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Video Game Voice Actor’s Strike and Support is Mixed

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In case you didn’t know SAG-AFTRA, the two unions that support voice actors, announced a strike on Friday citing an inability to reach an agreement with several video game publishers.  Among their demands are a pay raise, safer working conditions, and bonuses for games that reach certain sales markers.  I’m not the only one that doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for this move, but everyone has a different reason for thinking this is uncalled for.  Social media is uncharacteristically calm on this issue, but the people who are talking about it in my feed seem to be generally in agreement that voice actors are already paid well for what they do, worried about how this will affect pricing, and that the focus of pay and labor issues should be on developers and not actors.

Voice actors are comparing their role in voicing video games to actors who make movies.  In the movie industry, contracts usually include bonuses if a movie brings in a certain amount of money.  Actors get paid more when a movie hits it big, which makes sense.  I know a lot of people that will go see a movie just because their favorite actor is in it.  The lead casting has a huge impact on sales, especially first day sales.

On the other hand I don’t think I’ve heard a single person say they’re going to go buy a video game because X did the voice for the lead character.  For me, the case would have to be made that the voice actors make a relative impact on sales for this to be a consideration.  Maybe other gamers value this more, but none that I’ve talked to.

Of course good voice acting is important, we can all tell the difference, but I couldn’t name a single voice actor in any of the games I own except for maybe Ron Perlman from Fall Out: New Vegas.  It’s just not something I look for or remember.  To me they’re part of a larger whole that doesn’t stand out as much as the other elements that make a game a game.  While bad voice acting can certainly break a game, the absence of it doesn’t have the same impact.  I’ve played plenty of games with no voice acting at all and found them just as fun as games that have it.

The actors are citing safety issues as well, and I believe that was something that was agreed on.  That’s certainly an important issue when it comes to how their voices are used over long periods of time.  Screaming, yelling, and the like should be taken into consideration.  Whether it be breaks, voice coaches, or shorter work hours, I’m sure something can be done to make sure the tool these actors use isn’t damaged.  Vocalists and screen actors generally have vocal coaches who almost act like physical therapists for the voice.  I remember in Some Kind of Monster James Hetfield admitted to using a voice coach because he was told he wouldn’t be able to sing for much longer if he didn’t start taking care of his voice.  Also mentioned is stunt work with motion capture and a lack of stunt work and training.  It’s not mentioned in the strike document, but is being talked about by the voice actors.  Some balance could be found here, and like I said, I think it has been.

The big sticking point seems to be compensation.  Specifically the voice actors are looking for secondary compensation, either in the way of an up-front bonus, or residual payment should a game sell over 2 million copies.  According to everything I’ve read a voice actor averages $825.00 for a 4 hour session.  I’ll let that sink in for a moment.  That’s just $200 shy of the national average income for a family…for a week.  While the average family makes $25.90 an hour, a voice actor makes 206.25.

For comparison the average salary for a game developer is just 31.90 an hour at 4o hours a week, and from all reports they put in between 60-80 a week during a development cycle and possibly more if a game is running behind.  There is an enormous disparity between the money a consumer has to buy a game, and the cost it takes to make one, and one of the highest paid 1% wants to get paid more money.  Trust me, the comparison isn’t lost on me when the 1% is asking for more when they already make over 6 times what the 99% does in this situation.

Of course there are two sides to this, and I imagine not every voice actor is making big bucks doing video games exclusively.  Being a writer and freelance journalist, I’m well aware that having a ‘real job’ is a necessity when my dream jobs don’t pay what I need to live on.  I’m sure there’s some balance to be had here, but unfortunately we, the consumer, don’t get much consideration in this at all.  Remember the television writer’s strike back in 07-08?  I do, and we lost a lot of good shows to it, had delays in others, and some good shows took an awful turn and were eventually cancelled.

In that case, there was no worry of a price increase to the consumer, but here there is.  We all know how publishers recoup cost increases for production.  They either raise the price of a game, or they cut corners to save money, and give us a sub-par product.  We already know they’re willing to cut corners when deadlines are looming, and while devs catch the blame it’s ultimately the publisher’s call to cut out a feature or part of a story to get a game to market on time.  They won’t have any qualms cutting if it means keeping production costs down.

Now, with the strike official, we will most likely see delays.  Not immediately because the strike stipulates any games started before February of 2015 can continue, but it’s probably going to effect any games coming middle to late next year.  After this is all sorted out, we could be looking at some sort of price increase to cover the rise in potential costs.  The games industry, despite still being the largest entertainment industry in the world, has been seeing loss of sales for over a year now, so I wouldn’t be surprised if a price hike was already on the way.

We’ve been paying about the same amount for games for the last several years, but there’s been an increase in paid DLC, season passes, microtransactions, and subscription models coming along with that.  Talking to gamers on social media, it’s evident that a lot of gamers are simply priced out of the market and opt to wait for sales rather than buy on day one, and many have chosen to go with indie games exclusively because they tend to run cheaper than AAA titles.

It’s not just the consumer that will feel the brunt of this, I imagine.  The strike is against larger companies like Activision, EA, and Disney, but a lot of smaller development firms produce games under those companies.  For a new, small, or indie development firm, delays in a game, or cancellation of a project, can put them under before they even get a chance to start.  A lot of companies throw everything they have into their first game and if it fails, they’re never heard from again.

Take Visceral Games, a subsidiary of EA.  They have a Star Wars game set to release in 2017, which may actually fall in the time frame of the strike, and I imagine has a great deal of voice acting.  Being the only game we know for sure they’re currently working on, what happens if that project gets delayed indefinitely or worse, cancelled?  Do the devs go unpaid while production halts, or do they keep working unsure, whether the game will go to market at all?  It throws a lot of uncertainty on the market and looks a lot like the little guys, us, and the devs, get to bear the brunt of what amounts to an argument between two groups of people that make more money than any of us wanting more money.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a person making as much money as they can make in their chosen profession, I just don’t much like the tactics used here.

At the end of it all, we really don’t know how long this will go on or what effect it will eventually have.  I hope none.  In a perfect world, everyone will walk away happy, no one will have to spend more on games, and we won’t have to wait for delayed releases.  This is a complicated issue with some real concerns that should be addressed, and others I’m not convinced on myself.  I think there is a larger discussion to be had here about working conditions and compensation, but I think it’s being had by, and about, the wrong people in this scenario.  I don’t think union is the answer for devs, but I certainly think they could stand to get some support from the community and consideration from the companies that hire them.

Metro City Boys podcast talked with the narrator of Darkest Dungeon, Wayne June

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