It’s possible the people who voice many of gaming’s colorful characters will go on strike, depending on how a SAG-AFTRA union vote goes down next month. As various performers have started voicing their support on Twitter, so have a couple of game developers, and not everyone’s 100% behind what’s going on.
Here’s what performers represented by SAG-AFTRA are looking for, per Luke’s article from yesterday:
“They want it enshrined in contacts that there’s better protection and pay for when a role requires physically demanding voice work (such as repeated loud screams), clearer definition between the roles of voice actors and motion-capture actors (the former is often expected to do the latter unexpectedly) and performance bonuses should a game sell over 2 million copies.”
Meanwhile, actor Wil Wheaton recently wrote about how the dispute between actors and game publishers is only partially about money, and tried to push back on the notion that he’s trying to take cash away from folks in development.
“I can’t speak to the fairness or unfairness of residuals or lack of residuals for programmers, artists, composers, and others who game developers and publishers, because that’s not my job, and I don’t know what, precisely, their contracts are. I certainly don’t believe that there is some sort of feud or lack of shared interest between us (the actors) and them, and I fully support all the people who work on games — especially the huge blockbuster games that pull in profits that are in line with the biggest blockbuster movies — getting the very best contract, with the best compensation and best working conditions that they possibly can.
I love the work that I do. I’m grateful for the work that I have, and I’ve been lucky to work with some incredibly talented people on both sides of the recording studio glass. This isn’t about making enemies of the other creative people in the business, be they directors, studio engineers, artists, programmers, sound designers, writers, etc. This is about a handful of extremely wealthy, extremely powerful people trying to take away our ability to make a living, to take care of our voices, and to be safe on the set.”
The tension in Wheaton’s first paragraph is what struck a nerve with a few game developers, including Ubisoft Montreal creative director Alex Hutchinson, who recently worked on Far Cry 4.
#PerformanceMatters is the hashtag performers have been using to generate support for their upcoming vote among fellow voice actors and game players.
Some developers qualify for bonuses after the game ships, either for getting certain scores on Metacritic or hitting sales targets, but it’s not universal. Gearbox Software is one of the few developers who actively brags about offering profit sharing to employees, claiming its paid out $40 million since 2010.
In SAG-AFTRA’s FAQ about the vote, here’s what they cited as evidence for why performers should qualify for bonuses and other payouts after release:
“The top games make money. This industry has grown, boomed and morphed into something bigger and lucrative than any other segment of the entertainment industry, and it continues to do so. The truth is, back end bonuses are not uncommon in the video game industry. Last year, Activision’s COO took home a bonus of $3,970,862. EA paid their executive chairman a bonus of $1.5 million. We applaud their success, and we believe our talent and contributions are worth a bonus payment, too.”
Most developers are not COOs or executive chairmans, however, as pointed out by Arkane Studios level designer Shawn Elliott, formerly of Irrational Games.
When Grand Theft Auto IV was released in 2008, voice actor Michael Hollick spoke with The New York Times about how little he received for voicing Nico Bellic, despite the game going on to sell millions and millions of copies.
“Obviously I’m incredibly thankful to Rockstar for the opportunity to be in this game when I was just a nobody, an unknown quantity,” Mr. Hollick, 35, said last week over dinner in Willamsburg, Brooklyn, shortly after performing in the aerial theater show “Fuerzabruta” in Union Square. “But it’s tough, when you see Grand Theft Auto IV out there as the biggest thing going right now, when they’re making hundreds of millions of dollars, and we don’t see any of it. I don’t blame Rockstar. I blame our union for not having the agreements in place to protect the creative people who drive the sales of these games. Yes, the technology is important, but it’s the human performances within them that people really connect to, and I hope actors will get more respect for the work they do within those technologies.”
Hollick was paid $100,000 for roughly 15 months of work. According to Take-Two, GTA IV made more than $600 million for the company in just three weeks.
This is not the first time the industry has butted head with performers. When Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo worked at MTV, he reported on a similar standoff from 2005, in which a strike was narrowly avoided by a new agreement that increased minimum pay for sessions, mandatory rest periods, and more advanced warnings about what the actor would be recording that day.
The actors were not able to extract residuals from game publishers in 2005, and if it doesn’t happen this time, we may already know the reason why, per an LA Times report during negotiations:
“Game publishers argue that their current offer is generous. They resist sharing their profits, contending that voice actors play a small part in the development of a video game and aren’t the reason consumers buy them.
Attorney Howard Fabrick, who heads a negotiating committee representing eight game publishers, said that granting residuals would open the door to requests from scores of others in the game development chain.
“That would set a precedent for hundreds of other people who created a game to say, ‘What about us?’” Fabrick said.”
The industry is worried it would open the floodgates. A crucial difference between voice talent and developers, however, is that one is unionized. It would be incredibly difficult for developers to find a way to take a collective stand.
There are plenty of reasons developers should unionize, of course, which Kotaku has demonstrated in stories many times over the years, but it hasn’t happened.
As for what happens with gaming’s voice actors, we’ll have to wait and see.