Over the last year, I've had numberless discussions about AI art in private conversations and in public interviews. I've listened to countless podcasts and read oodles of articles featuring the views of opponents and advocates of AI generated art. Ultimately, I believe that the use of AI art in commercial products is unethical, anti-artist, and chips away at the very concept and value of art itself. But this post will not discuss why...I will post a more in-depth explanation of my thoughts on AI art as a whole soon. But for now, I want to discuss something very specific in the process of making art in the board game industry and how AI art is affecting that process negatively. Warning: this post is definitely not for everyone. I'll really be getting in the weeds here. But if you're a publisher, a designer (veteran or aspiring), or an artist in the board game industry (or you're just interested in the AI discussion), read on!
For the sake of this this post, I'm going to assume I'm talking to publishers/designers that know commercially used AI art is bad. You respect artists and you want to promote human creativity. And I say thank you! That decision comes at a real cost. But once that value/moral based decision has been made, its easy to genuinely ask "Is there still room for AI art when it is so convenient"? One very common practice in our industry is the use of AI art as placeholder art in the early development of a project. This practice is not unethical, in my opinion, and I understand how using AI art as placeholder art might help you visualize the end result. But I would propose that using AI for prototypes and "concept art" is unnecessary and counterproductive and there is a much better alternative. Let me elaborate :)
First and foremost, if you're a publisher, there is no need for placeholder art all. Period. You're not pitching a prototype to anyone. Playtesters don't need it to give you feedback on the design. You're not likely to share it with fans. If you're a designer, you might feel pressured to include polished art in their design pitch, but good publishers should be capable of seeing a great design without it. The only reason to use placeholder art is to feel like the game is more complete. There is nothing wrong with this, but it's not crucial. And if you use AI to get that feeling, it can lead to other problems as you work with your human artist partners...I'll list four.
Placeholder art (provided by a publisher), and AI placeholder art specifically, hinders the creative process. Many publishers share AI art in the hopes of inspiring their artists with ideas or an "art direction". AI art looks pretty on the surface, but it is anything but creative. It usually feels homogenous and soulless. There is nothing that inspires ideas or innovative solutions. It is usually a literal interpretation of a sentence of text, no more. But because it's pretty on the surface, creative value is applied to it when there isn't any. In the end, most artists don’t want to be influenced by such art (I usually ignore it or throw it away). So, I daresay, it becomes counter-inspirational 🙂
AI art cannot provide solutions to your game's unique problems. A good illustrator knows how to interpret your needs and create something fresh and new that meets those needs. When I'm shown a rough prototype of a game with no visuals, I love it! I'm given a blank canvas to come up with unique, creative solutions for that game's unique, visual challenges. The most creative games I've ever made for clients came from very crude graphics drawn on a sheet of paper. They had a rough idea and let me do my job to make that idea better.
Using AI creates unfair and unreasonable comparisons. Artists are soulful, passion-filled people. Almost any artist has more knowledge about what makes art good than a machine, but we’re not perfect and we come in all different skill levels. Even the best artists are self conscious at (all) times. I've been working as a professional illustrator for almost 20 years and I still struggle with uncertainty and discouragement. When a client shares AI art (that took a fraction of time to make and has the shallow veneer of quality) with me and tells me it feels like what they're looking for, I'm immediately fighting against an unreal comparison and the self doubt begins. If you’re not going to use AI in the final art, why would you want to create a stumbling block for the the artist who will spend weeks/months pouring creative blood, sweat, tears into your project?
Lastly, using AI art at any stage (if you're not going to use it for final art), is just a tease...and it will probably break your heart 🙂 When a publisher uses AI art for their inspirational or placeholder art, its very easy to get attached to that art. AI art looks nice on the surface (even if that "art" is barely surface deep). Then, when it's time for an artist to take over, the publisher is tempted to ask the professional artist to take direction from a poorly (and unethically) trained machine. One that often doesn't know how many fingers a human has. The end result is a discouraged publisher (because they got attached to something they couldn't use) and a discouraged artist (because they weren't allowed to work at their full potential).
Ok, Andrew, you sold me. You're a genius and so handsome! But what is the alternative? If you feel compelled to use placeholder art in your prototypes or share inspirational images with your hired artist, use a language your artist will understand: the work of other great artists. Until about a year ago, when I saw a prototype or art direction doc, it employed the art of people I respected and usually were better than me. That art (temporarily borrowed from the internet, credited properly, then later deleted) is free, ethically used, and probably takes less time to collect. Great art from real human artists inspires new ideas. Using real art as inspiration shows respect to artists old and new. Publishers should never ask an artist to mimic the style of another artist. But if they share some real art and say "this art really captures what I'm looking for...can you help me achieve this in your way?", that's gold! This old school approach is still inexpensive and far more effective. It's the approach I use to inspire real ideas with my own personal projects.
Thanks for following along for this deep dive into a very specific art topic 🙂 The use of AI is a fast moving thing and it's complicated. We won't understand the impact it has without talking about it and looking around corners. I hope sharing this will embolden artists and publishers alike to achieve the highest quality in their respective work.
Ultimately, the board game industry is made of, by and large, passionate board game fans, whether they're creators or consumers. Making games is a labor of love. The artists in this industry stay because they are fans too and love the community and the craft. Please support human artists by supporting publishers that purposely choose human art.