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As his Kickstarter passes $1.3M, publisher defends Terraforming Mars’ generative AI art: ‘It’s too powerful a technology’

Indie Game Studios’ Travis Worthington responds to controversy around the upcoming Terraforming Mars expansion

Cover art for Terraforming Mars shows two astronauts on the red planet’s hillside, surrounded by green trees.
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

On Aug. 1 crowdfunding giant Kickstarter announced its new policy on generative artificial intelligence, which required creators to disclose its use in the description of their campaigns beginning Aug. 29. But one of the first tabletop teams to admit to using the controversial technology isn’t a bootstrapped start-up. Instead, it’s Indie Game Studios’ imprint Stronghold Games, the United States-based licensor of the wildly popular Terraforming Mars. The strategy game is an international bestseller that has sold more than 1.5 million copies in at least 16 languages, ranks among the best board games in the world, and is currently being shopped around Hollywood for a movie or TV deal.

The More Terraforming Mars! campaign comprises a host of potential expansions and upgrades to the original game. And as of Thursday evening, Stronghold Games has raised more than 12,000% of what it originally asked for, clearing $1.3 million. The decision to use generative AI in the production of these expansions has sparked outrage among competitors and customers alike, but there’s clearly plenty of demand nonetheless. Delivery of rewards is expected by July 2024.

Generative AI is controversial for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that these computational algorithms are trained on the work of real-world writers and artists. Without a large body of reference material — often gleaned from publicly available sources like web pages, books, and individual works of art — they can’t function. But developers of these types of software have been varied in their approach to ethical norms, including but not limited to novel interpretations of copyright law and the use of under-paid artists and students to perform as mechanical Turks. United States legislators are currently considering the issue, with a series of private and public hearings underway.

Regardless of that controversy, Indie Game Studios president Travis Worthington says his four-person company — and the game’s Swedish creators, family-owned FryxGames — are all-in on the technology. We’ve included a transcript of our interview below. It’s been lightly edited for clarity, and to stay on topic.

Polygon: How many international partners does FryxGames have in the distribution of this product? Any idea?

Travis Worthington: I’d say probably at least 30.

It’s translated into about 16 different languages, but there are more partners than that, obviously.

Yeah, it’s more than 16 languages, for sure. I mean, it’s in languages that have [only] a million speakers, so I’m sure it’s well more than that.

According to the recent Deadline story from November, the game has sold over 1.5 million copies internationally. Is that about right?

I have no idea internationally. That sounds high, quite honestly,

How many would you say that you’ve sold in English through Stronghold?

I’d say we’ve sold over 300,000 copies.

What parts of your project will use AI Generated content? Please be as specific as possible. “We have and will continue to leverage AI-generated content in the development and delivery of this project. We have used MidJourney, Fotor, and the Adobe Suite of products as tools in conjunction with our internal and external illustrators, graphic designers, and marketers to generate ideas, concepts, illustrations, graphic design elements, and marketing materials across all the elements of this game...
Stronghold Games’ AI disclosure on the More Terraforming Mars! campaign page.
Image: Kickstarter

It seems like Stronghold Games is just using AI very broadly in this effort. Can you tell me more about that?

The artwork here is a combination of artwork provided by FryxGames, and some of it is done by Stronghold-slash-Indie Game Studio as well, and generative AI has been part of that development process. Historically, the art for Terraforming Mars was largely developed by the FryxGames Team. So FryxGames is — I think they’re up to seven employees, all of which are related, they’re brothers and sisters — and they’ve done, in the past, art internally. They’ve got two artists that are part of their team, and they’ve used generative AI for this Kickstarter project. We have as well.

So for More Terraforming Mars!, both FryxGames and Stronghold have both used generative AI for what specifically?

For illustrations in the game.

The disclosure on Kickstarter notes that its use includes external illustrations, use by graphic designers and marketers, and that the use of AI includes generating ideas, concepts, illustrations, graphic design elements, and marketing materials. So when you say “generate ideas,” what does that mean? How are you using AI to generate ideas?

You can use AI to generate packaging ideas. You can use AI to generate themes and concepts. All of that. I think people focus on the illustration development.


But, you know, the AI develops things that, quite honestly, a person never would have thought of. When you look at the broader use of AI here, it’s not just illustration.

Sure. What specifically have you used AI to generate in this campaign?

A number of the images. AI is used as the basis of the image.

Again, going through the disclosure, what ideas have been generated by AI?

That I couldn’t tell you, because I’m not actually working on the game development side of the house.

Do you know which concepts that AI was used to generate?

No, because again, I’m not on the game development side of things.

Do you know which graphic design elements AI was used to generate?

Not specifically, but if you look at any kind of background texture, any of the formatting on this could have AI elements in it. And, you know, the statement that I think people are looking at is written very broadly so that it’s applicable to potential uses of AI, both as it is now and in the future of this project.

Kickstarter’s requested disclosure is asking, quite pointedly, for specificity. A lot of folks don’t believe that enough specificity has been given, so I’m directly asking you to tell me which ideas, concepts, illustrations, graphic design elements, and marketing materials that are currently on that Kickstarter page AI has been used to generate? Can we circle anything there on that page?

I think we’ve answered that question.

OK. The other thing that folks are bringing questions about is the second part of that disclosure, and I want to read Kickstarter’s text back to you here real quick. “Do you have the consent of the owners of the works that were or will be used to produce the AI generated portion of your projects? Please explain.” And the way that your explanation is written is, you don’t. Is that fair?

Yes. We’ve also not specifically used anything.

I’m not sure what you mean.

So there’s a number of different AI models that you can use out there, some of which you can directly input images to use. So if you look at like a Stable Diffusion, the way their model is you can train it on specific images. So we have not done that. We’ve not trained it on specific images. Now, that being said, the AI tools that we have used are trained on large databases, right? I think that’s kind of general knowledge about AI. I’m not aware of any generative AI model that is 100% consent-based at this time.

And so what Kickstarter is asking is, “Do you have consent?” And what your company is saying is? “No.”

What I’m saying is the tools we use are not based on a consent model, nor is there, to my knowledge, any AI tools that are based 100% on a consent model.

And Kickstarter, having received that “No,” allowed the campaign to proceed.


[Ed. note: Reached for comment, Kickstarter confirmed that’s how its disclosure system works. “As indicated in our policy,” wrote Kickstarter’s head of communications, Nikki Kria, to Polygon in an email, “we ask that creators disclose how they use AI in their project so that they are upholding the open, transparent communication that we encourage all creators to have with their backers.”]

That’s it really, as far as the facts of the matter go. I did want to query you, though, specifically on one particular comment that is on the Kickstarter page right now that your PR partner OffDutyNinja has not responded to directly, and this comes from Matt ‘Tinz’ Herzau. Matt, who was among your backers until recently when they canceled their pledge, asked “How exactly does the use of AI factor into how artists are compensated?” That’s the first part of their question.

I’d love to see a model that is based on consent. I’d love to see a model that makes some compensation available. I think that that’s where this could go, and I’d be 100% supportive of that approach. I think the reality is that people are focused on kind of the artist compensation model. Terraforming Mars has always worked internally, so it’s always employed the Fryxelius brothers to develop the artwork, and quite honestly they’ve used a fair amount of stock images and other mostly free images out there to use. So, the decision to use AI for this specific project involved the artists that have worked on this game in the past.

So it is the artists that have worked on the game in the past now disclosing that they are using AI as part of their workflows.

For this project, absolutely.

Going back to Matt’s questions, “Are you using generative AI software to create new art, learning from a database of your own artists work with their consent?” And I think I heard you say that you’re not doing that.

You’re right. We’re not doing that.

“And how are those artists being compensated for new works generated?” It sounds like they’re the people who’ve always been doing it, and they’re the owners of the game, so they’ve always been compensated for it.

FryxGames is a family-owned company. The artists that are part of that family are equal owners of that company. And quite honestly, the the use of AI is, let’s be honest, it can be a cost saver. But I think the biggest reason why FryxGames, and quite honestly ourselves, are using this is not the cost savings but the development time. You can always equate time with cost, but the time to go through and bring a product to market can be decreased dramatically by using the generative AI. So not only this project, but future projects that we’re working on together are coming to market much more quickly than they would have otherwise.

The balance of his question: “or are you simply using the database of largely uncredited artists that MidJourney has already been trained on?” It sounds like you would say yes to that.


“Also, your ad disclaimer seems to suggest that the game has utilized AI in the past to make content.” Is that the case?

Not that I’m aware of, no. You know, AI technology has really only been viable for the past six months.

Obviously, AI has come up in tabletop products very recently. Wizards of the Coast, for instance, said that it learned only after publishing Bigby Presents: Glory to the Giants that AI impacted art was included in that publication. They’ve since come down firmly to say that their artists are no longer allowed to use AI in the creation of work for Dungeons and Dragons products. What do you say to a statement like that by one of the largest tabletop publisher in the world right now?

[Laughs] I think it’s going to be impossible to enforce.


Yes, absolutely. The progress on the AI art and the models has been astronomical. And the iterations of the tools and technology are advancing so quickly that I think, even now, it would be almost impossible for us to contract with outside artists and have any degree of certainty that they’re not using AI themselves.

So effectively, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em?

No. I just think that artists are going to use AI. We’ve had issues in the past with direct copyright infringement. Third-party artists [doing a] paint-over is a classic example. That is an issue. Commercial artists are alway looking to provide the best outcome that they can in the least amount of time. That’s how a commercial artist is successful. At the very top end, when you’re paying what Wizards of the Coast used to pay — and I understand that’s changed fairly dramatically over the last couple years — you could ensure that you were working with name brand artists. But that’s very, very expensive. That market has changed dramatically — already before AI even came out. I think it’s gonna be very, very difficult for anyone to determine that AI was not used in any part of the process in developing art.

Have you ever been to Gen Con?


Gen Con LLC has made it clear that it prefers to host that event in Indianapolis because it’s a very inexpensive city for folks to make their way to and to conduct a convention in.

I think that it’s clear that the vast majority of folks that are working in the tabletop space are doing it as a second source of income. They are on the side making a board game, on the side they’re doing art for a board game, on the side they’re editing an instruction manual for a board game.

There’s something to be said, though, for the professionalization of that space. And part of that professionalization, in many people’s opinion — I’m probably among them — is to get workers money in exchange for their labor. To uplift artists, to give them a source of income, so that board gaming can really be bigger and so that companies that make board games can be more successful, and people can get more jobs, actual jobs, in the industry.

A lot of folks are seeing that you are 12,000% over the goal for this campaign, that it’s brought in more than $1.25 million so far, likely ranking it among the top 10 Kickstarters of any kind this year, and they’re asking, “Why isn’t this company willing to pay human beings to make this art?” What do you say to that criticism?

I think we’re paying the people that made that art based on the success of the game, because those people are the FryxGames company.

Who are using the AI tool.

So the artists that have been involved in this project, their livelihood is sustained by the use of AI as well as the artwork that they do and the graphic design that they do on this project. I think there’s a lot of focus on AI on the negative aspects, and there certainly are [negative aspects]. I don’t want to say that this is harmless technology. It’s clearly going to have a lot of impact, very specifically on illustrators. [...] And it already has. I mean, I’ve seen some reports in China that the video game developers have laid off large parts of their illustration department because the artists that they keep on board are so much more productive leveraging AI technology. So it clearly has had an impact, and will continue to have an impact, on illustrators.

But if you look at more broadly [at] the people [who] are employed within the industry, and the potential to use this technology to go into spaces that weren’t profitable for small companies before? I think there’s a lot of upside to that as well.

10 years ago we were one of the first companies to adopt Kickstarter, and we got a lot of pushback for using Kickstarter 10 years ago. That push back continues to this day. You see a lot of comments [asking] “Why is this project on Kickstarter? That’s not what Kickstarter is for.” And clearly, Kickstarter has determined that this is part of what Kickstarter is about. I think that pushback at the time was very strong. But if you look at what’s happened in the past 10 years, and the number of people that are employed in this industry outside of the very biggest companies, [it has] grown tremendously. And that evolution of technology is going to happen with generative AI as well.

Going back to the compensation model, it’s a real issue and I’d love to see a solution for that. We would be eager to look at that and join up with that solution when it’s available. But I think this project is probably [...] the first [to be] required [to make a] declaration [by] Kickstarter. There’s certainly been other projects before this project that used AI art, some of which disclosed it, some of which did not. Our intention was to disclose the use of AI regardless of Kickstarter policy, so I think what we’re seeing is the early days of using generative AI [in board games].

Using this as an automation tool to help certain aspects, it’s certainly going to hurt people as well. This is where we’re at. It’s the growing pains stage. I don’t think this is going to go back in the bag. It’s too powerful a technology. It’s used in too many places already that are just not visible. There’s a number of high-end luxury watch companies that I’ve seen that are admitting to using this to do their copy-writing for their ads — and also generating ideas for watches. That’s just an example. There’s been a couple of studios out there on the TV side of things that have used generative AI as part of their development. So, it’s something that I think is more widespread than people realize. A number of the major news outlets have said they’re using generative AI to either help or, in some cases, [are] looking at it as a tool to actually write their news articles. The written part of generative AI is, frankly, harder to detect. It goes through the same process that we’re using for illustrations. It’s a tool. And the results are a much faster time to market, more so than the cost savings.

Congress met this week for the beginning of a blue-ribbon series of panels, which are going to include both public and private hearings at a Congressional and Senatorial level, about the use of AI across industries in United States and internationally. But I wanted to narrow in though on Terraforming Mars, specifically. The game itself is being marketed in Hollywood with the hopes of picking up a movie deal or a television deal.

There is every possibility that Hollywood will have a new contract in the next couple of months that either affirms the use of AI in Hollywood or denies the use of AI in Hollywood. Terraforming Mars is already using AI. How does that impact its ability to sign a movie or a television deal going forward?

I have no idea.

What would you say to illustrators out there in the world hoping to get work making art for board games right now?

I’d say board games are going through a tough time right now. The market is down significantly over the last couple of years. So I would say right now as an illustrator, designer or publisher the market is very challenging.

Update (Sept. 21): FryxGames CEO Enoch Fryxelius posted a video on his personal Facebook page addressing the issue. In it, he mirrored many of the statements made by his business partner, Travis Worthington.

“I see no way to turn back time,” Fryxelius said. “Illustrators lose jobs for every new tool that is developed.”

He also said that in two weeks his company will launch a new, Viking-themed cooperative board game that does not use AI in its production.

“We have paid tens of thousands of dollars to have those illustrations made,” Fryxelius continued. “And not even by some East European illustrator or Asian illustrator, but actually by Western — someone living in the Western world will be doing all the illustrations. That is crazy.”

Fryxelius is using this opportunity to point out how American and European tabletop publishers commonly source their art internationally, where workers in smaller, less affluent economies in the Global South are willing to accept lower wages that in turn help provide increased profit to Western companies like FryxGames. We’ve embedded the entire video below.

In the comments, he also notes that the “100% human-generated art” cost his company €40,000, and that the artist is his sister. He will attempt to recoup those expenses via Kickstarter.

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