Voice Actors Win Battle, But Face War on Voice Cloning in Gaming

Controversy Over AI Voice Cloning in Gaming - August 2023

Hi-Rez Studios must have figured it would be easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission. 

When details of the game developer’s new contract went public, the company faced an uproar on social media from fans and voice actors alike — specifically, the clause allowing Hi-Rez to simulate actors’ voices in case of death or incapacitation.

“We’ll never say never in terms of use of AI, in part because ‘AI’ is much too broad an umbrella that captures a massive range of potential use cases, and in part because I can’t predict the future for AI in 3 months much less 30 years,” President Stewart Chisam tweeted in August 2023 after revealing an updated rider (i.e. an addition to their vendor contract).

Against the backdrop of an ongoing strike by Hollywood actors and writers — and little indication of when professionals will return to work — voice actors have chimed in with their own grievances. Among the growing concerns related to AI: voice cloning.

Commentators have spotlighted reasons for the general public to worry; namely, criminals using voice cloning to impersonate someone else to carry out identity theft or ransom schemes

Infinite Reusability

Much like striking Hollywood performers, voice actors have called out the threat of AI — and the infinite “reusability” of an actor’s voice or likeness — to their livelihoods. The stakes are high for both groups of professionals.

There have already been allegations that AI voice clones of (living) voice actors have been misused, albeit not by game developers. One voice actor, Erica Lindbeck, was reportedly harassed off social media for speaking out against voice cloning.

Naturally, it follows that if the actors voicing original in-language media have concerns, those also apply to the talent providing dubs for movies, series, and the ever-expanding gaming market (per the Slator Game Localization Report, the language industry’s fastest-growing vertical).

A 2022 Google survey of 14,000 gamers found that those in Southeast Asia and in Brazil are more likely than gamers elsewhere to consider localization very important when choosing a game. Europe is similarly interested in boosting its gaming industry in a growing global market, with the EU committing to invest approximately EUR 58m in 2022 for just that purpose.

Behind the Scenes

The demand is there, the tech is catching up, and everyone wants a piece of the pie. In some ways, the pillars of Silicon Valley are at an advantage, considering the massive resources behind their research and initiatives. 

Google, for instance, announced at its annual Google for Games Developer Summit in March 2023 a new service for Android apps: free machine translation into seven languages. Significantly, the effort is not only game-specific, but also aimed at mobile players, who represent a fast-growing segment of the gaming market. 

Just a few months later, at Google I/O ‘23, the company introduced its Universal Translator, designed to translate a speaker’s voice while matching their lip movements. At the right price, this “experimental” service would qualify as the holy grail for some players, potentially eliminating human voice actors’ involvement in the dubbing process. 

Not to be left out, Microsoft released its open-source VALLE-X, including a voice cloning model, in September 2023. 

Disney has made headlines as one of the first major entertainment studios to test out synthetic voice technology, notably for help with Darth Vader and a younger Luke Skywalker in Star Wars-related series. Disney also experimented with “reanimating” the voice of late actor Robin Williams for a voice assistant in 2022 —precisely the scenario voice actors currently reject.

Behind the scenes of Disney’s projects is voice cloning startup Respeecher. And demand is such that now may mark the beginning of a heyday for a whole crop of businesses specializing in speech synthesis. 

Buzzy AI voice platform ElevenLabs released Eleven Multilingual v2, a model supporting 30 languages, in August 2023. 

In a sign of growing acceptance by clients, Papercup, a London-based AI dubbing startup, won a two-year translation and dubbing contract with Bloomberg Media, in November 2022. 

Putting a Name to a Voice

Amir Jirbandey, Papercup’s Head of Growth, told Slator that the company’s human-in-the-loop processes helped Papercup raise USD 20m in an oversubscribed Series A in May 2022. Could this quell voice actors’ fears?

“I hope to buy a licensed version of the voices of celebrities or professional voice actors from you someday,” one fan told ElevenLabs on Twitter/X. Since voice actors have raised the alarm over their talents being used without their consent, they might be more amenable to a licensing agreement allowing game development studios to use their voices with permission — preferably with compensation baked in.

Farbod Mansorian, CEO of dubbing-for-YouTubers company Unilingo, described the work conditions some voice actors face.

“The talent pool is small. Why? Because the existing talent pool is leaving the industry. They’re generally not happy,” Mansorian told Slator, citing lack of credit and low compensation as sticking points. 

While voice actors in the gaming industry might enjoy more recognition among their notoriously loyal fans, they undoubtedly have the same goals as their colleagues working in film and TV. 

Rather than threatening their survival in the age of AI, the winner in this sphere, at least in the court of popular opinion, might be a new style of voice work that incorporates both voice synthesis and voice actors — the source of the data supporting the tech to begin with.