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Steam's Block on Generative AI is Good for the Games Industry
Curtailing growth at a time when too many questions go unanswered.
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2023 has become the year where AI has broken mainstream: generative AI technologies are becoming increasingly pervasive, and tools such as GPT, Stable Diffusion and more are putting it in the hands of everyone. No longer the domain of AI researchers and machine learning engineers, everyone can start using these technologies to their own ends.
Naturally, this is something I have watched unfold, and have been invited to comment on in the press, both here in the UK courtesy of the BBC, and for news outlets in Europe as well. It's a complicated subject, as the issues of copyright and fair use, financial incentives and investment, workers’ rights and the overall need for better training and education have become a bigger and bigger talking point. However, for now, I wanted to focus on one of the biggest topics that impacted AI in the games industry in recent weeks: the actions by Steam's owners Valve to block new games using generative AI techniques, and what the significance of this motion in the context of the games industry.
What did Valve Do?
Let's start by quickly summarising what actually happened: In late June, news began to break across the likes of Reddit and social media sites that developers seeking to submit their games to Steam, the PC video game distribution platform, were being rejected on the basis of their AI content. A message sent to developers, read as follows:
"While we strive to ship most titles submitted to us, we cannot ship games for which the developer does not have all of the necessary rights.
After reviewing, we have identified intellectual property in [Game Name Here] which appears to belongs to one or more third parties. In particular, [Game Name Here] contains art assets generated by artificial intelligence that appears to be relying on copyrighted material owned by third parties. As the legal ownership of such AI-generated art is unclear, we cannot ship your game while it contains these AI-generated assets, unless you can affirmatively confirm that you own the rights to all of the IP used in the data set that trained the AI to create the assets in your game.
We are failing your build and will give you one (1) opportunity to remove all content that you do not have the rights to from your build.
If you fail to remove all such content, we will not be able to ship your game on Steam, and this app will be banned."
Speaking from experience, Steam enables creators to upload games courtesy of their Steam Direct process: you pay a fee of $100 and this allows you to begin to add a new title for distribution on Steam. It's a fairly straightforward process, if a little time-consuming (there are a lot of forms to fill in), but once your game is ready you can submit it for review and validation by Valve. This typically takes a couple of days and then once the process is complete, you can then move towards publishing the title and making it available to Steam users.
As explained in the introduction, several projects began to be rejected during the validation process, with the argument that the creator of the game could not prove ownership of all of the AI-generated assets in their game. After the news broke and gained traction, Valve later commented stating that while they're open to titles using AI as part of their creative process, the need for creators to prove ownership was going to be a dealbreaker for titles being uploaded to the platform.
Why is this a big Deal?
So the question you might be asking is ‘Why is this such a big deal?’ It's actually quite multi-faceted and as I stated already, it is in my opinion one of the most significant developments to happen in the industry for AI technology being used in games. In recent months, the conversation about how generative AI is going to be adopted in games has been loud, and frankly often ill-informed. Hype merchants, market analysts, journalists and many more have been telling us pretty frequently about how AI is going to change how we make video games. Though funnily enough, the people we're hearing from the least are the developers themselves.
Games studios and publishers have indicated that they're experimenting with the technology, and looking to see how practical it is for their purposes. As I have made clear both in my recent press comments and also in the likes of my Generative AI Explained episode of Artifacts, it's not as straightforward as many have indicated. There are a myriad of issues, be it with the technology underpinnings, the efficacy of this tech in the creative process, and of course the scrutiny it requires in how it impacts workers’ rights, employability and copyright law. What makes Valve's actions so significant is not in the context of them as a game developer or even a game publisher, but rather as the owner of a major distribution platform. They're the first platform holder to take action against generative AI for games. This is significant for several reasons:
They've set a precedent that other platform holders, be it Epic Games, Apple, Microsoft, Sony or Nintendo may align with.
They've set a precedent that impedes the growth of generative AI in the industry given the significance of Steam as a distribution platform.
They've curtailed arguably the easiest way for generative AI to flood the market in a.... less than positive way.
Perhaps most importantly, it's not just impeding the growth of generative AI, it is protecting the industry (and more critically Valve itself) from the risks that generative AI has in its current form for the games industry.
And it's worth my stating, that not only do I see this being a significant development, but I also see it as a good one. This is a positive step towards ensuring generative AI is employed practically and responsibly within the industry.
So let's unpack each of these points and why I think they're significant, and also help paint a picture for folks out there who are less familiar with game production and publishing as to the significance of it all.
It's fair to say that Valve as the owners of Steam have a tremendous influence on the distribution of games on the PC platform. While there are the likes of itch.io where a lot of smaller creatives post their content, as well as GoG or even the Epic Games Store for a lot of bigger titles, Steam is so entrenched in the PC gaming market that the success of a game on the platform is often heavily influenced by the ability to ship your game to a broader audience. When you see the likes of Hades explode on Steam after years of early access on the Epic Games Store, or more recently Activision's admission that keeping games like Overwatch 2 and Call of Duty on Battle.net yielded little in terms of market share, it reaffirms how entrenched the player base is on Steam. By blocking Generative AI submissions that don't adhere to their rules, they effectively block access to the largest market on the platform.
But this is just the first step in understanding the significance of it all. Steam is, for many a small creator, the first step in a longer journey. You get your game shipped on PC, and then you move towards console and mobile platforms if and when you can. Now speaking from experience, whether we're working on submitting games to the likes of Xbox, PlayStation or Nintendo, these storefronts have far stricter terms of service than Steam does. Steam games get a high-level check of the store page, the content presented, and a quick analysis of the game itself. Whereas on all the consoles you go through a far stricter process of submission (often referred to as lotcheck). This includes a much longer set of rules and regulations your game needs to adhere to, but also they're thoroughly tested for game-breaking bugs that would prove detrimental to customers - given a buggy and broken console game would negatively influence the perception of the console brand.
In this instance, it's the rules and regulations that are the big deal. Steam as I said tends to be a bit more laissez-faire about submissions, whereas, by comparison, the console holders are far stricter. Console submission rules impact everything from game development tools and processes to user experience, in-game behaviour and activity, in-game content, and even the language being used to present information to users. Now if Steam, the easiest 'main' platform to ship on, turns around and says no to the bulk of generative AI submissions, then it’s highly likely that Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony will do something similar. At minimum copying Valve's stance. So not only has Valve set a precedent that others can follow, but it also leads to my second point on impeding the growth of generative AI in games.
Curtailed the Market
So yes making this change limits the possibility of games not just making it to Steam, but also to other platforms, given they at minimum use the same rules as Steam. But it also prevents what has been, for me, the nightmare scenario: the flooding of Steam with shovelware and asset flips built using generative AI systems.
Steam has a long history of being a nightmare marketplace for the sheer amount of low-quality content that appears on it. People trying to make a quick buck will often try and publish shovelware to the platform, where they take a bunch of existing asset packs for art/code/animations etc., put it all together into a single playable game, and then try to sell it. Some used a modicum of creativity to at least add something original, whereas others have historically taken the asset packs and shipped them as is. The worst offenders are the ones that ship a game, then create another that is markedly similar, make a few changes and ship it as a separate title. Now imagine this idea, but explode it in scale thanks to generative AI.
As has been hyped again and again and again, you can build a myriad of art assets, code snippets, voice lines, textures, and more through the use of generative AI. Most of it isn't good enough for shipping in a commercial title or is rather generic and derivative. But you can produce it really quickly. Content creators have highlighted how quickly you can throw a game together in a short period of time using generative AI tools. Some, like SamYam's video above, did it for a laugh. But others are painfully sincere about it. And this is the nightmare fuel.
As this has all rolled out, my nightmare has been that Steam Direct would become so much worse than it currently is. Steam has hundreds of games released in a given day, and that's from people at least making an effort either to make their own games - or if they’ve flipping assets, they at least are doing it themselves. Now imagine you now had AI assistance to back that up? Instead of taking one week to slap together your shoddy wee game, you're making two or three a day?
In any case, Steams now blocked the vast majority of these submissions. Given it's a requirement you have ownership of all original assets. This takes the wind out of the sails of most generative AI tools, be it Chat GPT, Stable Diffusion, GitHub copilot or many more, given you can't prove ownership of the original assets, and... well Open AI or the like might advocate that they own their training data, or use open-source datasets, but that brings us to the final point!
Protecting the Industry
One of the unspoken things about all this generative AI hype is that the legal issues are being conveniently brushed aside a lot of the time. Companies invest millions in building platforms that are increasingly likely to have been established using copyright-infringing systems. There is legal action happening all over the tech sector in the US against OpenAI, Microsoft, GitHub, Stability.ai and many more given their accused of adding data to their training sets, be it images, text, code or otherwise, has been taken without the permission of the original creators. Meanwhile, copyright law in the US and EU at minimum precludes AI from earning copyright on generated assets.
I see a lot of hand-waving about how this is all just going to get figured out at some point. That miraculously US and EU copyright law will change in a way that supports this trajectory. This is the real reason Valve blocked the majority of Generative AI submissions on the platform: it's a legal defence. As I stated in my recent Artifacts episode, there is a real risk of legal ramifications not just for the folks who create the original generative AI tools, but also for anyone who uses them as well. And frankly, Valve doesn't want to get involved in that.
You created a game that has generative art in it, and are now being sued by an artist who believes your assets violate their copyright? Well if that game is on Steam that drags Valve into it. Given my previous point about the market being flooded by AI-driven asset flips, if that kind of legal action became more pervasive, then Steam risks being included in dozens of legal challenges at any given time. That's not worth it for Valve. Especially when you consider the money they make from these smaller games versus the big AAA publishers (or even their own games). Simply blocking generative AI that would fall under this criteria, mitigates the legal risks.
Now it's worth saying that this whole thing has turned into a straight-up mess, and a lot of people who frankly don't know any better, are getting caught in the crossfire. Given the intricacies of this new reality thanks to generative AI, are not clearly communicated to the wider world. We have indie developers being banned from Steam given they might have used a few generated textures, or stuck a GPT plugin into their game without ever really thinking about the potential ramifications of their actions. While I was quick to condemn all the asset flippers out there, I recognise there are no doubt loads of other devs who simply tried using one of these to help them out in making their game - after all, that's how they've been advertised isn't it?
I appreciate that's not fair on them, and given Valve is outright banning these games from being uploaded to Steam, I would hope that in the future there's some opportunity to re-evaluate the situation for these creators. But in the meantime, it's a warning shot for everyone else out there looking to ship their game to the platform: avoid using generative AI tools at all costs.
I mean I'm surprised myself that I'm advocating for Valve, a company that has avoided the bare minimum in curation of content and protection of its audience lest it felt it could make money from it. But as I say, they made the right call, and I'm quite impressed by that.
Now as always, I come across as a real cynic about generative AI in games. Which is actually rather far from the truth. I think there is great potential for all of this technology in the future, but the legal issues, the need for it to better-fit production realities and much more, are going to continue to be a stumbling block. And Valve did the right thing to curtail it such that at least the legal aspect is brought to the fore once again.