Tracking the Explosive World of Generative AI

China's Video Game AI Art Crisis: 40x Productivity Spike, 70% Job Loss

The rise of AI in China's video game art scene has led to a 70% drop in illustrator jobs and a 40x productivity boost, sparking debate on the future of the profession.

Chinese illustrators grapple with their professional as AI art tools rapidly displace their roles. Photo illustration: Artisana. Image courtesy: NetEase

🧠 Stay Ahead of the Curve

  • Generative AI tools have disrupted China's video game art industry, leading to a 70% decline in illustrator jobs and a 40x increase in productivity.

  • This upheaval demonstrates the power of AI to rapidly transformation the creative industry, as artists face job insecurity and reduced pay amid increasing reliance on AI.

  • The $300B video game industry will have to grapple with the potential degradation of artistic quality, industry-wide shifts toward AI-generated content, and growing concerns over regulation and ethical use of AI in creative fields in the coming years.

By Michael Zhang

April 12, 2023

As generative AI tools gain traction in Chinese video game design workflows, artists face mounting job insecurity. With a 70% drop in illustrator jobs in China over the past year – initially triggered by economic slowdown and regulatory pressures, then accelerated by the proliferation of AI tools – concerns about the viability of the profession are intensifying.

40x Surge in Output Puts Artists' Roles at Risk

An anonymous artist at a prominent Chinese gaming company spoke to the news publication Rest of World about the dramatic impact AI art tools have had on the industry. In the past, this illustrator noted, a productive artist could create one character or scene daily. But with AI assistance, that same artist can now produce over 40 scenes per day, the illustrator explained.

The increased productivity has intensified competition among artists, who now work longer hours to demonstrate their worth, despite the exhaustion it causes. As a result, teams of artists face the looming threat of layoffs.

Small studios are also grappling with AI's disruptive influence. Xu Yingying, an illustrator at an independent game art studio, recounted how five of the studio's 15 illustrators have already been let go, with more layoffs possibly in the pipeline. She observed that "two people could potentially do the work that used to be done by 10."

Pay rates for existing illustrator roles have plummeted in tandem with job losses. Freelance illustrator Amber Yu reported that clients now offer her a mere tenth of her typical pay, requesting her to refine AI-generated works instead of creating original pieces.

Profit Motivations Drive Adoption of AI Tools

Video game studio executives have eagerly adopted AI tools to reduce costs and generate more content. Chinese tech giants Tencent and NetEase, both with extensive video game divisions, have long explored AI to boost their bottom line. Games like NetEase's action-adventure battle royale Naraka: Bladepoint have experimented with AI-generated skins for player avatars, which are usually hand-drawn by studio illustrators.

Gaming companies, including NetEase and miHoYo, have also explored AI-generated voices. The first such trial occurred when a renowned voice actor for the popular game Tears of Themis was arrested. The studio used an AI system to replicate the actor's voice for new game content.

Growing Skepticism Over AI-Generated Content Quality

However, a growing contingent of fans remains unconvinced that AI-generated content is the right direction. When the studio behind Tears of Themis used AI to reproduce an actor's voice, fans criticized the result as "too soft-spoken" and lacking expressive nuances.

NetEase also faced backlash over AI-generated assets with fans complaining about improperly rendered faces, missing limbs, and odd expressions. Current AI generative art platforms can struggle with accurately rendering certain human features, particularly fingers and hands.

It remains to be seen if this vocal opposition will influence the decision-making of the $300B+ video game industry. Some respite may come from the Chinese government's efforts to regulate AI art, such as new rules requiring deepfake generators to clearly label their content and proposals for copyright protections for AI-generated images and videos.

For now, the uncertainty leaves an entire sector of artists uneasy. The exhausted artist, whose studio experienced a 40-fold increase in productivity after adopting AI, lamented, "I wish I could just shoot down these programs."

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