Rami Ismail (ramiismail.com)                             

Event Schedule

Biography

Rami Ismail is the Business & Development Guy at Vlambeer, a Dutch independent game studio known best for Nuclear Throne, Ridiculous Fishing, Super Crate Box, LUFTRAUSERS, GUN GODZ, Serious Sam: The Random Encounter & Radical Fishing.

Through his work at Vlambeer, Rami has come to realize that the marketing & business facets of many independent game developers could use some help. As such, he created the free presskit-creation tool presskit() and is working on side projects such as distribute() and gamedev.world.

Believing sharing knowledge openly is the cornerstone of independent development, Rami has spoken on a variety of subjects at dozens of game events around the world, ranging from the Game Developers Conference to Fantastic Arcade & from University seminars to incubator mentorship.

He is a avid opponent of game cloning after Vlambeer's Radical Fishing got cloned. He is also a proponent of searching for new, beautiful things in places no-one is looking for them and thus organized Fuck This Jam, a gamejam focused around making a game in a genre you hate. Rami also worked closely with the Indie MEGABOOTH team to enable indie studios to showcase at the larger game conventions, runs the #1reasontobe panel at GDC, and helps as an advisor on events such as Devcom, Train Jam, PocketGamer, and NASSCOM GDC.

Rami has received several awards and recognitions for his work promoting game development around the world, including the IndieCade Game Changer award for the decennial jubileum of the festival.

 
 
 

RAMI IS CURRENTLY IN THE NETHERLANDS.
YOU CAN REACH HIM AT RAMI@VLAMBEER.COM, , , OR BY CALLING +31 (0) 621206363.

The perfect apology

I read this apology for an Islamophobic post from a British game company owner on Kotaku today.  I got angry. I wrote an inline response. The bold parts are the apology’s original text. My responses are the rest of it. Yes, this lay-out is half-copied from the amazing nodontdie.com (which you should read) because I couldn’t come up with another one this fast.


If you’re trying to apologize, start by identifying who is apologizing, and what you’re apologizing for.

“I want to apologise for the Facebook post that I put out on Saturday in the aftermath of the horrific London terrorist attack.”

Perfect! In a great apology, this is where you stop. You did something bad, and you apologize for it. No conditions, no shifting blame. At this point, you could opt to speak to solutions to avoid this problem in the future. Solutions speak louder than words.

Whatever you do, do not make the apology into an accusation by saying you were just misunderstood by other people, and they’re the ones really at fault for missing your point. You should never suggest that what you did in no way was offensive.

“I was trying to air my views on extremist Muslims and it seems my comments may have been misinterpreted by some people and caused offence.”

Yeah, exactly that. Don’t do that. Really the only way to make this more of a faux-apology is by saying you’re only apologize to those who were offended, instead of apologizing for your actions in general.

“I am so sorry to anyone who was offended by my words – I was trying to voice an opinion on the minority group of Muslims who use their religion as an excuse for terrorism.

It’s going to be hard to recover from this one, unless you use the word ‘sincerely’.

“It was a knee-jerk reaction and I sincerely apologise.”

Phew. I guess that’s it! That’s not great, but it’s also not goo- oh? There’s more? Oh dear.

“For the record, [My Company] is one of the most diverse companies in the industry and I have championed equal opportunities and equality for all since I started out in 1994.”

Copyright champion of equal opportunity 1994-2017. All rights reserved except if you’re Muslim, then please leave the country.

“Anyone who knows me personally will vouch that I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”

Bones aren’t racist. People are racist. Actions are racist. Your post was racist, because despite you saying ‘Muslims’, what you mean is ‘Arab muslims’ and ‘Asian muslims’. I’m sure your post didn’t mean that Cockney-accented white guy at the bus station in a hip t-shirt and short jeans that happens to go to mosque twice a year for the holidays and say ‘Salaam’ to their parents on the phone.

“When we see innocent people slaughtered like we have in Manchester, London and other places around the world during the last few weeks, it is hard not to get angry and lash out.”

I got angry and lashed out too, and for some reason my post wasn’t removed from social media for hate speech, and there’s also no news articles describing them. Maybe it was because I didn’t call for 1.6 billion people to not have access to a country. Maybe it was because I didn’t call for the removal of people that might have fled to the UK away from terrorism. Maybe because I didn’t attack the religion or identity of the people that suffer most at the hands of terrorists globally. Maybe it was because my anger didn’t focus on British-born citizens that have no connection to socio-political terrorism on the other side of the planet. Maybe it was because I blamed terrorism instead of religion. I’m sure the exact reason you got trouble and I did not will remain a mystery to you.

“But I realise we all have different views,…”

We all have different views: not everyone is a Islamophobe and thinks it’s a good idea to air those views on Facebook while also being in charge of a company and its hiring, that is true.

“…and I will certainly not be writing any of mine on my personal social media account in the future.”

This sentence here reveals that the apology isn’t so much an apology for what he did, but an apology for getting in trouble. If your solution to saying something bad is ‘I won’t say it in public‘, that reveals a lot about what regrets you actually have. I guess “I’ll be an Islamophobe behind closed doors” might seem a solution, in that case.

I understand that being thrust into the spotlight for a mistake, a momentary lapse of judgement, or an unfortunate phrasing is incredibly scary. At Vlambeer, we’ve been on the receiving end of tons of criticism, and it never stops being scary. It never gets easier. But apologizing for messing up isn’t a hard thing to do if you’re actually sorry.

If you ever find yourself writing an apology (and if you gain any visibility, you likely will have to, at some point), here are four basic things you should know:

  1. Take some time away from the internet before writing an apology. There’s often a false sense of hurry instilled into you by the panic, but the honest truth is that a genuine apology takes time and clarity of mind. It requires you to truly understand what the complaint is, and it’s hard to do that when you’re in a defensive mode.
  2. Try mentally re-contextualising your apology to stepping on someone’s toes. If the apology you wrote comes down to ‘If me stepping on your toes hurt you, I am sorry. There’s many toes in the world, and I don’t step on most of them. Your toes might’ve misunderstood that I stepped on them, I was trying to cover them from rain. Maybe your toes shouldn’t have been where I put my foot down.‘, you should probably reconsider what you’re writing.
  3. A short and direct apology is the strongest apology you can make. Instead of focusing on your own defense, focus on what your future action are going to be, or what you have learned, and how you will avoid similar incidents in the future.
  4. Posting an apology does not mean that anyone has to accept your apology, or that the criticism will fade. An apology is not written to make bad things happening to you because of bad things you did go away. An apology is not a defense. An apology is you taking responsibility for the bad thing you did, and showing that you genuinely understand why what you did was bad.


Games Discussion: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe

Yakuza-0 is the latest and sixth major installment in the beloved Japanese Yakuza series, but unlike EA’s FIFA or NHL games, the story being told is not chronological. Yakuza-0 is a prequel, more like the similarly named Resident Evil Zero, and tells the story of events before the original Yakuza game – while failing to reach the levels of horror Resident Evil so effortlessly creates.

In Yakuza-0, players assume the dual perspectives of series protagonists Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, two yakuza members that have found themselves embroiled in a political conflict larger than either of them. In that regard, the game vaguely echoes games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, where players assume multiple character to learn different sides of the same story. Obviously, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 had some powerful moments, and Yakuza-0 never quite reaches the dramatic heights of blowing up the International Space Station.

The gameplay itself is very similar to Saints Row: The Third, although you can’t beat up random people, use weapons freely, or steal any sort of vehicle. Most of the time you spend in the game is spent walking around, something that honestly has been perfected since Vanquish, but somehow ends up feeling sluggish without the rocket boost in Yakuza-0. Frequently, but not as frequent as in, say, the beautiful and overwhelming chaos of Dynasty Warriors, the player has to deal with fighting enemies.

Fighting in Yakuza-0 never quite reaches the depth and complexity of the giants in the genre, such as Super Street Fighter IV. Players can use punches, kicks, grabs, and basic combos, and while both characters have different stances and styles to introduce some variety, the Yakuza-0 cast can’t begin to rival the cast of League of Legends, Overwatch, or Super Smash Brothers Brawl. With few exceptions the protagonists fight barehanded, and that might be for the best, as the swordplay can’t hold a candle to this years’ For Honor, and the gunplay falls miles short of games such as 2016’s DOOM. There is also one point in the game where Kiryu has to make a jump from a balcony through a window, and it’s a shame that this one sequence did not heed the lessons about jumping and jump feel from a game like Super Mario Bros.

A cool detail is that while fighting, attacks will make money fall out of enemies, which looks really cool. Unlike Grand Theft Auto 5, the money falling out of enemies isn’t interactive, and is merely a visual effect. Money is used to buy items and upgrade your character, and the upgrade system allows for a good amount of skill personalisation. While not nearly as in-depth as Sword of the Stars 2, the game allows for some strategic planning in expanding your tech tree.

The story is complex and engaging, and there’s an incredible amount of content, although there is probably more content in a game like Persona 5, and more engaging story complexity in games series like Kingdom Hearts. Kiryu and Majima are charming and well-rounded protagonists, but their facial animation falls flat compared to Nathan Drake’s in Uncharted 4, or the characters in Battlefield 1. Yakuza-0, for a game this dependent on cutscenes, never manages to have cutscenes as cinematic as Alan Wake, nor as many as most Metal Gear Solid games.

There’s a lot of freedom in Yakuza-0, and a lot of different things to do. While you’ll never have the freedom that a game like Zelda: Breath of the Wild offers in term of exploration, there are an enormous amount of sidequests, side-activities, and other distractions. There’s a business simulator that falls short of reaching the depth of Sim City or Civilisation V, and a karaoke minigame that, despite being solid, can’t quite be as good as Parappa the Rapper or Rock Band 4. Regardless, distractions are everywhere, but not quite as common (or explosive) as Just Cause 3’s distractions. The sidequests, while less numerous than in World of Warcraft, offer some respite from the main story, and end up giving the game an enormous amount of flair – sadly, these side stories aren’t even close to being as fleshed out as Chrono Trigger’s story. The huge variety of meals available in the game as health restoration needs to be emphasized, although food isn’t as varied or as well-rendered in Final Fantasy XV. The love for the culture beyond food is also obvious, as the game takes tremendous effort to painstakingly rebuild parts of 1988 Tokyo and Osaka. The results fall short of being as impressive as Assassins Creed reconstruction of ancient cities, they’re convincing enough. Some additional locations exist to flesh out the world of Yakuza-0 a bit more, and while that helps, it never reaches the location variety of Destiny or Mass Effect: Andromeda.

In the end, Yakuza-0 ends up being a great entry point for people trying to join the series, with new gameplay elements and at the start of the story, just like Halo: Reach was a great entry point for people looking to start on the Halo series. So although Yakuza-0 is not a bad game, I felt a lot of the agency in the pocket racer mini-game fell short, and ultimately do think that when it comes to power-up enabled party kart racing on the Nintendo Switch, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is the better game.

Obviously, Yakuza-0 and Mario Kart 8: Deluxe are both good games. This article is merely an expression of my frustration with how many online discussions about games and game elements seems to devolve into a competitive comparison with other games or media in or outside of the franchise. In many cases, tremendous value and emphasis is placed upon whether a game does something ‘better’ than other games, and even in a single franchise, such comparisons are often useless and unnecessary. While I appreciate the need for comparative examination and analysis, it would be useful to consider the (over-)use of such in game descriptions on the overall discourse surrounding our media. There’s no need to establish a pecking order where none is needed, not of games, business models, genres, platforms, mechanics, or otherwise. If the only addition you have to a conversation is how you feel another game did something better or worse, maybe simply watch the conversation unfold without that opinion injected into it.


As a Muslim video-game developer, I no longer feel the US is open for business

When I was a kid dreaming of being a game developer, I hoped that in the future I’d be joining a large studio and working on a blockbuster title. Things didn’t quite pan out that way. After leaving university with a fellow student, I am now the co-founder of my own company, Vlambeer, renowned for successful game releases such as Nuclear Throne and Ridiculous Fishing.

I was born in the Netherlands, the son of an Egyptian immigrant and a Dutch mother, and was raised as a proud Muslim. For the past years, much of my travel to the United States has led to secondary selection, investigation, or interrogation. For all 100 flights I took in 2014, I jokingly created a website that kept track of whether my boarding passes were marked for “random checks” before even reaching airport security. For many of the 1.6 billion Muslims across the world, whether they’re born in the western world or not, this is a recognisable issue with air travel. Many of my Muslim friends calculate an extra 30 minute delay for boarding and transfers.

The video game industry is one of the world’s most important creative sectors, generating $90bn a year in revenue, more than either movies and music – and it is strongly US-centric. While large game development pockets exist in the UK, north-western Europe and Asia, most of the largest companies, industry events, and industry press are centred around the coasts of the United States. For most developers around the world, their shot at success lays at the yearly Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, by far the largest gathering of industry professionals and knowledge in the world.

My studio has diverted significant resources towards helping fellow and aspiring game developers in emergent territories around the world. I often travel to speak to students, help coordinate communities, and guide opportunities for developers with potential. I spent a few days in 2015 researching what the relative costs to visit the Game Developers Conference would be. The results were shocking – for an Iranian game developer, going to GDC was the equivalent of £4,000. For someone from the Central African Republic with an average salary, the costs were the Western equivalent a staggering £120,000. For many enthusiasts around the world, visiting the Game Developers Conference is something they can afford maybe once or twice in their life – if at all.

When Donald Trump signed the executive order effectively banning Muslims from seven countries without any prior warning, the scene at many US airports was one of chaos and confusion. Muslims who boarded their plane in their country of departure with a valid visa and no reason to be turned back landed in violation of an order that didn’t exist when they boarded. Many Muslims were unnecessarily and illegally detained, or coerced to sign away their green cards. Muslims from countries not even on the list were turned away.

As one of the few visible Muslims in the games industry, I frequently talk about my experiences on the road with fellow Muslim developers who are flying to the US for the first time. In the wake of the executive order, many that spent years of their savings on the trip to San Francisco have learned that they won’t be allowed into the country any more. Even if they’d be allowed into the US, many are afraid of anti-Muslim sentiment from a population that can elect a president like Donald Trump, especially in the country with the highest homicide rate with guns in the Western world.

Many other Muslim game developers that live in the US – or even non-Muslims who only hold dual citizenship with a majority-Muslim country they’ve rarely if ever visited – are now stuck in the United States with no way to visit family or friends abroad. With many highly talented engineers coming from Middle Eastern countries, this not only limits the available talent pool, but also effectively prohibits travel for many workers in the US games industry.

Some game companies have started to speak up, with smaller studios taking the lead over the weekend. Mobile games company Dots placed a message at the start of its popular Dots games that allows players to donate to the ACLU for their opposition of the Muslim Ban. Other independent developers, including my own studio, donated parts or all of their revenue to the ACLU for a specific amount of time, raising tens of thousands of dollars in the process. Just today, larger studios and game developers have started to release statements criticising the executive order, reminding gamers around the world (and there are 1.2 billion of them) that the games that they love are made by people of all races, religions, and nationalities – including Libyans, Somalians, Yemenites, Iraqi’s, Iranians, Sudanese, and Syrians.

When I started travelling on my own back in 2010, my mother would frequently check in to see whether I was safe. After many years of travel, she stopped doing that unless I visited countries the Dutch government had a negative travel advisory for, often countries that are unstable, at war, or at risk of terrorist attacks. For the first time in years, she messaged me last week to check in whether I was safe, because I was in the US.


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’.


Fire Emblem: Fates & Localisation

One of the most interesting conversations happening in games right now is the controversy surrounding Fire Emblem: Fates, a Nintendo game in the popular Fire Emblem series. While the game originally launched in Japanese markets in June 2015, the US version of the game came out today (as of this writing, there is no mention of a EU release date), and it’s already one of the most controversial launches in quite a while. The controversy is focused on the localisation of the game.

The goal of localization is to create an enjoyable, non-confusing play experience for the end user by paying heed to their specific cultural context. The suspension of disbelief is of utmost importance to the process; if a player feels as though the product was not meant for them, or if the localization creates confusion or difficulty in comprehension, this may break immersion and disrupt the player’s ability to continue the game.

In Fire Emblem Fates, a number of changes have been made to accomodate US audiences. To reflect the PEGI-12 rating and US culture, some dialogue has been changed to avoid reference to drugging a character and gay conversion, a mini-game in which your character – the leader of a warrior force traveling the lands – could pet other characters has been cut, some character personalities have been made to fit Western story archetypes and obviously, the game and audio have been translated.

These changes have particular parts of the internet up in arms about the purity of the game as art being lost. As they see it, the game is art, and as such should not be modified from how it was created originally, regardless of anything. Others argue that localization and game development are both expensive, and that as such an entertainment product should be optimized to be as profitable as possible – to ensure future games can be made.

What I do know is that Fire Emblem: Fates would’ve not existed without Nintendo funding it, that developer Intelligent Systems worked with Nintendo on creating and localizing the game through localisation studio Nintendo Treehouse, and that there is no reason to believe the developers feel their intention has been modified or thwarted.

This comes back to a larger issue: audiences believe they know the developers of their games – while very commonly, they have no idea. Somehow, it seems completely reasonable to people on the internet to claim ‘the purity of the games’ intent’ has been modified’, while the only people that can really say so are the developers and the publisher. Seeing the publisher made the choice to localise the game and signed off on it, I think the ‘purity’ argument doesn’t hold. If the average user doesn’t notice that the localisation changed things from the Japanese version, it seems like the localisation was a success. Those who want to play the game ‘pure’ can import the original Japanese version.

That doesn’t leave me ultimately conflicted: I believe a large strength of games is that it reflects the creators’ culture. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to reconcile that with localisation, but I do believe that having access to localised content while funding new projects is better than not having access at all. In an interesting move, groups of fans that didn’t just go and yell at things have created patches that allow the legally bought version of the game to be ‘patched’ to use a fan translation and restores the mini-games.

Only Nintendo has a good idea of how the controversy affects their bottom line, and what the majority audience of Fire Emblem: Fates is. I’m looking forward to seeing how it handles these issues in the future.