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Giving Games A Voice: Sony's Dialog Manager Greg deBeer Speaks
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Giving Games A Voice: Sony's Dialog Manager Greg deBeer Speaks

May 28, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

As the discussion of the improvement of storytelling in games heats up, one of the most crucial factors to address is the acting that carries those stories.

Just as the artists on the team must strive to create believable and compelling characters, and writers must pen dialog that holds players' attention, the voice actors who lend those characters their voices must fulfill the quality of those digital performances.

Here, SCEA Foster City dialog manager Greg deBeer discusses the evolution of the art, taking into consideration all facets of how these dialog-based experiences are created. He looks toward the future of the art, and describes Sony's techniques to improve its cinematic storytelling -- seen in games such as the God of War series and Uncharted: Drake's Fortune.

Which titles are you in charge of? Are you in charge of all dialog for Sony's U.S. studios?

Greg deBeer: The dialog group is a service group within Sony Computer Entertainment. Our internal and external production titles have the opportunity to use the group for any one of our services. There's the dialog group, there's motion capture, there's our sound group, cinematics group, and multimedia group, which does a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff.

Probably, I'd say 80 percent of the titles that SCEA is involved with -- either through internal or external studios -- we help out in some capacity with the dialog. That includes the SOCOM franchise, the God of War franchise... we helped Naughty Dog with Uncharted, some of the sports games...

I know some of the audio stuff is done down in San Diego, at that studio.

GD: Yeah. We have audio people in Foster City, Santa Monica, and San Diego, and we have dialog people working in Foster City and Santa Monica at the moment within my group, and in San Diego, there are sports-specific dialog designers that report to a different manager down there.

Dialog is something that I've been interested in, because it used to be, in my opinion, really bad, and it has been slowly getting better, but it's still got a ways to go, depending on title to title. God of War was a quite good one, though. To start, how long have you been doing this?

GD: When I first started in the industry at a company called NovaLogic in '99, I was hired as a sound designer, but I came from an art school -- Cal Arts. I was at Cal Arts, and I got onto the middle of a project, and sound design was almost done, and they still needed to do some dialog points, so they put me on that. So that was really my first trial by fire experience with dialog.

We then started up another project called Tachyon: The Fringe, and that was the company's first dialog-heavy, truly creative... it was a military-style [simulation game] company, and this was a very creative venture for them, and they needed a lot of very specific actors for it.

NovaLogic's Tachyon: The Fringe

Having gone to Cal Arts, I was friends with a lot of people in the theater department, and I was able to get them in quickly and relatively easily and relatively cheaply. They just wanted to get their names out there and get some credits. So that was my first relatively large project with casting and directing and getting people involved.

So I've been doing it for I guess about eight years now, and yeah, it's been getting a lot better. I think the biggest shift that a lot of people agree with is that there's a steady trend away from the thought that anybody can do dialog.

When I first started even at Sony, most of the games were handled by people at the office. We'd find people like, "Oh yeah, you did some voices for that punching game, so why don't you come over and take a half-day off from doing level design and do a couple of voices for us?" We slowly realized that we couldn't do that anymore. As story and dialog became more integral to games, we had to move towards professional talent, and that's what we've been doing.

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Eric Webb
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Brilliant interview. Brilliant points made Greg DeBeer.

I work for Total Casting and Agile Sound and we specialize in voice casting and recording for video games and animation as well as advertising and such.

This was by far the most insightful and comprehensive article about voice work in video games that I’ve ever read. I can only hope that more producers like Mr. DeBeer will contribute their knowledge to articles like this because voice in video games is something that is often criticized but rarely addressed.

Having acted as the casting director and as a voice director for a number of games I can concur with every thing that he said. I’d like to take this opportunity to expand on some of those things and add a few extra points.

FILM ACTORS VS. VOICE ACTORS: I’ve worked with actors who are phenomenal on stage or in front of the camera, but who then have a complete breakdown in the studio. Voice acting is a whole different beast. In theater you need to communicate to the back row so your required to use your whole body. Film allows the use of subtlety and facial expression. In both cases you usually have the advantage of other actors or a set, but with voice you’re in a void. You have to create everything in your mind. You have to see the battlefield, you have to feel the rain, you have to smell the sweat, all while standing alone in what feels a lot like a fish tank. But sometimes you’ve got to use what you’ve got. What I’ve learned is that actors (the good ones) love information, so tell them as much about their character and the settings as possible. Give them something to build on. To help the actors that I worked with during the last game we did, I sent each actor a detailed history of each character and their relationships with the other characters, along with the script (this was aided by the fact that each character was based on real historical figures). While in studio I had a full color print out of each character ready so that when the actor had to interact with another character they actually had “someone” to talk to. [NOTE: budgetary restraints often don't allow more than one actor to be in the recording booth at once though whne possible that would definatly be the preference.]

I also try to bring in props when possible. Its amazing to see what a difference it makes in an actor's performance when the have something tactile to draw on. [NOTE: Be very careful if you’re using swords.)

I also try to stay away from radio personalities or people who spend most of their time doing commercial voice-overs. They’ve trained themselves to speak in a way that suits that type of work to the point where its very difficult for them to break. They are very good at what they do but when it comes to character work every sentence ends in a overly warm tone and tends to sound like a radio ad for Larry’s Used Mattress Emporium. Very few are able to break out of what I refer to as “The FM disease” and trying to combat it in studio can be really time consuming and crippling to the production so be vary wary with that type of voice talent.

BIG NAME ACTORS: Unnecessary. No one will ever buy a game because of the voice cast. It just will not happen. Its not that kind of medium. Good actors do contribute to the overall quality of the game and can make it more enjoyable, but it will always be about the game. Having a big name talent will not affect the dollars that the title brings, but will substantially (in most cases) increase the cost. The only time that a celebrity talent should be brought in is when the game is based on a pre-existing IP like a movie or TV show, so as to maintain continuity.

Should actors get residuals? Only if everyone else who worked on the game does. Actors (the good ones) work very hard and have the ability to really raise the quality of a game, but at the end of the day their contribution is less than 5% of the overall game development.

This is not film, this is video games, and they cannot be treated the way simply because the buying patterns of the masses are based on entirely different criteria. (I’M LOOKING AT YOU HOLLICK!!!)

CASTING: We’ve done the casting for everything from major feature films to voice recognition systems, so we’ve worked with people from all different kinds of production backgrounds and what I’ve come to realize is that this tends to be a very misunderstood process. It’s a great deal more than listening through a bunch of voice demos or arranging auditions. Someone who is well versed in the casting process will be able to more accurately aid in the choice of the actors for each role.

A casting director looks out for more than just the type of voice. A casting director will be able to tell (in most cases before the actor even says a line) if the actor has the confidence, intelligence, demeanor and ability to pull of a full character. There are actors who audition very well rattling of a few lines in a convincing manner, and may be chosen based on their auditon, but are unable to maintain that character for a 1000 lines.

The job of the casting director is to help the producer make as informed a choice as possible based on their experience with actors and their ability to read into how an actor performs in audition and not just what comes out of their mouths.

One of the best things that a producer can do is to get the casting process started early on. Because voice is one of the last things added to a game, it is usually the last thing that is tended to. By this time game devs are usually in a crunch to meet their deadlines and as a result the casting process is rushed, which limits your options for the cast.

We once had to cast 30 roles in less than a week and a half. Yes it can be done, but it can also be done better with more time.

Casting is usually going to cost you the same amount if you start it early on and take your time with it or if you cram it into the end of the production. So it doesn’t have to depend on the budget. The casting process can start as early as once the characters designs and their personalities are finalized.

The bigger devs like Sony, EA, Sierra and Ubisoft may not fall into this category because they have a much larger cache to draw upon for audio. But this is one way that the smaller devs can get the voice work in their games to a level comparable with the bigger studios without any additional costs.

This would also give the actors more time to work on developing their character which really helps, especially is cases where they see the script for the first time the day that they walk into record.

SCRIPT: When making Star Wars, Harrison Ford famously remarked to George Lucas with regards to the dialogue that “You can write it, but you can’t say it.” I’ve been given scripts with lines that Laurence Olivier couldn’t deliver without it sounding like it might go nicely with crackers and a dry wine.

Good voice acting starts with the script. Most smaller devs can’t always afford high caliber writers to bang out an entire script, but one thing that they can do that would cost a great deal less would be to bring in a script doctor or dialogue specialist to work on the script once the staff writers have finished it.

With regards to the format of the script, Greg had a great point when he said that he would love to get the lines put together in more a “movie script” format that would be more familiar to the actors and therefore easier for them to deal with. While this is a great idea and would certainly help the actors, the extra costs involved would probably make it prohibitive to the smaller devs and most likely, unfortunately, will not become a standard method of operations.

How ever there are only really two major issues with how the scripts generally are in there current state.

First, the lack of setting and scene description. This is where the need for a really good director comes in. With the information provided by the producer the directors job is to convey what’s going on to the actor. Not necessarily the details, but the mood and motivation of the scene and its relation to the overall story. As well as to be able explain the gameplay and how it works.

Its important to have a director who is not only articulate and creative but is good with critical thinking as well. Sometimes it can be difficult trying to explain something that is seemingly very simple and obvious to you, but the actor just can’t lock on to it and it feels like trying to explain the color blue to someone who’s never seen it. “Think purple, but with less red.”

The other issue with game scripts in the current format is the way that lines are often broken up, sometimes seemingly random and often non-linier.

Again this is a completely different medium from film. While there are traditional “scenes” in video games a lot the voice in the game (dependant of the type of game, naturally) will be heard based on a “trigger” (i.e. character opens box and sees a clue and we hear a piece of dialogue in reaction). If the actor is a gamer its going to be much easier for him/her to understand the purpose of the line, how the audience/player will take in this information and its importance to the gameplay, and they will be able to inflect their performance more accurately.

So one of the first questions that I ask an actor when they come in to audition for a video game is “Do you play video games?” The answer to this will be either a plus or minus when assessing the actor during the casting process. If they say no, I suggest a few titles in the same genre that we’re auditioning for so that they can get a better grasp.

I’d like to go on further about other aspects of voice production but this comment is already long enough as it is.

If anyone reading this has any questions I’d be happy to answer them. Just send me an email to

Again I’d like to thank Greg and Brandon for a terrific article. I hope we see more like this in the future.

Best regards,

Eric Webb