There were howls of anguish all over social media with the announcement of a SAG-AFTRA agreed contract with Replica Studios, an artificial intelligence voice creator specializing in videogames. Betrayal front and center seemed to be the order of the day. Personally, I don’t believe it’s as dire as that.
I am not a certified expert on AI, although I have been on a VO AI few panels. Nor am I an expert on SAG contracts but as a layman with a vested interest and a 30-year career in business, both inside and outside of the VO industry, I do think it’s worth considering all sides of the situation.
To my thinking there are 5 sides to consider – The AI industry, The Union, The Actor, the Game Developer, and the Public.
By the public, I mean the general games playing public and the consumers of the games that could be affected. I suspect that most will not know if the game is made under a SAG contract or not. If the AI voice is being used only for development purposes, they probably won’t even hear those voices. If the technology makes the development process quicker and the next iteration of a favorite game is released faster as a result, they’ll likely be satisfied. They might not realize it is quicker or if they do, that developmental AI voices have contributed to that. The general news around AI impacting the artistic industries is largely negative, so there is a risk that the game-playing community of a particular game could rise up. Overall though, I suspect there will be little impact on the public viewpoint. Perhaps games need to have a rider that says parts of the game were made with AI voices, so gamers can decide if they want an all-human non-AI-voiced game or not.
The Game Developers
AI here will be about how efficient and simple the technology is to use and the overall cost rather than whether the work is done under a SAG contract or not, although many AAA games only use union actors. Change is always challenging, and many developers would rather do what they know rather than adopt an untried new technology. But if it helps them work more efficiently and saves time and money, then they will likely use it. If it gets them through Crunch to Shipped Game with less stress and a faster route to an income stream, it will make business sense to them to incorporate it into their workflow. Many games have already done so.
What we don't know is if the game developer studios that are SAG signatories will ONLY be able to use AI voice models that are subject to the SAG AI contract? Common sense might suggest the answer should be yes?
The Video Game Voice Actors
Perhaps the most difficult population to persuade, that embracing the AI new world can be done without compromising creative communities.
For us, AI is a reality that is not going away. It’s been here longer than we realize. It has been working for some developers, and some work that has been done in the past by human actors is already being taken by AI companies. Whether there is a SAG agreement or not, and whether we like it or not, the AI Voice modeling industry sees videogames as a place it can sell its wares.
Like many, I strongly believe that a machine, even a well-programmed one, cannot perform the function of an actor as well as a human actor can. For now, it cannot be directed or change its performance on the whim of a director, it cannot improv a scene, or add unscripted human emotion to a sentence. But it can provide procedural audio, simple instructions, and flat dialogue. If you have been in a session with 2000 short lines of NPC work, you know it can be physically demanding and mentally tiring. (Controversial statement alert) If an AI model of my voice can ethically and contractually do that work for me, providing passive income, as a business, I would at least consider it. There will be opportunities for actors to earn money in places where they do not currently. There will be new use cases for voices that did not previously exist and there may be the option for your AI voice to be used as a placeholder and eventually for you to be hired to provide the final performance. The biggest issue is whether the contract does the job of protecting the actors’ short-term and long-term interests. Only time will ultimately tell that story.
SAG has not signed an updated video game contract since 2017. Negotiations are ongoing and a vote to allow a strike was called and ratified. One consequence of the new AI agreement with Replica could be to help move those negotiations along.
Specifically for AI modeling and union actors there is now, at least, a contract, a bit more assurance. The union must have been caught in a difficult place. If they did nothing, then actors would be demanding for them to do something and the AI industry might be pitching unfair opportunities to actors, many of whom might be willing to take the money now and hang future risks. Much like the famous Dutch tale of the boy who stuck his finger in the dam to save the village. He had to do something, and he didn’t have time to consider all the options, so he took what action he could.
By doing something, SAG is signaling to the AI industry, that to conduct work with a professional actor, there are terms in a contract, that they will have to agree to. I feel that is a positive step forward. I think it will force other AI providers to the table and start the long process of creating a regulated and contracted part of the voiceover business. It also provides a framework that non-union actors can refer to if they want to safely create an AI voice model.
Replica won the prize of having the first AI video game SAG contract. No doubt they will be touting their wares as quickly as they can, to both actors and developers. Their message... We are the good guys in the wild, wild AI West.
I suspect there will be a mad scramble between their competitors to meet with SAG and sign the agreement. And as an actor, going forward, I think I’ll only consider working with an AI provider if they have that contract behind them. The alternative is to put my trust in an unregulated environment where the AI company can construct its own contract with their own objectives.
AI voice modeling will undoubtedly create new opportunities while inevitably replacing existing ones. The pendulum will swing back and forth. So consciously, carefully, and contractually embracing the entertaining AI face swap applications out there, alongside the voiceover ones may be the only sensible way forward.
SAG seems to be leading the way. No doubt, we all need to be cautious in the world of AI. But maybe in this case it is better to embrace your perceived enemy and try to find a way to work together.