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Voice Acting and Game Development
by Jeff Spock on 12/08/09 04:25:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

The original article is here:

http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-ct-actors7-2009dec07,0,6235255,full.story

As I've written over dozen games and always been in the voice studio when the actors recorded their lines, I do have some knowledge of this.

The article says: "The concern going forward is that as these games become larger and larger and generate more income, we as actors won't see any more money when we walk out the door..."

I say: That's true, you won't. The quote is from Dave Wittenberg, a very talented actor that I have had the good fortune to work with. But I still don't agree with him. The fact is that the structures of the two industries are completely different.  GAMES ARE NOT MOVIES.

Games are software development projects, and the SAG seems to be pathologically incapable of understanding this. Movies are created by loosely federated groups of specialists who get together, make the movie, and disband. The people involved in the effort, from writers to electricians to actors, are represented by unions who ensure that they are treated fairly and receive downstream rights and revenues. This makes sense.

Games, however, are created by salaried employees working for studios. The revenue and profit sharing are completely different--again, like software companies. It is hard to argue that the actors, with their minimal parts in the overall game creation, should have more lucrative contracts than the game's designers and programmers.

The article says: "Before, you were doing three characters dying a horrible death. Now you're doing 20 characters dying a horrible death..."

I say: Crap.  No Dialog Director with a functioning brain makes an actor do "20 characters dying a horrible death." I don't know who invented that number, but in my thirty or so total days in the studio the most I have seen is an actor do is four characters.

In addition, asking a voice actor to do more than three voices is asking for trouble. There are some unusual voice talents who can do half a dozen and keep them distinct and differentiated, but they are so rare as to be almost non-existent. This statement is hyperbole, and did not help the article's credibility.

The article says: "...in the future, game makers will capture the facial expressions of actors for the eye and mouth movements of the animated characters whose voices they provide." This is an argument, for the reporter, indicating that actors should therefore be paid more.

I say: The reporter knows nothing about the industry they are covering; we have been doing this in games for several years. It's another ding to the article's legitimacy. Furthermore, it does not change one iota the fact that it still represents an infinitesimal part of the development cost in an industry that has a completely different structure from film and TV.

There were of course some valid points in the article. I agree that the actors should get a high daily rate, simply because they are doing freelance work and there are no residuals. It is also true that games are moving to a more cinematic style of storytelling, which will require more and better use of skilled actors.

But I feel that the reporter did a poor job of verifying their facts, and seemed more interested in presenting the plight of the actors than actually trying to figure out what the realities of game development are, and why the two sides disagree.


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Comments


Ben Hopper
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You make a lot of good points. You should write a letter to the editor or the writer of this story.

Erik Carlson
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"Games, however, are created by salaried employees working for studios. The revenue and profit sharing are completely different--again, like software companies."



While this is technically true, it is also true that many studios fire a massive proportion of their workforce after a project concludes. These employees, often making up a vast majority of the workforce for a given studio, are de-facto specialists hired for a specific contract regardless of how the official paperwork is handled.



While I generally agree with your article and think voice talent makes up a miniscule fraction of the effort put into game production I think the labor situation is a lot blurrier than you make it out to be.

Dominic Cianciolo
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Actually, you need to read the article more carefully. You accuse the reporter of pushing an agenda when he is simply reporting a controversy.



In your post, you write:



[The article says: "...in the future, game makers will capture the facial expressions of actors for the eye and mouth movements of the animated characters whose voices they provide." This is an argument, for the reporter, indicating that actors should therefore be paid more. ]



Well, read again. First, it's not the reporter making this statement. It's a paraphrase of a quote from the EA employee quoted for the article. Second, the reporter then goes on to say



"That's one reason backers of the agreement -- including negotiators for both actors unions -- argue that the most important goal right now is to give the companies more incentive to hire union talent."



The reporter isn't making a statement of opinion, he's reporting on what the union reps are trying to guarantee on the deal. That as the acting requirements become more sophisticated, that the unions' artists are the ones getting the gigs. Paid more? Of course. But that's what unions are for.



Couple of other things:



You make the assertion that games are economically different from movies, particularly how games are made (employees at companies vs. contractors). While this has been historically true, so did it also used to be true in the movie business before the collapse of the studio system. And the same thing is happening here in games. With the massive push to outsource, and keep game teams small, we're seeing a full-scale assault on the employee-company model of game development. Personally, i think it's unwise given the inherent issues of game development. But that doesn't mean it isn't going to happen. I don't have a beef with the unions wanting to protect their talent for the future.



Finally, you make much about the fact that vo actors don't put in the same hour as developers and therefore don't deserve more money. While it's true that the actors' relative share of profit shouldn't be the same as those who put in the lion's share of the money, I don't see how that requires the actors being excluded entirely. While their contribution is small relative to other members of the game team, they play a vital role. It deserves to be rewarded accordingly.

Jeff Spock
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Dominic, it seems to me that the reason reporters use quotes is to emphasize and legitimize the points they are making. I took issue with the "facial expressions" quote for its lack of accuracy, first, and for the fact that it did not seem to add any additional arguments, second.



I happen to have no problem hiring union talent and paying them a hefty daily rate (as I stated)--I have spent enough time in both full-body and facial mocap sessions as well as VO recording to appreciate a well-played role. But the fact of the matter is that today--regardless of historical situations--the 'software business model' is how games are made and how game studios are remunerated.



VO actors play a key role; while good ones cannot necessarily save a game, bad ones can sink it. But there is a fundamental piece of the risk/reward equation that is missing here. To come in for five days and receive 4,000 dollars is secure, low-risk work. A programmer who gains that same money in six to eight weeks of sixty-hour 'crunch' work as a salaried employee--who may get 'downsized' when the project is over--is so far ahead of the actor on the 'risk' end of the scale that the comparison is embarrassing.



I think we agree on a fundamental element of this discussion--that the VO actors play a key role in game quality, and deserve to be well paid for it. But I think we differ on the overall value of their role in the scope of game production, and on the equivalent remuneration that they as artists should expect.

Evan Newton
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As a game industry insider as well as a former working voice actor, I agree with you on most points. However, the pitfall that you are wavering over is the desire to dismiss how important voice acting is to the game world. Software development for the most part seems to have this strange perception.



Overall, yes, acting is not nearly as important in games as it is in TV and Movies. But, consider it a bit of a role reversal. Is a video editor any less important to the overall feel of a movie?



One of my biggest complaints with recording for studios in general, is that there is a pathological need to have actors who 'hit it perfect on the first try.' True, there are many voice actors who can read straight through without any mistakes while hitting the most important emotional notes. However, there isn't much desire to do takes. What about trying different styles of emotion? Allow the actors to flex a little acting muscle (example: Gary Oldman was asked early on to play the part of Reznov in CoD: World at War. He had a key role in the development of the character, and as such, his voice acting is superb in the game, and the character has since made a huge impact for the series.)



Voice Actors should also be judged by the ability to add depth and personality--and game developers should design for that kind of flexibility. Imagine the level of depth that could be achieved.

Haris Orkin
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I read this article with a lot of interest as well. I've spent hundreds of hours in the studio with actors for games as well as animation and commercials. SAG truly doesn't understand the model for game production and the top actors do tend believe they're being underpaid for time spent in the studio. (ThoughI believe celebrities used in-games are being ridiculously overpaid. I seriously doubt they're presence has a huge impact on sales...unless of course, it's licensed game like "24.")



Where in a TV show or a movie, the actors are the stars...not so in a game. The actors are the frosting on top the gaming goodness below. Unless they're gamers themselves, and I've met very few actors who are gamers, they just don't understand this.



Now of course Drake's Fortune wouldn't be the game it is without Nathan Drake and the actor who plays him, Nolan North. Now if there's a Drake 3, and I'm sure they're will be, Nolan may be negotiate himself a larger piece of the pie. He's part of the franchise and because of that, he's made himself more valuable. So I can see actor's who establish themselves in franchises asking for more. But as 80 percent of games apparently use non-Union actors, most actors just don't have the leverage to ask for more. The more they ask for, the fewer Union actors will be used. That's not good for them. And that's not good for us.



This sticking point in the negotiation are the atmosphere roles and I was really looking forward to bringing actors in under that designation. Those atmosphere roles are akin to extra's in a movie or TV show and should be paid as such. Actors see the budgets and sales figures touted in the press to boost stock prices, but not every game is Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty MW2. Game budgets can be pretty tight and voice acting is just one tiny part of the whole. If they don't get a better handle on their part of the process, they're going to bargain themselves right out of the business. And that would be ashame.



I totally agree with Evan Newton that we can take better advantage of the actor's creativity and ability to add depth and personality to our characters. I run my sessions the way Evan suggests. Sometimes I actually rehearse with some actors ahead of time, before we even get in the studio. (SAG has no provison for this. It's up to the individual actor if they want to participate.) But this can be expensive.



Great acting in a game, like the acting in Drake's Fortune and Assassin's Creed 2, really makes a huge difference. But it doesn't make the game. For instance I loved the writing and acting in Brutal Legend...the game play...not so much...so I never made it to the end of the story.

Dominic Cianciolo
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I have to fundamentally disagree with this comment:



"Overall, yes, acting is not nearly as important in games as it is in TV and Movies."



If anything, vocal work is more important in games than it is in TV or movies. Due to the technical limitations in our medium, our characters are much less expressive than they should be. Bone counts, frame rates, etc. all limit the possibilities. VO performers have to make up for a lot of our other limits.



That doesn't mean that actors should be getting paid "star" money or that they are the primary creative forces in game dev. Clearly that's not the case. Personally, I would never hire an "A List" actor for a game role. The added cost would never be borne out with additional sales. But i also don't see why this should preclude actors from sharing in the financial upside of a project, even if it's at a much lower rate given the much smaller role they play in the production. (This refers to "lead" actors, not atmosphere of course.)



We also need to recognize the actor's craft as integral to the game's art, not simply mere "frosting". Proper rehearsal, sufficient time in the studio, and an awareness of how their craft assists us in creative immersive interactive experiences are critical.



Finally Jeff, you mention your response:



"VO actors play a key role; while good ones cannot necessarily save a game, bad ones can sink it. But there is a fundamental piece of the risk/reward equation that is missing here. To come in for five days and receive 4,000 dollars is secure, low-risk work."



I'm not sure I've ever had anyone call acting "secure, low-risk work". :)



When the gig on your game ends, that actor has to find another job. He/she doesn't get months or years of employment off of one project. That one gig that the an actor may get for $4000 may be the only acting gig he/she get for months. There are, of course, actors who are constantly working. But that's a small minority. For most actors, for every five day gig that he/she gets, there are weeks of auditions, networking, pavement pounding, craft development, etc. Most actors, except for those at the very top, barely scratch out a living doing their chosen work. And it's not because they aren't good actors. The business is extremely harsh and arbitrary.



Don't get me wrong, I think the point you raise is valid: But I think what it really shows is that programmers need to be paid more, not actors less. ;)

K B
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I had to think about what we could afford in the way of audio for a small indie project I'm working on and it really highlighted the issue of an audio budget. Although there is no arguing the fact that music, sound effects and voice acting would add quite a bit to the game and are certainly valuable, it was the one element that we could do without entirely if we had to.



To illustrate that point, I think back on all the games I played completely muted while I either played music from my own collection or had TV running in the background. While a few games such as Rock Band rely so heavily on the audio that the game simply wouldn't work without it, a vast majority of the games out there can be played (and more importantly, still enjoyed) without the audio. Very few games can be played without video of some kind and the game wouldn't even exist if it weren't for the programmers.



So while I whole heartedly support talented voice actors and believe they should be paid well for their work, from a player point of view I have to keep my priorities in perspective and budget my project accordingly. If I can get away with dialogue or a cinematic that is subtitled, voice acting really does become the last of many luxuries for my game.

Alexander Brandon
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Excellent points all, Jeff. Great analysis. There are currently efforts under way to bring more information to the unions and also more information to game companies about the issues facing voice acting.

Jonathan Osment
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I am curious how this touches on the root of the issue rather than the "he said, I say" approach. For an industry that supposedly brings in more revenue than the film, tv and radio industries combined... Developers sure are paid very little. So the questions then are, should developers have their own "SAG"? Are unions a good thing? and finally is this system found in the game industry even good? Like Dominic pointed out, how can developers get paid more and not voice actors less?

Joe McGinn
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>>But I think we differ on the overall value of their role in the scope of game production, and on the equivalent remuneration that they as artists should expect.



What they "should expect" is a meaningless idea, has nothing to do with anything. There is what you can negotiate for, nothing more nothing less. Since actors are smart enough to negotiate as a unit, they can get residuals.



Maybe it's not that voice actors should get a worse deal, but developers should get a better one? You say we're full-time employees and while that's true, there is VERY little stability or safety in a full-time role in this business, layoffs are all too common.



So perhaps a more interesting way of looking at this issue would be to ask, "Why are voice actors smart enough to negotiate for residuals but game developers (artists, programmers designers) are not?"

Jeff Spock
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At the moment, there are no residuals that I know of for any artistic work done by freelancers on a video game (graphic artist, writer, actor, etc.).



The question of 'expectation' was raised by the article, and my general point is that the current structure of the game business does not lend itself to fulfilling these expectations...


none
 
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