Some Thoughts On The Looming Video Game Strike

Long one coming up, sorry folks.

If you follow the video game industry or the voice acting industry at all, you’ve most likely heard the summary of what’s been going on. You can read more articulate and detailed summaries of them on Forbes, Game Informer, and a host of other places. Wil Wheaton has a pretty good explanation out there as well, and some of what I’m saying here might be redundant, but being in the industry I wanted to comment.

For those of you who aren’t up to speed, here’s my introduction: The last time the actor’s union (SAG-AFTRA) negotiated a video game contract was about twenty years ago. In attempting to renegotiate a new contract to match the way the market and the medium is today, SAG is asking for a couple of things. First, they’re asking for a performance bonus. This is kind of like royalties in that it’s an extra payment based on how well the game sells. Second, they’re asking for vocally stressful sessions (read: screaming because someone is setting you on fire) be limited to two hours. Third, they’re asking for stunt coordinators to be present when voice actors are doing motion capture (MoCap) scenes.  And, lastly, they’re asking for transparency – actors must know what project they’re working on before they agree to do it.

The production companies response was to say no to all of these things and, in their counter proposal, propose some really weird stuff like $2500 fines for “inattentiveness” and $100,000 fines to agents for “failing to submit actors for parts.” I don’t know what either of these things really mean, but I don’t think it matters. The real response was “No, f@#$ you.”  I doubt the companies believe that their response will be seriously considered, and I don’t think they’re trying to apply the principle of rejection-and-retreat, because the demand is so radical. It’s a middle finger, not a negotiation tactic.

I haven’t been in the industry for a long time, but I have been a breathing, thinking person for a while, so I’m going to offer some insight that I hope falls somewhere in between the two extremes. I think both sides are ignoring some really obvious things, and I’ve likened the debate to watching congress talk about a hot button issue – lots of rally cries and snark, and not a whole lot of actual discussion.

Performance bonuses are the most hot button topic by far. The counter argument from most people is that “developers don’t get paid more if a game does well, why should actors?” I think that’s a different argument. One worth arguing, but it’s more of a derailment and distraction from the actors’ issue than something that contributes to the real argument. People think that actors are all these greedy people who spend their time rolling in pools full of money, but let’s be serious, here. The only unionized form of voice acting that pays a lower rate than video games is Japanese anime. We’re not talking about actors making a bajillion dollars on a video game, here.

Shopkeeper Number Seven probably made about $500 on Popular Game X. He also spent weeks without working at all before he got that job, and will spend weeks afterward without a job. There’s no salary here, folks. The risk/reward ratio applies. In the course of developing one game, a developer might earn five figures worth of steady salary and (in most cases) will carry on to the next game. A video game voice actor might work on ten games in a month and still default on his car loan if he doesn’t get any other work. I’m not trying to say that there aren’t quality of life issues in the video game developer world. But if you think that 99% of actors don’t have quality of life issues, you’re crazy.  Go ask an actor – you’ll find him either busing tables or sharing a two-bedroom apartment in LA with 46 other people.

“Sure,” you say, “but Nolan North earned $X,000,000 for that game.” That’s what we call an outlier, and using outliers for a giant union negotiation argument point is kind of silly. Most actors could not pay the bills with the money they make from video games.

At the same time, I think SAG is missing a pretty big point. While contractual parity is the goal – since other mediums get residual/royalty payments – video games cannot be reasonably compared to other media. The Last Of Us would have been not even a passable game without good voice acting…but with it, it was incredible. Yet, again, that’s an outlier. Who would give a shit if Smash Brothers had poor voice acting? Games sell plenty in spite of shitty voice acting. How can you quantify how important voice is to a particular game, and then apply that to some sliding scale that defines how much actors should get of a performance bonus? Destiny’s storyline sure as hell didn’t make it a top-selling game.  It makes for a very tricky situation to negotiate. Personally, I think this issue should be a concession on SAG’s part. Let it go.

The other issues are a lot easier to deal with, and, to me, are kind of no-brainers.  Vocally stressful sessions should be limited. To keep with the developer analogy, it’s like asking a developer to pull nails out of wood using only his fingers, and then expecting him to go back to work the next day and be able to type. Screaming the way that you have to for good video games is damaging in both the short and long term for actors. I did TWO LINES for a video game trailer yesterday, and I can feel it today.  And, if people are making the argument that “they’re never that long anyway” then great! This should be an easy concession. Why argue? If you’re the production companies, you can make this concession and then ask for something reasonable in return. That’s negotiating.

Stunt coordinators…well, yes. There’s anecdotal evidence out there that people are asking voice actors to do some really ridiculous things – like wire movement – without having anyone trained in doing it around. I think it’s a case-by-case basis, AND I think SAG has to accept the fact that, if this is imposed, they might just stop hiring voice actors to do stunt work and start hiring stunt men instead. If the real goal is keeping people safe, then there really can’t be much other argument. I really can’t imagine this breaking the bank and suddenly resulting in games costing $100 off the shelf.

Transparency. Actors should know what they’re working on for a multitude of reasons. It’ll make the games better; if I can review the script for a week before my big session, the acting will be better. If I’m a Muslim auditioning for a game that turns out to be Call of Duty, in which people in  my home country are getting bombed, I should have the opportunity to turn the job down before I get into the session. If I’m Kim Davis, and I audition for Let’s Get Gay Married, I should have the opportunity to turn it down.  Yes, leaks are problem. OMG, Fallout 4! So make your friggin’ actors sign NDAs like everyone else, and then sue them when they break them. That’s what NDAs are for. Severe compartmentalization of information was a leading cause of 9/11. DO YOU WANT TO BE THE CAUSE OF ANOTHER TERRORIST ATTACK? No? Then let your actors know what they’re working on.

Look, here’s the bottom line. The contract needs to be renegotiated. You can’t operate in 2015 video games based on terms that were developed when Yoshi was eating his own young for the first time and you still needed a blood code to watch Sub Zero rip out someone’s spine. I don’t like the idea of a strike – I hope NOBODY likes the idea of a strike. SAG needs to be willing to let some of this stuff go – most clearly the performance bonuses that can’t be quantified and cast a bad shadow on the actors they’re fighting for to very little benefit for them (yay I got a $250 performance check for my role as Soldier 23 six years after the game came out!) But the production companies need to stop giving the finger and start using actual negotiation tactics. They’ll have one last chance now that a strike has been authorized (not called – authorized), and I really hope they take it. Video games are an amazing medium that can do amazing things.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go get the valet to grab my Ferrari. I’m late for a money-burning party.

2 Comments

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  1. This is great Joe. I’m a SAG/AFTRA voice actor in NYC (mostly commercial work), but recently took a VO video game seminar with Andrea Toyias of Blizzard. I wasn’t aware of how intense these sessions can be and how as she said it, “it’s not uncommon for actors to injure their voices in fact Ive had an actress bleed on the sides.” I almost walked out right then and gave everyone the finger. But I stayed and listened.

    I’m an actor in the broadway show Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. I sing every night. I’ve had 6 national Advertising campaigns so I know my way around the booth. Ive never been in a situation where I was asked to perform to the point of injury. That’s insane.

    Thanks for the insight.

    J Davis

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