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The Voice Actor Strike Is a Powder Keg for Video Game Industry Labor Issues

"We can’t reward one set of people and not take into account 99 percent of other people who don’t have that kind of that compensation. It’s not fair to the vast majority."

Emanuel Maiberg

Emanuel Maiberg

Video game voice actor Phil LaMarr. Image: Gage Skidmor/Wikimedia Commons

After almost 18 months of negotiations, SAG-AFTRA, the union representing the actors who voice video game characters, started a strike against video game companies on Friday. SAG-AFTRA's Interactive Committee, the group representing video game actors in the negotiations, wants back-end payments, safer working conditions, and more transparency about the projects actors are working on. Video game companies made counter offers and civil negotiations took place, but at the end of the day the two sides failed to reach an agreement, with the issue of bonus pay for best-selling games being the largest sticking point.

With both sides feeling that the other failed to make a reasonable counter-offer in the last round of negotiations last week (after what SAG-AFTRA said was the longest negotiations in its history), the Interactive Committee triggered a strike on Friday, which more than 96 percent of members gave the organization the power to do last year. On Monday, SAG-AFTRA will picket game publisher Electronic Arts' office in Los Angeles.

This unprecedented strike could have repercussions that will trigger difficult, potentially cataclysmic discussions about labor in the video game industry. As we discussed at length in our story about the development of Gears of War 4, game developers work long hours and weekends for months to ship big budget video games, and if the actors union is fighting for a better contract, developers may soon follow.

Paying voice actors bonuses for games that sell millions of copies won't impact video game companies' bottom line much. By the video game companies' own admission, voice actors are less than 1 tenth of one percent of all the people who work on a video game. The issue is that if video game companies agree to SAG-AFTRA's demands, it would only be fair to offer similar deals to game developers, which could seriously cut into their profits.

Image: SAG-AFTRA

According to a press conference SAG-AFTRA held on Friday, every other SAG-AFTRA-negotiated contract (with movie studios, TV production companies, etc.) has some version of this. For example, if an actor stars in a movie that brings in a certain amount of revenue, they get a bonus payment in addition to what they got paid upfront for the work. Video game voice actors want the same type of back-end payment.

Specifically, they want a "reasonable performance bonus" for every 2 million copies sold, with a cap at 8 million units. That amounts to potentially four session payments per principal performer. For context, the standard rate for video game voice actors today is $825.50 per four-hour recording session. Video game companies tend to keep sales numbers close to the vest, but even with what little information we have, we know that (based on SAG-AFTRA's offer) only a small fraction of games would trigger secondary compensation.

According to SAG-AFTRA, video game companies responded by offering voice actors upfront bonuses—meaning a secondary payment at the time they are booked for a job—as opposed to a secondary payment contingent on sales.

"While they came a ways, they were not willing to accept even the win-win proposal that we put on the table"

SAG-AFTRA countered by giving game companies an either/or choice: game companies could choose to pay a bonus upfront, or back-end bonuses if a game sold 2 million units. Giving game companies this option is also important to smaller, less liquid game developers, who could strike gold with an indie game, but might not have cash on hand when hiring a SAG-AFTRA voice actor.

Game companies refused this offer. On Thursday, Barnes & Thornburg, the law firm representing game companies at the negotiations, put out a press release saying that it offered SAG-AFTRA an immediate 9 percent wage hike, and that the union refused to consider it.

Sam Singer, a spokesperson for Barnes & Thornburg, told me that "It would be a tragedy to take its [SAG-AFTRA's] membership on strike before presenting them with this offer."

Game companies paint of a picture of SAG-AFTRA as being unwilling to negotiate. SAG-AFTRA's position is that it's the game companies who refused to budge.

"While they came a ways, they were not willing to accept even the win-win proposal that we put on the table, the either/or response," voice actor and the chair of SAG-AFTRA's Interactive Committee Keythe Farley said during the union's Friday press conference. "You can pay it upfront, you can pay it on the back-end, at your discretion. Can we go forward? And the answer was 'Absolutely not. We have never given secondary payments, we will never give secondary payments on this contract, and we will never give them in the future.'"

Three of the most prolific voice actors in the industry: Troy Baker, Nolan North, and John DiMaggio

As SAG-AFTRA notes, and as a 2014 Gamasutra survey on game development salaries shows, secondary compensation of this type are common for programmers, artists, producers, and other people who work on video games.

"Last year, Activision's COO took home a bonus of $3,970,862," SAG-AFTRA said last year. "EA paid their executive chairman a bonus of $1.5 million. We applaud their success, and we believe our talent and contributions are worth a bonus payment, too."

Video game companies have legitimate reasons to resist secondary payments to voice actors. They are only a small fraction of the people who make a video game, and unlike Tom Cruise, whose star power can drive ticket sales, video game voice actors are not nearly as recognizable.

"Video game performers are less than 1 tenth of one percent of all the people who work on video games," Singer told me. "We can't reward one set of people and not take into account 99 percent of other people who don't have that kind of that compensation. It's not fair to the vast majority."

And therein lies the real, looming issue. Video game fans and developers are not entirely onboard with the strike. Why should voice actors be able to make demands, but not programmers, artists, level designers, and the other professionals that make video games?

Voice actor Ashley Burch had a Twitter thread about this:

This, of course, is the last thing video game companies want, especially in a time when profit margins on big budget video games are shrinking. A 2014 survey showed that 55.7 percent of game developers would vote "yes" for an industry-wide union. If the voice actor strike gets results, it might inspire game developers to finally unionize as well.

At the moment, the voice actor strike doesn't feel like the end of the world for the games industry. Voice actors are already bound to finish any project they were contracted for before February 17, 2015. And even after that date, game companies can find non-union members to work with (Singer claims that only 25 percent of games use union talent).

The same would not be true for game developers. If they decide to organize, unionize, and strike in order confront the labor issues that have been plaguing the video game industry for decades, they could bring that multi-billion dollar industry to a halt.