be to provide systems and tools to support your efforts to make these choices for yourself, and to help you do it in a way that makes you feel comfortable.
I mean, they didn’t beat their shoes on the table and scream ‘GAMERS PARADISE IS OPEN’, but that may be as close as they can get.
So this essentially confirms the previous hypothesis: Valve wants a free-for-all on its system, but they either had no intention of curating what made it onto the platform. If you were just trying to attract as many gamers and developers as you can to your platform, you need to make sure you can cover as many interests as possible. And after the events of the past week, Valve decided to double-down on this policy. From the same statement:
With that principle in mind, we’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. Taking this approach allows us 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. We already have some tools, but they’re too hidden and not nearly comprehensive enough. We are going to enable you to override our recommendation algorithms and hide games containing the topics you’re not interested in. So if you don’t want to see anime games on your Store, you’ll be able to make that choice. If you want more options to control exactly what kinds of games your kids see when they browse the Store, you’ll be able to do that. And it’s not just players that need better tools either – developers who build controversial content shouldn’t have to deal with harassment because their game exists, and we’ll be building tools and options to support them too.
First, I’d like to reemphasize that this isn’t new Steam policy: it’s just reinforcing old Steam policy. The only thing really knew here is the content controller. From what I can comprehend, it seems that the folks at Valve have decided their biggest problem wasn’t the content hosted on Steam, but rather the reaction some of the content on Steam was getting. The several systems that they mention near the end to control what you can and cannot see on the platform sounds good in theory for parental control. Outside of that, it’s a legal nightmare.
How? Well, how does Valve define ‘illegal’? Within Valve’s own statement, the concept is nebulous;
As we mentioned earlier, laws vary around the world, so we’re going to need to handle this on a case-by-case basis. As a result, we will almost certainly continue to struggle with this one for a while. Our current thinking is that we’re going to push developers to further disclose any potentially problematic content in their games during the submission process, and cease doing business with any of them that refuse to do so honestly. We’ll still continue to perform technical evaluations of submissions, rejecting games that don’t pass until their issues have been resolved.
This is CYA at its finest. The reality of the situation is that most illegality that happens with a video game aren’t found out until the game is published. This can be as straightforward as asset flips and outright art or IP theft, to more subtle civil issues dealing with contract law. There is no way Valve can guarantee protection against illegality and with its current mindset, seem to be actively avoiding the subject. After all, if a corrupt developer gets onto the platform, what’s stopping them from manipulating their planned control system to make sure their game doesn’t show up under certain ‘blocked’ categories? I.E., a game developer stealing art for an adult visual novel from a Japanese visual novel then trying to brush it off when called out about it? Or, to take it back to Jim, after all of his legal issues, what’s stopping a developer from creating a ‘Games Jim Sterling Would Hate’ category filter and, if Jim were to cover it and point out some illegality, scream ‘harassment’ and muddy the waters of any investigation?
This is why gatekeeping, from a business standpoint, is vital. We can argue all day about developers using bigotry and hatred to get attention or trying to cash in on a particularly dumb meme, but there needs to be a clear system of weeding out potential issues before such developers can cause trouble. Currently, Valve doesn’t and does not want to have such a system and, at least to this pre-law student, that could get them into some legal trouble down the road.
So that’s the big legal news, in my opinion. Cultural and political issues aside, if I was either in the Valve boardroom or a developer considering Steam to launch my next title on, I’d be losing my damn mind. Specifically for visual novel developers, what’s left of my hair would be gone. Two things ever developer, especially every EVN developer, should keep in mind is how visual novels are viewed by the larger Steam community versus what visual novels get the most attention on Steam.
Four years ago, I published two stories taking advantage of SteamSpy to examine the performance of visual novels as they began to enter the market. I would encourage you to go back and read it just to see how different things were for the genre back then, but I wanted to pull an insight I had in it to give this conversation some context:
Sunrider and LLTQ lead the top five English Visual Novels owned on Steam and they have little in common when it comes to plot or tone. What they do have in common is the fact that they were unique enough to reach difference audiences without a coordinated marketing campaign. I do strongly believe that is an aspect EVNs, as a whole, need to begin to learn marketing moving forward, these numbers help dispense with the current devotion to ‘ genre trends’.
This, relying on word-of-mouth to get it noticed, is effectively off the table. It only works when people actually see people’s work. If they cannot see their work because of a control scheme or other block, then your project is very close to DOA. This isn’t set in stone by any means, but it does present a challenge to the enterprising developer that needs to be solved yesterday. I mean, you can hope your work interests an established, popular producer (YouTube or otherwise) enough for them to push your work to reach the maximum amounts of eyes. That could work out, but on the off-chance it doesn’t, maybe it’s time to put a plan together?
Luckily for visual novel developers, and despite what Valve and some others wants to believe, it’s not 2012 anymore.
I don’t care what you’ve heard: Steam isn’t a monopoly. It has a large market share and solid popularity, yes. But, it is not a monopoly. A monopoly is a system where the only option you have is to take part in it. Gamers can choose not to use Steam to enjoy their games and the reality that not a lot of us talk about is most don’t. The recent Steam Spring Cleaning Sale, which had rewards for literally playing old games in their Steam library, admits to something most users (including myself) know: Steam isn’t really a gaming platform – it’s a collection platform. For most developers who need feedback and data to grow as a company, Steam is a digital ossuary with only a handful of new games given the time or interest to be something more than just another item on the shelf.
It’s why I wasn’t screaming to high heaven when the editing letters were released in the first place. It would have been nice for Valve to clean out the system, refocus the platform and give Steam some new life instead of trying to hang onto the visage of the past. However, since it isn’t going to do that, again I say; it is not 2012 anymore. Visual Novels aren’t some unknown hobby that only hardcore otaku give a crap about: not that there is anything wrong with being a hobbyist. But the fact it is that it is an international business now. Beyond the mobile market, GOG and Itch.Io, you have all of the private and public initiatives that have allowed VN developers to create. You also now have a serious push into the console gaming market with Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo all working to woo the independent developers who have no interest in the wild gamer’s paradise Steam wants to be. And its only going to get bigger from here as more regional developers start work on their own projects.
Will this episode be the spark that VN developers need to explore those new markets? Hopefully. It isn’t something that’s just going to happen to people out of the goodness of anyone’s heart. It’s going to take planning, organization and at the very least having someone in the mix who is the boring business person who will go for this kind of stuff instead of just being a pure creative. But that hard work has paid off for some and will continue paying off for others that take advantage of them. Then we’ll see the real returns and recognition the genre deserves.
As for Steam…let it lie where it is. Clearly, it’s happy being down there.