Honest pay for honest work
Recently in video game news there has been some friction between voice actors, publishers and developers, with the SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) and its members negotiating for better working conditions, increased transparency in job expectations and bonuses linked to sales performance.
Unsurprisingly, many high profile voice actors see their craft as no different to their on-screen brethren, toiling to bring life to a performance. Therefore, why wouldn’t they argue for similar conditions to live action actors? Especially when the advent of motion-capture requires a degree of physical performance. Now keep in mind, we’re talking about the cream of the crop here – Nolan North, Troy Baker, Jennifer Hale, Tara Strong – recognisable names that you could logically argue have a ‘brand’ that commands an audience.
The issue has supporters and detractors on both sides, but what struck me the most from many of the #PerformanceMatters tweets that have been posted is not the way the big players in the game industry have responded, but how some on the ground level have. From my perspective, the resentment that some developers have shown for this turn of events is completely understandable, but misdirected. It is not a unionised voice actors fault that they expect the same working conditions fellow union members receive – that is, after all, the point of a unionised workforce. The problem is that the game industry has yet to make any move towards a unionised workforce despite massive growth over the past 3 decades. The fact is there is no industry standard regarding working conditions, expectations and transparency for game developers.
Indeed, the majority of horror stories we’ve hear again and again coming out of development such as extended crunch periods, lack of job security and the lengths publishers will go to avoid performance based remuneration would be untenable were designers, programmers and artists to unite their workforce.
Naturally, every publisher and distributor on the planet will say such a plan would destroy the industry as we know it – it would be akin to shutting down Bangladeshi sweat shops and still expecting to buy $7 jeans from the local department store. Quality and quantity of product would go down, at least in the AAA sector, if prices did not rise to meet the increased costs – anybody who has the slightest inkling about capitalism should know that at no point will EA, Activision or Ubisoft voluntarily make less profit. That means that consumers would have to wear these increased costs – take a look at Turtle Rock studios and how successful that approach has been for Evolve.
I think at the core of this is a problem of perception, specifically how developers perceive themselves as opposed to how they are perceived by publishers. The members of the film industry who receive residuals are writers, directors, actors and producers – everyone else is considered ‘below the line’. Publishers seem to view developers as ‘below the line’ – not eligible for any kind of profit-share arrangement, although there have been cases of developers having bonuses tied to Metacritic scores (Fallout: New Vegas and Call of Duty come to mind). However, I’m sure a lot of developers, especially those in creative and responsibility laden positions similar to writers, directors and producers don’t see their jobs as dissimilar to their film industry counterparts, much in the same way voice actors still consider themselves actors. What the game industry lacks is 80+ years of union negotiations to ensure residuals and the like are standard industry practice. This of course then opens the up the issue of programmers and artists – do we simply equate these individuals as ‘crew’?
I don’t think I’m particularly qualified to provide answers to these issues, but I do sincerely think that no matter what the industry, fair compensation at all levels should be provided. Having played games featuring bad voice acting and good voice acting, I have to agree that ‘performance’ really does matter and should be rewarded accordingly.
Stephen del Prado