SAG-AFTRA Interactive Media Agreement, aka the games contract

SAG-AFTRA has put it to a vote to authorize a strike due to a negotiations standstill regarding the Interactive Media Agreement, which covers video games.

This has been a long time coming. The contract was last negotiated in 1994, in the Wild West days when games were first emerging as a profitable medium for professional voice actors. 20 years is obviously too long a time to renegotiate a contract to match the current state of the business.

In the mid 2000s, the heyday of MMOs, the union started asking for residuals, as games and game patch downloads became a quantifiable measurement. Unfortunately, there is no legal precedent that obligates game companies to distribute profit sharing, bonuses, or residuals to game developers. The few companies that do can afford to and also happen to want to foster a culture of retention, in the hopes that teams will not have to be rehired following people quitting a company after a game has shipped, exhausted and ready for greener pastures.

I spent 12 years in game development and have been a full-time voice actor since March of 2013. I have been on both ends of the assembly line that puts voice over into a game.

The following are problems that I have personally experienced as broken and would like to see improved in the Interactive Media Agreement:

VO from games can be used for commercials without compensation. You can yank lines from a game, put it on TV, sell the game, and pay nothing to the actor. If you use music for a commercial, you have to pay the licensing fee. But not for VO. Use as much as you want, for free. If I’m booked to do a product commercial, I’m paid for my time in the booth. Then also paid residuals, which means the spot is permitted to run during a specific time frame which I have been paid for. But if I’m booked to do a trailer for a game, it’s just a regular game session fee. No residuals, no permission needed to run the spot.

Here’s a real example of how broken the union games contract is when it comes to marketing: An actor has a playable character in a billion dollar franchise. That character and his VO can be used to sell other products. Forever. Meaning his character can be used to sell Coke, for example, with his VO. He will never see a dime. Whereas if the actor was booked to record a Coke commercial, he’d be compensated fairly.

Actors are sometimes asked to scream and yell for game emotes for hours on end. This can put an actor out of commission for the rest of the night, sometimes even the next day or two. Not to mention it can cause permanent damage to the actor’s voice, changing the quality. Actors are obligated to keep up with sessions that have been booked and continue to submit auditions, regardless of the screaming they’ve recently done for a game. I personally feel that paying extra for vocally stressful sessions is absolutely fair. If the hardship of the session prevents an actor from securing future work or affects their voice, extra compensation is correct. A session of solely projected speech would ideally be limited to 2 hours. Either compromise of extra compensation or a limit of 2 hours would be better than the current ability for a client to demand 4 hours of yelling and screaming.

A crux with the current contract is that the base rates are too low. The union hopes to offset the low rates by securing residuals for voice actors. The immediate issue is of course that the majority of game developers don’t receive residuals to begin with, never mind have enough to distribute to contractors, like actors. I’d like to see the rates raised to match the current economy and outpace inflation, rather than pursing future funds that are not guaranteed. Fair payment upfront seems sensible to me. Additionally, it is poor math to ask for back end from a project based on units sold, regardless of whether the project has recuperated its development costs. Requiring additional payment from a company that is in debt is unreasonable.

———

In the last day I have been contacted by various game developers and actors who have strong feelings about what the union is asking. With permission, here are some of their comments, posted anonymously by request.

From a game developer:

It’s weird because I feel like I’m getting an “us vs them” vibe from some of the supporters on Twitter, but it’s totally not that, at least not from the devs down in the trenches. I’d love for all of us to get residuals. But we don’t. There is that rare exception of a company that does it. But the majority don’t. But generally what I feel from what I’m seeing is that the actors demanding this stuff are out of touch with how the game industry works. Not all of the things listed on the SAG/AFTRA site are bad, but some of them are mindblowing.

Like the objection to in-house motion capture actors being non-union. That objection shows that they clearly have no idea how motion capture works on a game, and that there’s a difference between performance capture and motion capture. We run mocap studios five days a week for the life of the project. We shoot thousands and thousands of in game animations that have nothing whatsoever to do with narrative, and are all about the mechanics of gameplay. We use in house actors because the people performing the animations are the same people putting them into the game. They’re cross discipline, and them being cross discipline is critical. They can perform exactly what they need to make gameplay work, they can iterate rapidly as design changes occur and to refine the feeling of gameplay.

They [SAG-AFTRA] see the words “motion capture” and immediately think it’s just acting, but it’s a totally different discipline. It’s a form of acting, perhaps, but it’s highly technical. John Doe Actor can’t just walk onto a mocap stage and do this stuff with the experience and understanding of the implementation the way these guys can. Not to mention I’m trying to imagine the union rates for keeping a small team of motion capture actors going five days a week for the life of a three year dev cycle. I suspect it would be completely unfeasible, but it’s what we have to do to make the game play well.

I’m not against actors, not at all. I love actors and value them in our process. The great ones we’ve worked with have been amazing and added value to our project. But I also recognize that, unlike film, actors are not the beating heart of games. Gameplay is. That’s not to devalue actors, it’s just being realistic about what their role is in production.

I hope the negotiators get their heads around how game development actually works when making these demands, because they’re not going to get very far without trying to grasp the difference between linear media and interactive. They’re very different worlds.

From a game developer:

For obvious reasons I can’t post my personal opinions about this online. As a dev I’ll spend 2-3 years working on a game with no guarantee of any backend or bonus. Session musicians don’t get points on albums. They do the work and move on. Likewise, the guy who paints my house won’t get kick backs when I sell it.

From an award winning AAA voice actor:

Just so you know, plenty of the game actors who work the most spoke up a lot against secondary payments. We adamantly said it was unfair. But we were drowned out by the masses who don’t understand how the game industry really works and want things similar to film contracts. The problem with being in a union, is having to support the whole basket of demands when we really just want to focus everything outside of the big “residual payments” egg. I hope that when negotiations come back, the big “ridiculous demands” egg will be taken out of the basket on both sides. I hope.

From the CEO of a AAA game company:

We paid our first royalty this year, I’m proud to say. Teams only, not execs, I’m also proud to say. And exactly as your math skills would predict – If we paid anyone a % off the top, not only would there be no royalty, there’d also have to be universal pay cuts and fewer employees. People seem to think that games economics are like movie economics, and that’s just sad and wrong.

Gross is different. We may gross more we may not, I honestly don’t know. Gross includes our costs of actually getting stuff done and running it once its live, all those employees and their benefits and stuff. I can only speak for a mid-size dev/pub. I think there are a lot more of us than there are Activisions and EAs, which is who I imagine everyone is up in arms about, assuming their economics are universal. So if you want to say that you were talking with a friend who’s a CEO at a mid-size dev/pub go for it.

Anecdotally, if economics of movies and games were the same, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been eating a 23 cent frozen burrito for lunch just FYI. Or if I did, it would have been flown in on a private jet and laced with very high quality drugs or something.

The fact that 100% of movie workers are prod houses and contractors protected by their own union may actually be I dunno a MASSIVE difference in there too. Where we kinda have employees. And servers. And service people. And support. And when a movie stops shooting it stops needing people to work on it. Yeah, I imagine there’s a difference or 1000.

From a game developer:

I like the comment that the games industry is bigger than the film industry. The union is taking all games including mobile into account which is such a huge percentage… that doesn’t have VO. Sigh. This is going to be a mess. When I was a member and this came up a few years ago, I sent an email detailing what the life of a developer was. Wasn’t received very well either. Sometimes people just don’t want to understand. Personally, I’d love to find a way to make it work. People are getting stuck on the residuals point and are getting blinded by rage.

From an award winning independent developer:

Here’s a potential situation as an indie developer: You release a game and have funds from a publisher that were loaned to you that need to be recuperated first (so the publisher will take all of your incoming funds until their loan is paid back, usually plus interest). Then you sell the game in a bundle, or a free game membership deal, or have a deep sale in order to hit over 2 million downloads/sales eventually. But after all of the overhead/licensing/loan payback the game still hasn’t made much of a profit, if any, and now you need to pay out residuals to your actors based on your sales, not your profits. Sales numbers don’t automatically turn into profits.

Ultimately, everyone would like to be able to work and feel good about it. I hope the result of contract negotiations coming to a head is SAG-AFTRA gaining a better understanding of the games business, and the games business gaining a better understanding of what actors are willing to do to be in a game.

———

The Voice Behind Episode 67 – Strike! Part 1

The Voice Behind Episode 68 – Strike! Part 2

I was interviewed on The Voice Behind, my absolute favorite voice actor-centric podcast. The topic was the current SAG-AFTRA Interactive Media Agreement negotiations. I had the pleasure of sharing the interview with JB Blanc.