Not Everyone Is Supporting A Possible Voice Actor Strike

Not Everyone Is Supporting A Possible Voice Actor Strike

It’s possible the people who voice many of gaming’s colourful characters will go on strike, depending on how a SAG-AFTRA union vote goes down next month. As various performers have started voicing their support on Twitter, so have a couple of game developers, and not everyone’s 100% behind what’s going on.

Here’s what performers represented by SAG-AFTRA are looking for, per Luke’s article from yesterday:

“They want it enshrined in contacts that there’s better protection and pay for when a role requires physically demanding voice work (such as repeated loud screams), clearer definition between the roles of voice actors and motion-capture actors (the former is often expected to do the latter unexpectedly) and performance bonuses should a game sell over 2 million copies.”

Meanwhile, actor Wil Wheaton recently wrote about how the dispute between actors and game publishers is only partially about money, and tried to push back on the notion that he’s trying to take cash away from folks in development.

“I can’t speak to the fairness or unfairness of residuals or lack of residuals for programmers, artists, composers, and others who game developers and publishers, because that’s not my job, and I don’t know what, precisely, their contracts are. I certainly don’t believe that there is some sort of feud or lack of shared interest between us (the actors) and them, and I fully support all the people who work on games — especially the huge blockbuster games that pull in profits that are in line with the biggest blockbuster movies — getting the very best contract, with the best compensation and best working conditions that they possibly can.


I love the work that I do. I’m grateful for the work that I have, and I’ve been lucky to work with some incredibly talented people on both sides of the recording studio glass. This isn’t about making enemies of the other creative people in the business, be they directors, studio engineers, artists, programmers, sound designers, writers, etc. This is about a handful of extremely wealthy, extremely powerful people trying to take away our ability to make a living, to take care of our voices, and to be safe on the set.”

The tension in Wheaton’s first paragraph is what struck a nerve with a few game developers, including Ubisoft Montreal creative director Alex Hutchinson, who recently worked on Far Cry 4.

#PerformanceMatters is the hashtag performers have been using to generate support for their upcoming vote among fellow voice actors and game players.

Some developers qualify for bonuses after the game ships, either for getting certain scores on Metacritic or hitting sales targets, but it’s not universal. Gearbox Software is one of the few developers who actively brags about offering profit sharing to employees, claiming its paid out $US40 million since 2010.

In SAG-AFTRA’s FAQ about the vote, here’s what they cited as evidence for why performers should qualify for bonuses and other payouts after release:

“The top games make money. This industry has grown, boomed and morphed into something bigger and lucrative than any other segment of the entertainment industry, and it continues to do so. The truth is, back end bonuses are not uncommon in the video game industry. Last year, Activision’s COO took home a bonus of $US3,970,862. EA paid their executive chairman a bonus of $US1.5 million. We applaud their success, and we believe our talent and contributions are worth a bonus payment, too.”

Most developers are not COOs or executive chairmans, however, as pointed out by Arkane Studios level designer Shawn Elliott, formerly of Irrational Games.

When Grand Theft Auto IV was released in 2008, voice actor Michael Hollick spoke with The New York Times about how little he received for voicing Nico Bellic, despite the game going on to sell millions and millions of copies.

“Obviously I’m incredibly thankful to Rockstar for the opportunity to be in this game when I was just a nobody, an unknown quantity,” Mr. Hollick, 35, said last week over dinner in Willamsburg, Brooklyn, shortly after performing in the aerial theatre show “Fuerzabruta” in Union Square. “But it’s tough, when you see Grand Theft Auto IV out there as the biggest thing going right now, when they’re making hundreds of millions of dollars, and we don’t see any of it. I don’t blame Rockstar. I blame our union for not having the agreements in place to protect the creative people who drive the sales of these games. Yes, the technology is important, but it’s the human performances within them that people really connect to, and I hope actors will get more respect for the work they do within those technologies.”

Hollick was paid $US100,000 for roughly 15 months of work. According to Take-Two, GTA IV made more than $US600 million for the company in just three weeks.

This is not the first time the industry has butted head with performers. When Kotaku‘s Stephen Totilo worked at MTV, he reported on a similar standoff from 2005, in which a strike was narrowly avoided by a new agreement that increased minimum pay for sessions, mandatory rest periods, and more advanced warnings about what the actor would be recording that day.

The actors were not able to extract residuals from game publishers in 2005, and if it doesn’t happen this time, we may already know the reason why, per an LA Times report during negotiations:

“Game publishers argue that their current offer is generous. They resist sharing their profits, contending that voice actors play a small part in the development of a video game and aren’t the reason consumers buy them.

Attorney Howard Fabrick, who heads a negotiating committee representing eight game publishers, said that granting residuals would open the door to requests from scores of others in the game development chain.

“That would set a precedent for hundreds of other people who created a game to say, ‘What about us?'” Fabrick said.”

The industry is worried it would open the floodgates. A crucial difference between voice talent and developers, however, is that one is unionized. It would be incredibly difficult for developers to find a way to take a collective stand.

There are plenty of reasons developers should unionize, of course, which Kotaku has demonstrated in stories many times over the years, but it hasn’t happened.

As for what happens with gaming’s voice actors, we’ll have to wait and see.


  • Actors….always bitching, complaining and wanting more money.
    Screw them, writers are more important anyway!

  • I can empathize with them, I’d sure like to get some ongoing income from blockbuster hits I work hard on for a long time…

    If this action succeeds, here’s how I see it playing out (assuming non-self published games):
    1) Voice Actors get royalties from mega hits.
    2) The publisher isn’t going to take that financial hit.
    3) Therefore the royalties come from the developers cut
    4) The developer rarely sees more than cost of development covered (see: why studios go bust after making a mega hit).
    5) Therefore, expect less voice acting in all but the most AAA of games.. developers just can’t afford it.
    6) Publishers will still push for full voice acting (because that’s what players want), so developer ends up taking the hit and reduces resources somewhere else.

    I think there’d have to be a lot of changes to the industry before royalties for voice actors become feasible.

    We’ve all read the “gaming brings in more profits than hollywood!” stories.. but it’s not the developers (well, most of them) who are reaping those profits. It’s the same story in many industries… it ain’t making the workers rich.

      • exactly, this is why i doubt the publishers will give in here. Seems to me with my completely uninformed opinion that getting people to voice video game characters would be like shooting fish in a barrel. Yeah there are a few really good VA’s out there that do games and I’m sure that the top quality voice actors command the top prices, however there are also a hell of a lot of mediocre actors out there. Would not be surprised if they go on strike and the dev’s just roll out the list of 500 people volunteering for every role.

        • It’s not easy to ditch them altogether. The union’s kind of a pain. If you want to use any union voice actors then you need to use only union actors.

          So if you’re a publisher who wants the option of hiring union actors you always have to hire them. Even for games that use babble, like The Sims.

          Plus that guy in the office who loves doing funny voices and sounds great as a background character can’t have any of his lines in the game.

  • hmm this one is contentious.
    I remember a quote from Robin Williams when he won an MTV Movie award for Aladdin in 1992- he mused (and I’m paraphrasing from memory- badly – “All those animators worked for 2 years, I walked in and recorded for 2 days and won this award.”
    At the time I was amused as he was clearly making a dig at his own industry- but likely also as a form of conscience check of not letting it go to his head.

  • I’m sorry if you’re getting $100k for only 15 months’ work in the U.S. (or most places, really) you don’t get to complain too much, you’re doing pretty good.

    Shawn Elliott’s tweet is on point. Voice work isimportant, but these aren’t people with the acting chops of Hollywood stars, and can sometimes be really, really fucking bad.

    If you want to earn the big bux acting you need to get into television or movies, which are already oversaturated and full of cutthroat competition. You’re not a dev and don’t deserve the respect they earn.

    • I’d be curious to know if that was actually 15 months full time work. I mean I’m sure there were a lot of lines of dialogue in GTA IV, and there were probably a fair few changes / rewrites along the way, but I have a hard time believing he was in there 40 hours a week for 15 months doing the voice acting? Or was it a few days here and a few days there with time in between when he was able to do other work as well (if he was able to find it)?

      • Yeah, I was wondering that too. GTA’s a big game but there’s no way Niko spoke for a thousand hours of lines of dialogue. They might do alternate takes in the booth as well, I guess

    • Hey, hey. Voice actors deserve a lot of respect. A good one can completely change how you connect with characters and the story. I don’t know if I’d have fallen in love with Mass Effect or MGS without Mark Meer/Jennifer Hale and David Hayter’s sultry tones.
      (Although, I do agree that’s a lot of money)

  • Hm. So what?

    Voice-actors have shitty working conditions… but devs have it worse, so voice actors shouldn’t complain? That’s… not how it works. That’s like grumbling about someone being lucky in love while you’re single. “If I can’t be happy, NO-ONE CAN!”

    Devs feeling shitty because they don’t have the collective will to do something like voice-actors are sounds like a dev problem, not a VA problem.

    No-one’s saying devs have it well-off, that’s not really in dispute. Crunch is well-known to be bullshit, and if you think devs have it rough, you should hear the stories of the QA folks who the poor, hard-done-by devs shit on.

    But this isn’t about devs. Devs need to be looking inward instead of blaming someone else for trying to improve their lot when devs won’t themselves.

    Edit: Developers need to unionize and get some of those royalties themselves. Those floodgates? They should open.

    • They don’t really have shitty working conditions. In the GTAV guy’s case, he got paid a really good salary ($80k a year) for his work.

      He had no real creative input on the game. It could have been just as good with another actor, and his name wasn’t pulling in any extra players because he was essentially an unknown.

      Good voice acting absolutely makes a game better, but it’s not a make-or-break kind of thing. There have been plenty of examples of amazing games with god-awful voice work (Deus Ex comes to mind, mostly because I’ve been playing it again recently).

      Edit: But, yeah, there should be a more equitable distribution of royalties. Especially when it comes to CEO salaries. It’s frankly offensive how they can cry poor and shut down studios, disrupting the lives of hundreds of families, and then take multi-million dollar bonuses. Even in years where their company has reported a huge loss.

    • Yeah thats a fallacy of privation. It’s like saying “Oh you stubbed your toe? At least you have feet unlike children that have stepped on land mines in cambodia.” No one would argue that they have it worse but it doesn’t make your toe better either.

      As Jim Jefferies once said “F**K off you D***heads, we can be upset about more than one thing at a time”

    • Agree 100-fucking-percent. This isn’t a debate on who has it worse, whether you care about voice acting or not or your ignorant perspective of the distribution of labour/work. This is simply about forming an equitable work and pay infrastructure.

    • I would have more sympathy if the voice actors were also fighting to also get the *devs* some of the kind of bonuses and payment that they’re asking for.

      Without those devs, these voice actors wouldn’t even get a gig. If they want to kick up a fuss, they better support the people who are enabling them to get work in the first place.

      • The first step in collective bargaining is having representation of the collective to bargain. ie: A union.

        Voice-actors have one. Devs don’t. They need to unionize.

  • It probably is unfair if the voice actors get residuals but the developers don’t. But rather than using that as an excuse not to give the VAs residuals, perhaps they should ask for residuals of their own (as the executives seem to be afraid of).

    Given some of the horror stories published here, it sounds like game developers could certainly use some collective bargaining power.

    • My comment’s in moderation I assume because I posted too many links, but is an excellent refresher for anyone who needs any kind of reminder that gamedev can be (and usually is) a shitty, shitty, shitty industry to its employees. And go visit and read the letters from QA testers to see the stories from the guys who are so low on the totem pole that they get shit on by those same hard-done-by developers. People for whom being a developer would be a success story of relative privilege and luxury.

      But that’s their problem and it shouldn’t detract from what VAs are trying to do.

  • I don’t know much about this, but I do NOT feel for these voice actors.
    I don’t buy games because of the voice/motion actors; hell I couldn’t even name one until a few weeks ago with all the Dinklebot news stuff (Nolan North is who I can now name).
    I feel like these voice actors are giving themselves way too much credit for their work, and if I were a programmer/graphic artist and saw voice actors getting residuals, I would be damn pissed.

    On the other side though, they DO bring up some good points that I do agree with.
    Specifically the bit about clearly defining if one is doing voice acting, motion capture, or both.
    Also the bits about warning for doing intense voice work like screams, having rests, that sort of thing; permanent damage to the vocal cords is a VERY real thing, and could potentially end these peoples careers, so this must be accounted for in the contract (in terms of both provisions like rests, and extra compensation for the added difficulty/strain involved).

    But no, asking for residuals is being a bit greedy methinks.

    • It’s not greedy at all. A lot of actors get residuals from productions they work on, as do a lot of voice actors from cartoons. Voice actors such as Tara Strong get residuals for productions they have worked on, why should others not?

      Residuals isn’t being greedy, it’s an acknowledgement of someones work and how that work elevates a product. Want a direct example? More people played Femme Shep in Mass Effect 1 – 3 than played Male Shep. Why? Jennifer Hales voice acting, which was praised endlessly as vastly superior and brought real emotion and character to her role. The male characters voice was noted as bland an uninspired.

      Just as there’s crap actors, there’s definitely crap voice actors but there’s also great voice actors, such as Nolan North, Tara Strong, Jennifer Hale etc. They should be given the respect they deserve and they should be given due payment for it.

      Here’s an interesting one for you though…

      Hollywood is already questioning “If an actor is CGI on screen for a certain percentage of a film, are they entitled to full payment”. So, if you get a CG stuntman etc, are you entitled to a standard or cut pay. This will also affect residuals.

      It’s just another example of the Hollywood machine trying to screw people.

        • Yes, this is why I note very firmly any time that it comes up that Femmeshep is canon and over 80% of players are wrong.

          • Canon’s whatever Bioware decides to make canon fortunately. Out of the two characters, I’d rather one with personality and character rather than a blank piece of wood.

            But yeah I was wrong, but not on purpose, I could’ve sworn it was the other way, my bad, oh well. But the fact still remains, Hales voice acting was vastly praised as far superior to male-sheps.

      • You make some good points; great voice acting can really make a difference for a game.
        I think it would be tricky to effectively gauge how much of a difference it makes though.
        Look at MGSV, they switched from David Hayter to someone else; pretty sure Phantom Pain isn’t exactly struggling with sales. Sure they might have lost some sales, but I doubt it would have made a noticeable difference.

        I’ve done some more reading on this since posting too, and re-reading my comment I think I was being too harsh by saying it’s ‘greedy’; that’s an unfair statement. What I really should have left it at is if VA deserve residuals, then all the other creatives who arguably do a LOT more work also deserve residuals.
        On one side it’s a bit of the VA’s aren’t really the first I’d line up for residuals, and we should put in place ways to ensure the other creatives get residuals too, THEN we will get residuals for VA’s as well.
        On the other hand, it’s not like programmers/designers/etc are setting up unions and asking for better working conditions and residuals, and if they want it, that’s what they should be doing. If VA’s ask for and win the right to receive residuals, then that’s great as it sets a precedent for when the other creatives DO show up with their unions asking for same/similar conditions.

        As someone else on a different site said, creatives shouldn’t be getting pissed because VA’s had the courage to stand up and ask for this.
        Instead of letting the big corps play the VA’s and creatives against each other, they should be working together to all get the same kinds of improvements.

        EDIT: almost forgot about your last hypothetical; THAT I find very interesting and difficult to answer. I would be thinking along the lines of work involved; if they are fully CGI’ing the character using a fill-in motion actor, maybe negotiate a once off payment for using their likeness, potentially with clauses for extra benefits based on the success of the film. But if they are using the actor for the motion capture, and or they are also getting the actor to voice-over their CGI self, then pay for that work should be factored in on top of the licensing payment for using their likeness as well. Effectively you are treating the use of CGI version of an actor as a product/license rather than a service/labour.

        • Indeed, a more direct example, is the current Marvel movies. Part of the negotiations involved the fact something like 80% of Robert Downey Juniors onscreen time, is actually CGI, or not him at all. He does a lot of voice recording. Ironman is either a CG suit, or someone else in the suit if its practical and RDJ’s face isn’t shown. So prior to current contract negotiations there was a big uproar amongst the cast over him getting top pay (for far, far less work) over the others who were for all intents and purposes, putting in much more, including Ruffalo who was actually on set mo-capping all his Hulk stuff.

          Tricky as hell isn’t it O_O

  • I don’t mind some of the demands from the Union. Transparency is fine. Stunt Coordinators are a bit of an expense… But ok, it’s for Safety. Residuals… Eh, now we’re hitting problems. while I’m not against residuals at all, I think that those working on the coding of the game, development of the engines, etc etc, need to be paid residuals more than actors.

    However, I think Felicia Day needs to keep a tighter leach on her lap dog Wil Wheaton. When he isn’t under her control, he goes out and says stupid things that make him sound like an entitled jackass.

    • he goes out and says stupid things that make him sound like an entitled jackass.

      Pot? Kettle? That last paragraph… *smh*

    • Residuals may be a bargaining chip – something they’re not expecting to get but can take off the table in exchange for the other points.

  • Yeah, I dunno, I don’t think its such a big part of the game as they are making out. Yeah, it would be nothign without voice acting, but its only a very small part of the game, a part that compared to others, is relatively easy and simple work.
    I’m speaking out of complete ignorance of course, I have no idea what they go through, but from what I’ve heard and read, there are others out there doing more work and harder hours but getting ripped off just as badly

  • These guys should try being a diesel mechanic.
    I don’t ask the transport company (who’s trucks and machinery I repair daily) for a slice of their profits when without repairs and maintenance there would be none.

    • You’re employed, full time by a company (generally), 364 days a year. A voice actor works on contract alone. While I get what you’re saying, it’s not *really* comparable… one has a degree of job security that the other doesn’t.

      • I’m on a contract and can be let go at any minute, I should get a share of the multi-million dollar profits I contribute to by maintaining a commercial schedule.

        I just want reasonable money 🙁

    • Freelancers have to spend a lot of time working whilst unpaid, they often have to rely on different aspects to make up for that.

      Many skilled industries will take a rather higher hourly rate when they do have work to make up for that (Similar to a contractors higher rate) but acting and other creative endeavours have traditionally often taken less money and a portion of the backend.

      It allows for good talent to work cheaper on projects without the costs sinking the production and then if (And it’s definitely an if not when) it does well they get paid for that work.

      Also most voice actors aren’t the GTA IV guy, I’d agree that he was paid decently but can’t comment on his conditions.

  • I am a sub-contracted business owner. I kinda think it is pretty much the same.

    Edit: Sorry this was meant as a reply to weresmurf

  • Jeeze, everyone, stop being stupid. No striker expects to get 100% of their demands. It’s to get the other guys back to the table when they’re stonewalling. The demand for royalties is a bargaining chip and the companies will want something for it, likely a lower base rate or more penalties.

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