Popular board game doubles down on using AI art - here's why people are upset

 The box for Terraforming Mars: Automa.
The box for Terraforming Mars: Automa.

The team behind expansions for the hugely popular Terraforming Mars board game has announced that AI art is being used on the project, and this revelation is ruffling the feathers of both fans and industry competitors alike. But what's with all the fuss?

To get you up to speed on a discussion that's becoming increasingly prevalent in the board game and tabletop RPG space (as an example, Wizards of the Coast says it was unaware of AI art in its new D&D book), I've broken down the basics of the Terraforming Mars controversy below.

What is the Terraforming Mars controversy?

As you may already know, Terraforming Mars is one of the more popular board games for adults - it's sold absurdly well and is so influential that it was recently optioned for movies and TV. As such, it stands to reason that the latest wave of expansions on Kickstarter would be popular. Actually, 'popular' is an understatement. The campaign is currently sitting at more than $1,524,844, which is many times its target of $10K.

However, thanks to Kickstarter's new policy stating that use of AI art in a project must be declared, publisher Stronghold Games announced that it has and will "continue to leverage AI-generated content in the development and delivery of this project." More specifically, MidJourney, Fotor, and the Adobe Suite have been utilized here. That's resulted in an outcry from some fans due to the polarizing nature of AI and the impact of its use on artists (something we'll dig into below).

Why are people upset about AI art in Terraforming Mars?

The effectiveness and quality of AI art has skyrocketed over the past year or so; it's now easy to generate free pieces of artwork using just a few keywords. However, concerns have been raised just as quickly. For starters, many are worried that companies will see an opportunity to cut costs and bypass actual artists in favor of low-effort, AI-made alternatives. (Basically, it's about professionals losing their livelihoods.) What's more, AI art works by trawling through and using a database of existing artwork to create its own illustrations. Because the original artists aren't credited or compensated, there's an argument that their illustrations are being stolen and/or Frankenstiened into something new without their consent.

That's the crux of this current issue surrounding Terraforming Mars. Players and companies like Coyote and Crow have raised the concerns listed above, along with an observation that AI art is still being used despite the project being so wildly successful (the implication is that the developers have enough money to pay actual people for illustrations or designs rather than using AI).

I don’t think this is going to go back in the bag. It’s too powerful a technology

Still, the issue isn't entirely one-sided. Polygon ran an extensive Q&A with the president of Stronghold Games' partner, Indie Game Studios, and they suggest that there are benefits as well as pitfalls for the technology. Namely, they state that AI art can speed up development so fans get their hands on a project sooner. In addition, they think that it'll allow small companies to "go into spaces that weren’t profitable" before now.

They're also of the mind that we can't put this genie back in the bottle despite the negative impact it can have on illustrators - it's "too powerful a technology." It sounds as if they want to use AI 'responsibly' as a result; after noting that compensation is "a real issue [that they would] love to see a solution for," they say that they'd "be eager to look at that and join up with that solution when it’s available."

Whether this is enough to assuage concerns will obviously be down to the individual, and it's likely to be a hot topic among the community for some time.

If any other developments arise, we'll keep you in the loop.

Want some recommendations for what you should play next? Check out the best board games, these essential board games for 2 players, and must-have cooperative board games.