AI image generation puts video game illustrators out of work


Getty Images

Getty Images

  • Recent breakthroughs in AI image generation have created widespread anxiety in China’s video game art industry.
  • Given the high quality of AI-produced artwork, many illustrators are losing their jobs to AI image generators such as Stable Diffusion and DALL-E 2.
  • The gaming industry’s job market was already precarious after the Chinese government’s licensing freeze in 2021 threw thousands of game developers out of business.

Freelance illustrator Amber Yu used to make 3,000 to 7,000 yuan ($430 to $1,000) for every video game poster she drew. Making the promotional posters, published on social media to attract players and introduce new features, was skill-intensive and time-consuming. Once, she spent an entire week completing one illustration of a woman dressed in traditional Chinese attire performing a lion dance — first making a sketch on Adobe Photoshop, then carefully refining the outlines and adding colors.

But since February, these job opportunities have vanished, Yu told Rest of World. Gaming companies, equipped with AI image generators, can create a similar illustration in seconds. Yu said they now simply offer to commission her for small fixes, like tweaking the lighting and skewed body parts, for a tenth of her original rate.

Recent breakthroughs in AI image generation, with the release of programs such as DALL-E 2, Midjourney, and Stable Diffusion in 2022, have enabled users to produce impeccable drawings from text prompts. In the past few months, Chinese video game companies, from tech giants like Tencent to indie game developers, have begun using these programs to design and create video game characters, backdrops, and promotional materials.

The rise of AI art has created widespread anxiety in China’s video game art industry. Artists are crucial to game production, be it for conceptualizing characters or drawing background elements like cityscapes or signs. Given the high quality of AI-produced artwork, many in the industry are wondering how long they will be able to keep their jobs, seven game illustrators told Rest of World. Artists joke that they should switch careers to peddling rice noodles on the street instead, several of the illustrators said.

“AI is developing at a speed way beyond our imagination,” Xu Yingying, illustrator at an independent game art studio in Chongqing, told Rest of World. Xu’s studio produces designs for major game developers in China. Five of the studio’s 15 illustrators who specialize in character design were laid off this year, and Xu believes the adoption of AI image generators was partly to blame. “Two people could potentially do the work that used to be done by 10,” she said.

Chinese tech giants, such as Tencent and NetEase, that own large video-game publishing divisions, have been researching how to cut game development costs with artificial intelligence for years. NetEase’s Naraka: Bladepoint, an action-adventure battle royale game, rolled out a temporary feature in March that allowed players to create new “skins” for avatars using the company’s in-house AI program. Following a criminal investigation against a prominent voice actor, allegedly because of a business dispute, gaming companies miHoYo and NetEase used AI to generate the voices of his characters.

A spokesperson at NetEase told Rest of World the company had applied AI-based technologies to assist game animation, and the models are trained using its proprietary or licensed resources. “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,” the spokesperson said. Tencent and miHoYo did not respond to requests for comments.

AI-generated art was so skilled that some illustrators talked about giving up drawing altogether. “Our way of making a living is suddenly destroyed,” said a game artist in Guangdong, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of being identified by her employer, to Rest of World. Yu, the freelance illustrator, said it was “despicable” that algorithms — trained on vast datasets that took humans decades to produce — were on the verge of replacing the artists themselves. Still, Yu plans to train AI programs with her own drawings to improve her productivity. “If I’m a top-notch artist, I might be able to boycott [them]. But I have to eat.”

Illustrators say employers are encouraging them to use AI image generators to boost their productivity. At Xu’s studio, for example, AI generators create clothes and accessories from human-illustrated character sketches. Game designers also use AI programs to draw treasure chests and gold coins, a Shanghai-based illustrator told Rest of World.

The Guangdong-based game artist, who works at a leading gaming company, said that previously, employees could draw a scene or a character in a day; now, with the help of AI, they could make 40 a day for their bosses to choose from. “I wish I could just shoot down these programs,” the artist told Rest of World, after getting off work late one night. She said fear of impending layoffs had made her colleagues more competitive; many stayed at work late, working longer hours to try to produce more. “[AI] made us more productive but also more exhausted,” she said.

The gaming industry’s job market was already precarious after the Chinese government’s monthslong licensing freeze in 2021 threw thousands of game developers out of business. Leo Li, a gaming industry recruiter in Hangzhou, told Rest of World the number of illustrator jobs plunged by about 70% over the last year — not only because of regulatory pressures and a slowing economy, but also the AI boom. Given the rising capabilities of AI tools, “bosses may be thinking they don’t need so many employees,” Li said.


The poster for ‘A Madman’s Game’ which follows a depressed artist in a world where ChatGPT and AI artwork have taken over.

Within the gaming community, some players have been pushing back against AI illustrations, denouncing them as “digital carcasses” of man-made art, and criticizing those who scrape art from the internet without their creators’ consent. They scrutinize character illustrations and fan art for traces of AI, such as an unnatural-looking hand or mispositioned eyeglasses. In February, after players called out a well-known illustrator for using AI to make a poster for the mobile game Alchemy Stars, Tencent’s Tourdog Studio, the game developer, said the poster would not appear in the game itself, and pledged against using AI-made artwork.

Some players told Rest of World that although they don’t mind AI-made avatars and skins, they wouldn’t pay as much for them. “As a consumer, I hope there’s human labor behind my purchase,” said Xie Jinsen, an algorithm engineer in Shanghai, who plays mobile battle games such as Honor of Kings and PUBG Mobile. “Emphasizing how something is made by AI will make people feel it’s cheap.”

AI image generators still lack some human capabilities, according to illustrators. Although they excel at creating anime and cyberpunk styles — possibly because they are able to scrape the vast trove of similar images on the web — they don’t perform as well with more niche aesthetics. Zigi Mo, head of Huanxiong Studio in Chengdu, which started using Midjourney and Stable Diffusion this year, told Rest of World AI image generators could polish illustrations, but were unable to come up with designs that addressed specific client needs. “At least for our company, it couldn’t replace any human worker,” he said. “It’s just a tool that assists us.”

Jeffrey Ding, an assistant professor at George Washington University who studies the development of AI in China, said the advancement of AI could open up competition and create new opportunities, but it could also eliminate a wide range of white-collar jobs currently done with computers. “The reality might be that [AI] will displace a lot of jobs, not just artists, but like lawyers and writing services,” Ding told Rest of World.

The Chinese government is taking steps to regulate AI art. In January, China’s internet watchdog enacted a new regulation requiring “deepfake” generators to clearly label content that could confuse the public. In April, the regulator published a draft law applying the same rule to AI-made imagery and videos, adding that copyrights should be respected. The draft didn’t mention if companies need to inform consumers about the use of AI in games or other products.

The anxiety experienced by illustrators might soon spread to other professions, Xiao Di, an independent game developer, told Rest of World. Xiao said indie developers like himself used to outsource illustration work to art studios, but now save costs by creating characters and backdrops with AI.

In Xiao’s latest production, A Madman’s Game, set to be released in April, the protagonist is a depressed artist looking for hope in a time when ChatGPT and AI artwork have taken the world by storm. Paradoxically, some of the game’s characters were made with the AI image generator Draft. “Every technological revolution leaves some people behind,” Xiao said. “AI illustration is just the beginning … It might be programming or customer service next year, or the year after.”