It was just recently when several key figures at Xbox spoke of their intent to explore what AI can contribute to the Quality Assurance process of game development. That upset some people due to the impact it could have on jobs for those currently employed in QA positions within the industry. Cast your mind forward a week and more AI talk has emerged with now voice acting jobs seemingly being in the firing line with developers both big and small commenting on how they’re using AI to take on some of the work.
The vocal development studios in the spotlight have been Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, and Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II and Xbox acquired studio, Ninja Theory, and Neon Giant, the independent developer responsible for 2021’s The Ascent, while others have spoken but their identities remain under NDA. A new report from Good Luck Have Fun reporter Kirk McKeand, for News.com.au, has revealed that both companies have been using a technology known as Altered AI which boasts the work of 20 professional voice actors, forming a library of vocal performances for developers to utilise.
Altered CEO Ioannis Agiomyrgiannakis drew comparisons to how YouTube revolutionised the video scene but also argued that the technology is being used for prototyping purposes. Agiomyrgiannakis said
When you have a dialogue, you have a level of imagination. But when you take the dialogue to the voice actors, it comes back and doesn’t sound as dynamic as you wanted it to, we provide an intermediate step where they can prototype the dialogue and have a checkpoint before they hit the studio
High-profile voice actors, Ashley Burch (Horizon: Forbidden West, Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands) and Yuri Lowenthal (Marvel’s Spider-Man, and the upcoming Fire Emblem: Engage) have been staunchly opposed to the inclusion of AI technology in the space, and counter the prevailing theory that AI voices are beneficial to indie developers, and will also work best when paired with human voice actors. Lowenthal spoke of his observations of how the technology is currently being used and the unintended consequences for actors who’ve agreed (perhaps without realising) to take part.
I can understand wanting to make things cheaper and easier for people when they may not have the budget, but actors have always worked with companies to find fair practices. Underestimating the actor’s contribution can lead to exploitation, and could be avoided by starting a conversation with actors so we can make it work for everyone. As of now, I don’t think anyone from these AI companies has reached out to us as a whole, to see if we can agree on what might be fair use and fair compensation for the use of our voices, our performances.
There is no morally sound financial shortcut here. I’ve, of late, started to catch very vague clauses in actors’ contracts that allow companies to use our performances for whatever they want in perpetuity, and maybe already have done so in order to develop this technology. In fact, I know an actor who does a lot of performance capture and voice work and she has seen her very specific movement show up in games she never even worked on, which means her data sets were either repurposed for other projects she never signed off on or, even worse, sold to other companies without her knowledge. This is a scary precedent that has already been set, and I want to start a conversation with AI companies about how we could protect actors, and again, the ecosystem of storytelling.
Burch echoed the sentiment
I completely understand the desire for affordable VO for indie developers. What I think a lot of people don’t know is that SAG-AFTRA (the American actors’ union) has a low-budget agreement to address this issue. It’s specifically designed so indie developers can get access to quality VO without breaking the bank.
Artistically, you’re never going to get a truly dynamic and compelling performance from an AI. A few combat barks? Maybe. But if you’re looking for something human and nuanced and alive, AI isn’t going to cut it. Low-budget or smaller titles are where a lot of new VO folks get their start. If devs transition to AI, an entire entry point for young artists is being squeezed out.
Finally, SAG-AFTRA themselves issued a statement outlining how they intend to adapt their contracts to prevent actors’ work from being exploited
These new technologies offer exciting new opportunities but can also pose potential threats to performers’ livelihoods. It is crucial that performers control exploitation of their digital self, be properly compensated for its use, and be able to provide informed consent.
We know that change is coming. SAG-AFTRA is committed to keeping our members safe from unauthorized or improper use of their voice, image or performance, regardless of the technology employed. The best way for a performer to venture into this new world is armed with a union contract.