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The breakthrough in AI technology has been phenomenal, but it has also come with its own curse. Backed by AI, one person can now do the job that was previously done by 5 people. Consequently, the jobs of video game illustrators are being run over by AI in China. It is only a matter of time before the scourge spreads across the globe.

Video game illustrators in China
Customers play computer games at an Internet cafe in Taiyuan (Photo credit: Reuters/Stringer)

Amber Yu, a freelance illustrator used to make between $450 and $1,000 for each video game poster she drew. Sometimes, she goes further to publish it on social media to lure new players. This was a time-consuming and skill-intensive task that sometimes took an entire week to complete.

Yu told Rest of World that these jobs have suddenly vanished since February. With AI image generators, some developers can create the same image that takes Yu a week to complete in minutes. Instead of handling big projects, she is now commissioned to make tweaks to lighting, skewed body parts, and other minor adjustments for one-tenth of her initial rate.

With revolutionary AI images generators like Stable Diffusion, Midjourney, and DALL-E2, users can easily produce stunning images from text prompts. In the past few months, big Chinese video game companies like Tencent and indie game developers have started favoring AI image generators over video game illustrators.

They use it to develop video game characters, promotional materials, and backdrops. This has created widespread anxiety among video game illustrators as well as everyone involved in the video game art industry. With improving AI-generated images, many are already speculating that it wouldn’t take long before video game illustrators are made redundant.

Video game illustrators are considering a career change

About 70% of video game illustrators have lost their jobs (Photo credit: Italy 24 Press News)
About 70% of video game illustrators have lost their jobs (Photo credit: Italy 24 Press News)

Some video game illustrators in China are already considering a change of career. However, some joke about it saying they will peddle rice noodles on the streets. An independent game art studio in Chongqing laid off 5 of its 15 illustrators this year.

“AI is developing at a speed way beyond our imagination,” said Xu Yingying, one of the illustrators at the studio in Chongqing. “Two people could potentially do the work that used to be done by 10.”

Although indie developers have been at the forefront of AI adoption, gaming giants like NetEase and Tencent are also researching ways to cut the costs of game development using AI. In fact, there are indications that these companies have been undergoing these studies for years.

The level of disruption AI is doing to the gaming industry goes beyond replacing video game illustrators. In March, Naraka: Bladepoint, an action-adventure battle royale game from NetEase rolled out a temporary feature that allowed players to create new avatar skins using the company’s in-house AI program.

In another incident, a prominent voice actor was involved in a criminal investigation following a business dispute. NetEase and miHoYo used AI to generate the voices of his characters.

‘Our way of making a living is suddenly destroyed,” said a game artist in Guangdong.

At the moment, most video game illustrators are no match for AI. However, illustrators like Yu said she was willing to train AI programs. Although it was ironical to train an algorithm that will one day replace her, Yu said, “If I’m a top-notch artist, I might be able to boycott [them]. But I have to eat.”

Gaming companies continue to live in denial

Tencent is considering augmenting video game illustrators with AI

As gaming companies continue to research or roll out AI programs, what video game illustrators and others in the gaming industry fear the most is being replaced by these algorithms. While that is already happening, many video game companies continue to live in denial, saying they are meant to assist their developers and designers, not replace them.

“Our goal has been to develop better tools to enable our talented teams of art designers and illustrators to create assets faster or more efficiently during the game development process,” said a spokesperson for NetEase.

Some employers are increasingly encouraging their staff to use AI image generators to enhance productivity. For example, in one of the studios, human-created characters are clothed using AI-generated clothes and accessories. Also, things like gold coins and treasure chests are generated with AI.

While this may seem harmless, it could also be a ploy to indirectly get video game illustrators to keep training these mindless programs. Some recent game releases have featured characters or elements that were generated with AI.

Although gamers are protesting the use of AI in gaming, it is unlikely that gaming companies will listen. While we are talking about the gaming industry today, Xiao Di, an independent game developer, believes the influence of AI will gradually spread to other professions.

“Every technological revolution leaves some people behind,” Di said. “AI illustration is just the beginning… It might be programming or customer service next year, or the year after.”

Do you prefer games that make use of AI-generated images? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.

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