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The Industry, the Union, and the Strike

“We spent 19 months trying to come to an agreement on this contract. That’s the longest negotiation in SAG-AFTRA’s history. We did not take going on strike lightly. We really tried to compromise and come up with an agreement that would be fair. But after 19 months of not being able to put safer working conditions in the contract and being unable to share in the prosperity of wildly successful games, we felt we had no choice but to strike.”

Crispin Freeman is a voice actor. He’s currently not allowed to work for a large range of AAA games studios because the union that represents him and most professional voice actors in the games industry, SAG-AFTRA, has called for a strike.

When I first meet Freeman, the strike is still a distant rumor, a hypothetical last resort. We’re in a little restaurant in Los Angeles during the 2016 IndieCade festival. The restaurant is closing in under an hour, but none of us really have the time to spend more than an hour chatting tonight anyway. Freeman has come to meet me to talk about my concerns regarding a contract for independent developers that I’ve read a draft of.

Sarah Elmaleh is the one who set up the meeting between Freeman and myself in response to some of my concerns. Elmaleh is a New York-born SAG-AFTRA voice actress that moved to Los Angeles recently to further her craft of voice acting in videogames. She is a common presence at independent games festival around the United States, and her unbridled love for independent games shows in her portfolio, which boasts games like Gone Home and Galak-Z. It also makes her a natural bridge between voice actors and independent game developers.

Months earlier, Elmaleh had introduced me to Jennifer Hale, one of the most prominent and prolific voice actresses in games. Hale is a central figure in SAG-AFTRA’s Interactive board, the board that deals with games and other interactive media, and she wanted to talk about the idea of introducing a contract specifically for independent game developers – a contract that would allow independent creators easier access to union talent.

But after 19 months of not being able to put safer working conditions in the contract and being unable to share in the prosperity of wildly successful games, we felt we had no choice but to strike.

The indie contract is supposed to exist as an amendment to the ‘main’ SAG-AFTRA Interactive contract that governs work between union actors and AAA games studios. The problem is that ‘main’ SAG-AFTRA Interactive contract doesn’t exist yet because SAG-AFTRA and the AAA games companies can’t reach an agreement on it.

When SAG-AFTRA first reached out to me to talk about the Low Budget Contract, it had been negotiating the ‘main’ contract for a year. It had been a few months since 96% of SAG-AFTRA members voted in a referendum to authorize the union’s board to call for a strike if necessary. The news of the authorization sent ripples through the games industry. The games industry is remarkable in that it has no unions of its own, and the idea of a union strike that could affect the games industry was something that sent many fans and developers reeling.

The response to the news that the SAG-AFTRA strike was actually starting in early October was far more vehement.

The discussion is particularly vehement for not just for the lack of unions in the games industry, but also because of the concept of profit sharing. A core disagreement in the negotiations is that voice actors have asked that if a game performs very well, their efforts get recognized through a monetary bonus. Only very few people in the industry have such a privilege, and many are upset that the voice actors would ask for such bonuses if programmers, artists and designers that work on games for many years do not receive them.

Thus, there are generally two separate issues with two sides in the discussion, and they’re intertwined in a way that makes the whole situation both morally complex and frustratingly political: you can be in favor of the demands of SAG-AFTRA, or you can be against the demands of SAG-AFTRA. Separately, you can find the idea of unions unfit for the games industry, or you can find the idea of unions a boon for the games industry.

As a developer, I felt it’s easy to find perspective on the games’ industry side of the discussion, but it’s a lot harder to find good perspective from the voice actors’ position. I decided to ask the people I met through my talks with SAG-AFTRA some questions about voice acting, and why the union had called for a strike.

I love pondering things like how ‘death by fire’ must involve more than just searing, spreading pain, but also emotions like horror, panic and outrage?

“The human voice is powerful”, starts Elmaleh when asked what voice acting does for a game. “We respond to it with instinctive empathy, and I reckon it’s that singular authenticity in these synthetic environments, the fact that it’s probably the one unsimulated piece in the mix that makes it an effective and efficient tool for developers.”

“You’re asked to give weight and humanity to some highly abstract and granular prompts: ‘die by fire’ is the classic and probably most vocally stressful in one go. I love pondering things like how ‘death by fire’ must involve more than just searing, spreading pain, but also emotions like horror, panic and outrage? Character lives in all these exclamations as well as traditional dialogue, and it’s such a special joy to discover and refine it there. Then there’s ‘drop from 30 feet up, losing 2/3 of your health – no, just the landing part, it has to be isolated because the entire jump is going to be pieced together in the engine.”. Sensing my amusement, she added, “There’s also ‘get sniped in the head’, which doesn’t make an actual sound in life.”

The producers have said that it’s impossible for them to share with us the name of the game they are asking us to work on, even if we sign non-disclosure agreements before we come to work.

“Voice acting is actually one of the most challenging types of acting I know of.”, Freeman says, “As a voice actor, you are regularly asked to walk into an isolation booth, you are handed a script you’ve never seen before, you are given the most rudimentary description of your character and the story you’re working on, and then you’re expected to deliver nuanced, believable performances with almost no context and no physical cues around you like a set or costumes to help you understand the nature of the project.”

It quickly becomes clear that the games industry is notorious for its secrecy. The industry keeps asking performers to come in entirely blind, and create characters, personalities, accents, inflections and voices on the fly with no information about the game.

“You rarely get scripts in advance, plus a lot of project information can be obscured, so you’re essentially hired to cold-read. I’ve shown up having no idea what I’m reading before, and it turns out I have to make up a handful of completely different-sounding characters on the spot and/or whip out an accent. And it’s 100% you on the spot, giving this output for several hours due to scheduling and cost efficiency, so it takes stamina and focus”, says Elmaleh.

“Your imagination has to be working over time to fill in all of those gaps. On top of that, you only have your voice to work with so all of your acting ability has to be channelled through that one avenue. In addition, voice actors are often expected to play multiple characters. This means that you not only have to pull all these rabbits out of your hat for one character, but you have to have the flexibility to understand the psychology of hundreds of different types of characters and be able to modify your voice in order to sound like them as well.”

“Our members are frustrated with that lack of transparency.”, explains Jennifer Hale, a prominent voice actress known for the voice of the female protagonist in the popular games trilogy Mass Effect. “We had four main topics that needed addressing, and transparency is one of them.”

“We are often asked as actors to work on projects when we have no idea what we are working on or what the name of the project is. The producers have said that it’s impossible for them to share with us the name of the game they are asking us to work on, even if we sign non-disclosure agreements before we come to work.” adds Freeman. “I don’t know anyone who would be comfortable going to work on something and not knowing what they’re working on.”

After screaming “Grenade!” at the top of our lungs for 4 hours, some of our members have bled from the throat, passed out, even vomited in the booth.

“The second of the four main negotiation topics is that our members are worried about their vocal health”, says Hale. Asked about vocal stress, Freeman elaborates: “Video game voice acting is far and away the most aggressive and damaging type of voice over work that we are called upon to do. The standard length for a voice over session in games is 4 hours. After screaming “Grenade!” at the top of our lungs for 4 hours, some of our members have bled from the throat, passed out, even vomited in the booth. Not all video game voice acting requires those kind of extreme vocalizations, but we asked that when a game calls for that kind of vocally stressful work that we limit those sessions to 2 hours”. The two hour limit for vocally stressful sessions does prominently feature in the SAG-AFTRA communication of why the union is striking. “We were told that was unacceptable.”

Voice actors are increasingly asked to perform motion capture or performance capture too. Hale explains: “Mocap is when performers provide movement for characters in a game. Sometimes, they perform to prerecorded dialogue, and, other times, they create movement cycles for non-player characters. Performance capture is when I show up to a stage and get dressed up in a MoCap suit, plus headgear that has a camera attached to it— like in the movie Avatar. For ‘PCap’, I memorize my lines, perform with other actors, and everything about my performance is digitized”. She adds that there are serious concerns amongst union members regarding how the industry ensures their safety during these capture sessions. “The third main topic in these negotiations is that a lot of our members worried about their safety on the capture stage.“

“Unfortunately, the game producers don’t always hire a stunt coordinator for motion capture sessions in order to make sure that performers are safe.”, Freeman says, “We don’t want normal actors to be called upon to do the kind of stressful or dangerous activities on the mocap stage that would qualify as stunts and that should be done by professional stunt performers. We’ve had actors who’ve had no stunt training swinging from the rafters in unsafe conditions. And yet, the producers are saying they can’t accept our stunt coordinator proposal in the contract and that we should just ‘trust them’. Unfortunately, we have too many actors who have gotten hurt.”

The producers are saying they can’t accept our stunt coordinator proposal in the contract and that we should just ‘trust them’. Unfortunately, we have too many actors who have gotten hurt.

“The fourth concern is that our members are upset that the games contract does not offer any secondary payment structures. This contract is the only one of the SAG-AFTRA contracts with this shortcoming. Every other contract we work under as actors pays us each time our performance is used. It’s a standard practice and one that actors who came before us fought for.”

Hale explains that despite it being a standard practice, the union is not asking for residuals from game developers “Residuals pay an actor each and every time her performance is used. The idea is that my performance is my IP. If you use my IP to make any money for your company, it’s fair that you should share some of that money with me”. She continues, “Our proposed secondary payment structure for AAA video game titles is different. It only triggers if your game is a blockbuster.”

Freeman elaborated: “If a game sold over 2 million copies, the performers would get a small payment. Last year, it would only have applied to 3 games: Grand Theft Auto, Star Wars: Battlefront and Call of Duty. These are the blockbuster games in the industry that gross hundreds of millions of dollars.”

“It also only covers the first four sessions that an actor works.”, Hale added. “It’s based on a shared prosperity model and allows for a small payment -25% of a session fee- for games that sell 2 million units. It triggers again at 4, 6 and 8 million units, then it stops. It also only covers the first four sessions that an actor works.”

Asked how much 25% of a session fee might look in practice, Freeman explained: “So the most an actor would be paid after 2 million unit sales, no matter how many sessions they worked on the game, is one more session fee. An actor who worked only one session on a game would get an additional payment of only $206 if the game sold more than 2 million copies. If they worked 4 or more sessions on that same game, the most they would ever receive is one more session fee which is a total of $3300 after 8 million units sold.”

It seemed absurd to me that these negotiations were stuck over what is effectively payments of $825.50 per 2 million units sold, so I asked for confirmation on those numbers. Hale answers: “Currently scale is $825.50 for four hours of vocal recording in the booth or eight hours of performance on a performance capture stage”. 

“Scale refers to the minimum payment an actor will make working on any given project, whether that’s in video games, animation, on-camera, or any other medium. It exists to help new actors avoid being taken advantage of by unscrupulous labor practices. A-list on camera celebrities almost always negotiate their own contracts with producers that are different from union contract minimums, but the vast majority of voice actors tend to work for scale in the world of video games.”, Freeman adds.

That unwillingness to compromise with us on this issue is the main reason we are striking against them.

“The producers gave us many reasons why they could not accommodate this shared prosperity structure. We were told that the game companies do not work like entertainment companies, but instead function more like silicon valley companies. In their opinion, silicon valley doesn’t share their prosperity so they shouldn’t either.”, Freeman continues, “Or that the accounting would be too complicated. Instead they offered an upfront payment structure where they would pay small bonuses in the amount of $50 or $100 every time an actor would come into work. Their system seemed strange to us since it was going to cost them more money and wasn’t tied to the success of a game.”

“We understand that some companies may want to be free of the extra HR hassle”, Hale adds. “We were okay with that as long as the option exists for developers to choose backend payments, if they wish.”

Freeman collaborates the story: “We were willing to accept their upfront payment structure as an option, as long as the producers were willing to allow our option to exist in the contract as well as an alternative. We knew there would be producers who would rather not pay more up front, but instead only share their prosperity once a game was wildly successful. We told the producers we were negotiating with that if they used their upfront payment scheme on a game, that they would never be responsible for any backend payments. They categorically refused to allow our shared prosperity clause even to exist as an option in the contract, even though it was an option they would never have to invoke.”

“That unwillingness to compromise with us on this issue is the main reason we are striking against them. We offered a win-win and they just wanted to win.”, Hale adds. Crispin agrees: “When they took away our ability to give producers choices about how to compensate their actors, they made it impossible for us to come to an agreement.”

I think that’s probably what scares the game publishers the most, that if they give they treat the actors fairly, they’ll have to treat everyone fairly.

Asked about the controversy in the industry surrounding the strike, all three voice actors are clearly distraught by the framing of the ‘actors-versus-the-industry’ narrative that has been prevalent. Hale: “This isn’t a battle between developers and actors. The truth is that we need to work together not only to create fair and equitable working conditions for all of us, but, most importantly, to create the best games on the planet.”

“Developers deserve far better treatment than they often get in the current climate of the industry”, Freeman adds, “I’m aware of the perpetual crunch and the punishing schedules developers work under with no overtime compensation. We are all collaborators in this fantastic medium. We all deserve safe working conditions, more respect for our contributions and to share in the prosperity of these games. We love working with our developer colleagues and we think developers should share in the prosperity of games. It’s common practice for people working at a company to get a bonus if the company does particularly well. The problem is that developers don’t yet have a union to help them in their negotiations with employers. Actors do.” 

Freeman theorizes, “If the actors are able to get some kind of secondary payment on successful games, then that sets a precedent for other game employees to get the same. I think that’s probably what scares the game publishers the most, that if they give they treat the actors fairly, they’ll have to treat everyone fairly.”

Elmaleh shares that suspicion: “Developers are as much my chosen family as actors, and I would wholeheartedly support them in advocating for themselves. It’s all a struggle to assert industry-wide best practices for the sake of our health and livelihood, so we can keep being part of creating games as sustainably as possible. Successful collective action that achieves these things could create some powerful precedent for all who make games.”

A quote given to the Financial Times by Howard Fabrick, a lawyer that negotiated on behalf of the game companies opposing SAG-AFTRA’s demands in negotiations for the previous version of the 2005 contract, confirms that this is definitely part of the reason the secondary payments won’t even be allowed as an option in the contract. ““That would set a precedent for hundreds of other people who created a game to say, ‘What about us?’” Fabrick said.

Hale surmises that this is exactly why unions like SAG-AFTRA exist in the first place. “Once upon a time, actors were controlled by the studios they worked for: they worked 15 hour days, seven days a week for wages that were just barely enough to live on. Meanwhile, the studio heads were getting filthy rich off of the new technology of moving pictures. Sound familiar?”

Indeed, reports by the games industry largest representative, the Independent Game Developer Associations, show that the games industry in 2016 does cope with high levels of burnout and turnover, unpaid overtime, expectations of crunch and low job security. Stories of large numbers of employees major companies being laid off for ‘restructuring’ frequently follow highly successful game releases.

“Eventually, some actors decided to stick their necks out and organize for better working conditions and, many years later, for a participation in the enormous profits that the studios were making. SAG-AFTRA provides qualified and talented performers to the entertainment industry, makes sure they are paid fairly and have quality healthcare and retirement benefits.“, Hale concludes.

Asked if there’s anything he would like to tell people reading this article, Freeman is clear, “Most of this debate will be litigated in social media and other media outlets. Give critics the facts. Don’t allow people to speculate or spread false information. Forward them links to websites like SAG-AFTRA’s where there are detailed explanations of which companies are being struck and which are not. Send them to http://www.gameactorsforall.com where they can listen to Steve Blum, the voice actor who holds the world record for being in the most games, talk about the dangerous and unfair situations he’s found himself in while trying to help games be as successful as possible.”

“The original union contract for games was developed in the mid 1990’s when games that used actors were few in number and experimental in nature. After 20 years, games have grown into an entertainment juggernaut. It’s time the publishers grew up and started treating the people working on interactive entertainment fairly.”

The Low Budget Contract I worked on with all three of the voice actors in the article is available now for your review. As long as the industry and SAG-AFTRA can’t come to an agreement, the contract the Low Budget Contract is an amendment to doesn’t exist. That said, you can already get in touch with SAG-AFTRA if you have any questions, and potentially negotiate a deal using an older SAG-AFTRA contract as base for the amendments. I will post about the Low Budget Contract is a ‘full package deal’.