The Voice Actor Strike: What Is It and Will It Happen?

Sep 28, 2015


Video game voice acting has progressed immensely in recent years. We’ve seen the progression not only in the amount of games that include that element, but it’s hard to not notice that the quality of performance has significantly improved, as well. The rules of compensation by which union members and non-members of SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) have operated by seem to no longer apply in this era of video games.

In light of that, SAG-AFTRA has detailed to its members what they “stand to lose” and what they intend to do to avoid that. Here’s what they “stand for.”

What Do They Stand For?

1. Performance Bonuses

“We’re asking for a reasonable performance bonus for every 2 million copies, or downloads sold, or 2 million unique subscribers to online-only games, with a cap at 8 million units/ subscribers. That shakes out, potentially, to FOUR bonus payments for the most successful games: 2 million, 4 million, 6 million and 8 million copies.” — SAG/AFTRA

Let’s take The Last of Us, for example. When developer Naughty Dog was hard at work on The Last of Us, they thought the game was going to be a failure. While the expectations were dire, voice actors Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson were delivering brilliant voice acting and motion capture performances for the game.

The rest is history, as The Last of Us is considered by many to be one of the best games of all time and as of 2014, it had sold over 7 million units. Those who celebrate this game will also place the voice acting performances as the driving force behind the game’s story and success.

It seems wrong that these great actors would be paid an upfront fee, contribute to the games success of over 7 million units sold, and not be given additional “bonus” royalties for their work. This doesn’t make Sony “the bad guy” or any developer for that matter - they’re just playing by the current rules, but it seems like a change is definitely due.

2. Vocal Stress

What Wil Wheaton is speaking of is the demanding work that voice actors have to endure. Imagine spending an entire day screaming bloody murder at the top of your lungs and then being asked to come in the next day and deliver a knockout performance. Your voice would be shot, and your performance would suffer, right?

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To combat this, the union has called for “stunt pay actors” to record “vocally stressful” material. So, much in the same way a screen actor has a stunt man to perform dangerous stunts, a voice actor would have a stunt voice actor OR would be given additional compensation for performing the “vocally stressful” material themselves.

3. Stunt Coordinator on Performance Capture Volume

“For example, once, without a stunt coordinator on set, a video game developer tried to do a wire pull - which means [the actor] basically made himself jerk really hard and fast across a room - without someone on set to monitor his safety.” — SAG/AFTRA

In this case, a stunt coordinator would be able to supervise and facilitate the dangerous acts that can occur while motion capture/voice acting is in progress. However, with the ability for a programmer to build these actions without the need of an actor, I’m not sure that stunts are completely necessary in video game development. However, if the situation arises, a stunt coordinator seems reasonable.

4. Transparency

“You wouldn’t work on a TV show, commercial or film without knowing what part you’re playing and how it fits into the story, yet we are asked over and over again to do just that in interactive media…” — SAG/AFTRA

Basically, it comes down to developers adequately communicating the expectations for the voice actor. This is a given and it’s a point that I don’t think developers would object to, in the end. In fact, I think this would probably be something that would help organize the voice acting process for the developers. Clearly, it helps the actor by not allowing their talents to be improperly taken advantage of.

Will The Strike Happen?

This is completely my opinion from analyzing this situation. What we do know is that the latest submission of demands were rejected. Developers are in a difficult position. They have to recognize the impact that a voice actor’s performance can provide to a game, yet they have to look after those they have employed for many months, as opposed to a few weeks.

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In other words, as unfair as it seems to not give specific bonus royalties to voice actors, it would seem even more unfair for a programmer to not receive royalties when they’ve been hard at work on a game for 14 months.

And let’s be honest, Grand Theft Auto V didn’t gross $800 million in worldwide revenue within 24 hours because of the voice acting alone. It was due to a blend of fun, engaging gameplay with entertaining characters - characters who were brought to life by both programmers and voice actors.

So this is why I believe that a strike won’t happen. If developers give in to the demand of SAG/AFTRA, they’ll have to face the likely unionizing of the people (programmers, designers, etc.) who develop the games. If that doesn’t make sense, think of it like this: if the voice actors go on strike then all of the games they are featured in are then delayed. Then after a deal is agreed upon and finalized, the folks who work on the technical end of these games could go on strike seeking equal treatment to the voice actors. What’s worse than one strike and one delay? Well, two.

As a result, it’s likely that programs will be put in place that lump voice actors and game developers  under the same compensation structure. I think we’ll see developers adopting Gearbox Software’s profit sharing initiative, which the developer has boasted frequently, claiming it has paid out over $40 million since 2010 to its employees.

I think the moral of this  story is that it takes many professionals  to build a game that exceeds 2 million units sold. Some might work 14 months on it and others only a couple of weeks, but they are all responsible in some way for its success. And soon I believe they’ll be adequately compensated for it.

That’s my take on the situation. What are your thoughts? Do you think the strike will happen? Let us know in the comments below!

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