While Steam has gained a lewd reputation, the specifics of who brings risque games onto the platform is largely unknown to the general public. In trying to find out whether or not Steam was actually being overrun by sex games, I accidentally stumbled on a controversial yet popular publisher who distributes incomprehensible erotic games on Steam.
Last year, over 7000 games were reportedly released on Steam -- that's an overwhelming 21 games every day, and the number increases with every new year. According to Steam Spy's Sergey Galyonkin, 130 of the games released in 2017 were tagged with "sexual content", up from 61 games in 2016. Tags are dictated by players, which leaves room for false positive trolls.
Galyonkin weeded out the joke tags and pinpointed the biggest sex games on Steam. One name kept popping up: SakuraGame. The Chinese publisher has only been active on Steam since late 2016, but they have already got 26 titles under their belt. Each one promises bright-haired vixens and the like at an incredibly low price of around $US2 ($3):
I bought a handful of these games to get a sense of what SakuraGame offers, and was surprised to find that every game I tried barely made any sense. Left and right, SakuraGame-published titles featured highly broken English that made it difficult to discern what was going on. Sure, you might understand the broad strokes -- we're in a classroom right now, or hey, I'm running in the rain, but beyond that?
Good luck trying to decipher the nuances of these text-heavy games.
When there's not broken English, some of the translations seem unintentionally funny. Fable of the Sword's opening moments star two characters named Lin and Yuu, who come across a young Chinese hunter called Steve. Sure, why not.
Despite these quirks, many of these games have sold seemingly well for an indie outfit, with a number of them apparently owned by hundreds of thousands of players according to SteamSpy's metrics:
Why are so many people buying these nonsensical games? There's obviously a huge market for adult games and if you're there for the titties, the words probably don't matter as much as the art. While most of what I've seen seems like generic anime fare, SakuraGame delivers salacious art just fine.
One game I tried, Material Girl, stars a protagonist who is groped multiple times near the start of the game, and while the specifics were all awkwardly worded, I could still vaguely understand what was happening.
Many of these games are available in Mandarin, and China is a huge market on Steam. And given that most of these games are sold so cheaply, often under $US2 ($3), the buyer's remorse factor for anyone put off by the games' bad English is probably a little easier to swallow.
"Lets just hope that they spend more time in an English writing course but I would highly suggest buying it for the $US2 ($3) USD asking price," reads the top review for SakuraGame-published Elise the Devil, an RPG that has reportedly sold around 70,000 copies. Based on the apparent sales of SakuraGame titles, it seems that many Steam owners similarly forgive the poor translations.
Even with this in mind, there's something peculiar about SakuraGame's output on Steam. They have released more than two dozen games in about a year. How were they releasing so many games in such a short time span? The quality of the translations has led to a number of player-led conspiracy theories about SakuraGame's translation methods, if not their general method of doing business.
In May of last year, game developer Soviet Games accused SakuraGame of copyright infringement over an image of a classroom depicted in Super Star, which also appeared on the a trading card on Steam.
In response, Shippou of SakuraGame apologised, stating that they had commissioned the art and were later told by players that some material belonged to "other authors." SakuraGame claimed that the offending image was then deleted, but then apparently had some trouble taking down the infringing art from the game's marketplace, where it could be sold for real money. The altercation unfolded publicly on Steam forums, and, amidst the jeers of Steam users, SakuraGame developer Blue Sky pleaded, "I am so sorry about that, please forgive me:("
In response, Soviet Games said, "God forgives, I will settle this matter with Steam support." The exchange continued, with SakuraGame insisting that it was trying to change the artwork, eventually leading Soviet Games to respond, "Why should I care? I see my artwork on community market, and that's enough for me. You could've contacted Steam support. If you steal other people artworks, then you should be prepared to face consequences."
Outsourcing mishaps are a familiar story in game development: last year, PUBG developers claimed that a labia appeared in the game because a freelancer snuck it onto the project. But SakuraGame has come under fire at least one other time for seemingly featuring art from other games.
While the sales increase, SakuraGames' reputation online has continued to gnarl. In another 2017 incident that was translated by fans on Twitter, game developer tetsuzo_tjapan claimed that SakuraGame proposed to help him release his game on Steam, leading to a conversation as to what the plan could be. Allegedly no paperwork or was signed at the time, but tetsuzo_tjapan said they moved on ahead to make a Steam store page for his game anyway.
"Before I signed the contract, they registered my work with Steam without notice," Tetsuzo told Kotaku. "I got angry and asked SakuraGame to delete the store page." This stopped tetsuzo_tjapan from working with SakuraGame further, and at the time he tweeted that "No matter what they try to offer me, I promise you right now, I will not be signing that contract. That said, I don't want to make a big deal out of it, so I put in a request to have the store page taken down."
The store page is no longer accessible on Steam, and Tetsuzo told Kotaku that "The contract negotiation broke. This case is already over."
I reached out to SakuraGame to learn more about how they do business on Steam, and due to language differences, they asked to conduct the interview over email. My initial set of questions were largely about who they were as a company, and Pat, head of "Foreign Operations", was happy to answer non-controversial questions. As Pat told it, the Chinese company started about a decade ago, primarily functioning as a mobile app developer back when free-to-play was still a relatively new concept.
It was a trend that made them hate their creative output. So, they moved onto a different field: instead of development, the company would publish games instead. The pivot, Pat claims, helped the team achieve a better work-life balance, especially as members got older and started having kids.
"We don't even have much time playing games, let alone developing," Pat said. "Our ideas died out and our inspiration got drained. The ironic thing is we finally have the experience and resources we always wanted, but the passion is gone."
By becoming a publisher, he said, SakuraGame was able to stay in the game without burning out.
"It's like we're in a RPG, the developers we aim [to] help are the warriors, [and] we are the priests. We heal and buff and do everything else, and let the devs focus on the only thing that suppose to matter: developing. This way we can eliminate devs' risks, because we'll take the risks for them."
By SakuraGame's own admission, it's not easy to get developers onboard to work with them. According to Pat, the publisher offers everything from tech to merchandise support free of charge for developers who want to bring their adult games onto Steam.
SakuraGame would not, however, tell me how or why their games are localised so roughly, why so many of their games are published for so cheap, or what they think about their negative reputation. They avoided touchy questions and stopped responding to emails once I pressed them on the more controversial aspects of their work on Steam. They promised to talk after Chinese New Year, but the holiday has come and gone. Valve also did not respond to request for comment.
Despite the notoriety, SakuraGame continues to publish game after game on Steam. Two months into 2018, they have already brought four games with sexual content onto the platform. The most recent release, Apartment of Love, is not available in English. Before that, SakuraGame published Dragon Knight, a repetitive roguelite where the more you get hurt, the less armour you wear.
I played up to the first boss fight, somewhat lost as to why I was there or why I kept talking to a dragon. The game's introduction is entirely in Mandarin, though the in-game dialogue appears in simple English. While the game has only been out for a couple of weeks, it already has 1.6k reviews, most of which are 'very positive.'