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Bridging the Gap – Steam and 18+ Content

June 26, 2019 • By

This is a post in the series “When your Wholesome, Queer Game is Seen as Very Controversial” in which I’m circling around questions such as: How are we supposed to discuss topics like consent and sexuality with young people, if those topics are banned from almost every platform and hidden behind 18+ walls?

I’m using the process of publishing our dark, emotional, and erotic visual novel Knife Sisters as a starting point for this discussion.

One of the Last Taboos

Sex seems to be one of the last taboos in our society, which leads to us trying to separate it as much as possible from everyday life. (Some might argue that that is not the case anymore, that we are sexually liberated, and that sex is everywhere… and there might be some truth in that. But if you dig a little deeper, what we see around us is rather about living up to sexual ideals and following norms, than actual depictions of or discussions about sex.) When it comes to content, this separation leads to a big divide between the content that is considered ‘natural and safe’, and that which is sexually explicit (and somehow considered harmful). Due to being pushed towards the edge, outside of the norm, the sexual content tends to become more extreme in its expression (think mainstream porn).

A picture of Vicki and Leo kissing

In between those two poles, a large dead space appears. This space could have been populated with less extreme/explicit content that still includes sex as a topic, but since society (platforms, legislators, funding bodies etc.) will try to push the content into either one of the two poles, the space between gets abandoned.

Publishing an Erotic Game on Steam

I have this firm belief that this division is harmful, both for consumers and creators who want to experience and explore sex as a topic – and therefore I was happy when Valve in June 2018 announced they were going to open up the Steam platform to 18+ games. Because, without distribution, the content dies.

In the statement, Valve said that “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.”

The challenge is that this problem is not simply about whether or not the Steam Store should contain games with adult or violent content. Instead, it’s about whether the Store contains games within an entire range of controversial topics – politics, sexuality, racism, gender, violence, identity, and so on. /…/ The harsh reality of this space, that lies at the root of our dilemma, is that there is absolutely no way we can navigate it without making some of our players really mad. – Erik Johnson, Valve

So, they concluded that the user would now decide whether they wanted to see sexual och violent content or not. (How they’d handle all the other topics they mentioned above is unclear.) Therefore, a Mature Content Survey as well as a Mature Content Description was added for each developer to fill out, to determine how their content would be filtered out, as well as described for users, when approved by Valve. In September, the first Adult Only game was released on the Steam Store.

That was the same month we published the Steam Store page for Knife Sisters, and filled out the Mature Content Survey ourselves. The process was easy, but pretty arbitrary, since it consisted of very few guidelines. And with few guidelines, there will always be ambiguity.

We interpreted the brief guidelines as that Knife Sisters would fall into the category Adult Only since it “contains sexual content that is explicit or graphic”. Explicit is the word that made us choose to tick this box – there are very few graphic depictions of sex in Knife Sisters, but there are explicit descriptions in writing. With no guidelines, it’s impossible to say exactly where Valve intended to draw the line.

Adult Only means Invisible

Being marked as Adult Only means that Knife Sisters will only be shown to people who are logged in (to prove they are over 18), and that have ticked a special box in their settings. What this actually means is that the game will get very low visibility. For many people, it will be as if the game doesn’t exist on the store at all, since the checkbox for viewing adult content is unticked by default. If you leave it that way, and search for the game, the game doesn’t show up in the search results at all.

Don’t forget to tick the box…

Otherwise you won’t see Knife Sisters – only the game’s soundtrack!

When a user who is not logged in tries to visit the store page for an Adult Only game, they will see an error page, with a small text saying that you have to log in to see the content.

ERROR – You’re not 18!

I guess that many users will never really understand that those content settings are there, if this process is not given a little more thought, design-wise.

Steam is Doing the Right Thing – But in the Wrong Way

When Valve decided to allow 18+ content on the Steam Store and give the user the power to decide which content to view, I applauded their decision. I was happy that our game could be published there – because there are many platforms where it can not be sold at all. But they are doing it in a way that makes me feel they aren’t really standing up for their decision.

In Sweden, we have a saying that goes a bit like “to wear both braces and a belt”, which means that you’re taking so many precautions it starts to become ridiculous. To me, it seems like that’s what Valve is doing: They’re trying so hard not to offend anyone, that it comes across as cowardice.

ARE YOU REALLY SURE YOU WANT TO SEE THIS?

Shying Away from Responsibility

Relying too much on the users as moderators can become problematic, if that means you’re shying away from responsibility – by simply handing it over to the users. Saying that we “allow everything onto the Steam Store, except for things that we decide are illegal, or straight up trolling” is not enough (especially if you’re not going to stand by it); something that was proven when the publishing of Rape Day was debated. If Steam would’ve had a clearer content policy, and clearer guidelines, they wouldn’t have had to use a statement as lame as saying that “‘Rape Day’ poses unknown costs and risks and therefore won’t be on Steam“. (In my opinion, they could even have used their own trolling argument and said that “Rape Day seems to be made just to stir up controversy and test our limits, something we regard as trolling and that is not permitted on Steam”, but they didn’t… With a clearer content policy, they wouldn’t have needed to, either.)

I still think Valve has made the right decision to allow 18+ content on Steam, but there is a lot to be done to get it right. They need to evaluate the whole process of letting users become their own content moderators, as well as how well that is communicated. Functionality-wise, I think that when a user searches for an 18+ game by name, that game should be shown in the search results, but marked. When a user tries to view the Store page without the right permissions, they should see a stripped down version, prompting them to log in/change their settings, and not an error page. In the case when the content is not permitted, the same stripped version could be all you see.

Bridging the Gap

Allowing 18+ games onto Steam could be a step in the right direction toward bridging the gap between “regular” and “extreme” content when it comes to sex, and could open up possibilities for creators who wants to explore topics outside of the norm. But this needs to be more thought-through and based upon clearer values and guidelines. Otherwise, the risk is we’ll just keep repeating our old, boring, stereotypical ways of viewing the world.

I don’t want to be too harsh on Steam though, because they’re one of few platforms where we can actually publish Knife Sisters. Since the big war on internet sex started, fewer and fewer platforms online allow any references to sex at all. I do think Steam has chosen a better path than many others, but I hope their standpoint and guidelines will be clearer in the future.

Knife Sisters, Update

The reception of Knife Sisters

May 30, 2019 • By

Knife Sisters has been out for a little more than one month. The reception has been very positive, and we’ve gotten a lot of feedback from the ones we aimed to reach. Here are some impressions:

*inhales* If you want to explore queer relationships, empathic BDSM scenarios and wonderfully written trans and enby characters + enjoy a good mystery *exhales* Then go play!
– A Steam reviewer

“A visual erotic novel about love, obsession and unconventional relationships. A unique plot, art, musical content, the mechanics of choice and the depth of emotions make the game a real masterpiece!”
– Reviews Online, Steam Curator (translated from Russian)

All in all, 34 Steam Curators featured the game, of which 26 recommended it, 3 did not, and 5 were purely informational.

Hallå Malmö made a big feature in their local newspaper, that also got onto Sydvenskan Dygnet Runt.

Checkpoint Gaming wrote a really interesting review.

The diversity of the cast is a genuine delight. Modern day gaming has dropped the ball when it comes to queer representation. It’s very rare that I’ll see people like myself or my friends in the media we consume. But that’s certainly not a problem Knife Sisters faces. Characters of every kind take part in this story.
– Hailey McKay, Checkpoint Gaming

A number of streamers daringly featured the game, one of which was the Weird and Wonderful Game Watch.

I’m really impressed with the lovingly crafted detail throughout “Knife Sisters”. I’ve talked a lot about the narrative, but even the subtle animations used for facial ticks and expressions are able to cover a massive amount of ground in creating an almost fluid sense of movement for a medium that is largely static. Meanwhile, the sound cues are delightfully matched to moments representative of atmosphere shifts, with the game appropriately scored as well.
Weird and Wonderful Game Watch

Radio P4 Blekinge interviewed us (2:33 in) at the Creative Coast Festival.

Before the game was released, we wrote this artistic statement:

As creators, we want to make a game that portrays our world, coming from a community where being queer is the norm. We want to address things such as BDSM and non-monogamy in a playful way. We want queer people to be able to see themselves in the game, but we also want people who aren’t that used to queer environments to view them as something completely commonplace, and get drawn into the game by the story.

In my humble opinion, it seems like we succeeded in doing just that, and that warms my heart!

The reach for the game has been limited (although it’s very popular with pirates), for reasons I’ll be touching upon in this blog series, but that is something we came to expect quite a while before the release. The game has always been seen as an experiment on our behalf: We wanted to be able to take risks and tell this story straight from our hearts, without restricting ourselves – and that has led to us experiencing some hurdles. But since parts of the development was funded by the Swedish Arts Council, through Kulturbryggan, we were able to make exactly the game that we wanted, and that is something we will never regret!

Article, Knife Sisters

When Your Wholesome, Queer Game is Seen as Very Controversial – a Blog Series

May 15, 2019 • By

On the 24th of April we released our dark, emotional, and erotic visual novel Knife Sisters on Steam and Itch.io. In a series of posts, I will look into what happens when you approach the commercial markets with a game that explicitly aims to explore sex, power and consent.

Knife Sisters is set in a contemporary world, populated with believable characters, progressive values, and proudly represents people of different genders and sexualities. Players can explore emotions, consent, power and dependency in a safe setting, and test their own boundaries regarding sex, relationships, kinks and BDSM, to see what they are comfortable with, and not. The game contains erotic scenes, which aim to entice and arouse the players. Depending on their preferences, that might happen or not. (Read this review in Checkpoint to get the perspective from someone who enjoyed the game but wasn’t all that comfortable with the erotic/BDSM scenes.)

I have been part of the indie game scene for quite some time now, working in the games industry since 2006. During this time, an enormous shift has taken place in the discourse around games, that has encouraged me a lot. We have been discussing how games can be made more diverse, both in their content and mechanics, and how they can address experiences and topics outside of the norm. We have seen a movement of queer and autobiographical games, and events such as Lyst, Heartbeat and QGCon (among others) bringing up the topics of romance, love, queerness and sex in games.

But what happens when you take the plunge and actually approach the commercial markets with such a game?

The fact that I’m from Sweden, where we have a rather liberal view on sex, surely affected my views and expectations on this. I could never have imagined how the game would be seen from the outside. I have previously written novels and short stories that explores sex and sexuality in a similar manner, sometimes targeting teenagers and young adults, and that has never been questioned in any way. So I was rather taken aback when I, during the Kickstarter campaign for Knife Sisters, realized how differently a (predominantly text-based) game would be received, compared to written fiction, and how hard it would be to get exposure for the project. I wrote a little about that here.

Knife Sisters was always an experimental venture, and apart from the resulting game itself, one aspect of the project has become to explore boundaries in the outside world, to see how our society measures up to its alleged goals of inclusion, diversity and acceptance.

During this blog series I will make comparisons to see how sex as a topic is handled in different media. I will look into questions around how we are supposed to discuss consent and sexuality with young people, when those topics are banned from online platforms and hidden behind 18+ walls. I’ll comment on stores such as Steam and the age rating process by PEGI. I’ll also look into the fear of the unknown, and  how people might want to distance themselves from topics that could result in shaming from others. I haven’t decided on everything yet, so let’s see where this leads!

In the next post I will look into Steam, and the divide between “adult content” and “regular content”. Stay tuned!

Knife Sisters

Welcome to the release party for Knife Sisters!

May 9, 2019 • By

Knife Sisters was released on the 24th of April on Steam and Itch.io, and now we’re celebrating that the game has reached players all over the world – in countries where being queer is not as accepted as in Sweden.

Join us at DevHub, Torggatan 2 in Malmö, the 31st of May from 18.30.
We’ll provide drinks and snacks (but eat dinner before! 😉 )

During the evening, Bobbi will present the ideas and thoughts behind the game, and the team members Douglas (music), Niklas (sound design) and Pixie (programming), will provide the musical entertainment.

We’ll have a lottery where you can win Knife Sisters merch, and you can buy the tarot deck that was developed for the game.

Welcome!

💖 /Bobbi and the Knife Sisters team

Facebook Event here.

Knife Sisters, Update

For all the lonely souls – I give you Knife Sisters!

April 24, 2019 • By

Today is a big day: Knife Sisters hits Steam and Itch.io.

This game means a lot to me, since I see it as the essence of what I’ve been doing artistically since I was a teenager. I’ve been working in the games industry since 2005, and my aim has always been to explore what games are and could be, in different forms. Parallel to that, I’ve been writing and publishing stories about queer emo kids, or if you’d rather: about relationships, identity, sexuality, mental health and self expression.

In Knife Sisters,
the graphic expression from the punk fanzines I created as a teen,
the stories I made up back then about friends I didn’t have,
the queer kids I’ve been writing about in my novels,
and the games I’ve been making throughout my years in the industry
are all coming together.

I hope the game will do its job in reaching people who are lonely teens just as I was, people who live in countries where being LGBTQ is not as accepted as in Sweden, people who wants to see themselves represented in games, and people who just like a good story.

Knife Sisters is created by me (art, game design and story), Pixie Johan Anderson (programming), Niklas Ström (sound design), and Douglas Holmquist (music), with support from Kulturbryggan (The Swedish Arts Council), GaymerX, and our lovely Kickstarter backers. Without you, this game would never have been made. 🖤

Now, wish the game luck on its continued journey!

Knife Sisters, Update

Knife Sisters approaching closed beta

March 4, 2019 • By

EDIT: The spots for our closed beta are now filled! Keep an eye out for updates about the game by following us on Twitter, Instagram or Discord.

💥⛓💣

We are happy to announce that we are approaching closed beta for Knife Sisters, and we are looking for story game enthusiasts to help us test the game! The beta period will take place from the 11th of March to the 4th of April. You can apply for your beta key HERE!

You are also welcome to join our Discord server through this link: https://discord.gg/g3QcHcc

Article, Knife Sisters

5 tips for doing a Kickstarter campaign

February 19, 2019 • By

In november 2018 I did a Kickstarter campaign for the visual novel I’m working on, Knife Sisters. This was in part an impulse move, which I will get back to, and it was instigated by meeting a representative from Kickstarter at IndieCade in L.A. in October, who told me he thought the project could do well there. But it was also because I had the idea of doing a printed tarot deck for the game, and for that I would need some more funding. Those two things made me decide to give it a go.

The tarot cards of my dreams

To be able to keep the deadline of releasing the game in spring 2019, I soon understood I had to do the campaign pretty much straight away. The tarot cards would be part of the game, and I needed time to implement them, after a potentially successful campaign. Doing a campaign in December wasn’t an option, and in January it would be too late, so I decided to go in November.

The campaign was launched on October 30, just about 2.5 weeks from when I decided to do it. This, my friends, was not a well thought through decision.

The campaign was successful, but not until the very last days, and it brought me a lot of headaches, stomach-aches and also many surprises. Below I’ll go through what I learned, and what I think is important to know and do before launching a campaign. Some of these things I managed to do well, some not that well, and some of them I didn’t do at all, but wish I had.

0. Don’t do a campaign on impulse

So, there, I said it. Just don’t do it! Crowdfunding campaigns are too complex to be done on impulse. You’ll see why below.

1. Do your research

And then I really, really mean: DO YOUR RESEARCH! I didn’t do enough. Partly because I had been part of two successful campaigns previously, so I thought I already had some insight into the workings of Kickstarter. But those campaigns were for other types of projects, and they were done in 2012 and 2015 – and since then, a lot has changed.

I did look into some campaigns for other visual novels before starting my own, but I didn’t do it enough. I did the mistake of looking mainly at successful campaigns, when I should have been (also) looking at those who didn’t succeed. If I had done that, I would have known to set my funding goal a little lower. Here are some interesting statistics about visual novels on Kickstarter, and here are some about games in general. The lesson learned is that it’s important to know the difference between different kinds of projects.

A list of crowdfunding campaigns to be found in the group Visual Novels on Steam

I’m not a forum person, but I should have forced myself to become active in the forums surrounding VN:s before starting the campaign, because just hanging out there made me learn a lot about campaigns for this specific medium. I started taking part in them only after I’d already launched – and at that point it was too late to change anything.

2. Plan as much as possible ahead

This I knew from having taken part in campaigns before. When doing the campaign for Words of Oz, me and my then business partner planned almost all of the content for the updates ahead, and I repeated that process for this campaign. I planned to update every third day, and this worked out well. I was generally pleased with the campaign page and everything around it – here I think my experiences from previous campaigns paid off.

The reason to plan updates, as well as all the other marketing and communication content and actions, in advance is that when the campaign launches, you will be completely absorbed by just doing everything (for example writing messages to everyone you know), and then doing creative things, such as creating interesting content, can be overwhelming.

3. Market in advance

With only 2.5 weeks between decision and realization, I had no time to market the campaign in advance. This was a mistake, and showed that I relied too much upon how Kickstarter had been working in the past. In 2012, pretty much the golden age of crowdfunding, you could do a campaign without marketing it in advance. You could also do a campaign without already having an audience. This is much harder today, and from what I know now, I wouldn’t recommend it. You need to have at least 2-3 months to market the project and the campaign beforehand.

If I would have done that, the hurdles I ran into while trying to market the campaign on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (read more about that here) wouldn’t have come as a surprise. I did only try to buy ads for the campaign when the campaign had already started, and it turned out to be impossible, since the game includes adult content. This kind of game needs to be marketed differently, something I had too little knowledge about. Not being able to buy ads on social media I think affected the outreach of the project quite a bit, and if I had taken that into consideration, I might have lowered the funding goal.

Ad banned from Twitter, Instagram and Facebook: You said the word kinky!!!

I should also have contacted the press beforehand, trying to make sure to get some coverage. I put too little time into communicating with the press, both before and during the campaign, relying too much on social media, which I in the end couldn’t use as I’d expected.

4. Test your rewards

One thing I worked really hard on before launching was the rewards and the whole look and feel of the campaign. I was happy with the content, and we had some really nice rewards, especially the physical tarot deck, but they proved to be too expensive. People told me afterwards that they really wanted the tarot deck, but couldn’t afford it. I should have asked for feedback on the reward tiers before launching. Once again, this can’t be done if you’re in too much stress to launch, which I obviously was.

5. Don’t do it alone

Last, but not least: team up with someone that can help out with some of the actions that have to be done during the campaign. It’s very stressful to do all of it by yourself, especially if the campaign is not working out as intended. Share the work and the worries with someone, not least if it’s your first campaign. I did have help with some tasks, such as shooting the video, and I definitely had some good support from team members and people in my network, but if I’d go again, I’d try to share the workload even more.

Looking back, I still don’t regret doing it.

In the end, the campaign succeeded, despite me making some mistakes. The project has definitely benefited from everything that happened, and I learned many things that will be valuable when the game launches. The project reached new people and got some well-needed attention. But if I would do it again, I’d do a lot of things differently … and I’m not sure I ever will, because of how stressful it is.

But if I do, I won’t do it on impulse.

(Please, please, please brain, listen carefully now: don’t do it on impulse!)