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SAG-AFTRA's new agreement opens doors for small-budget and indie games

SAG-AFTRA's new agreement opens doors for small-budget and indie games

October 29, 2018 | By Katherine Cross

October 29, 2018 | By Katherine Cross
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More: Indie, Business/Marketing



A groundbreaking new SAG-AFTRA agreement for low-budget and indie game productions has been unveiled, providing a one-size-fits-most framework for employing unionized actors—from mo-cap actors, to voice actors, to singers.

“This agreement shows a real respect for and desire to work with independent developers,” a SAG-AFTRA spokesperson told Gamasutra. “Our members are continuing to find meaningful and creative projects to work on where they are partnering with devs on character development and nuanced performances, which isn’t always available [when] working on AAA titles.”

Two years in the making, and spearheaded by the efforts of voice actors like Sarah Elmaleh, Crispin Freeman, Jennifer Hale, and Courtenay Taylor, the contract allows unionized actors to work at competitive rates affordable to the lowest budget productions, generously defined as being projects with a budget below USD$1.5 million U.S. dollars (a producer’s guide can be found here).

“The devs are getting access to world-class talent,” the spokesperson added, “whose credits and name recognition can be helpful to lure fans to the game, which they otherwise might not have discovered.”

Under these new rates, a union actor can be hired for $825.50 to give a four hour voice session or eight hour motion-capture session. Alternatively, the pay schedule allows for a two hour session for $412.75, which is a notable change from the standard agreement and its four hour minimum. This was implemented as a way of accommodating the smaller size and scope of indie games.

In addition to these rates, a 15.5 percent contribution to the AFTRA health and retirement fund is required. That guaranteed contribution illustrates why such an agreement might be attractive to actors, ensuring every hour of their work contributes to both their healthcare and a pension.

 
"The growls, grunts, screams, anguished cries, impersonations of monstrous or alien voices, and guttural ululations in countless games come from a person, after all."

Further, for vocally stressful work, the agreement also requires that a two hour session pay $825.50, with a mandated break after the first hour. Provisions like these mirror those being fought for by SAG-AFTRA during their recent strike against major video game studios, highlighting an issue often invisible to those outside of the field: some forms of voice acting are physically straining and stressful. The growls, grunts, screams, anguished cries, impersonations of monstrous or alien voices, and guttural ululations in countless games come from a person, after all. Many striking actors argued that working conditions should reflect that.

Indeed, the new agreement is something of a ‘start-from-scratch’ model of the strike demands. Transparency, vocal safety, and secondary payments—all key asks from the union—are reflected here. The secondary payment schedule for indies in the new agreement mandates that profits be shared with the vocal talent at certain generous thresholds, starting at 500,000 sales/unique subscriptions, when an additional $206.38 must be paid at every 500k interval up to two million sales/subscriptions. This being said, the agreement also notes that “SAG-AFTRA understands that various revenue models are available and is open to negotiate revenue share options.” This models a key demand from the strike: that voice actors aren’t left out of the profits if a game is a runaway hit.

But what this new agreement does is integrate these concerns with the needs of small or indie projects, allowing voice actors who enjoy the protection of a union to work on low-budget games. Speaking to Gamasutra, Sarah Elmaleh, who’s provided voice work for Gone Home, Exapunks, and Pyre said “The only apprehension I had in joining the union was missing out on this whole burgeoning space of ambitious artistic expression. Coming out of indies and loving them, and not wanting to lose them as I scale up.”

Under the previous system, she said, “[Indies] would have had to use the standard agreement with the higher rate tied to a session minimum/window that is less flexible and less frequently necessary, in my experience.” For indie developers, the big advantage here is, precisely, that flexibility: more choice in working hours and a lower baseline cost.

The new agreement also provides a smoother onramp into the union for newer, less established talent who might only be able to work on small and independent projects, lessening the risk of a two-tier system where only the lavish funding of a AAA studio could afford talent like Elmaleh’s or Jennifer Hale’s. It is also a sign of flexibility; the agreement is responding to the shape of the game industry as it is, in its diversity, rather than a 20th century model of a Nintendo-sized corporation making mass market games. There was already some precedent and scope for this with how SAG-AFTRA handled film projects that weren’t Hollywood blockbusters, but now video games have caught up.

 
"Independent development in all its forms thrives on access to technology, tools, and talent."

“For indie games, specifically, of course, there's an art to classifying projects that really challenges norms of format, genre, audience,” Elmaleh told me. Finessing that art was made easier, she told me, because of the input of several game developers—she coordinated consultations with “upwards of twenty,” while union reps were in contact with others. Their feedback led to material changes to the agreement that, ultimately, benefited indie devs and met their unique needs. This was confirmed by the SAG-AFTRA spokesperson, who told me, “we’ve increased the budget cap, removed a time limit, and restructured the contingent compensation terms. We’ve had more than 30 games sign to the agreement so far and we continue to get feedback and data from each dev we work with.”

The agreement was also successfully implemented in Good Shepherd Entertainment’s Where the Water Tastes Like Wine and Zachtronics’ Exapunks (Elmaleh acted in both games under this contract). “Working with SAG-AFTRA on Where the Water Tastes Like Wine was a wonderful experience,” Wine’s project lead, Johnnemann Nordhagen, told me, mirroring comments he made to the union which they’ve used in recent presentations about the agreement at conventions like IndieCade. “The new Low-Budget Agreement put all of this within reach for an indie game.”

All these points were echoed by Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail, who also consulted on the agreement, and expressed his “pleasure” at working with SAG-AFTRA. “Independent development in all its forms thrives on access to technology, tools, and talent,” he told Gamasutra, adding, “I can’t wait to see what games get dreamt up with the full range of acting talent now easily available and within reach.”

***

It’s been weeks of often bruising debates about working conditions for developers at big studios like Rockstar, (and yes, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve taken a clear side on that particular question). In such a climate this new SAG-AFTRA agreement emerged with less fanfare, despite its far-reaching implications. It’s an earnest affair, aimed at bridging a divide that some have used to argue against unionisation in the industry; wildly variable budgets, project types, and a bustling indie scene of individuals and small shops all seemed designed to thwart and aggravate the uniformity of classic trade unionism. But this new low-budget agreement seems to offer a way forward. For Elmaleh, she said joining her union left her “feeling good about doing everything above board and being part of a stable, sustainable industry baseline for my peers.”

Now there’s a new baseline for young actors working on the homespun indie projects she cut her teeth on.

“There is a kind of opportunity with indies to really dream up what the best case looks like for everyone,” Elmaleh told me. “They're agile and reinventing the wheel themselves, and I have this unflagging optimism that together we have this ability to share our needs and desires in good faith, to shape new healthy norms together.”

Amid the rancour of the past week there is, perhaps, a lesson to be found here.

Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student at the University of Washington who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.



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