If you’ve spent even a moderate amount of time on the internet these past few months, you’ve probably come across a picture of someone with way too many fingers, or a stilted conversation between Bill Gates and Socrates, or a pixelated sitcom where there are long stretches of silence while everyone keeps bumping into furniture. Our first forays into AI-generated media have been weird, mildly entertaining, and maybe more than a little frightening.
The core of this fear has been the long-held belief that the realm of creativity has and always will remain solely within the hands of humanity. Machines can’t paint a Picasso, they can’t write Shakespeare, and they can’t sing “Hotel California” in the voice of David Bowie. Today, machines can do all of those things. And this has huge implications for pretty much everything.
Including BattleTech. What if instead of the many fabulous artists creating ‘Mechs, the cover of the next BattleTech sourcebook was drawn by an AI? Or what if the next MechWarrior had endlessly AI-generated dialogue? These are just two scenarios that might happen as a result of the AI revolution, and it may fundamentally change the way we experience the game we all love.
Artists, developers, and even writers like me are rightly concerned that an AI might soon be coming for their jobs. Rather than wait for a robot to tell me I’ve been made redundant, I decided to investigate the state of AI-generated media and see if I really should be worried, or if perhaps AI really isn’t the robot apocalypse we all fear.
To start us off, let’s take a look at AI-powered art generators. Visual art is and has always been a huge part of BattleTech, with artists like Dough Chaffee and Duane Loose providing us our first glimpses at the multi-story death machines called BattleMechs. With thousands of ‘Mechs and thousands more variants and configurations, there is a significant cost to any developer creating art of ‘Mechs let alone the beautiful full-page spreads that give source books that extra bit of flair.
Can A Robot Make Robot Art?
There’s an obvious economic incentive to have all those art pieces drawn by a machine. But in my investigation, I discovered that you can’t just ask an AI to recreate an image of a Timber Wolf and an Uziel locked in mortal combat. Getting even a single useful image out of an AI art generator–at least, for BattleTech‘s purposes–takes way more time and energy than it does to ask an artist to simply draw what you want.
Let’s take a Bad ‘Mechs article as an example. Each month, I go to Eldonious and ask him to create a new and amusing cover image that portrays these machines in their hilariously worst light. I give him a few guidelines, like what’s wrong with the ‘Mech being featured, and then he comes back with an amazing drawing each and every time. It’s a one-and-done transaction.
“Without specialized training data, I don’t think you’re going to get it to easily reproduce a known/named ‘Mech.”
That is not how an AI works.
“Without specialized training data, I don’t think you’re going to get it to easily reproduce a known/named ‘Mech,” says Jack Monahan. He’s a BattleTech fan as well as the artist/designer on another stompy robot game called Brigador. Unlike many artists, Monahan doesn’t necessarily see AI as a job killer. He’s been toying with Midjourney, one of the many AI art generators available, and he was very helpful in explaining the technology’s limitations.
Before an AI can do anything, it first has to be trained. That means millions upon millions of images that are associated with certain words so that the AI knows what to produce when it receives a request. The internet is a great place for an AI to learn because there are countless images that have already been tagged and cataloged by various websites and search engines.
But human language is complicated, and there are lots of ‘Mechs named after things that already exist. Give it a prompt for “Atlas” and it’ll think you want a map or a Greek god. Ask for a Timber Wolf and you’ll get a wild canine. Even throwing in words like “BattleTech” or “‘Mech” will produce some sort of robot, but not the specific ‘Mech you’re referring to.
As an example, here’s what happened when we asked Midjourney to create a “war photograph of Battletech Atlas mech, towering over smoke and haze in the battlefield.” Although certainly recognizable as a giant robot, it’s most definitely not an Atlas.
In order to get an Atlas, you need to train your own AI. Monahan notes that fed a “specialized training set,” an AI like Stable Diffusion (a competing AI art generator) could reproduce specific ‘Mechs, “but that takes a lot of sifting, tagging images, and training on that set.”
For just what kind of training Monahan is referring to, I reached out to David Vivas of the (formerly) Everything BattleTech Discord. He has trained his AI, the publicly available Automatic 1111, to create some ‘Mechs as images, but it still takes a lot of work from the user.
“Since you are re-rolling and tweaking your prompts and weights, your outputs can vary greatly,” explains Vivas. He shows me an image of a Cicada and a Cougar that looks passible and admits it “wasn’t what I wanted originally, but it’s what I rolled.”
To get that single image, Vivas had to first train his AI on as much BattleTech art as possible, all tagged so that the AI understands what each ‘Mech is called. Then after it creates a seemingly generic output of giant robots at war, Vivas uses a process called “inpainting” to re-draw the ‘Mechs over and over again. Each time, they get ever so slightly closer to how an actual Cougar or Cicada looks.
“Striving to figure out and bring ‘new’—even if it’s just a novel recombination of elements that tickles our brain—is what the work is about. And I don’t think AI is capable of it.”
This process is both time and labor-intensive. A single image can take a day or longer, and it requires powerful hardware. Vivas trained his AI using two GeForce RTX 3090s and then had an RTX 4090 do the rendering. The cost of these computer components alone is well into the $10,000 range (at least in Canada), and that’s just the video processors. AIs are just as hungry for RAM, storage, and raw processing power–to the point where the average person really can’t afford to have an AI art generator of their own.
Still, if you have tens of thousands of dollars to spend and can wait a few days for each image, you can have a machine endlessly recreate ‘Mechs. But there are other limitations too.
“I don’t think AI will by definition be able to do or say anything it hasn’t already been handed over,” Monahan explains. “As certain models become more convincing, they become less ‘creative’ [and more] oddly recombinative in a way that strikes my curiosity, as a visual artist. Midjourney a couple of iterations ago couldn’t draw a rifle to save your life. It was as if you had a seven-year-old draw a rifle, and then said rifle assumed realistic coloration and shading.
“The latest model doesn’t do that anymore, but it also doesn’t spark anything interesting, or far less often, it will draw rifle that is more neatly recombinative of existing rifle parts (ARs, AKs, FALS, etc) and mostly put them in the right place.”
In other words, AI can recreate what it knows and it can even take elements of what it knows and scramble them together, but it can’t truly create something new. Even those “Atlases” from earlier might appear new but they’re really just elements of millions of other giant robot pictures all jumbled together so it only looks that way.
“And that’s okay,” adds Monahan. “Sometimes you don’t want ‘new’, hence us talking about using it to render pictures of an existing ‘Mech design we like! But as an artist, striving to figure out and bring ‘new’—even if it’s just a novel recombination of elements that tickles our brain—is what the work is about. And I don’t think AI is capable of it.”
What AI is truly good at is what computers have always been good at, which is doing the things that humans don’t want to do: boring, repetitive tasks.
“Practically speaking, AI is great for doing scut work–little explorations that you might not want to bother doing, like the way art directors like you to do 10 thumbnails of a shotgun,” continues Monahan. “AI doesn’t complain about you pressing the run button as many times as you care to.”
“There is a great desire to cut artists, writers, actors, and other creatives out of the content production process.”
AI can also be good for helping its human users think of something new themselves. “In my experience, it sometimes is very practical and fun as a kind of running parallel to what I’m working on. As an artist, I think about and approach my work in a certain way, but telling an AI via a sentence or phrase is very different, and doesn’t fatigue me the same way that sketching does (though prompting does eventually become a chore as well),” Monahan says.
There is certainly a dark side to AI art generators. We’ve already seen examples of companies using AI in place of human artists, and while sometimes that’s to perform the drudgery of artistic endeavors, that’s still a job taken from a human and handed to a robot.
“From the basic self-interested standpoint of being an illustrator, I have serious concerns, especially with how quickly this tech evolves and how it might sample art, which does make me worry about the future of artists and art careers,” says Alex Iglesias, art lead at MechWarrior Online and MechWarrior 5 developer PGI.
“More immediately, I find that yeah, while capable of doing quite a bit, the tendency towards superficially averaging everything out without understanding why things are where they are supposed to be does hold it back from making deliberate logical design choices. Though this too might eventually be ‘solved’ by AI, in which case, oh boy, I’d be in trouble.”
Our own resident artist and freelancer Eldniousrex agrees. “There is a great desire to cut artists, writers, actors, and other creatives out of the content production process,” he says. “A way for the ‘idea’ people to merely push a button to have their ‘creations’ come to life. No paying anyone. No negotiations. No delays. No moody artsy folks. Just an endless stream of content that they can claim ownership of and monetize with no middlemen soaking up the profits.”
Bishop Steiner, one of the artists that helped redesign dozens of ‘Mechs for Catalyst Game Labs in recent years, is somewhat more fatalistic about AI art generators. “It’s Pandora’s box though,” he says. “It’s been opened, and there is no putting it back, and let’s face it, most people whose livelihood isn’t potentially impacted? Probably don’t want to put it back anyhow. So now, all we can do is deal with it.”
How we deal with it is a question that hasn’t been answered, although even the people in charge of large AI models are desperately seeking guidance. Leaving aside the existential threat AI potentially poses (outcomes like The Matrix and Terminator are suddenly no longer theoretical), what happens to copyright if an AI scrapes thousands of images to create something “new”? Is that fair use or is it illegal? Should artists be compensated? If so, how much? These questions are still playing out in courts and legislative assemblies around the world.
“It’s been opened, and there is no putting it back. All we can do is deal with it.”
And we’ll have to get those answers soon. A few years ago, we couldn’t even imagine a machine doing what AI can do today. Now, it’s not hard to imagine what AI will be able to due in a few more years.
“Eventually, AI will create higher-order exports,” warns Monahan. I offered an example of the procedural generation we see in games like Borderlands, where thousands of parts can become billions of possible item iterations. AI would be perfect for creating those parts and then iterating them into a system just like the one used in Borderlands or No Man’s Sky.
But I wasn’t thinking big enough. “As in, you won’t ask it to design all the guns for a Borderlands-type game,” Monahan adds. “You will ask it to output a Borderlands-type game.”
Ironically, robots have trouble recreating other robots with the exactitude necessary for what fans demand. You better believe that if you present a BattleTech fan with a Warhammer that has one too many missile tubes or an Atlas with too many fingers (as was often the case with some early AI models), you will get called out for it. That’s something Eldonious is acutely aware of and something that CGL is likely very sensitive to.
That won’t be the case forever. It seems inevitable now that machines will overtake a human’s ability to endlessly iterate on existing designs. But Bishop offers a ray of hope for artists who think the end is nigh.
“Fortunately for the actual artists, I think fans, clients, etc, will always exist who want that human touch. It’s why we see even in the age of digital art being the industry norm, a number of analog artists who provide something digital can’t: a one-of-one, original piece,” he says. “There will always be those who want actual art.”
A Thousand ‘Mechs On A Thousand Typewriters
While I think the largest concerns are for BattleTech‘s imagery, AI is also more than capable of creating entire books on the fly. However, language learning models suffer from the same limitations as image generators when it comes to details. For example, here’s what happened when I asked ChatGPT to create a 500-word story in the BattleTech universe.
The dusty plains of Galatea Prime stretched out as far as the eye could see, dotted with the remnants of ancient war machines. It was a desolate landscape that bore witness to countless battles fought between rival factions. Among the wreckage, a lone MechWarrior named Kira “Viper” Morgan stood, her Warhammer, bearing the scars of previous conflicts.
Kira belonged to the Black Talons, a mercenary company known for their fierce combat prowess. They had been hired by House Kurita to secure an abandoned research facility deep within Galatea’s unforgiving Badlands. The mission was shrouded in secrecy, and whispers of long-lost technology had piqued Kira’s curiosity.
As the hot sun beat down on her cockpit, Kira received orders from her commander, Colonel Rourke. The Black Talons were to face off against the infamous Jade Falcons, a rival mercenary unit, who had also set their sights on the research facility. It was a race against time.
The battlefield crackled with tension as the two forces clashed. The thunderous roar of BattleMechs echoed across the plains. Kira piloted her Warhammer with precision, her fingers dancing across the control panels. She fired her PPCs, streaks of energy lancing out and impacting an enemy Timber Wolf, its armor blistering under the assault.
In the chaos of battle, Kira’s cockpit was suddenly filled with warning sirens. An enemy Hellbringer, with its twisted and sinister design, had locked onto her. A volley of missiles streaked toward her Warhammer, threatening to tear it apart.
Reacting swiftly, Kira engaged her jump jets, propelling her ‘Mech high into the air, evading the deadly barrage. As she descended, she unleashed a devastating salvo of lasers upon the Hellbringer, its armor melting away like wax. The enemy pilot ejected, surrendering to the inevitable.
Victory seemed within reach, but Kira knew the battle was far from over. She directed her ‘Mech toward the research facility, pushing her machine to its limits. The Black Talons were met with fierce resistance as the Jade Falcons fought tooth and nail to maintain their hold on the site.
Kira’s Warhammer weathered enemy fire, shrugging off blows that would have crippled lesser machines. She rallied her fellow mercenaries, coordinating their attacks with precision. Slowly but surely, they gained ground, forcing the Jade Falcons to retreat.
As the dust settled, the Black Talons stood victorious. The research facility was theirs, the spoils of war awaiting their discovery. Kira couldn’t help but feel a surge of excitement, knowing that the secrets hidden within those walls could shape the future of warfare.
She deactivated the Warhammer’s systems, the hum of the engine fading into silence. Kira took a moment to reflect, her gaze sweeping across the battlefield. The remnants of fallen ‘Mechs lay scattered, a testament to the price paid for victory.
In the BattleTech universe, conflict was a constant companion, and warriors like Kira embraced their roles as MechWarriors, driven by honor, profit, or the thrill of the fight. As she stepped out of her cockpit, the dust of Galatea Prime swirling around her, Kira knew that her journey was far from over. There were battles yet to be fought, and she was ready to face them head-on.
Just as AI struggles with visual imagery and BattleTech, ChatGPT has trouble with the details. Galatea is indeed a largely barren planet, but the colonized world is Galatea VI, not Galatea Prime. The Jade Falcons aren’t a mercenary unit, I wouldn’t necessarily call the Hellbringer a “twisted and sinister design,” and I don’t think anyone within the BattleTech universe would ever refer to it as part of their internal narration. Kira’s flying Warhammer is also an anomaly, but as a mercenary, we can assume she customized it to include jump jets.
Had I not given ChatGPT a constraint on word count, it probably could have done a little better with the grammar and formatting too. It gets points for writing ‘Mechs with the apostrophe every time, though.
The fact that ChatGPT can deliver anything at all when given a vague set of instructions like “write a story” is impressive, but it once again shows the limitations of current AI software. Give it a wide scope and AI starts to lose the particulars. However, ChatGPT shines when you ask it specific questions. If you want it to bring up a record sheet for the Warhammer WHM-6R, for example, it’ll recreate that ‘Mech’s stats without fail (including its complete lack of jump jets).
“I’m better than anything [ChatGPT] could put out.”
Besides accuracy, plagiarism is another problem with language models like ChatGPT, although it’s much easier to catch in text than in visual media. That said, the speed at which it can produce content far outstrips anything even the fastest typist in the world can achieve.
The potential here then is less for ChatGPT to augment or replace fiction writers and instead to assist with some of the dryer aspects of BattleTech text, ie. sourcebooks and record sheets. But, like image generators, you’ll need to coax ChatGPT to provide the correct information and also correct it when it gets things wrong.
“They’re basically just plagiarism machines.”
It’s perhaps unsurprising then that BattleTech‘s writers aren’t nearly as concerned about the unfolding AI revolution as its artists. “I’m better than anything [ChatGPT] could put out,” boasts Bryan Young, fiction writer for Shadowrun, Star Wars, Doctor Who, and creator of BattleTech‘s Fox Patrol. “It can only rehash what came before, it can’t really create something new.”
“They’re basically just plagiarism machines,” adds Russell Zimmerman, a writer featured in BattleTech’s Shrapnel magazine and most recently in BattleTech‘s first-ever Pride Anthology. “All they do is just go grab random phrases and string ’em together with utter confidence; if I want a confidently wrong answer, I’ll look elsewhere on social media.”
Ownership is a thorny issue when it comes to AI. I’ve briefly touched on the legal issues surrounding AI art generators, but it’s no less problematic for language models.
Depending on how it all shakes out, AI could potentially shatter copyrights as we know them, which would have a profound effect on gaming communities using licensed IPs like BattleTech. Right now, at least, it doesn’t look like we have to worry about AI breaking our beloved universe of giant robots and galaxy-spanning nations.
The future, however, is much harder to prognosticate. There are plenty of doomsday scenarios that could play out. We could one day find ourselves in a world where AIs generate everything and the entire creative industry becomes owned by IP holders that simply feed their properties into bots that endlessly spit out more and more content. There are also more charitable scenarios where AI is just a new tool that artists and creatives learn to exploit to create better content faster.
I must admit, I’ve on occasion asked ChatGPT to do a thing and found it did that thing better than I could. The title of this article, in fact, was partially generated by ChatGPT.
So, am I still worried? Yeah, a bit. All of this is moving far too fast for anyone NOT to be worried. But at least BattleTech seems safe. For now.
And as always, MechWarriors: Stay Syrupy.