Video Game Voice Actors May Go On Strike

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Video Game Voice Actors May Go On Strike

Voice actors may be going on strike to settle a contract dispute with video game publishers.

Video games might be briefly returning to the glory days of silent protagonists, if the contract dispute between SAG-AFTRA and publishers comes to a head.

SAG-AFTRA is the union which represents voice actors in games. Since the last voice-over contract ended in 2014, there's been discussion over what is going to change in the next version.

Chief among the union's issues is that of royalties for its actors. As it stands now, performers stand to earn no bonuses regardless of how successful a blockbuster may go on to be. Under their new proposal, actors would stand to earn a bonus after two million sales/downloads/online subscriptions, and for every two million thereafter up to eight million. According to the union, this would protect indie developers, while allowing actors a small piece of a big game's financial success.

According to SAG-AFTRA's FAQ: "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."

Check out our interview with the awesome Laura Bailey for some insight into the career of a voice actor.

Also up for debate is whether performers would receive stunt pay for performances which are vocally stressful. Employers want to keep the right to fine actors who show up late or are otherwise inattentive to the job, and to find agents who don't send their clients out to smaller auditions, such as for ambient voices. SAG-AFTRA would like to keep publishers and developer from hiring their own employees to do voice work without having those people join the union.

A large number of prominent video game performers have already voiced their support for the strike, including Mass Effect's Jennifer Hale, Borderlands' Ashly Burch, Metal Gear Solid's (and Futurama's) Phil LaMarr, and Wil Wheaton, currently providing voice for Firefly Online. They and others have been using Twitter to spread the word, using the hashtags #PerformanceMatters and #iAmOnBoard2015.

Gordon Freeman declined to comment, despite us reaching out to him three times.

So I'll put this out to Escapist readers: are you guys on board with the strike? Think this will be good for the industry - or lead to an era of low-quality V-O work as publishers hire the non-unionised?

Source: Ars Technica, Game Informer

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I'm so torn on this. Its not like Video game voice acting is... good. and It would be nice to just have text boxes again.

Take the bonuses directly from the chairpeople!

Zacharious-khan:
I'm so torn on this. Its not like Video game voice acting is... good. and It would be nice to just have text boxes again.

Well that's kind of on the developers. If they don't want to pay actors, they're well within their right to do that.

Really if you pay someone to do a job, pay them a fair sum for the job.

I'd like to point out that every other person who puts work into a given video game is working for hire, and is indeed lucky to even still be working at the studio after the game ships. I've never understood why actors are always considered the only people who deserve royalties. Well, them and anyone they might have licensed music from, but that's because the music industry is a big powerful juggernaut that could probably buy the freaking presidency if they felt like it.

Imma say no. It's not just your VO work that makes a game successful, so if everyone on the project doesn't get a bonus then you don't get a bonus. But if we're going my your logic, should VO actors/union pay a fine when a game tanks? Reminds me of a thing that came up in the... NFL I think it was, several years ago. A player wanted paid more than his contract because he was playing well and winning games. The powers that be for the team responded that should they be able to pay him less than his contract when he was playing poorly, and of course his answer was no. On a side note, fuck upper management bonuses altogether.

erttheking:

Well that's kind of on the developers. If they don't want to pay actors, they're well within their right to do that.

Really if you pay someone to do a job, pay them a fair sum for the job.

I don't think that applies in performance arts

Zacharious-khan:

erttheking:

Well that's kind of on the developers. If they don't want to pay actors, they're well within their right to do that.

Really if you pay someone to do a job, pay them a fair sum for the job.

I don't think that applies in performance arts

Voice acting more so in fact, since outside of big name actors being hired simply for name recognition voice acting doesn't pay particularly well compared to its live action counterparts. Even in Japan, where it's a bigger deal then here, it holds true. Voice acting doesn't pay much and those who do it have day jobs.

I get what people are saying about no one receiving bonuses for their part of the process and actors being the only ones taking actions for their bonuses, but this is a union of actors organized strike. It is their job to fight for the perceived rights of their clients, even when no one else seems interested in fighting for theirs.

One would argue that bonuses should not be granted to anyone, regardless of the success of their work under the basis that they were hired to their work but, then again, companies loose the right to that higher ground when they approved bonuses for their upper management.

All right voice actors I'm really happy for you and Imma let you finish.
But how about... And I know that this is a crazy idea.
How about instead of you getting a bonus for your mediocre performance.
AND instead of the CEO getting a bonus for being evil and not understanding the medium.
How about the developers get the bonus. You know the guys that actually make the game. The guys that work horrible crunch time hours and only get the finger when the game is only a 84 on metacritic.
How about first we give them money for making something that sells like (insert metaphor here).

VO is probably the least stressful and underpaid part of the gaming industry, mostly because they are classified as "actors". It seems like simple greed to me - they saw that the gaming industry is growing and making more money, and they want a piece of the pie.
That being said, they're not entirely incorrect: they should get their due part, which might be more than they're getting now - but they shouldn't get royalties as the visionaries or as a crucial part of the product's success. That should go to the gameplay programmers, designers, writers - they are all crucial, and games have succeeded and fallen due to their contribution. As it stands, giving a fat bonus to the CEO and laying off a large part of the dev team after a project's release is absolutely abysmal.

The idea for a bonus for games that sell over two million copies sounds reasonable, although given how obscured sales numbers often seem to be, getting accurate numbers out of the publishers might be a bit like pulling teeth.

The rest of it... Stunt pay for "vocally stressful" performances? Preventing companies from using non-union employees? I'm sorry, that sounds like some serious over-reach. There's a long history of using whoever was handy to do voice performances in companies long before professional voice actors were even a consideration, and yes, many of those performances sucked... But at the same time, AAA games face enough cost overruns and logistical hurdles without having to find a union actor for every single Private Smith and Orc Spear-Carrier #3 who might say a line in a game. I'd much prefer if it were possible to encourage companies to find competent non-professional actors outside of the company (community theaters? local colleges?) than to mandate union membership.

And "vocally stressful"... Look, I had several weeks where I was reading Hagrid to my daughter every night before going in and reading Sandor Clegane to my wife. Yeah, your throat can get raspy after reading in a voice for hours at a time, and yes, if your voice is part of your professional "instrument", so to speak, that can be trying and every worrysome. But that's the job. Drink some tea with honey and lemon.

Dornedas:
All right voice actors I'm really happy for you and Imma let you finish.
But how about... And I know that this is a crazy idea.
How about instead of you getting a bonus for your mediocre performance.
AND instead of the CEO getting a bonus for being evil and not understanding the medium.
How about the developers get the bonus. You know the guys that actually make the game. The guys that work horrible crunch time hours and only get the finger when the game is only a 84 on metacritic.
How about first we give them money for making something that sells like (insert metaphor here).

<.< Why not both?

VO IS important to a lot of games. The actors (and devs) getting a bonus when the games do well sounds fair to me.
Game sells well = people who helped make it get paid more.
Game doesn't sell well (or at least not over 2 million)= = people who helped make the game don't get paid more.

I mean, if I read the thing right, they'd get a bonus every time the game sells 2 million. Surely a game selling over 2 million of itself can cover some bonuses.

It will overblow game budgets, that's what it will do, and also lead to damage to indie sector.

Zontar:

Zacharious-khan:

erttheking:

Well that's kind of on the developers. If they don't want to pay actors, they're well within their right to do that.

Really if you pay someone to do a job, pay them a fair sum for the job.

I don't think that applies in performance arts

Voice acting more so in fact, since outside of big name actors being hired simply for name recognition voice acting doesn't pay particularly well compared to its live action counterparts. Even in Japan, where it's a bigger deal then here, it holds true. Voice acting doesn't pay much and those who do it have day jobs.

That, and voice actors are infinitely replaceable. With live action they have to retire a character or in some cases drop a show entirely if an actor quits. However, since the voice actor only contributes their voice and nothing else by definition then as long as casting is even remotely competent and actually puts in a little bit of effort they can seamlessly replace any voice actor with someone that sounds virtually indistinguishable from the original. It turns out that when you have lots and lots and LOTS of people that are all auditioning to do the same exact job that job doesn't end up paying much. It's called economics voice actors, read up on it.

Almost nothing they asked for sounds unreasonable. The hazard pay thing might sound egregious to some people, but if so they've probably never met someone who's done that sort of work for a long time. Forcing your voice to go into really strange levels, or really loud levels, for extended periods of time can severely damage your vocal cords. As a VA, once your vocal cords are shot you have no more job.

Giving them some sort of benefit would mean that even if they are actively shortening the lifespan of their career they're at least getting fairly compensated for it.

Voice actors make shit pay from what I understand. If this supposed billion dollar industry isn't giving people their fair due, no matter what profession, it can rot for all I care.

Both sides have some terrible expectations.

We applaud their success, and we believe our talent and contributions are worth a bonus payment, too.

That is selfishness. Your actors were paid quite well for their services and are not entitled to more money if the game does well. The specific amount is written in your contract, and if you refuse that amount there are 10 other voice actors or actresses to take your place. If you want to play it that way, I think actors should be fined if the game performs poorly. You see? You are giving too much unnecessary credit to the actors. The game does not succeed because of their efforts just as it doesn't always fail because of them.

Also up for debate is whether performers would receive stunt pay for performances which are vocally stressful.

This should be expected. Any position that may cause physical harm to the employee that prevents them from doing similar work in the future should require more compensation to account for the risk. Studios should be doing this regardless, and not doing so shows a clear lack of regard for their talent and/or employees.

SAG-AFTRA would like to keep publishers and developer from hiring their own employees to do voice work without having those people join the union.

Once again this is pure selfishness. Some third party union should not be allowed to decide who companies are allowed to hire. That is borderline discrimination and is not legal in almost every state.

---

More often than not unions are a great thing, but this union is complete garbage and absolutely unnecessary. They are only attempting to grab money for the sake of grabbing money, not as a means of providing favorable working conditions for employees (which they already have).

Dornedas:
All right voice actors I'm really happy for you and Imma let you finish.
But how about... And I know that this is a crazy idea.
How about instead of you getting a bonus for your mediocre performance.
AND instead of the CEO getting a bonus for being evil and not understanding the medium.
How about the developers get the bonus. You know the guys that actually make the game. The guys that work horrible crunch time hours and only get the finger when the game is only a 84 on metacritic.
How about first we give them money for making something that sells like (insert metaphor here).

So much this. I feel like the VA's are leveraging star power, and not even stopping to consider the devs who do the real work aside from the token nod to the indies.

As an Indie dev, it's appreciated, but I feel the AAA devs are the ones who would feel the financial squeeze, not the execs.
And as their celeb status is still growing, they might just get what they want with the cost being burdened elsewhere.

I hate corporate bonuses as it is and I'd like to see them go away. Their existence attracts a lot of sociopaths to those positions.

Now, bonuses are for employees of the company. Actors aren't company employees. If they want a bonus they need to negotiate it. And I guess this is how they chose to do it. So you can't really argue from a standpoint of what actors deserve or don't deserve. You can't say that they're not entitled to something. That much is obvious. They're not entitled NOW. This is their attempt at changing that. They want to have that entitlement. It's pointless to argue from a standpoint of how things are done or how things have been done in the past. The entire point is to change that and they have the right to try.

And now the industry is suddenly seeing what happens when you want to push all these "cinematic" and "story-based" games, you get a bunch of people who feel like they're being screwed out of bigger pay checks. For instance, how many people can name Booker Dewitt and Joel from The Last of Us, but not name their voice actor (i.e. Troy Baker, who also had to commit a LOT of time with motion capture for the latter, time he could have spent on other projects that merely required he sit in a booth and do his craft). It does feel that at times incredibly talented VAs like Crispin "I have a voice so damn smooth it'll make you pregnant" Freeman, Steven Blum, Phil Lamarr, Jennifer Hale, D.C. Douglas, Laura Bailey, Travis Willingham, Richard Epcar (who once threw out his voice during a particularly stressful session for Spec-Ops: The Line), Matthew Mercer, Tara Strong, Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, and tons of others are indeed being exploited by the industry. Companies bring up how important and widespread gaming is, and then give them a basic pay check.

And the thing is this. Who were the ones who brought up all this stuff about how much voice acting, production values, characters, writing, and everything else that is story-based is important to gaming? THE DESIGNERS. They don't get to complain about VAs perhaps demanding a bigger piece of the pie or at least some more recognition for their efforts when the companies are the ones who were bragging about it and helped create this environment in the first place.

Admittedly unions have issues; Spike Spencer, best known as Shinji Ikari from Evangelion, HATES unions despite being SAG eligible and finds that they're still problematic and can even PREVENT actors from properly supporting themselves. It's why actors like D.C. Douglas, Wendee Lee, and Cristina Valenzuela have Financial Core status that allows them to work on non-union projects or why Steven Blum has had no less than three aliases during his days where he was more prolific in anime dubbing. If a studio goes non-union it's probably for a very good reason, as seen with Atlus though they still give credit such as with their behind-the-scenes videos with the cast of Persona 4.

All in all, this is going to be a problem for gaming. They need to negotiate and take actors' grievances seriously. Some people say there are ten other actors that can fill a role, well guess what, there are also ten other roles an actor can take (especially if you're Steven Blum or Wendee Lee who have OBSCENE ranges). Devs are the ones who helped open this can of worms so they're going to have to work with it. At the very least I hope this means devs learn how to manage themselves better and not waste their money and time on pointless BS just to show off.

Most of this I can see as fine but forcing people to join a union always rubs me the wrong way.

I wouldn't mind if hey stay on strike indefinitely. I'm happy with my Indie roguelikes, and it's not like the death of VOs would cause the soulless hacks in AAA to actually add depth to their games instead of hiding behind the chest high wall of "cinematic design."

EndlessSporadic:
Both sides have some terrible expectations.

Snippy-snip

Yes... however I find it much easier to sympathise with this particular display of selfishness when compared to million dollar bonuses for executives. Especially when voice actors are not salaried.

I'd love to see a pre agreed distribution of post sales 'prize money' as per the old Royal Navy method of dividing up the share of a captured ship between the whole crew. That's prettymuch what they're asking for anyway.

Some of what they request is ludicrous, yet a part of me is kind of happy a stupid mentality to game development gets another bullet wound, maybe it'll stop kicking and we can stop guzzling all this money on top level actors purely for their recognition to get that movie aesthetic right.

Zontar:

Zacharious-khan:

erttheking:

Well that's kind of on the developers. If they don't want to pay actors, they're well within their right to do that.

Really if you pay someone to do a job, pay them a fair sum for the job.

I don't think that applies in performance arts

Voice acting more so in fact, since outside of big name actors being hired simply for name recognition voice acting doesn't pay particularly well compared to its live action counterparts. Even in Japan, where it's a bigger deal then here, it holds true. Voice acting doesn't pay much and those who do it have day jobs.

You say even in Japan, but really, it actually makes more sense in Japan than it does elsewhere. Because voice acting is a bigger deal there, supply is plentiful. Top notch quality is fairly common, and good quality is pretty much ubiquitous. Add to that that anime is ridiculously low budget compared to western media. A 12 episode season of anime may cost about the same as a single episode of one of the better American television shows. And even then, voice actors get paid more than most artists. Japanese voice actors don't get paid that well, but it makes sense in context.

As for the topic.... On the one hand, I'm all for people trying to push for better pay, especially if the process results in a greater concentration of talent. On the other hand, voice actors really are the least important component of game development. I'd rather play a game without voice acting than one without textures.

Scars Unseen:
A 12 episode season of anime may cost about the same as a single episode of one of the better American television shows.

There's a price difference, but it isn't THAT big. An episode of anime costs on average between half and a quarter of it's Western counter parts. A 12 episode season will cost about 7 million US to produce, or about 3 or 4 episodes of Family Guy or The Simpsons.

In any event Japanese voice acting seems almost like television broadcasting of shows on this side of the Pacific: where after a certain number of episodes done they seem to have 'made it' since there seems to be an arbitrary cut off between novices and professionals that seems to be the actor equivalent of the syndication cut off.

PatrickJS:

Also up for debate is whether performers would receive stunt pay for performances which are vocally stressful.

Hazard pay for vocally stressful performances? Bloody hell.
I'm a clinical microbiologist and I handle BSL-3 organisms daily. I need to spend 3-4 hours a day in a biohaz suit with a powered breathing mask while dealing with things like B. anthracis (anthrax) and Y. pestis (bubonic plague). They don't pay me any extra for that. Risk of death by internal hemorrhaging and liquefied organs is just part of the job. I don't think a strained voice justifies a bigger payout, voice actors.

As amazing as Troy Baker and Laura Bailey are, they have never sold videogames to me. But neither have the executives of publishing company (in fact, a lot of them have done the opposite).

So I guess I side with voice actors by default if I had to choose between the two.

So yeah, strike away and/or whatever.

Are voice actors in movies and animated shows paid royalties? 'Cuz I gotta say, they're a much more important and focused part of the production of those than in games, and if they don't have royalties for those, I don't see why they should have them for games, why the part they play is mainly minor and inconsistent across genres.

Precisely what constitutes a "hazardous" role? I see the point on how its possible to damage their vocal cords, but everybody's voice is different and has different limits, so I don't think you can establish an objective standard. The union is just trying to squeeze for more money by introducing yet another point to fight over in future contract negotiations.

Steve the Pocket:
I'd like to point out that every other person who puts work into a given video game is working for hire, and is indeed lucky to even still be working at the studio after the game ships. I've never understood why actors are always considered the only people who deserve royalties. Well, them and anyone they might have licensed music from, but that's because the music industry is a big powerful juggernaut that could probably buy the freaking presidency if they felt like it.

Yes, this is the biggest annoyance to me about this entire thing. They want to make royalties standard in the contract for VA's, and they point to people like CEO's as evidence of "Oh look at how much money they get in bonuses!" but you know that's wrong because they should be looking at all the programers and designers and artists who basically get nothing.

Their entire benchmark is off. First off, it's not like voice acting in a video game is nearly as important to every video game as it is to say, every animated feature. I might listen to 3 minutes of cut scene for every 2 hours of game I play in a lot of cases. Maybe they should give every employee a cut of the game and then give the VA's a cut of that relative to how much time they put in compared to everyone else. I doubt they'd want to take that deal.

Lastly, the idea that they want to prohibit a company from using their own employees to do VA work... that's just wrong. So like, if you want one of your employees to do a cameo in a game, then they need to join (and pay dues to) this union? That's just ridiculous. If your union is such a great thing, then let people join it of their own free will. Moves like this are what annoy people in general about unions. Maybe if Unions had to actually work to attract members, they'd do a better job of representing those same members...

Don't get me wrong here, I actually consider myself pro-union in principle (I come from a UAW family), but I find a lot of the things they are asking for just asinine and some of it bordering on the worst practices that I've seen first hand in other industries.

mysecondlife:
As amazing as Troy Baker and Laura Bailey are, they have never sold videogames to me. But neither have the executives of publishing company (in fact, a lot of them have done the opposite).

So I guess I side with voice actors by default if I had to choose between the two.

That's exactly why they point the finger at the CEO that way - it's to make it seem like you need to make a choice between the two of them, instead of realizing that all the OTHER employees are screwed way harder than these VA's are. I guarantee you that even a scenario designer or modeler, let alone a programmer, puts in way more hours than a VA does and their work is much more integral to the overall game experience than someone delivering a cutscene.

Somehow I knew Laura Bailey would be mentioned here, I don't know why. I lover her voice work. This does remind me of her talking about the working conditions in Japan while recording Silent Hill 2, though, which were rather concerning. That said...

"SAG-AFTRA would like to keep publishers and developer from hiring their own employees to do voice work without having those people join the union."

This kills it for me. I hate unions, and the restrictions they place on work. They hamper the creation of art, and I can't tolerate them. It's like when George Lucas got fined by the directors guild for putting the credits at the end of The Empire Strikes Back in order to preserve the opening of the film. Then he left, and they wouldn't let him hire Spielberg. Or how Persona 4 was unable to retain the original voice for Chie. They're far too intrusive.

Zacharious-khan:
I'm so torn on this. Its not like Video game voice acting is... good. and It would be nice to just have text boxes again.

Some are, some aren't. I happen to like the work done in Persona games of late. I don't think this'll turn perma-bad, but it's still kind of bad.

Jake Martinez:

mysecondlife:
As amazing as Troy Baker and Laura Bailey are, they have never sold videogames to me. But neither have the executives of publishing company (in fact, a lot of them have done the opposite).

So I guess I side with voice actors by default if I had to choose between the two.

That's exactly why they point the finger at the CEO that way - it's to make it seem like you need to make a choice between the two of them, instead of realizing that all the OTHER employees are screwed way harder than these VA's are. I guarantee you that even a scenario designer or modeler, let alone a programmer, puts in way more hours than a VA does and their work is much more integral to the overall game experience than someone delivering a cutscene.

Oh I'm aware they're not the only cogs in the machine if that's the point you're making. VA's are not the ones who has to fear for their job stability when games don't sell more than 5 million copies.

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