Hi everyone, it’s Joan here again for a labor in games roundup for February. I had to remind myself it was only February this week with how much seems to have been crammed into January. Between Activision-Blizzard layoffs from Microsoft and the big push some companies are doing for more “artificial intelligence” in games, we’re off to a great start to 2024, clearly.

As other GYGOs have mentioned, a quick reminder to support Palestine and Palestinian people however you can during this ongoing crisis. The team over at People Make Games, one of the only large voices in the games industry openly supporting Palestine, has a great video outlining why we can’t afford to be silent. If you’re in the United States, the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights has a great toolkit to help get you involved if you’re not sure where to start.

Over 6,100 Games Industry Layoffs in the Past Month

I am unfortunately obligated to inform you that, in an effort to one-up the 10,000+ gavmes industry layoffs layoffs in 2023, the first month of 2024 has already seen over 6,100 layoffs across the entire industry, as compiled by Kotaku. Standouts include Unity continuing to shed numbers, letting 25% of their staff go; Riot Games cutting 530 jobs while their CEO Dylan Jadeja holds himself accountable (not accountable enough to prevent this though); and 61 people losing jobs at Sega of America in the aftermath of ongoing unionization efforts at the company.

The biggest stand out on this list, though, as you might have already guessed, is Microsoft, with the combined announcement of 1,900 layoffs, the departure of Blizzard CEO Mike Ybarra, and the cancellation of Blizzard’s unnamed survival game… which had been in development for six years. A message from Microsoft Gaming CEO Phil Spencer confirms these layoffs as 8% of Microsoft’s total workforce, which had been approximately 22,000 people across all divisions. Thanks to an alert from WhatLayoffs, we have confirmation that 899 of those layoffs are Activision-Blizzard employees.

Before Microsoft officially acquired Activision-Blizzard, I wrote about how these huge companies merging was only going to be bad for developers and players across the board. Microsoft, however, claimed that their deal would create more opportunities for developers after the acquisition was (temporarily) blocked at the end of 2022! Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has gone out of his way to suggest that there will be a “culture change” following the acquisition of Activision-Blizzard, and while that might be true, I doubt the almost 900 employees about to be laid off consisted of toxic management.

Companies Really Want to Push AI in Games and the Results Are… Yeah

Big names in the games industry are coming out swinging for AI in video games, even if a lot of those swings are misses. At CES 2024, NVIDIA revealed their ACE service, which creates video game NPCs via generative AI. I don’t have to tell you that the generated voiceover and models are rough to look at, but what’s even more disturbing is the use of this tech to put developers and actors out of work, with Ubisoft and Tencent already pledging to use these generative tools. NVIDIA also had a roundabout answer when it came to confirming whether the datasets they’re using are stolen, with two whole days between the answer of “no simple answer” and the data being “commercially safe”.

Even stranger still was the AI hologram of Mario by company Proto Hologram, sponsored by AARP, telling people to buy products at Target?

By far the biggest controversy, however, came from the news that the Screen Actors Guild has entered into a deal with generative AI voice company Replica Studios at CES. The proposed “safeguards” require performer consent for actors voices being used for AI-generated voiceovers and puts limits on the number of times an AI voiceover can be used before further payment is required. The contract notably does not include any provisions against the use of large language models, or generative AI, the technology we just saw a few lines ago threatening to take away voice actors’ jobs!

You might remember that in September 2023, SAG-AFTRA called on its video game performer members (voice actors, motion capture and stunts, and other performances) to vote on a strike authorization against 11 video game companies if a deal wasn’t reached in negotiations. With one of the primary issues here being protections against AI (similar to their counterparts in TV, film and streaming), this recent development of the union bargaining with a generative AI company is rightfully causing a lot of confusion.

After a statement from SAG-AFTRA chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland claiming that the deal has unanimous support from members, voice actors very quickly fired back in response to voice their opposition.

The news comes as a shock to anyone, myself included, who assumed that SAG-AFTRA was fighting against the exploitation of their members at the hands of AI companies instead of making deals to sell off “the rights to the estate of deceased voice talent.” With negotiations still ongoing with video game studios themselves, it’s hard to say what a future contract will look like with fractured voices amongst SAG-AFTRA’s members.

In other news…

The one good part of the Microsoft/Activision merger was the departure of former Activision-Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick, which has developers chiming in about the “worst man in video games” and how his businesses practices actively “made our games worse.” Once again, goodbye and good riddance, Bobby!

In a video interview with Kotaku, actors Devora Wilde and Jennifer Summer, the voices of Lae’zel and Shadowheart from Baldur’s Gate 3 respectively have gone on record praising the intimacy coordinators working at Larian Studios. Jennifer in particular, stated “I feel quite passionate about it, actually, I think it should be the industry standard for everyone involved.”

And finally, on a positive note, over 80 IGN workers have recently announced a unionization effort under the banner of IGN Creators Guild with NewsGuild-CWA. With over 85% of eligible employees reported to have signed union authorization cards, it’s very nice to see this effort happening on the games journalism side!

I’m not holding my breath that the rest of 2024 is going to be that much better in the jobs department for the games industry, but fingers crossed we have some more positive stories next month? Please?