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Epic Games Offers to Support all Generative AI Titles
In direct competition with Steam's recent crackdown.
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The drama surrounding the acceptance of generative AI is ongoing in the games industry, with Valve, the owner of the PC games distribution platform Steam, blocking the majority of generative AI tools being used as part of game productions. But now, arguably their largest competitor, Epic Games, is suggesting that they will accept games with generative AI submissions with open arms.
Today we unpack recent comments by Epic Games founder and CEO Tim Sweeney, on allowing games that use generative AI tools to the Epic Games Store.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sweeney's comments have opened up the conversation once again but also highlighted that not only are people misinterpreting Valve's original decision, but that - regardless of their rhetoric - Epic Games currently does not have an airtight stance on how to approach this problem.
Recently I discussed that Steam owners Valve have made the decision to deny the publication of games to their Steam Direct platform, which employ generative AI technologies that utilise datasets where the legal ownership of those assets is not confirmed. This arose courtesy of users who had used the likes of art generators for textures, or even the use of plugins for large language models like GPT, as part of their game. Now in that episode, I argued that while Valve is being heavy-handed with its approach, it is nonetheless the smartest move for Valve to make, given its dominance of the PC gaming market, and the precedent it sets for other platform holders - notably Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony - to follow in their footsteps. You can read that full story at the link below.
While I was preparing that article for publication, Tim Sweeney, the CEO and founder of Epic Games - the creators of the Unreal Engine, the Epic Games Store and titles such as Fortnite - responded to a post on Twitter/X on September 2nd. In the original post, a comment was made about a recent Steam ban, Sweeney stated in response:
"Put it on the Epic Games Store. We don't ban games for using new technologies."
Now this led to all sorts of responses, some pointing out the legal ramifications of this idea, some condemning Epic Games for permitting copyright infringement on their platform, while others celebrate them for condoning the use of generative AI.
Ugh, what a pickle, and it's amazing so many people fundamentally grasp these ideas incorrectly. In fact, there are several big problems with this comment, and we're going to unpack them now:
Steam Did Not Ban Generative AI: In fact, they openly condone it, but in a way that is legally and ethically safe for the corporation.
Epic Games Runs Risk of Being Legally Liable: Be it for violations of copyright or similar legal challenges over generative AI for titles that are shipped to the Epic Games store.
This Isn't the First Time Sweeney’s Done This: Tim Sweeney, and by extension Epic Games, have been willing to explore unsavoury business practices or make executive decisions that oppose Valve’s just to try and appease game developers and lure them to the Epic Games Store. But whether this is actually permitted by Epic Games itself, is an entirely different story.
Steam Didn't Ban AI
Before I even get into Sweeney's comments, it's worth returning to Valve to point out that they didn't ban AI in game development. Unsurprisingly, social media is full of hot and inaccurate takes on this, and even some folks in the comment section of my last video failed to grasp what was going on.
Valve did not ban the use of generative AI. Valve simply does not permit assets that have been created through the use of generative AI tools, whereby the creators of the game cannot prove ownership of the training data that the AI system learned from. As discussed in my Generative AI Explained article, text generation systems like GPT or image generators like Stable Diffusion, are trained by absorbing large amounts of their respective data, be it text or images, in order to learn to create new text and images. The problem is where is that data coming from? Is it open-source? Is it permitted for use in these systems to train them? Many of these companies have had legal action against them, as creators outright state that these systems are using their works without permission.
Valve's decisions preclude many of these systems from being used in submissions, given the legal ambiguity that surrounds them. However, provided you can prove you own all the original assets, or have a license to use them, then their stance is that they will accept your game, even if it does have assets generated using AI.
But that's the problem, 99.9% of developers either don't know how to train their own large language model or image generator, or they don't have the resources to build it: be it the original training material, or the costs to run the training processes on cloud GPU infrastructures. As some have pointed out, this actually works to the benefit of larger, AAA games studios, given they have the resources and infrastructure to be able to build their own generative AI systems - and already we've heard stories of this in the press, such as Activision Blizzard King exploring this idea for their own production, or Ubisoft's Ghostwriter for creating incidental dialogue for NPCs.
So yes, generative AI is still permitted on Steam, but odds are it's now only really available to the largest games studios in the industry, which largely goes against the idea that generative AI companies have advocated for: that individuals can make large, high-quality games all by themselves, using generative AI tools. If anything, what's old is new once again.
Secondly, while we're in the age of Tech CEO spouting statements on social media and it being treated as policy, it's never as straightforward as that.
One of the big problems with Sweeney's tweet is that by simply stating they’ll permit generative AI, it doesn't resolve the legal issue. Critically, Alex Champandard - who has spent a significant proportion of his time on social media in 2023 highlighting the legal infringements of generative AI - noted on Twitter that being the facilitator of a published game, as a service provider, will hold Epic Games liable for any and all infringements.
This is exactly what I stressed in the last article and the reason that Valve has blocked most generative AI submissions. So is Epic happy to go ahead with that? Are they willing to pay the legal costs as developers are sued for submitting their games on the platform? Well, that's the big question, isn't it?
Would Epic Do It?
Tweets on socials aside, will Epic actually go ahead with it? Note that while Sweeney is Epic's CEO, the company would still need to decide internally, whether or not this is a good idea to go ahead with.
Looking at it from the legal perspective, Epic Games' board would have to agree that this is not going to prove to be a liability for the company and that they should embrace it.
So in this instance, the company still has to do the diligence on whether this makes sense to go ahead with. Failing to do so, could actually run the risk of Sweeney himself being on the hook personally as shareholders then pursuing him in court should any legal challenges and/or fines arise for Epic Games.
Now I suspect, being a very successful company, that they'll go ahead and do that. But it takes time, I doubt you'll hear anything concrete from Epic just yet. But there is precedent for Epic doing things like this in response to Valve. Back in October of 2021, Valve issued a ban on any games submitted to the platform that adopt cryptocurrencies and/or non-fungible tokens or NFTs. This was largely celebrated by the development community, but even then Epic permitted them on their own platform. While Sweeney himself stated in September 2021 that he wasn't interested in the technology coming to Epic, the Epic Games Store has since softened its stance, and you can find over 30 games either already available to play, or coming soon on the storefront.
So will Epic go ahead with it? I suspect it's posturing at this time, and Sweeney once again trying to appease a corner of the game development community such that they will consider publishing their game on his storefront. Remember all the AAA game companies who said they were looking into NFTs? Not hearing much about that anymore are we? Anyway, I suspect this is just the next step in a much longer journey, and thanks for tuning in as I dig into it.