This week I’d like to explore a different topic, something that has been causing a big stir in nearly every sector of the internet: the explosion of increasingly powerful Artificial Intelligence tools that create words, pictures, sounds, music, voices and movies.
Machine learning or AI has been around for quite a while already. It helps our cars stay under control in bad weather, it helps ATMs read the handwriting on our checks, and helps rice cookers maintain the right consistency of our rice. But in the last year, the power and ease of use of many AI tools has exploded, and it has becomes this year’s corporate buzz-word. I don’t think AI art is better than what a human can make, but it is certainly faster and cheaper. Ready or not, I’m certain the effect AI will have on all of us will be impossible to measure. At the very least, we all know that if these tools can be used to cut costs, they absolutely will be used, whether it is for the good of consumers or not.
While this blog is still being written by a human, I thought I’d explore how it might affect Star Wars: The Old Republic in the months and years to come. Again, AI is already a part of graphics programs and functions as a powerful tool for writing code. It is almost certainly already being used in SWTOR in ways invisible to players.
So let’s think about how AI might change one of SWTOR’s most popular and defining features: its voice acting. I’ve often heard that the voice acting is the game’s largest single expense, and I believe it. Every time our characters speak a line, forty-eight different actors across two genders, three languages and 8 class stories have been hired to speak that line or variations of it. And that’s not including all the supporting characters and companions and villains and background characters. Let’s not forget the writers, translators, audio engineers and editors and every member of the team who also are instrumental in bringing these voices to life in the game.
Alien dialogue has been used as a short-cut throughout the lifetime of the game, but it’s become more obvious with companions unlocked by the Galactic Seasons rewards track. So far, each of the four companions introduced during the seasons talk using languages from SWTOR’s library of pre-recorded alien languages, and we find out to varying degrees of plausibility why those characters speak that way. Of course it’s cheaper and easier to use pre-recorded alien languages for these interactions. I can’t blame Bioware for saving the fully-voiced characters for major story beats.
However, I think it’s fair to say that players have an easier time connecting to characters when they understand the language they are hearing. In my own case, I tend to zone out after long interactions with aliens. Unlike a foreign movie with subtitles, there isn’t a performance of the dialogue that I can relate to even if I don’t understand the meaning of the words being spoken. For example, I can’t honestly say the secondary Manaan storylines made a strong impression on me. After a certain point, I just started skimming the subtitles and space-barring through the alien speech. But I engaged more with Ruhnuc’s secondary story because, while my characters’ side of the conversations were not voiced, at least Lane Vizla and Kur Ha’rangir were.
There is a fan-made add-on for World of Warcraft that uses AI to give full voice acting to the dialogue boxes with quest text in the Classic version of the game. Although there is narrative associated with all of WOW’s quests, the vast majority of the game’s player base has long simply ignored the boxed text that quest givers deliver in order to get on with the game. The add-on does an impressive job delivering WOW’s exposition. The performances created by this add-on are not perfect, and the range of voices is limited, but it’s been stunning to see what a single add-on developer has been able to accomplish.
What if this technology could be used to make our interactions with Fen Zeil, PH4-LNX and Amity in English (and French and German) as well? If there simply isn’t enough in the budget to hire voice actors for one-off companions, wouldn’t that be a better, more player friendly option?
Let’s not stop there! SWTOR already has a vast library of recordings that could be used to train an AI to deliver realistic performances of existing characters. This is how Darth’s Vader’s dialogue was generated for the Disney+ series Obi-Wan Kenobi now that James Earl Jones has retired from the role. Similarly there are members of SWTOR‘s cast that have passed away since the game’s release. I imagine AI could be used to help bring Tanno Vik and Xalek back to the game in meaningful ways.
Let’s keep going and get rid of those “KOTOR-style” interactions and have an AI replicate the voice of the main cast for every side quest and companion recruitment mission. And how great would it be to have more companion interactions as well? Don’t worry, they won’t need to hire Laura Bailey and Troy Baker, when they already have years of recordings to use as datasets for the AI, and we’ll get to hang out with Kira and Theron whenever we want!
Look, I know these think pieces all have to have a Terminator reference, but the danger of AI doesn’t come from killer robots from the future, but from the corporations that want to cut every corner and squeeze every little guy on the way to greater quarterly profits. I don’t know the legality of this. I don’t know what’s in the fine print of the contracts the SWTOR cast signed well over a decade ago. Would it shock me (or anyone) that some suit at EA would just love to remove voice actors from SWTOR’s budget? Of course not.
Legal or not, I would not feel good about playing a game in which a computer program simulated the voice of someone without the original actor’s consent.
Hey friends, I know AI technology is exciting, but if you see my voice or any of the characters that I voice offered on any of those sites, please know that I have not given my permission, and never will. This is highly unethical. We all appreciate your support. Thank you.
— Steve Blum (@blumspew) February 11, 2023
All I can say is this: even as the technology gets more impressive and the results so very nearly indistinguishable from the real thing, I am increasingly of the opinion that I’d rather see Luke Skywalker played by a person and not a special effect. Isn’t Star Wars better off with Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan and Donald Glover’s Lando despite the fact that they did not originate the roles?
More than a decade ago, I connected with my Consular in a way that made me love the character and love the game. It is in large part because of the performance Athena Karkanis delivered. It is in large part because of the writers and artists and developers, all the people at Bioware, who created the stories and brought SWTOR to life.
Artificial Intelligence tools are already powerful, but right now (and I suspect into the near term) still require knowledgeable and skilled human guidance to get the most out of them. Nonetheless I do believe that they will have a huge impact on how games, movies, music, books and shows will be made. Maybe one day soon we won’t be able to tell the difference between something created by a human and something generated by code, but Art at its core is about people communicating through time and media whether it is the outline of a hand traced on a cave wall tens of thousands of years ago or a video game about wizards and cowboys in space, and I think there needs to be people on both sides of that interaction for it to really be Art.