Contentious labor issues could cause our favorite video game franchises to sound a lot different.
SAG-AFTRA, the union representing actors big and small, collected ballots this week for a possible strike against the video game industry. The union and big-name publishers like Activision and Electronic Arts seem to be miles apart in their negotiations.
The union members have until 5 p.m. Oct. 6 to cast their votes, so we should know if the imminent strike is an official one soon.
Here’s what SAG-AFTRA is looking for:
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Voice actors want additional scale payments, which are currently $3,300, when games they perform for reach sales or subscription milestones. The current proposal calls for bonuses at 2 million units sold/subscribers, with a cap at 8 million. So the average union member would stand to make up to $13,200 in residuals.
Safety/health concerns met
The union is asking for “vocally demanding” performances to be treated like physically demanding ones. Actors want a two-hour limit to all voice acting sessions that require lots of screaming or anything that could potentially harm their meal ticket. They are also asking for stunt coordinators on set during motion-capture sessions, which require actors to perform many of the actions their characters perform in-game.
Voice actors want to know what they’re working on – what’s the name of the title, will it have offensive content and how long will they be working on it.
Gaming industry executives also have a few demands of their own, most of which border on insanity.
$2,500The amount gaming industry execs want to fine actors if the actor is late or is perceived to be not paying attention during a recording session.
Execs want the ability to fine actors $2,500 – 76 percent of the union scale pay rate for voice acting sessions – if actors are late or “inattentive” during sessions. I understand wanting to fine them, but the number seems extreme.
The industry wants to fine actors’ agents between $50,000 and $100,000 if they don’t send their clients to certain auditions, and the executives also want SAG-AFTRA to revoke the agents’ union franchise – essentially blocking them from representing union actors – should this occur.
Finally, the gaming bosses don’t believe motion-capture performances should be included in any union contract.
Negotiation sessions between the industry and SAG-AFTRA failed to spawn an agreement.
For the most part, the union’s concerns are well-founded.
The vocal stress and stunt coordinator demands are a slam dunk. It is absolutely ridiculous to think that voice actors performing stressful actions don’t deserve proper safety protocols.
It may seem silly to think of speaking into a microphone as a stressful action, but you have to remember that they create almost every sound your character makes in a game.
Think of how many times a main character in an action title like “Assassin’s Creed” or “Call of Duty” yells out in pain or dramatically screams. If a character falls off a cliff, that loud echoing cry before he or she hits the ground had to be recorded by an actor.
$13,200The maximum bonus pay voice actors want for performances in blockbuster video game franchises.
The request for residuals is an understandable one, and the figures are about right. An 8 million unit cap is quite high – no game sold that many copies last year.
It seems reasonable, but I doubt publishers will honor it. The cost would be pretty substantial, and developers – the ones who actually make the product – had to fight tooth and nail (and are still doing so) for their right to performance bonuses.
Transparency is a different issue. Voice actors believe that because they would know a lot about a TV show before they sign on, they should get the similar information about a video game.
I sympathize with the industry on this point. Game developers, and the publishers who finance them, can’t tell actors more about their games because actors have big mouths. As a reporter covering the industry, I can’t tell you how many game leaks have been the result of a social media post or something similar from a voice actor. As much as I hate to admit it, industry leaders have a right to keep their projects under wraps, and increased transparency for actors would jeopardize this.
Based on the news coverage and Tweets from prominent voice actors like Wil Wheaton and Tara Strong supporting the strike, I expect it will go through.
What does it mean for our games?
Well, that depends on who joins the strike.
SAG-AFTRA members have until Oct. 6 to vote on a union strike against the video game industry.
Right now, the vocal supporters fill a variety of secondary roles in prominent video games. Strong plays Harley Quinn in the “Batman: Arkham” series, but she is primarily a TV actress. Phil Lamarr plays Cassius in the “Tales from the Borderlands” games, but he is far better known for his roles in “Futurama.”
These actors’ TV careers would probably not be in jeopardy – the strike would only apply to video games.
If big-time video game voice actors like Troy Baker or Nolan North go along with the strike, however, then our favorite titles would be completely different. As much as I hate the lack of parody, I couldn’t imagine “The Last of Us” or “BioShock: Infinite” without Baker’s performances. The dude is the master of what he does.
I don’t think a voice actor strike would be a major blow to publishers, but I hope it spurs some change.
Voice actors deserve a slightly bigger piece of the pie, but their strike could embolden the rank-and-file developers – people drawing backgrounds or writing code for hours on end – to fight for more of the profits as well. That would be truly great, as stories of developer abuse still swirl around the big-name publishers.
The simple fact is that the cogs in the gaming machine deserve more, and this strike may be a step toward that. I hope the actors win out during negotiations.