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Benson Russell, a game industry veteran, who has contributed his work to some of the most biggest games like The Last Of Us, Uncharted series and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare presented his view on #PerformanceMatters picket in social media. The artist states that there is another way to look at the problem.
My reasons for writing this piece stem from the fact that most of what I see going around regarding the strike is from the SAG-AFTRA and actors’ side of things, with developers mostly keeping their comments to Facebook, forum posts, and Twitter replies. Some of the things I’ve read are starting to frame this strike as if it’s the Rebels (SAG-AFTRA and the actors) vs. the Empire (game developers and studios). Courting public opinion is always important in these matters, so while I understand why it’s happening, I take umbrage with it as there’s a lot more to this situation than what is getting talked about, and we’re mostly hearing from only one perspective. Hence I wanted to provide another perspective for people to consider, along with pointing out some of the problems and possible solutions with what’s been proposed, as well as how things currently work.
I should also note that I personally know and am friends with several actors, and I do consider their contributions invaluable to our industry. I do have disagreements with what’s being talked about and proposed, hence I wanted to address that, along with suggesting ideas on what I think would be fair.
Why is it always about the money?
I’ve heard this question come up more than a few times, especially when an article or piece comes out regarding the strike. They’ll even ask to just focus on the non-compensation issues so they can have a dialog about them, but of course it invariably comes back to a conversation regarding the Benjamins!
So let me address why I think this happens. The reason being is that most developers I know agree with all of the non-compensation issues.
Vocal safety: Yup! It’s a no brainer.
Stunt coordinator: Yup! My only issue is to make sure that there are more specific conditions on when one has to be hired so it’s not abused. For example, if a session is about getting a few walk/run cycles, or going up and down stairs or a box, that doesn’t warrant paying a person to stand there and do nothing for a day. But if it involves dangerous things like wire work, fight choreography, falling off a 1 story platform or higher, etc…, then definitely one needs to be there. *NOTE* I do not personally know of a project that forced a mocap actor into doing something they’re not comfortable with. The directors I know have always listened to and respected the actor’s limits and would specifically hire stunt people to do this kind of work. But it is good to have concrete guidelines for people to follow.
Transparency: Yup, we just need to figure out a solution that works for everybody as the videogames industry works differently than TV and movies.
Drop the fees for bad performances: I can only think of 2 reasons why these fees were added. The first is as a negotiating tactic, as in something to be removed as a concession. The second could be due to some bad experiences with A-list actors that have happened. I know of two different projects where A-list actors were involved and acted unprofessionally. In both cases they were a part of a movie-game deal, were both paid a lot of money, both thought videogames were stupid and didn’t care for them, and both phoned in their performances (I don’t remember for certain, but I think at least one of their performances had to be re-done with another actor). In both cases the A-list actors got paid regardless and wasted a big chunk of the VO budget. Hence I could understand if these fees were added to help protect against these kinds of situations, but the wording is far too vague and the potential for abuse exists! So it sounds like it just needs to be reworded so it can work fairly for everybody.
Drop the fees if actors don’t come to every audition: Yeah, another no-brainer, not sure what they were thinking here, unless it’s another negotiating tactic.
So since it seems most devs are agreed on these non-compensation issues, the only thing left to talk about is the money aspect.
Now before moving on, I wanted to address a few of the theories and statements I’ve heard floating around regarding the strike.
Devs are just jealous because they don’t have a union
Ummm…. Flat out HELL no! This is a hotly debated topic within the videogames industry, and there are many devs that think unionizing is a bad idea (full disclosure, I am one of them). So seeing articles stating that devs are being spiteful out of petty jealousy for not having a union to negotiate for better working conditions and pay is ridiculous. For many of us, this is about what is fair compensation for the work done.
Videogame studios don’t want to give in as it could cause a landfall effect of devs unionizing and asking for the same compensation and treatment
There might be something to this, but as I stated in my previous point, a good chunk of devs already don’t want to unionize. And with regards to residuals, most studios I know of already offer some type of bonus program based around an individual’s contribution and how well the game sells. Videogame studios have begun to realize that to keep their talent, they need to offer good compensation packages. And with regards to the long crunch time hours, this is also a hotly debated topic within the videogame industry that not everybody believes should be, or even can be fixed (full disclosure, I think crunch is bad and can be fixed).
It’s about getting a fair wage for the work done
The current VO rate is just over $200 / hour, with a minimum session being a 4 hour block (so about $825 guaranteed for one session). The question has to be asked, what other jobs pay this? Even at the $15/hour fair minimum wage that’s being proposed, the most that would earn is $120 for an 8 hour day! And keep in mind this is for whether or not the actor worked the full 4 hours, meaning if there’s only enough work to fill 30 minutes, they still get paid the 4 hour block! I do not know of many jobs that will pay at minimum $825 for a day of work that involves the equivalent of using one’s voice. I’d say that by any standard this is well beyond receiving a fair wage for the work given.
Now with regards to whether or not actors should get some form of residuals, I’ll go into that more later.
It’s about paying the actor for the time when they’re not working
Hold up… an actor chooses the life of a contractor, and this is how it is across all industries for contractors. The employer’s job is to pay at least a fair wage (which it very much well is currently), and the contractor’s job is to make sure they have work lined up for themselves. There is no other industry where a contractor gets to complain about not having more work lined up, and then expects this to be a valid reason for an employer to pay more than what they’re worth and what the job calls for. Hence this is a bit disingenuous.
A need for understanding
SAG-AFTRA have stated that they want to see the videogames industry come up to the standards that they’ve created with TV and Movies (and get with the 21st century). The big problem with this is that SAG-AFTRA and the actors need to understand that the videogames industry does not operate in the same way. To attempt to create a contract under that assumption is wrong for all parties involved.
The first thing to understand is that the revenue streams are completely different with videogames. TV and Movies have multiple streams that are all quite lucrative. They have an initial release (box office or first airing), followed by physical media sales and rentals, digital sales and rentals, streaming sales, and re-broadcasting / syndication sales. All of these bring in a healthy chunk of revenue, and with the actors being the key contributors, they deserve a piece of these revenue streams. The vast majority of games have only an initial release, with little opportunity to create more revenue streams afterwards. There are ways to extend the life cycle of a game such as discount pricing and remastering a title in later generations, but the profits are much less. And while you might mention DLC, these are new products, not re-releases. The other few models that also need to be considered are free-to-play with microtransactions, and subscription (which bring a different layer of complexity with regards to what’s fair for all parties).
Also something to note regarding revenue streams. By SAG-AFTRAs own guidelines, residuals are not paid until after the initial release (you can see them here)
It’s not until the project hits the mentioned alternate revenue streams for TV and Movies that any type of residual kicks in. This would mean that without a custom contract, actors that worked on movie blockbusters such as the Marvel movies would not receive any residuals on the money made for the theatrical release. Since the majority of games (and the ones SAG-AFTRA sight as examples) only have an initial release, by their own standards no residuals would ever be paid. So by SAG-AFTRA claiming it only wants the standard contract for videogames to follow their established standards for TV and Movies, it reinforces how SAG-AFTRA does not fully understand how the videogames industry works.
The second thing to understand is that with TV and movies, the key components are the writers and the actors. While directors and editors are also important, the project can survive if these are meh. But it will be guaranteed to fail if the writers and actors are bad. Their contribution to a project is paramount and of utmost importance, and their compensation reflects this as it should. Also actors are much more involved with, and have a lot more time investment working directly on the project. Hence they deserve to share in a project’s success, and they’re very much well used to that.
In videogames, the gameplay experience is the key component, and that is created by the developers. Speaking in broad terms, for ~95% of the games released, the acting hardly contributes to the gameplay experience (arguably if at all). As in you could replace or remove it entirely and the quality and success of the project wouldn’t be impacted. I know this sounds harsh, but that is the nature of the medium and what are its key components to success. So for these types of games the acting definitely fits a work-for-hire model.
The last 5% of games where performance does matter are the games that SAG-AFTRA and actors mention in their examples (games like The Uncharted series, The Last Of Us, Grand Theft Auto, etc…). And even with these games, it is only a very small subset where the success and quality of the product would truly suffer from a bad performance. For heavy story and narrative focused games like The Last Of Us, Gone Home, and Firewatch, the story is the key component of the gameplay experience. And while a game like Grand Theft Auto does benefit from a good story and acting, they’re not key contributors to the gameplay experience and success of the project (but they do contribute more than the aforementioned 95% of games, so that needs to be accounted for). So it’s these games where we need to come up with something fair for both the studios, developers, and the actors.
So what’s the problem?
Residual compensation is always based on a person’s contribution to a project, regardless of industry. The main factors it takes into account are how much time did someone investment working on the project, and what was that person’s impact on the success of the project. This is across all industries when it comes to any form of profit sharing.
So let’s dig a little deeper into these aspects.
So first it should be noted that even the SAG-AFTRA guidelines for TV and Movie residual calculations state that time spent on a project is considered as part of their formula, which can be seen here under “What factors are my residuals based on?”.
So if it’s something they’re already taking into consideration on TV and Movies, then it needs to be taken into consideration for videogames as well.
Now before continuing, I know the subject of crunch time and the very long hours devs work has been brought up on many occasions in this debate. For the sake of this discussion I don’t want to touch on that as it’s a complex issue warranting its own space. Also some people feel that the conditions that devs accept to work under shouldn’t be influencing how actors are compensated, which is a fair point.
So even just assuming that only 40 hour work weeks were put into a project, the amount of time an actor invests into a project is relatively minimal. Using the games SAG-AFTRA and actors tend to sight as examples, they’re all AAA titles that took between 3 and 5 years to develop. At the heavy end of the spectrum, the main cast actors would put in about 30–40 days of work spread out across the project. The smaller cast parts would take from a couple of days, to a week or two. And it also depends on the type of work the actor is doing for the project. Full mocap performance like what was used on The Last Of Us is much more involving than just purely a VO session in a studio booth. Hence that should be accounted for as part of the compensation formula. But to restate, the amount of time an actor spends on a videogame project is minimal (30 days out of a 3 year project is about 3.8% if only counting 40 hour work weeks).
As mentioned earlier, for the majority of games out there the actor isn’t a major contributor to the overall gameplay experience. It’s that small percentage of games where the story is a strong contributor to the gameplay experience where it starts to make a difference. But even for these kinds of games, what is the true impact of the performer?
For as much as mocap or VO can add, it only constitutes a part of the overall performance. While new technologies are allowing us to fully capture an actor’s performance, much of what’s done now still requires a massive amount of work from animators, riggers, and character artists. For example, in Uncharted 1 / 2 / 3, and The Last Of Us, the facial work was all hand animated. What the actors are doing can be used as a reference, but the animators crafted the visual performance to their liking and made the characters act the way they deemed appropriate. And even with PCap (performance capture, where the actors face is tracked), there’s a mountain of cleanup that has to happen. So while it’s closer to what the actor did, an animator still has to spend a lot of time to make it work, clean it up and tweak it. Lastly things like fingers and hands and other extremities have to still be hand animated as well.
The point being that an actor’s performance isn’t even entirely done by the actor, the animators play just as important of a role in bringing that performance to life. And this ties into the time investment aspect as the animators will be investing far more time into making these performances work as compared to the actor.
There’s also a question of evaluating the impact of a performance against the game as a whole. Meaning games can ship with multiple discrete gameplay modes like multiplayer and a narrative single player. So what’s the best way to judge the value of one mode over another, and then reflect that in the compensation? These are the kinds of evaluations used at the dev studios to determine how much of a bonus (if any) should be paid out to it’s employees, which means they should also be used to determine what bonus (if any) a contractor should get. This is another example of how SAG-AFTRA doesn’t fully understand what goes into these products and their success or failure, and why you can’t just treat them equally to TV and movies.
So given all of this information, my big issue with the current SAG-AFTRA proposal is that they want the same level of residuals to be a part of the standard contract for all performances, in all types of games. This is not fair to the actors, the studios, or the devs! The problem with putting residuals into the standard contract for all games is there are plenty of games that are successful but the performance was so minimal that it should only be a work for hire and doesn’t deserve residuals. Performances like the announcers in fighting games, or where the whole performance was just vocalized efforts with no dialog. These games can definitely sell in the millions of units volume that would trigger the proposed residual clause, but from a principle standpoint the actor didn’t do enough to warrant residual payment.
So what’s fair?
As I’ve gone over, attempting to compare how the videogames industry works to how the TV and movies industries work is like trying to compare apples to bowling balls. The only similarity they have is that they’re both round. So why does SAG-AFTRA keep trying to do so when it comes to compensation?
A more apt entertainment industry example that already has this figured out would be the music industry and how session musicians work. Session musicians are musicians that are not a part of the band and are brought in just for recording. While the average rate is $100 / hour, with a minimum 3 hours billed, they are free to negotiate their rates based on their worth and abilities (which can include residuals if agreed upon). They are paid as a work-for-hire and paid one time for their work. Sometimes they play a bigger role and contribute more by writing or producing a track, hook, or lyrics, and in these cases they can negotiate/add residuals into their contract as they are playing a bigger part (even after the contract is done and work on the project has begun). But these are the lesser cases and are handled accordingly. The point being that on the average a session musician is a work-for-hire, and only in the cases where warranted (based on the level of investment and impact) they can negotiate and get residuals. This is the standard arrangement, with residuals being the exception only when warranted.
So to me it would make more sense for SAG-AFTRA to have several types of contracts based on the type of game and the role played in that game. This can better fit compensation to the actor’s contribution towards the project in a manner that’s fair to both devs and actors. It can also account for different game budgets (i.e. bigger budget AAA games vs. smaller budget Indie games). Just speaking monetarily, there can be the standard contract which is basically what’s in place currently that would service the majority of the work. Then there can be one to cover the 5% of games where it makes sense. And there can also be one to cover the even smaller percentage of games that are heavily driven by narrative and story. These can also be written in such a way so the same contract can have different values for main cast vs. supporting cast. To simplify this, these more specialized contracts could just be addendums to the standard contract that only affect compensation.
This to me is a much more fair arrangement as now the compensation would be for when the work justifies it. And of course, all of the previously mentioned non-compensation issues would be a part of the standard contract.
Great… so we’re done here right?
Well… I also wanted to chat about some of the issues we have right now with how the videogames industry has to work with SAG-AFTRA and some of the problems that it’s causing both the actors and the studios / devs.
Wil Wheaton wrote a piece recently about why he supports the strike, and you can read it here:
One of the things he goes into detail about is what a VO session could entail, and how it can strain the voice / be mentally tiring / be overly demanding / having to play several characters in a single session with little prep time / etc…. It’s a good look into the actor’s perspective about what can happen during a vocal session. The thing I wonder is does he consider that it could very well be some of the restrictive rules that SAG-AFTRA have created that is causing these conditions? Namely the 4 hour block minimum.
I mentioned earlier how actors have to be paid for a minimum of 4 hours, regardless of whether or not there’s enough work to fill those 4 hours. Yes I understand this is set there to protect the actors from wage abuse, and it makes sense from that perspective. But it also creates some nasty side effects, much of which Wil Wheaton mentions in his piece.
So let me dissect why these things happen. As a company, does it make sense to pay someone for 4 hours of work, yet only get less than 4 hours of actual work? No, of course it doesn’t. So what naturally happens is that devs will save up performance work to make sure that there is enough to fill a full 4 hour block or more to maximize the actors time for the money being paid. Hence you get the very long lists of lines to read 3 different ways with very few breaks that are tedious to go through piled onto sessions. This is also why instead of hiring more actors for many parts, you’ll have one actor voicing many parts across a single session. These will usually be parts where there aren’t enough lines to justify paying for a unique actor because of the 4 hour minimum, so instead the studio will ask an already contracted actor to play it.
Nothing but SAG
If you want to use SAG actors on your videogame project, then you can only use SAG actors on your videogame project. Also SAG actors are not allowed to work on non-SAG videogame projects else they can face severe penalties (like expulsion from the union). There are exceptions to these, but this is the general rule. I get that this is here to protect the actors and create more jobs for them, but from a developer standpoint it can be infuriating.
One way in particular is that it doesn’t allow devs, the creators, to put themselves in their games. There are usually very small roles that an actor would not be hired for because they’re only a few lines of dialog. As devs, we love to have a chance to put ourselves into our games, and this is usually a fun way to do so. But as the majority of devs are not SAG members, they’re not allowed to do so without the studio facing SAG penalties or boycotts.
So you’re probably thinking “well just join SAG then”… ahhh… and therein lies the rub. In the simplest of terms, it’s a catch 22 situation. In the not-so-simplest of terms, it’s a long voyage into the abyss of madness!
First I suggest you read the SAG-AFTRA description here (along with the fees).
The 1st and main method through which people join SAG-AFTRA is by landing a SAG-AFTRA gig. But the only way to land a SAG-AFTRA gig, is to be a SAG-AFTRA union member. Ummm…. Oops?! So in my understanding from talking with actors and those that deal with this, what usually happens is a non-SAG-AFTRA actor can get sponsored by a studio to work on a SAG-AFTRA project. The studio then pays whatever fees are required, the actor gets their work in so they can apply, and all is right in the world! This of course causes a problem for devs as studios are not going to do this just so a few devs can put themselves into their game for a few lines of dialog.
So the 2nd method mentioned through which people join, “Performers may join SAG-AFTRA if the applicant is a paid-up member of an affiliated performers’ union (ACTRA, AEA, AGMA or AGVA) for a period of one year and has worked and been paid for at least once as a principal performer in that union’s jurisdiction.” Well if you look into some of those other unions, they have the same requirement of having to have done a job covered by that union (or be a graduating student in performance). Also it requires the person to be fully paid-up with that union for one year!
Which leads to the fees. Joining SAG-AFTRA is a one-time initiation fee of $3000 (although might be lower in some states), with yearly dues of $205. So for devs just to be able to put themselves into their games would require the studio to pay the fees to sponsor them, then the dev paying a one-time $3000 fee, and then paying yearly dues on top of that to maintain their status. Or for the dev to be fully paid up with an affiliated union (which they would have to find a way into, going through whatever catch 22 that union requires), be in that union for a full year, have done at least 1 paid performance in that union, and then have to pay the SAG-AFTRA fees and dues on top of the affiliate union dues.
I fully understand why this protection is in place, but this is ridiculous! There needs to be an exception in the standard contract that can allow cameo appearances for small parts in videogames. I know that SAG-AFTRA offer a lot of benefits to their members, so the fees and dues make sense from that perspective. But a dev is not looking to join the union to use those benefits just to put themselves into a game for a few lines.
Also, this applies to anybody else the dev or studio would like to put into the game for a small part as a thank-you, marketing, or for fun. For example, if a musician is a big fan of the game and wanted a small one-line cameo, or if we wanted to put a family member (like one of the devs children), we couldn’t let them have any speaking parts.
SAG-AFTRA does allow union and non-union actors to work on the same project under certain circumstances in TV and movies and will provide a waiver for it, so it does have a precedent in place to allow for this (usually it’s for student and low budget productions).
SAG-AFTRA tends to frown on custom contracts except for bigger names actors and roles, which tends to leave a lot of the lesser known / new actors at the mercy of a one-size-fits all contract. This is why it would be better to at least have multiple standard contracts befitting to the type of game and role. Ideally there should be room between the studios and the actors to negotiate rates more freely, using the standard contract as a minimum (keeping all of the protections intact of course).
Also SAG-AFTRA requires actors to have to use a SAG-AFTRA qualified agent to work through in setting up a contract. One question that has to be asked is how much do these agents understand the videogames industry? As I’ve been pointing out, SAG-AFTRA already has issues in their understanding, and if the agents have the same misconceptions, it’s going to cause problems in their ability to properly negotiate a fair contract for all parties involved.
A better way?
Having worked as a recording engineer and producer, it has given me insight into the equipment, techniques, and new technologies that are changing the field of recording. So with that in mind, I wanted to propose if SAG-AFTRA and the actors would be willing to consider different models than the 4 hour block minimum? I strongly feel there’s a better way for the process to be setup that could help alleviate many of the safety concerns that have been brought up (along with giving the actors more time to take on other jobs). It would require re-thinking how the payment structure would work, but it’s nothing that hasn’t already been done in other related fields.
In this day and age, the audio recording technology has come a very long way. Equipment is much cheaper and will still yield professional results. One can very easily get everything they’d need to track dialog quietly for around $1000 or less provided they have a decent computer already (and by decent I’m talking about something much less powerful than a gaming rig). So with minimal investment, an actor or studio could have their own setup to track dialog. *NOTE* I personally know a VO artist that has been doing this for her professional commercial, jingle, radio, and singing work for the past 7 years or more out of her apartment living room.
So imagine a scenario where the actor gets a list of the lines needed, has a simple phone, skype, or in-person meeting to go over them with the devs, and then they could track them at home at their leisure over a flexible deadline (like a week or two for example). Those long and tiring lists that need multiple performances for each line would be much more palatable if the actor could do them from home and take as many breaks as needed. There would also be no more voice strain, or brain drain due to monotony issues for the same reason (which also means better safety and performances). Actors could handle multiple jobs in a day due to reduced scheduling conflicts (and not having to dedicate a day to make it across town to a studio for a minimum of 4 hours), and could work internationally more easily. Since everything is tracked digitally, they would just transfer the files when finished for the studio to download. The studio goes over the takes, makes notes on what they need adjusted, and then send it back to the actor for the changes needed.
Another scenario to consider with an alternate payment structure is that the studio can have their own tracking ability internally, and actors could come in to track only the few lines that are needed at the time. This would keep projects from having to save up for enough work to fill at least a 4 hour block, as well as having to rent a studio. This allows the actor to help save their voice, as well as be more readily available to take other work in the same day. It can also ease the burden on the studio sound departments as instead of having to take a week to process a massive dump of dialog, they could do just the few lines that were done on the day.
In a similar scenario, the session can also be done remotely with Skype so as the actor can track from home. Feedback can be given instantly, and this still gives the benefit of better scheduling due to less travel. The actor can work in their environment and take breaks as needed, and without the need to fill a 4 hour block, would only need to track the lines needed at the time. Then delivery the lines as I mentioned already, yada yada….
Of course these scenarios wouldn’t fully replace the traditional way that VO is tracked, but they can definitely ease the process for both the studio and the actors over the course of a project (these would be perfect for pickup sessions later on in the project). The payment structure would have to be different, but not dissimilar to what already exists in other industries for radio, jingle, or graphic design work. Something along the lines of a negotiated price that includes X number of rounds of feedback and retakes. Needing more retakes beyond the included X means additional income that can already be baked into the contract. This opens up a ton of flexibility that can allow the actors to have more freedom, reduce stressful sessions, and reduce scheduling conflicts.
So if we want to talk about moving things into the 21st century, then we should all be adapting to the technology and methods that can make our lives better, rather than continue to stick with an outdated method that is causing problems.
In the end…
I hope I’ve at least provided an alternate perspective of understanding with regards to this issue. I do think videogames can be a richer experience when good performances are involved, but we need to find a solution that’s fair and works for all sides.