Content Warning: While this is mostly a discussion of the current state of NSFW game development, there are some mentions of kink and nonconsent, depictions of nudity, and oral sex.
Oh, and male presenting nipples. Let’s not forget that.
Last time we talked about adult-only games, we talked a little bit of history, and a little bit about the various critical mines that await the unwary critic (Step one way, BOOM, you’ve angered good progressive folks, and probably got shitheels of all kinds crowing about it. Step another, you’ve angered legitimate kinksters, queer folks, and puritanical shitheels.) But one of the things we haven’t really covered is the current state of things, and why the sphere is the way it is. So, let’s start with that historical context, and how it applies to the current state.
Hetero Marketing, Not In My Back Yard, And How This Backfired.
So… For a long time (Although not, it should be noted, from the beginning of video game history, because computers were originally considered a women’s area, and, indeed, the sphere had some cool women devs), games have been marketed to… Cishet dudes. It’s AWESOME. It’ll BLOW YOUR MIND. It’ll AUTOMATICALLY PUT SUNGLASSES ON YOU AND MAKE YOU RAD.
Okay, that’s taking it to ridiculous levels, but, funnily enough, these are ridiculous levels games advertising actually did. But the point is, that from the late 80s to almost the present day (and, it could be argued, still to the present day), marketing has been focused on the men. And so, the sphere has, for a while, been focused on boys and men, and often in a frat-broish manner.
We also mentioned, last time we touched upon the subject, that in the West, Custer’s Revenge and the moral climate of the time screwed adult-only videogame development, consigning it to the territory of Not In My Back Yard (essentially, shoving it in a corner and pretending it doesn’t exist.) This has not only impacted the historical end of things (to the point where we aren’t actually sure properly NSFW games from the UK/US, rather than strip poker and Playboy titillations, largely didn’t exist between 1983 and 1992), but it’s also led to two things: Said communities becoming somewhat insular, and following the trends of the Japanese market.
So… First up, we have communities that not only generally play it safe like the larger game-dev sphere (Because things that break the mould are just as likely to vanish than succeed), there’s a bias toward male-focused games (TF is somewhat of an exception to this, having been enthusiastically embraced by lewdfolks of all varieties. But we’ll get back to that, because “safe” decisions play into that there, too.)
So… What’s “safe”? Well, in the larger scheme of things, it’s still the same things that trended during that hiatus, and the early days of Newgrounds: Corruption games, RPGs and action games where the protagonist literally, rather than metaphorically gets fucked on losing, Trainer games, and Vns with themes like Netorare/Netori (Essentially, adultery kinks), harem dating (often with that BDSM focused twist we talked about last time… A lot of this is based on BDSM, from various roleplays like ravishment play or pet-play, to degradation and the like.) In the TF sphere, this mainly appears to be “Man turned into woman and dommed/degraded, as often by women as men.”
And, of course, let us not forget that spaces pushed away, especially those to do with sex, attract various shitheels, creepazoids, and misogynerds. Which taints the space, and makes it even harder for such games to be considered critically without backlash.
Payment Processors and You, The Lewd Developer.
Because payment processors want to play as safely as possible, there have, in the current conservative climate, been various sexual content bans on various grounds, most commonly the “Not Advertiser Friendly” grounds. Sad to say, this has sometimes been abused, or taken to mean even erotic content (where the goal is simply to portray the human body or sensuality.) And this has mainly come about because, thanks to Steam and Itch.IO taking on the sale of adult-only games, and the publicity surrounding the worst of these, people at large have finally noticed they exist again (The NSFW games sphere, or the critics/players who’ve already taken that plunge don’t really count for this.)
I previously talked a little about how it’s a little more nuanced than you’d think, thanks to that BDSM connection, but, up until very recently, Patreon has, essentially, been the friendliest to sex-workers and creators of sexualised content (This has, over time, been changing, for much the same reasons as above: Payment processors.)
But, here’s the thing: Patreon generally pays out per creation, per
month, per week… And game dev costs time that needs reimbursing.
And this encourages several behaviours that hurt the NSFW community
as much, if not more, than it helps it. Remember we talked about
“safe” options? As noted, options that go beyond what is known,
unless they quickly grab folks, it’s not going to be fiscally viable
to continue. So… Experimentation somewhat discouraged. But there’s
another effect, where development snowballs, or crunches, or focuses
more on “More” rather than, say, bugfixing, precisely because the
players demand “MORE CONTENT.”
As such, I’ve seen games fail, and the developer abandon an otherwise promising concept. I’ve seen games that are eternally in development. I’ve seen developers try to take on multiple projects, or stop and start projects erratically, and get slammed for “Milking.” And yes, I’ve seen genuine milking and bad faith actors, same as I have any other crowdfunding platform.
So, funnily enough, another reason we don’t see encouragement of adult only games is because that insularity combines with Patreon’s way of doing things (up until recently, one of the few areas adult-only game devs can get funded safely), and players who always want more (A relative minority, but amplified due to a combination of relative loudness and the relatively tiny space. A loud minority of those amplified calling, of course, for toxic content.)
EDIT: Another side effect of Patreon is that some NSFW critics (I’m only speaking for myself, but others may also feel this way) are less inclined to ask for review copies because, rather than a single release price, the developer stands to lose patronage from now, until release (And, also, there is that risk of the unfinished game on the reviewer’s end, if they choose to be a Patron.) So, even with the possibility of extra exposure, there’s risks on both sides, whichever answer is given.
Social Media, And More “Advertiser Friendly” Backlash
We’ve often heard the stories, like LGBTQIA+ content being flagged as demonetised, Tumblr’s ban on sexual content, and other tales of “Advertiser friendliness” gone wrong. But, as we’ve noted in the previous section, this has an effect on NSFW game development too, because… Well, how do game-devs get sales? Marketing. Aaaaand where do they market?
Oh. Yeah. A whole bunch of places that are either no-go entirely (Facebook), hide NSFW content in ways that make it more difficult to actually find creators (Twitter, Patreon), and… Well, what essentially ends up being left is those same, insular spaces, with those same problems we’ve already discussed.
I went on a bit of a rant about this, because one of the major complaints about NSFW games is that it’s not for them, or often has content that actively triggers (Nonconsent being the most common one.)
And, newsflash: You’re not going to get that content unless someone makes it. And, as it stands, there’s almost no incentive to make it precisely because it has all the problems of indie dev, and the problems of the adult-only space in general being shoved into corners, a Not In My Back Yard attitude that we already know doesn’t work, doesn’t do more than harm the creators and consumers (more of them progressive or healthy than not) until the dial swings back.
So… Final Thoughts, And Sharing Time
Overall, like many problems in the games industry, this, in fact, ties into larger problems, and is a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom, made by… Inducing the conditions in which it does stagnate and get worse. I know of perhaps two, three even somewhat noted critics who touch upon the adult only games sphere, and all of them try their best to also take the safest road, precisely because there’s all these critical mines, some of which bar them from legitimately criticising the sphere. When I talk to people, a number play and consume adult-only games, which is only surprising when you fail to consider what a thirsty lot we human beings are. But few of them talk about it, except with trusted friends, because of this atmosphere.
I’ve seen some improvement in the sphere, some interesting experiments. But these are, honestly, somewhat doomed to that being the minority unless we actually do talk about this sort of things. So let me begin by answering a question some folks have asked (Often tentatively, worried.) Have you played problematic or shitty adult-only games?
To which the answer is the same as any other sphere of video games. Of bloody course I have, because a critic cannot grow or understand their sphere without touching upon what doesn’t meet the general bar. I’ve dived into rabbit holes, precisely because I want to understand what led this here, and how that sphere could become more accessible. And the main answer I always come back to is what I want to do: Drag the games into the critical light, actually talk about these problems, in much the same way we talk about, for example, publishers claiming games that are, in fact, highly political (usually, although not always, to attempt to evade critique of the troublesome elements of the writing), or why many horror games aren’t all that good (and some are actively lazy)
And, funnily enough, I can’t really do that without stepping on a landmine, maybe multiple. Because we either dismiss the whole sphere, or pretend it doesn’t exist.