Stellaris Just Revealed the Promise and Peril of AI in Game Development

Like it or not, the Machine Age is here.

Paradox Interactive

A week after Helldivers 2 fans used Steam reviews to slam Sony’s annoying and potentially game-breaking decision to make PlayStation Network accounts mandatory, fans of a different sci-fi title are sounding off on a controversial choice that could have far-reaching consequences.

The Machine Age, the latest expansion to the sci-fi grand strategy epic Stellaris, includes a disclaimer about its use of AI-generated content. Paradox, the developer and publisher of Stellaris and several other strategy titles, warns potential buyers, “We employ generative AI technologies during the creation of some assets.”

The Machine Age, according to game director Stephen Muray, used “a couple of AI generated pieces on the [visual development] exploration/mood board.” More notably, AI was also used to generate the voices of a new antagonist and a new in-game advisor (the voice that warns you you’re under attack or out of resources).

Anti-AI reviews of Stellaris have pushed its Steam reception from “Very Positive” to “Mixed.”

Paradox Interactive

According to Murray, no AI art made it into the final product, and the voice actors whose samples built the AI voices signed off on the process and will receive royalties. Paradox, Murray says, has “strict guidelines in place on how we can use AI tools legally and ethically” (via RPS).

Sony backtracked on Helldivers 2 in the face of unanimous fan outrage, but reception to The Machine Age has generally been positive. Still, you don’t have to look hard to find reviews expressing concerns, and fan communities have had… passionate debates. The expansion has become a proxy for the general use of AI in game development.

Paradox’s use of AI is about as open and ethical as consumers can expect, and most fans appear to appreciate that candor. Still, it’s not surprising that hackles were raised considering how sloppy AI implementation has been elsewhere. Microsoft was caught using ugly AI art to promote indie games. Square Enix is using AI art in its upcoming Splatoon knockoff, Foamstars. And instead of working with voice actors like Paradox, free FPS The Finals circumvented them with stilted and generally crappy AI dialogue.

Such uses of AI don’t help creators; they just take their jobs. They showcase a gaming industry that seems to be figuring out its AI policy on the fly, with some companies embracing it to an absurd degree while others have banned its use. Paradox’s first step is toeing a fine line.

It was done well, but did The Machine Age’s new AI villain really need to be voiced with AI?

Paradox Interactive

The Machine Age has put Stellaris in an intriguing position. In typical Paradox style, Stellaris has received a steady stream of paid updates since its 2016 release. But its three prior expansions — the entirety of its 2023 output — received mixed to extremely negative reviews for what fans saw as too little bang for a whole lot of buck.

Paradox’s other flagship titles have also struggled. Cities: Skylines 2 was buggy. Crusader Kings 3’s March expansion was a misguided debacle. Victoria 3 has struggled to build a player base. Reviews of Millenia were brutal. Paradox has developed a reputation for rushing unprepared content out the door. Will AI tempt its executives to double down?

AI is only a small component of The Machine Age, an expansion that overhauls large chunks of the Stellaris experience. It feels like a return to form for Paradox, which raises the question of what lessons the developer — and the industry — will learn from it. Will AI be used intelligently and ethically to craft smart products? Or will it just become a way to churn out more junk? We’ll have to wait and see, but let’s hope The Machine Age’s tale of an AI claiming its conquest is for the greater good remains fictional.

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