The SAG AFTRA Game Strike is of concern to many. In this blog I detail my thoughts, let me know yours.
Voice Actor Strike: SAG Aftra Game Strike
I recently read Will Wheaton’s blog on why he supports the idea of a strike of actors by SAG AFTRA against the gaming industry in the USA. It was enlightening and well written, and actually made some very interesting points from the actor’s viewpoint – but I’m afraid I disagree that there should be a strike in the USA.
Why Do You Care What I Have To Say?
Voice Actor Strike – A Voice Directors Perspective
First, for those of you who don’t know me (I’m not as famous as Will) I should give you some background on myself, and why I feel entitled to have this opinion. I’m a voice director and casting director, and I own and run the company High Score Productions Ltd, which is an audio outsourcing company in the UK specialising in game dialogue. In total I’ve run around 150 game projects, including the casting, voice-direction, post-production and QA and for some great titles, such as Harry Potter for Kinect for example. I’ve worked for many companies from the large (Sega, EA, Square Enix etc) to small and obviously have worked with thousands of actors in the last 12 years since we formed the company.
UK State of Play
In the UK, there is a trade body called TIGA which represents the gaming industry, and an actor’s union called Equity (who I’m sure are also following this with interest!) What’s important to note is that both are not mandatory for either party, actors or gaming companies – it’s your decision as to whether to join them, and they make recommendations, not rules. Equity for example, specify that the rate for gaming actors must be a minimum of £170 for a 4-hour gig – which is pretty low (Correct as of 2012, may have changed!)
In the US jobs are either union or non-union – in the UK, jobs are just jobs and if you happen to be a member of Equity or Tiga, that’s fine, but they are defined by the job, not by whether it’s a union job or not.
In the UK we do talk to our agents, have them sign NDA’s and then give them and the actors as much information as possible, as it helps both sides – of course we don’t tell the actors what the job is until they’ve been successfully cast, but then that stands to reason – there’s no need to give the game away to the 250 people we have apply for each role. NDA’s are fine, they suffice and that is their purpose.
In the UK, we do have stuntmen in our Motion Capture jobs, and insurance for our actors (by law).
In the UK we do not pay actors residuals, we pay them royalty buyouts based on the amount they are paid. Most of the time (all companies have different pricing systems) this equates to circa 50% of the actor’s hourly rate. Typical pay for a UK gaming actor is between £150 and £250 ph ($250-$400) based on experience and status, although famous names command a much higher price, but it’s also based on the status of the game, e.g. an AAA title has more budget than an A title. On average then the actor gets circa £200 plus £100 buyout so a 10 hour game will net them circa £3k ($4500).
As a voice director I always put the shouty lines (call-out’s as they’re apparently called in the US) at the end of the session, or in a separate session, and NSV’s (non-scripted vocals which are notoriously stressful physically for the artist) are also separated out by default. This is because the VO artist does have to protect the voice and be able to work again – voices come to me after work, and they go to different clients after working with me…what goes around comes around, and if you razor an actor’s voice and then send them on, you can only expect actors to come back to you with poor voices.
Shut Up About the UK!! This is a USA Issue!
Ok, ok. In actual fact though that statement is completely correct for the reasons I’ve outlined above. This is a USA issue and I’d hazard a guess that most gaming actors in the UK don’t have the same issues that are being listed as reasons for the strike by SAG AFTRA.
Voice Actor Strike: What I Agree With
It’s important to note that I completely agree with SAG AFTRA and Will that these things are basic rights of actors and that all gaming actors should have appropriate pay, safe working conditions, access to information about what the production is about (once casting complete) and so on. It’s like this in the UK, and I’m genuinely surprised that they aren’t in the USA. So as a fundamental, I agree with the motions behind the action.
What I disagree with is the voice actor strike itself.
You Agree With the Issues, But Not The Strike?!
That’s right. Here’s why:
Firstly, the gaming sector is made up of thousands of companies, not just the big 5 that get all the press (EA, Activision etc). Each company is a private investment with different ideas and ideologies. Some of these companies are well funded, some are not, but all release games in the same way. Whilst it may have been appropriate for the writers strike in 2007 to strike against multinational corporations, the gaming industry is not the same – it’s highly-fragmented and in the main made up of huge numbers of small companies who all release individual titles. The Rockstar’s of this world are few and far between, and responsible for only a tiny proportion of the games released.
Small companies are often self-funded, or have private investment and do not have huge capital reserves in most cases. Take Rovio for example who did Angry Birds – a runaway global success you may say, but before you do, consider the 40 or so other games that came before it, that no-one has ever heard of that the company didn’t make millions from. Game dev is a highly competitive environment and it’s more like a crowd of companies than a few huge ones.
To say then that SAG AFTRA has spoken to the industry but that they ‘refuse’ to speak to SAG AFTRA is just plain rubbish. The reality is that there are way too many companies for this kind of thing to happen – and why should Electronic Arts for example speak to SAG AFTRA and impose rules and regulations for different companies who are not affiliated in any way? That’s just as unfair.
The issue is that a strike like this will be the downfall of many small indie’s resulting in their closure as deadlines are not met and project’s stall. We saw it during the recession, where previously stable companies (and remember, real people work for these companies with mortgages to pay and families to feed) fell quickly – the gaming industry is a relatively unstable one in many areas.
Once the companies fail they don’t come back as we’ve seen from history, and if the companies go, there will be less of the games for actors to work on in the first place.
It’s Not The Game Companies Fault!
Secondly, what’s not taken into consideration in this equation is that (aside from the larger companies) most game developers use companies like mine to outsource their audio to – sometimes the music, sometimes the dialogue, sometimes the sound design. The game company contracts the audio outsourcer, agrees a budget and then it’s the audio outsourcer who runs the project, casts the game, directs the sessions, does the post-production on the files and then the QA before delivering the files to the developer. The game dev doesn’t pay the voices, nor write the contracts, nor agree the fees.
The implication of this is that the wrong people (i.e., the game dev’s) are being targeted by the strike, but that this is also going to affect us in some cases, which means that again, SAG AFTRA haven’t spoken to the right people, and because of this extra layer, their proposals are even harder to police. This also means that, because the outsourcers haven’t been involved in the discussions, and because the contracts are not held with the game companies but with the outsourcers, that the strike is likely to go on far longer than necessary.
Even worse than this, the game developers are actually in the middle. It goes something like this: Game Publishers > Game Developers > Audio Outsourcers > Agents > Voice Actors. That’s 3 levels of companies on ‘our side of the glass’. In the UK the trade organisation TIGA who represent the gaming industry as a collective make recommendations, but it’s not mandatory to obey their recommendations – they are recommendations.
In light of all that – just who is this SAG AFTRA Game Strike aimed at? Is it all of us? Is it just the gaming companies – because this is an ambiguous notion. Add up all those companies involved and you’re talking about tens of thousands of individual companies, none of whom have the right to speak for how the whole industry works, and who are all individual cogs.
The Symbiotic Nature
Thirdly, it’s important to note (ignoring all the idiots who don’t recognise games as an art-form in their own right) that the relationship between game publishers, game developers, audio outsourcers, voice agents and voice artists is completely symbiotic. We all need each other, we all work together and we all (usually) work together in harmony.
Striking like this presents an ‘us and them’ position and breaks that feeling of everyone working towards the same goal. Are the changes needed? Yes as I’ve already stated, but this is the wrong way to go about it and will create divides – there is a better way to solve this, which I’m building up to later, which avoids this unnecessary, destructive step. It avoids the unnecessary conversations that have to happen, and the bad feeling that will come with it.
SAG AFTRA Game Strike – Where’s There’s a Will, There’s a Way
Fourthly, the capitalist’s nature. (BTW, terrible pun based on mr Wheaton I know, but there is truth to this statement). There was a market for taxi’s, and Uber filled the gap. There was a market for renting out accommodation and AirBnB filled the gap. The private, capitalist sector will always find a way to solve problems, including its own.
The gaming industry is no different, and the SAG AFTRA Game Strike will simply produce non-union jobs, and if the companies don’t fold, will find people to voice the games who will be willing to work, be that from different countries (such as the UK) or different talent pools. The voiceover world has exploded in the last few years and there are fantastic emerging voices who aren’t yet even with agents who would be happy to do the work.
I’m not using this as a threat, just as an illustration of the reality of the situation – the industry will find a way round the SAG AFTRA Game Strike.
This SAG AFTRA Game Strike is a bad thing for the game companies, but it’s also a bad thing for Sag Aftra’s actors who are going to unnecessarily miss out on work – and you know what happens when a company finds a resource they’re happy with? They stay with them. The majority of successful games on the marketplace are iterative in that after a game gets a foothold, V2 will be released, then V3 and so on and the actors that miss out on the nice roles during the SAG AFTRA Game Strike will have missed out on them for good.
The Nature of the Beast
Next I want to talk about the much-discussed Call-Outs, or shouting. Yes there is a lot of shouting in gaming – no where near as much as people say, but yes there is a lot of it. Should we deal with it appropriately? Of course we should and here we do – we segment high-tension lines as is being suggested.
There are also techniques which can be used such as the “illusory shouting technique” pioneered by my business partner Peter Dickson (see our voiceover for gaming course for more info) which drastically reduce this strain on the voice and which all professionals should learn.
However the issue of being tired (as per Will’s blog) from working for 4 hours on non-shouted material where the director asks for more takes, and more repeats (either because he/she isn’t happy with the performance or has a genuine requirement for Alt-takes to try and combat in-game-repetition) is simply the nature of the beast. I was quite disappointed to read this from Will as he is using the general nature of a game recording session to illustrate having your voice ripped apart, which just isn’t the case.
Gary Oldman famously said to Jonathan Ross (UK talk show host) that gaming was the most tiring aspect of his acting career, and he’s absolutely right – it can be very draining at times, but that’s the nature of the beast, and if you don’t want to work in that environment, then that’s your choice as an actor. I wouldn’t dream of forcing you to run a marathon either – some people are suited to it and others are not. The gaming industry should not be forced to accept lesser performances than are required just because a VO isn’t physically fit enough to do the job.
And anyway – the vast majority of gaming dialogue sessions are not like this, and are standard dialogue between characters in the same way that films and television are – there are high-points of hard work, and then all the normal work that you would expect.
As a footnote to this point, it must be remembered that it’s up to the actor to ensure he/she is properly warmed up and is trained adequately as a professional VO. You can look after your voice if you know what you’re doing, if you’re properly hydrated, properly warmed up and instilled with techniques such as the illusory shouting technique. We do not expect to hire un-trained amateurs, we expect to hire professionals and as such it’s up to the actors to ensure they are professionals.
A Sticky Residual
Lastly I want to mention residuals. Game companies in the main are privately owned by a single individual, or a few individuals and some investors. It’s a capitalist society and it’s simply not going to happen. The game companies take all the risks and invest all the money – actors do not. They are paid for a job. The voice performances are incredibly important – don’t get me wrong – bad dialogue can ruin a game and great dialogue can truly enhance it. But so can the music, and so can the graphics, and so can the gameplay and so can the network connectivity and so on. All the aspects that go together to create a game are just as important as each other – it’s actually quite insulting, and not a little bit arrogant to think that your performances mean more to the game than the contribution by a graphical artist, or the musician.
Residuals (in the main, unless privately agreed) are not going to happen for VO’s. This is something that the voiceover industry just has to accept and deal with. No one gets them. VO’s are just as important as the artists and the programmers but they are not more important.
The real issue here is that it appears that the US VO’s are not paid appropriately – which (having seen some of the figures) I agree should not be the case.
So What’s the Solution?!
Believe it or not, I do have a solution and it’s a workable one. I also don’t think that it’s too late to call the SAG AFTRA Game Strike off in favour of this solution, which would be better for everyone.
By default, SAG AFTRA have got this process the wrong way round. They are inexplicably handing the power to the gaming industry by effectively saying “Talk to us so you can tell us what you will raise the pay to, and what you’re willing to do re: mo cap safety etc”. This is the wrong approach by 180 degrees.
Here’s what SAG AFTRA should do. They should consult with their members (the actors) and their agents and do some market research (including other territories such as the UK) and set a minimum wage threshold for members. Once this has been done it’s up to the agents to enforce it for their actors. If the minimum wage is $200ph, then you don’t work for less if you’re a union member. It’s simple.
Then they set a rule for performance royalty buyout’s if the gaming companies don’t want to pay royalties. For example, a minimum of 50% per hour up to a maximum of X% of the total payment would do the trick. The VO’s are then adequately compensated.
Then they form a rule saying that no union actor will partake in motion capture work where there is not adequate insurance, safety and stuntmen present. it’s really very simple – you don’t work if it’s not a safe environment.
Then they form a rule saying that no union actor will work for more than 2 hours doing call-outs. Simple. The agent agrees this with the hirer at the point of hire or doesn’t agree to put their actor into the production.
It’s not realistic for a game company to give out confidential project details to everyone, but with an NDA, and as soon as the voice has been cast, the agent should be told the name and project details so that the voice can make a decision. That’s how we do it here. In the same way as above, the agent simply refuses to let their actor onto the job, or even agree the job until this condition is satisfied. Easy.
SAG AFTRA could do all that and make a constructive difference for their members rather than creating a destructive, negative one which the strike will cause.
Just because 95% of their members voted for the SAG AFTRA Game Strike does not mean that the 95% were presented with another option to vote on, (i.e. my solution above) which I believe just as many actors would have voted for rather than down-tools.
So SAG AFTRA (and Will come to that if you’re listening) call off the SAG AFTRA Game Strike – put your (very necessary) measures in place, engage your actors and the agents in a constructive way and create a solution…
Take the power back and tell the gaming companies what your minimum standards are for gaming work, and stick by them: This SAG AFTRA Game Strike is wholly unnecessary and will do more harm than good.