Video game voice-over casting used to be easy. It started in 1983, when game developer Cinematronics released a new kind of arcade game. Dragon’s Lair was a first in many respects: the first to take advantage of the storage capacity of optical media; the first to use cinema-quality video; the first to cost not one but two quarters per gameplay.
It was also the first major video game to use voice recordings on the soundtrack. Film editor Dan Molina provided yelps and cries for protagonist Dirk the Daring, while an animator named Vera Lanpher gave Princess Daphne her signature squeak.
But as the gaming industry progressed, so did the demand for artistry and subtlety in voice performances. When Leonard Nimoy narrated 1999’s charmingly bizarre virtual pet game, Seaman, video games started to attract attention from established film actors. Today, movie stars from Keanu Reeves to Samuel L. Jackson have lent their talents to the interactive narrative arts. This Hollywood pedigree illustrates what gamers already know: Storytelling in video games can be equal to that of cinema, theater, and television.
No wonder it requires a similarly rigorous casting process. As a game developer, it’s not always easy to find experienced video game voice-over actors for hire, let alone recognize the perfect performer for your role at first glance. Here are five tips that’ll help choose an incredible cast for your next game—along with a detailed discussion of the newest entries into the video game voice-over industry: text to speech (TTS) and artificial intelligence (AI).
5 Tips for Video Game Voice-Over Casting Directors
1. Look for voice actors who use a lot of movement in the recording booth.
Given the decentralized nature of today’s video game work, this may be something you have to actually ask about, since you might not get to watch your voice-over actors record—but despite its audio-only presentation, actors who use their bodies in the recording booth are more likely to create compelling characters.
Philip Galinsky is a voice-over artist, actor, and acting coach with credits on games like Grand Theft Auto Five. He teaches voice-over acting for games, commercials, animation, and more through his online studio—and he insists on the importance of physical motion during a performance, whether the audience sees you in action or not.
“In my practice and teaching, it’s a very physical process,” Galinsky says. “As a voice actor, you have to embody the character. You have to make analogies, like ‘Is he snakey?’ so that you have a very unique quality to that character.”
2. Choose actors with improv experience and let them experiment with the script.
Don’t feel that you have to stick to the script religiously. When you allow actors to riff a little—to vary up the timing, feel, and even dialog as they play off each other, virtually or not—you may end up with creative gold that pushes your story and the characterization along better than a script alone ever could. That’s why it helps to work with actors who have a background in improv. “Take some improv classes,” Galinsky tells his students. “Casting directors will want you to riff off the script.”
3. Advertise recording schedules that protect your actors’ vocal limits.
When actors perform, they place some level of strain on their vocal cords. That can actually change the quality of the actor’s voice from the start of the session to the end, which isn’t good for performance consistency—and can even cause costly delays if your cast needs a few days off for vocal rest. Let your pool of potential actors know that you’ll schedule sessions to respect their limits; they’ll appreciate it, and you could attract more accomplished applicants.
During his sessions for Grand Theft Auto Five, for instance, Galinsky recorded for 45 minutes, took a half-hour break, and repeated the schedule until the script was complete. Other scripts and other actors will have different needs. It’s way more efficient to protect the actor’s voice with frequent breaks than it is to blow out a voice and have to start again from scratch a week later.
4. Make access to Source Connect (or your team’s real-time HD audio collaboration software) a prerequisite for auditioning.
Given that so much video game voice-over work is done remotely these days, it’s essential that your actors have the technology they’ll need to collaborate effectively. That starts with a state-of-the-art home studio—but just as important, they’ll need the remote recording software that allows them to perform with other actors, from a distance and in real time. Source Connect is the industry standard for remote audio collaboration. In this age of remote work, your cast probably needs it if they’re going to appear in scenes together.
“The engineer could be in Seattle. The producer could be in Chicago. I’m in New York and another actor’s in L.A.,” Galinsky says. “It doesn’t help if you don’t have Source Connect.”
5. Pay attention to when actors submit their audition recordings.
Game development schedules are infamous for their delays; don’t let the audio department be the culprit. A voice actor who returns audition recordings promptly will probably make, or even beat, all your deadlines. This mindset will help to keep you ahead of schedule, and promptness is good for the actors, too.
“The earlier you send a recording to the producer, the better chance you have to book the job,” Galinsky says. “Or, if you already booked the job, the earlier you send them your stuff, the sooner they can say, ‘This is perfect!’ or ‘You’ve got to redo it.’”
Of course, if your goal is to save time, you might wonder if you can just replace voice actors with synthetic speech. After all, AI-powered text to speech (TTS) is getting pretty good these days, right? It is. But you still need voice actors. Here’s why.
The Surprising Role of Text to Speech (TTS) in Video Games
As a leading provider of neural TTS—realistic synthetic speech developed with advanced AI models—ReadSpeaker AI works with video game developers frequently. Sometimes they ask us if they should use TTS to provide dialogue for their video game characters. The short answer is: Not yet, and maybe not for some time. A longer answer is that it depends. Does the character require emotion, empathy, or different speaking styles? Then TTS isn’t ready yet. For animated, one-dimensional characters, TTS may be a great fit—and it’s a must for dynamically generated AI dialogue, which we’ll discuss in detail below.
Realistic as they may be, TTS voices can’t match the artistry of a human voice actor. Players will know the difference, and TTS just isn’t convincing for most character voices. But that doesn’t mean TTS is useless to video game developers. In fact, it’s rapidly becoming an essential tool. While trained actors remain the gold standard for character performance in video games, lifelike synthetic voices from ReadSpeaker enhance game development in at least three powerful ways:
1. Text to speech provides crucial accessibility features for video games.
Video games should be accessible for all players. Not only is accessibility a simple question of ethics, it also expands audiences considerably—and it remains a winning marketing story that can attract lots of earned media. For example, take this headline from MSN.com, which followed the release of The Last of Us Part 2, a game that uses ReadSpeaker TTS for its UI narration:
Text to speech is the quickest, most effective way to introduce UI narration into your game, expanding your audience to include players with vision impairments and other disabilities.
2. ReadSpeaker AI’s TTS game engine plug-ins allow developers to prototype scenes with instant, runtime synthetic dialogue.
ReadSpeaker AI offers game engine plug-ins that allow developers to simply type dialogue and generate synthetic speech in runtime. That allows them to test out scenes, timing, and lines from their own development workstation, without managing audio files or recording a single word. Once the scene is tweaked to perfection, you can start the video game voice-over casting process with a better idea of the qualities you’re looking for in a voice actor.
3. Neural TTS provides dynamic audio for AI-powered NPCs.
Advances in natural language processing—both speech recognition and generation—are leading to a new generation of AI NPC characters for open-world games. These characters are essentially voicebots that run on the game engine. They recognize the player’s unique inputs, either text or speech, and create relevant, in-character responses in real time. With ReadSpeaker AI’s runtime, dynamic TTS solutions, these AI NPCs can engage in true conversation with players—something that simply isn’t possible with pre-recorded dialogue.
So while neural TTS from ReadSpeaker AI provides quick, easy speech for games, producers still need to optimize their video game voice-over casting processes to bring their interactive stories to life. The tips listed above can help. To learn more about ReadSpeaker AI’s TTS game engine plug-ins, or other uses of TTS in game development, contact us today.