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Beloved indie dev “couldn’t make” its first game today thanks to AI

Strange Scaffold founder Xalavier Nelson Jr. says his dog airport game that uses stock canine JPEGs couldn't get made today because of AI.

An Airport For ALiens Currently Run By Dogs generative AI: a stock photo of a dog called Chad Shakespeare asks you a question

Strange Scaffold founder Xalavier Nelson Jr. says the studio and publisher’s first game, An Airport For Aliens Currently Run By Dogs, “couldn’t be made today” thanks to how generative AI has taken over the internet and complicated the process of using stock images in media projects.

Released in 2021, An Airport For Aliens Currently Run By Dogs is a delightfully absurd indie game with an equally delightfully absurd premise; you’re trying to find your fiancé at an airport across the galaxy, where every single attendant and many of the characters are stock JPEGs of dogs. It’s certainly an interesting pitch and one that I still smile about after playing it when it came out.

It was the first big game Nelson directed at Strange Scaffold, which later went on to make games like Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator and Sunshine Shuffle, and the concept was actually the by-product of a development accident that we’ll get to later. “Today I couldn’t make it, because of generative AI,” Nelson says in a TikTok.

The creative process came from how “public domain images exist and we can use those out of their context to build something beautiful and new in a fairly safe way.” Nelson adds it was “pretty clear” where the images came from during development, which took place between 2019 and 2021, if you knew where to look.

The reason An Airport For Aliens Currently Run By Dogs couldn’t be made today is because of how generative AI has been trained on both public domain and non-public domain images, with these new images then put back into public domain sources. “If you use a public domain image – and increasingly sound, video – there is no guarantee that is in fact public domain, freely recontextualizable, stuff.”

@writnelson #ai #storytime #indiegames #gaming #behindthescenes #anairportforalienscurrentlyrunbydogs ♬ original sound – Xalavier Nelson Jr

Not knowing exactly where these images come from, and having the telltale signs of weird-looking hands or uncanny sheens become less and less common as these AI tools evolve, means it’s getting harder to safely use public domain resources in projects, and not just in games.

“The fact that if I wanted to do a sequel or make a spin-off I could not use the same creative processes because those doors are now closed kind of forever,” Nelson adds. “I think about it…. And it scares me a little bit.”

An Airport For Aliens Currently Run By Dogs survives on its quirky and heartwarming writing, but the elevator pitch of public domain JPEGs of dogs is a much harder sell now that generative AI has taken over the internet. Nelson says the dog JPEG part of the game came around by accident when the attendants were turned into dog JPEG placeholders, and he found this to very quickly be the whole game once he started doing it.

An Airport For ALiens Currently Run By Dogs generative AI: dog stock photo in a virtual airport

This kind of creativity is much harder to sell for an entire game now that generative AI exists, and it’s a shame because the Dog Airport game is one that still stands out to me because of how absurd the concept is. PCGamesN spoke to Xalavier Nelson Jr. about what makes an indie an indie last year too, after the controversy surrounding Dave the Diver’s The Game Awards nomination. So if you want to read more from him you can do so there.

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