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Why We Commissioned an Artist Trained To Use AI for Escape Master...

Many people are still discovering the utility that AI can offer their business, but we discovered it early on. Let me tell you a bit about our game design journey and why we decided to commission an artist trained to use AI for Escape Master. While using AI presents several unique challenges, I am thankful for the window of opportunity it afforded a small game business like ours. To be honest, I didn’t even know AI art existed until I literally knocked on its door asking for it.

As a young dreamer and creative, I hoped to bring a new game into the world. I knew I couldn’t do it alone without the help of an artist. Recently married and trying to offer my family financial stability, I believed it was a mistake to sink all of our savings into a creative dream that screamed “high risk of failure” in my face. Initially a skeptic, but now my greatest supporter (and business partner), my wife constantly challenged me to spend less money. We had student loans to pay off. What if we wanted to have kids? Game design was just my hobby, after all. Therefore, I sought artists I had close connections with hoping to find some financially feasible option. I ended up reaching out to multiple artists and graphic designers but they either didn’t have time, were too expensive, or failed to communicate. I sent multiple emails with no reply. Feeling down after many attempts and watching more time elapse without any progress on the game art, I didn’t know where to turn. I simply decided to focus on refining and playtesting our hand made prototype more.

Some time later I ran across Tim’s portfolio on Facebook. I knew him from college and we had done a little judo together in the judo club. I was astounded by the imagery on his page. I reached out to him on a whim and to my surprise I got an immediate response! Tim is an artist with 10 years of professional art and design experience and 20 years of general art experience. He recently began using AI to stretch his skillset and expand his portfolio.

In our first exploratory meeting, I learned what AI art was all about. Images could be generated quickly using simple prompts and then edited and augmented to fit your needs by the artist’s skill. How was this possible? My mind was blown. We could create an awesome game in a matter of months! That turned out not to be the case, but I was stoked. The price point was manageable. The process of using an AI generator was novel and a little uncanny to me, but it seemed like a viable option. My wife and I could see some limitations with using AI, but we decided to take the plunge and experiment with it anyway. Tim was also going to bring another artist on board for the purpose of training him. I had a boatload of creative ideas buzzing in my brain and this powerful new tool seemed robust enough to back it up. However, what I thought would take a couple months quickly unfolded into a year! I learned that even with powerful tools like AI, a lot of experimentation, expertise, and grunt work is still involved in the process. 

I quickly discovered three main areas of weakness when it comes to working with AI tools. The best words I can think of to describe those weaknesses are cohesion, bias, and detail. Tim and his assistant would often spend hours simply trying to figure out how to prompt the AI to get an image that closely resembled what we wanted. It took even longer for them to be able to scale those designs in a way that fit the theme and backstory of the entire game. We had to get very creative in order to make the art cohesively fit together for over 100 unique designs. At first I wanted to have depictions of one character performing different actions on the cards for each suit, but that turned out to be nearly impossible. Therefore, we came up with the idea of having each suit constitute different “tribes.” This allowed us to generate characters with similar features that could still fit in the same suit despite looking slightly different from each other. We also ran into the issue of bias. The AI models we used often had a difficult time generating multi-ethnic characters or overly generated certain traits we didn’t want. Yet again, these obstacles had to be overcome by hard work and creativity. Lastly, changing small details in an image using AI proved to be extremely difficult. Based on how AI works, it is really easy to generate entirely new images, but it is very difficult to change small details within an image. For example, Tim was able to generate an awesome lumberjack image we wanted to use but the AI was having trouble producing the image with the character holding an ax exactly how we wanted, so Tim had to paint the ax in himself. We had to creatively overcome many such trials and frustrations. We scrapped design after design and started from scratch many times. However, we persevered, and in the end, I believe we created something we are proud of.

Despite the weakness of AI, I believe there are also incredible benefits to using AI. The main benefits are the speed, quality, and affordability of AI. Because AI can generate raw images so quickly, it makes it very easy to experiment with completely different looks, backgrounds, and themes until you land on something you like. This allows you to pivot and experiment with new ideas quickly, which is both practical and exciting. The quality of AI generated images are also exceptional. Numerous people continue to compliment the art used in our game. It is important to note that all of the art in our game is not simply the raw output of AI but is heavily edited, photoshopped, and reformatted by the artists we commissioned. AI gave the artists a powerful starting point that allowed them to efficiently make a large quantity of original pieces in a relatively short period of time. We are not only indebted to the speed of AI but also to its affordability. I would not personally recommend using AI for every artistic endeavor, especially for a project requiring considerable nuance and detail. However, AI is an invaluable tool in the field of game design by making large quantities of high quality art more affordable. Games are a great arena to incorporate AI art because the value art brings to a game is often tied to the quantity and quality of its aesthetic and how the art improves the game experience. I would rather have a handmade painting by a famous artist hanging on my living room wall, but I am less concerned about the identity of an artist when it comes to simply enjoying a fun game with my family.

In conclusion, it was time and chance that initially brought us to the doorstep of using AI art, but we ultimately chose to commission an artist trained to use AI because of the speed, quality, and affordability it offered. AI makes large quantities of high quality art more accessible than ever. As a result, small creators like us are empowered to craft new products for the public to enjoy that may not have existed otherwise. 

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