It's hard to talk about Valve without getting the sensation that you're discussing something that's a little off. Steam is one of the most important digital distribution services in the world, and the company itself has continued to release quality games like Portal and Dota 2, even if its release schedule could generously be described as anemic. There's no reason that a corporation this embedded in gaming culture should have the reputation it does.
Yet here we are, and here Valve is, perched precariously on the edge of a cliff that's been built, stone by stone, on one avoidable controversy after another. Valve has always been enigmatic at the best of times. Right now is not the best of times. Steam is on fire, and Valve is sitting at one of the Nazi propaganda-laden tables inside of the service like the dog from that famous internet meme muttering "this is fine" while typing up the most neutral response imaginable to another PR disaster.
Previously, it almost seemed like it didn't matter what Valve did. There wasn't an alternative, and despite protest, developers didn't have a choice but to stay on the platform and play ball, sharing the field opposite a team of some of the internet's worst degenerates. It's easy to find where everything went to hell (the unfun kind, not the good kind - check out Devil May Cry 5 for the latter), too. After years of complaints regarding Steam's obscure game curation guidelines, the company decided to finally remove its archaic case-by-case review system. It was finally time for Valve to take a stand and bar intentionally offensive titles from its service.
Obviously, that didn't happen. Instead, Valve just threw its hands up in the air and told its users that the outrage-seeking rape games were their problem now, removing the already poor system that was in place and failing to replace it with anything. That was about nine months ago. There have already been some offenders since then, but none have been as bad as Rape Day, a game that's only going to be mentioned this once because talking about how awful it is is exactly what the people who made it were aiming for. After outlets began picking up the existence of the game, Valve decided to take it down.
All's well that ends well, right? Wrong. The reasoning behind the decision couldn't have been a more clear indictment of the company's current values: the game wasn't taken down because it was clearly designed with the intent to create controversy, and not because it was so obviously offensive to a huge section of the population. No. Steam's latest horror was removed because Valve saw it as an image liability due to the amount of attention it had been getting. Here's what Valve said in an official blog post that, apparently, learned very little from the THQ Nordic scandal a few weeks ago:
"Much of our policy around what we distribute is, and must be, reactionary - we simply have to wait and see what comes to us via Steam Direct. We then have to make a judgement call about any risk it puts to Valve, our developer partners, or our customers. After significant fact-finding and discussion, we think [the offending game] poses unknown costs and risks and therefore won't be on Steam."
There's a lot to unpack here - none of it good - but the biggest issue is the fact that Valve seems to think that it has to wait and see what happens, as though the current Steam curation model is not only relatively new, which it is, but also somehow tied to the service in a way that nobody could fathom or remove. Beyond the fact that "significant fact-finding and discussion" seems to indicate an entire team of Valve employees had to have a meeting about why a game solely about brutally and sexually assaulting people in the midst of a zombie apocalypse is bad, it also indicates the exact kind of atonal perspective that landed THQ Nordic in such hot water. Reacting to these controversies shouldn't be an issue because they should be sniffed out and prevented well before they sit between advertisements of legitimate games like Dead or Alive 6 and Vainglory.
Jesus christ, Steam. pic.twitter.com/no6ZShtu4T— Steven Messner will be at GDC (@stevenmessner) March 6, 2019
Let's circle back for a second, though, on how we got here. Valve doesn't want to ban anything from Steam unless it's illegal. The company is insistent that its previous curation process - which let in games like ISIS Simulator, by the way - was unfairly stifling the creativity of would-be game developers. Under the new system, a game revolving around rape was let in. Rape is illegal. Valve still had to have a discussion about whether or not it belonged on Steam, which makes about as much sense as the idea that no moderation is somehow the best moderation. Valve's reasoning didn't bother with legality, though, even though the company was within its rights to act on its extremely anemic curation criteria and ban the objectionable game for that reason. Instead, the PR response cited "unknown costs and risks," presumably all of which were being incurred by Valve.
The message being sent is pretty clear: Valve can't really be bothered with what appears on the Steam platform, as long as it doesn't cause enough of an issue that it reflects poorly on the company or the developers who populate it. If Steam continues to remain apathetic towards blatantly hateful practices, though, there might not be as many developers who call it home in the near future. Epic Games has finally offered developers an alternative, one that pays them better and has yet to house a single game-related controversy (though getting the Epic Store to work properly has been an adventure thus far). Games have already been making the jump, too. Some of them are so eager to abandon the platform that they're doing it mid-preorder process. That can't be an encouraging sign for Valve.
Then again, most companies wouldn't consider having the games curation equivalent of a 4chan-sponsored Thanksgiving Day parade marching through its catalogue an encouraging sign, either. Valve wants to pretend like it's protecting the freedom of game developers by abandoning moderation. Instead, Valve is simply giving internet trolls a platform with wider reach than they could ever dream of having without it, and only shutting down the worst offenders. Things are only going to get worse. People will see games like the ones that have been shut down before and realize that Valve is essentially giving them free advertising. Controversy will still continue to drive these games into the public consciousness, and continue to tie them inextricably to Steam.
Maybe Valve is okay with having a public image that's embracing freedom of speech with a hand hovering over its shoulder. Maybe Valve really is trying to build a better moderation system in the absence of the one it previously had. And maybe, just maybe, Valve will manage to turn Steam around after the next few controversies scar a few more of us and inspire similarly lukewarm PR responses. Whatever happens, though, don't forget - Valve keeps getting it wrong, despite assurances it has learned. Valve doesn't care. Until the company proves it does, we should stop caring about it, too.