There’s a bit of a war going on between Video Game Developers and SAG-AFTRA registered voice actors at the moment, leading to two hashtags on Twitter: #PerformanceMatters & #IamonBoard2015.

So what is it all about?

All of this seems to stem from the Interactive Media Agreement, a document that was originally signed during the mid-90s when video game voice work was in its infancy. This was the usual agreement that is used in all forms of media from TV, to movies, to records, etc. Back in February, SAG-AFTRA decided that it was time to sit back down with the big wigs of video game development and update this agreement for the future; of course, with decades of profits being made from video games I personally do not blame them, but of course the video game big wigs are happy with the current agreements because they are written in a way that gives them all the power and money. So we now have two sides not agreeing with anything.

On September 12th 2015 at Long Beach Comic Con, the voice actors involved in a “Performance Matters” panel began talking about this whole situation, and it has come to light that the Union is now involved since the last round of talks in June had failed. The Union, as a Union does, has turned around and asked for a strike motion to be put to its members. As of this writing, it’s looking like the strike motion has passed… If the ‘Performance Matters’ hashtag is to be believed.

What are the demands from SAG-AFTRA?
SAG-AFTRA is after a whole bunch of things, mostly money and safety related. Which to be honest sounds pretty fair. They are also against some pretty outrageous demands from the games development industry, but then again, the only source of information about this is from the SAG-AFTRA developed website. So things might seem a bit one sided.

The demands from SAG-AFTRA are as follows:

  • For: Performance Bonuses

Now these are more commonly known as ‘residuals’ or ongoing payments made as more units of the product is sold. It’s a bonus like this which will keep actors in a constant flow of money if they make a hit TV show or movie.

They are asking that payments be made at the following sales/subscription milestones: 2 million, 4 million, 6 million, 8 million. This means games like Grand Theft Auto, Halo, Call of Duty, Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy, World of Warcraft, Tomb Raider, and Uncharted would have to pay out anywhere up to 4 times for every SAG-AFTRA voice actor used in the game. The SAG-AFTRA website says it’s only $3300 per payout, but that might not be highly accurate.

  • For: Vocal Stress, Stunt Coordinator & Transparency

Now I’m rolling 3 different demands into a single point because they are all about protection and safety of talent. Voice acting is a demanding job, many hours are spent in front of a microphone trying to capture exactly what is needed for the scene. This leads to many voice actors straining their voices to death. Currently, there is no limit on recording sessions at this stress level. SAG-AFTRA wants to limit them to 2 hours maximum per “stress session” as is the industry norm for things like animation for example. Also, If they are required to do one of these stress sessions, then of course, more money would be required.

Stunt Coordinators are the new addition to the medium. As technology has progressed, a lot of voice acting talent are now also dressed up in those weird suits with the little balls all over them and actually act out the movements of the character they are playing so we at home can get a more accurate performance out of their pixelated counterparts. Now where the Stunt Coordinator comes into it is that if a developer wants to put a talent into a wired harness and shoot them into the air for a fight scene that’ll be shown as a cutscene; then there is training and protection that is needed, as it is with any TV or movie production. A Stunt Coordinator would be required to train the talent in the method that is being used and also check the equipment and all that stuff.

Transparency looks to be something that is going to be one of the big debated topics. SAG-AFTRA want all their members to be made aware UP FRONT about exactly how many sessions are going to be needed, what the planned game rating is, why they are aiming for that rating, will there be offensive content, how stressful are the sessions going to be, etc. Now transparency is a good thing, but what is being asked here is full of unknowns. A game developer does not know up front what rating their game is going to be, as that’s in the hands of the body that rates video games and interactive media; plus not all countries will rate a game on the same level. As for the sessions and how stressful they will be, again this is an unknown. Sometimes retakes are needed late in development, sometimes the pitch or tone of a scene doesn’t work after it’s been recorded. There is no way that a game development team will know an exact number of recording sessions that’ll be needed or how stressful they will be till it happens.

As for ‘offensive content’… UGH! This is where the only sensitive nature of society once again rears its ugly head to ruin things. This thing only exists because of the #GamerGate fiasco that happened in 2014. Things like trigger words and inappropriate content differs from person to person, so does that mean the game companies need to make sure that they either change the scripts to suit the social ideals of the actor before this person will commit to the role? Probably.

  • Against: Fines

It seems that the gaming industry fines talent when they show up late, or are not paying attention to your work. To be honest, this looks unfair, but if you’re not doing your job, then you should be reprimanded for it. If you’re paying big money to hire someone to do something and they don’t show up on time or have more interest in their phone than the job, then sure, dock them some of their pay.

  • Against: Motion and Performance Capture replacement

Sometimes scenes don’t work the first time, but the voice acting does. So some companies will hire someone else to step into a characters shoes to do a retake of the scene or capture extra movements. THQ & 2K Games does this with WWE games. They will hire one or two guys from either within WWE to do some character specific capture work, then get some indie talent to come in and do the bulk of the moves at a reduced rate. SAG-AFTRA wants to stop this practice. If you hire Finn Balor to come in and do the move sets of himself, Hideo Itami, JBL & Stone Cold Steve Austin; then you’re in the wrong. If you want Stone Cold Steve Austin, then hire Stone Cold Steve Austin.

  • Against: Removal of Union Franchise

I don’t speak legal, so I have no real idea about this one. So here’s the copy/paste version:
“Our employers propose to fine your agent $50,000-100,000 if they don’t send you out on certain auditions (like Atmospheric Voices or One Hour One Voice sessions). And if your agent chooses not to submit you for certain auditions, the employers want it put into contract language that SAG-AFTRA will revoke the agent’s union franchise. This would mean your agency would not be able to send you or anyone else they represent out on any union jobs, including those in animation, TV/Film, Commercials, etc.”

Who are involved?
Basically anyone with a SAG-AFTRA membership. This includes people like: Tara Stong (Harley Quinn, X-23, Rikku), David Hayter (Solid Snake, Big Boss), Nolan “I’m 90% of video game voice acting” North, Erin Fitzgerald (Yvel), Crispin Freeman (Firefly, Itachi Uchiha), Phil Lamarr (Vamp, Kotal Kahn), Quinton Flynn (Nightwing, Axel, Raiden from MGS), Wil “Social justice & Felicia Day’s bitch” Wheaton, Ashly “I only get work because of my brother” Burch, and just about every other big name in the voice acting industry. Basically if there is a voice, these guys have the member for it.

What does this mean for Video Games?
Well the actual effects will not be known till a strike happens; at the moment it’s all speculation. Things can go a multitude of ways:

  1. The Strike happens

Anyone who remembers the 2007/2008 Writers strike will remember the effects. Shows were either cut short or cancelled, ratings plummeted, ad revenue dried up. It was a dark time for television. For games, this could be disastrous. While game delays are common in the industry, this could cripple a lot of big titles currently in development. Some will either lose their voice talent part way through, causing a massive delay; or some could be cancelled completely, or have roles replaced by non-Union talent which could result in a lower quality performance. Video games are not like TV, if you put them on hold for too long, you stand to make next to nothing back once the game finally goes on sale; and with games development being really expensive these days, companies cannot afford to have the strike happens.

  1. Games developers give into demands

As I just said, games development costs a lot. Some games range into the tens of millions if not hundreds of millions to produce. If the game developers give into the demands without question, then the development costs go up. All that extra stress pay, residuals, Stunt Coordinators, etc. It all has to come from somewhere, and I doubt that the companies behind the games are willing to see those nice fat profits take a hit. There’s a good chance that if these changes go through, then prices will have to go up to cover the extra cost. It might only be $10 a game, but tomorrow it might be $20, then $30, then $40. Next thing we know, games are costing $100+ each (which would kill me in Australia as it means we’d be paying $150+ locally).

Strikes are an interesting bargaining tool… if you could call it that. Personally, I see it as holding the industry hostage. Video games are a huge industry today, with budgets and sales that rival Hollywood films. With this should come conditions that treat the actors in the roles the same say as they are treated in the other entertainment medium. Performance does matter, and should be treated as such. However, by going down the strike route, SAG-AFTRA does more harm to the consumer than they do to the companies they are negotiating with. The added costs that SAG-AFTRA is after will again hurt the consumer.

I hope that both sides are able to come to the table and work things out. It’s going to take some backing down on both sides to reach a compromise, but in the end they should be putting the consumer, the real victim in all this, ahead of themselves and profits… If we only lived in that ideal world.

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About The Author

Karl Smart
Senior Editor / Reviewer

The main "Australian arm" of The Outerhaven. Karl primarily spends time playing and reviewing video games while taking time to occasionally review the latest movie or piece of gaming technology.