Feature Article

Overwatch Actor Weighs in on the Strike and Why Voice Actors Matter

"...it's time for the video game industry to put on its big boy pants and act like a proper entertainment company."

Video game mocap and voice actors who are a part of the SAG-AFTRA union are currently in the middle of a strike, after almost two years of negotiating with some of the biggest publishers such as Activision, EA, and Take-Two (see the full list here). Blizzard, however, is not one of the companies that SAG-AFTRA is striking. GameSpot got the opportunity to talk to Overwatch voice actor Crispin Freeman about the strike, and he's unsurprisingly disappointed that it's gotten to this point with the other publishers.

"We negotiated with them for 19 months in good faith," Freeman said. "It's the longest negotiation SAG-AFTRA has ever done. It was the last thing we wanted to do, but they left us with no choice."

When asked what the most ideal outcome of this strike would be, Freeman's answer was simple: that voice actors are ensured safety, respect, "a tiny bit of shared prosperity," and that they and their contributions are treated as something valuable. "Because right now they treat us like we don't matter," he said.

One of the big things Freeman pointed out was that publishers would often not tell him what game he had been hired for, making it difficult to know the context of his role and whether he was being paid fairly for his work.

"I've been asked to work on games without knowing what the game was and then shown up and been told that I'm going to have to use the N word repeatedly as my character with no warning ahead of time," he said. "I've been asked to work on games without them saying that it's the same game again, and so they tried to undercut my salaries. It's a common drone with a lot of video game stuff."

"I understand the video game industry is very secretive, and so we told them it doesn't have to be during auditions. During auditions, keep it all codenames and top secret. But when you decide you want to hire an actor, and you call up their agent and say, 'We want you for this game,' you have to tell them what the game is. I don't know anyone who would go to work not knowing what they're working on, and yet we're asked to do this continuously."

Freeman as Firefly in Batman: Arkham Knight
Freeman as Firefly in Batman: Arkham Knight

While SAG-AFTRA is demanding certain things, Freeman says all of their proposals "exist in every other contract" that they, as actors, work under. According to him, SAG-AFTRA is just looking for "parity between the video game contract" and all of the others.

"I just feel it's time for the video game industry to put on its big boy pants and act like a proper entertainment company," the voice actor said. "And they're deathly afraid of that because they want to be able to exploit actors, they want to be able to exploit developers. They have a culture of exploitation. And they don't want to give that up because they're making a lot of money, and they don't want anyone to impact their bottom line on that."

As for the publishers, chief negotiator Scott Witlin said in October that the companies "did everything in their power to reach agreement with union leaders, offering a money package almost identical to SAG-AFTRA's last demand." Witlin also added at the time that the strike has "little to no immediate impact on the ability of fans to buy and play the video games they love as the majority of upcoming games already are in production."

"The sad part is that the very performers who these Companies value--and who are impacted by the union decision to strike--never got a chance to vote on the companies' proposal," Witlin said. According to the union, all games from these companies that went into production after February 17, 2015, are covered by the strike.

[The publishers] have told us in negotiations that we don't matter.

Freeman told us frequently in our interview that, during negotiations, publishers said voice actors didn't matter, but despite the way they've been treated, he doesn't think that most of these companies are "bad"--even the ones he disagrees with. "I think they just don't know," he said, explaining that these publishers and developers don't understand what it's like to work with actors. He believes that this is mostly due to the fact that, unlike in film, video game companies don't deal with actors sometimes until years after development has started. And when he does end up bringing it to the attention of these companies, he says they're often understanding of why an actor needs a certain amount of safety and time to take care of their voice.

"So many of them are usually okay with that, but this contract is just to make sure that we never go below a certain minimum," he said. "It's a shame that we have to say, 'Hey, we need to have stunt coordinators on set,' or 'Hey, you need to understand that we can't scream, 'Grenade!' for four hours.' The fact that we can do it for two hours is a major miracle."

And Freeman says he recognizes that voice actors aren't the only ones getting exploited. He said that publishers "exploit all sorts of people lower on the chain" in the industry and reiterated that the companies are "deathly afraid" that someone will push back and say, "Enough is enough."

Freeman's Resistance 3 character Charlie Tent.
Freeman's Resistance 3 character Charlie Tent.

However, the voice of Overwatch's Winston mentioned that some video game companies do "play very, very nice" and show voice actors respect. As someone who has worked on both Overwatch and Diablo III (in which he played the male Wizard), Freeman was happy to say that he's "always had wonderful relations with Blizzard." He noted that the union has a different agreement with Blizzard and is therefore not striking the developer, despite its connection with Activision.

"There was a time when Blizzard was non-union, but from the moment it decided to go union and work with the union, Blizzard has always behaved admirably and has always respected both its actors and the union rules," Freeman said. "And we would be quite happy if the industry acted more like Blizzard."

As for the fans, Freeman hopes they'll support actors and tell publishers how much they value them in games.

"[The publishers] have told us in negotiations that we don't matter," he said. "That the voices and the motion capture just aren't that important, that we're just a tiny bit of the whole piece and no one cares about us. I think it's important if the fans believe in our case and want to stand with us that they tell the publishers over and over again that, yes, these performances in games matter, these motion capture performers and these voice actors matter.

"Because they keep saying we don't."

Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email news@gamespot.com

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Avatar image for Downloadpilot
Downloadpilot

Ethics aside,this will turn into a case of "how important are these actors who are striking?" if the guild is made up of the industry's go-to guys, then they'll have to give it up eventually. If it's a lot of other random VA's (with a few stars sprinkled in) then I doubt the companies will be very inclined to do anything.

I always think of doing voiceover every once in a blue moon. Keep in mind i can do a couple voices (some poorly than others ), but I always thought it would be fun. Guess I was wrong. 😞

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advocacy

If they keep this up, all voice acting work for video games will be outsourced from Bangladesh.

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Pyrosa

Remain firm, gaming industry... NOW is the time to finally break the strangle-hold that this useless union has had on the entertainment industry.

Start hiring non-union contract workers for EVERYTHING. You'll rapidly find a massive independent talent pool ready, willing, and capable of replacing these union slaves.

All of this dreck from the hack above is a perfect example of this spoiled, entitled, union-lifer artist mentality. It's up to every worker in any career to decide for themselves what they are/aren't willing to do for what money. It's up to every business to detail the job description and what they're willing to pay for each job.

The only thing SAG-AFTRA is about is its own power.

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morg444

Games that are raking in millions/billions can afford to pay the creators a decent cut. Stop being Trumps!

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CatAtomic999

For some reason, I read this headline as "Overweight Actor Weighs in the Strike".

Avatar image for azura-moonstar
Azura-moonstar

as a fan of Crispin Freeman, a watcher of many voice acting documentaries, being a voice actor is hell.

Work comes from agents, friends, and networking. This goes to voice acting in anime, cartoons and video games. You are not paid the same wage, and can go weeks if not months with out work. Actors are paid more for more solid work.

People do voice work, because they enjoy it and is needed. You can look up youtube the pains these guys go through to simply do a voice over. They manipulate their voice, possible do retakes which can hurt. Devs don't treat their actors well.. look at destiny with dinklage and north. Dinklege's work on destiny was scraped and redid nolan north has 100% credit for the work on "ghost".

Devs do need to grow up, and stop being secretive, give voice actors the respect, which gives fan respect. I've bought tons of games simply because of who the voice actors were. Like DCUO, i enjoyed the fact that the people who voiced my fav 90s cartoon, did those voices.

And being a huge fan of Crispin, I would have bought overwatch day one. :) His Winston intro really pulls you into the game.

Unlike the 80s to 90s, games all but require voice work. People expect it, only art styled indi ganes seemingly get a free pass, while action/rpg pretty much NEED it.

Look at ff14, the community wants even MORE voice acting because of WoW and swtor.

tldr: Voice actors work is very up in the air on a daily basis, they are not paid much and their work is based on networking. Only the fans thank them.

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WhateverDude

@azura-moonstar: doesn't WoW have less voice acting than FFXIV? seems like it from what I can remember.

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Arumat33

I have no idea how much the "average" voice game actors make. What I do know though is some of these AAA games and others would not be near as good if they had just random people off the streets or whatever you wanna say. Imagine The Last of Us with just regular people from the office or w/e doing it. IMO it wouldn't have near the same impact if they couldn't pull off the emotions they did in that game to make it believable. That's just my opinion though voice actors make a huge difference in certain games if it keeps me interested or not in the story.

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Slade45

My only complaint with the whole residuals thing is they didn't take a risk doing the work. They agreed to a price and they are guaranteed to be paid that amount and they get to go on with life. Those that have put up the big dollars to fund the project have exposed themselves to risk. That is why they get rewarded when projects do well and lose big when they don't. I would understand if you agreed to residuals if you initial price was free or substantially less than what the "market" value of that work would be. In that case you have exposed yourself to risk since you weren't really paid to begin with, but I doubt many actors want to work that way.

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prnjsn

This is nice to hear in addition to the esports caster who mentioned that Blizzard payed him more for 2 weeks of work than another company did in 5 weeks

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CaptWaffle

Let them walk.... plenty of others would love to have the work.

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edinko

THey dont matter at all compared to the coders and artists. I barely even listen to voice acting in games.Its just kinda there and doesnt matter to me at all

Avatar image for inebriantia
inebriantia

@edinko: Then you must not play many story driven games. Which is fair, but in games like Final Fantasy, Last of Us, GTA, etc voice acting is very important for immersion.

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edinko

@inebriantia: Wrong I play all this games a I didnt give a single F about VA. BTW last of us is one of the most boring games I ever played. I couldnt even finish it. VA there was irrelevant.

Avatar image for Zignoff
Zignoff

I'll tell you what, when you guys pick voice actors who match the original Japanese source in anime and games, and you can actually, ACT, and give emotion and stop having one person do half the cast of a show or game like that hack Chris Sabat does, and you know try like it's more then just a JOB, then I'll be on board to support all voice actors.

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Vilified_Signals

@Zignoff: I love you. You get it. To hell with sabat.

Because respect will start in one part of the voice acting industry and goes to the other.
These big companies will look at the way it works in anime. And they will see that they do not respect their voice actors. Look at what happened with Stephanie Nadolny. OG voice of Gohan and Kid Goku. Sabat fired her (Texas is an at will employment state) and forced her to leave Funimation altogether.

I do not call that respect.

And so why the hell should these game companies care about respecting their VAs? Other industries don't.

And yes. People need to respect the source. Call me a "weeb" or whatever you want. Subs > Dubs. Any day any time.

I've been listening to some of the voice "acting" done in Skyrim. It's terrible at some parts. Bland voices, no emotion... Specifically the actress who did the voice for Gormlaith Golden-Hilt. Just absolutely terrible.

Avatar image for deactivated-5828b8c49570a

@Zignoff: How is Chris Sabat a "hack"?

Avatar image for lostn
lostn

@arenova: I'm not sure what he means, but Sabat is one of the many prolific voice actors who lack range and always sound the same and are easily identifiable. Others include Crispin Freeman, Liam O'Brien, Yuri Lowenthall, Wendee Lee, and a whole lot more who came from anime. You can immediately tell it's them when you hear their voice, and they are being used far too often.

They do a good job, don't get me wrong. But they seem to be in almost every game and don't have a varied enough range for actors who are in so many roles.

That said I don't know how many of them (if any) are part of SAG AFTRA, so this may not even be relevant.

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Judas_III

Just tie your pay to a percentage of game sales. then if it becomes huge, you get you're share. Done, next?

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lostn

@Judas_III: A percentage would be tough. There are only 100 percents in a while. So if the percentage was say 0.5%, all it would take is 200 people getting residuals and there are no profits left for the publisher. A big game will have a few dozen voice actors alone, and then hundreds of people on the dev team across several studios around the globe. There just isn't enough percents to go around unless what you're getting is a very miniscule percentage, like 0.005%, in which case, why not just accept the 9% payrise offered to voice actors?

Actors in films don't get residuals unless it's in their contract. That usually means a lower salary in exchange for a percentage of the film's gross. That means the actor is taking a risk. They are only going to be ahead if the movie does really well. If it flops, they will get less money because they sacrificed up front salary for back end pay.

These voice actors want to have it both ways which is naive if you ask me. Someone will watch a movie because Tom Cruise is in it. I don't know anyone whose game buying decisions are influenced by which voice actors are in it. Most don't even know who is in it until the end credits, because the VA's name and face will not be appearing on the cover, nor will a trailer advertise their voice cast. Even the highest profile voice actors like Troy Baker, Laura Bailley and Jennifer Hale are not household names like Tom Cruise or George Clooney.

The union's justification is that games are making big money like movies and publishers aren't sharing that money. Sure, some of the massive games like GTA and COD are making that kind of money. But what makes a VA think they are entitled to it? There are hundreds of people who work on a film crew that get no recognition (stand ins, stunt doubles, extras, editors, effects people, sound engineers, etc), and they too don't get any residuals. Only the most important roles get revenue sharing, and I really don't see any argument for a voice actor being the most important role in a video game.

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xWinson

@Judas_III: If I recall reading from previous articles that's what they want to do sometimes but they can't do that at the moment ha.

Avatar image for ZZoMBiE13
ZZoMBiE13

Haven't bought a game since the strike began and I have no plans on breaking that. It will be difficult to not pick up Dead Rising 4 as that is my favorite franchise. But, VO actors are good people deserving of respect and solidarity. They are friendly on Twitter and tend to treat their fans like a precious commodity. It's only fair to repay them in kind with a show of support.

Avatar image for Zignoff
Zignoff

@ZZoMBiE13: They'll deserve it when they EARN it first. just cause blizzard has some of the better ones, it doesn't mean all of them should get away with being lazy or being bad fits.

Avatar image for lutinpofin
lutinpofin

@Zignoff: Why do you think the "non-union" companies get some poorer voice acting in games ? Because the best voice actors will not accept the poor conditions these companies get for them.

One of the best thing about Overwatch is it's characters - and the game would not be the same with sub-par voice acting, and they know it. So they're willing to give talent a fair trade.

People don't have a clue. *sigh*

Avatar image for andrewskipper
andrewskipper

I disagree with a lot of the sentiment expressed here in the comments in regards to what voice actors contribute to many games. Firstly I think we all need to remember that the term 'voice'actor is not really accurate anymore, you only have to watch any behind the scenes stuff to see that they physically act many scenes nowadays with mocap being integral to the development process.

If you've not seen the naughty dog documentary on the making of TLOU then give it a watch, it's engrossing.

There is no way that voice acting is easy and any one can do it, as some would suggest, Many have incredible talent and without them games would be nowhere near as immersive.

However, as many point out, this strike is more about residual earnings and being in a position to negotiate pre contract. And I get the latter. Sure, imagine you're a VA and you get a major part for a game and you then find out it's the next GTA after the contract. Of course you'd have pushed for more earnings if you'd known. This is the same for all entertainment, can you imagine if this was the same for movies? It would never happen.

Same goes in music production for the media too, having being in this industry in the past I know that all composers would never dream about pitching for a gig without knowing what the tv/movie budget is so they know what kind of production level they're looking at. They might pitch £1k for an indie production up to £30k for a higher budget movie.

So, I think we should all value and appreciate what VA'a bring to videogames and without doubt ensure they are paid fairly in line with the earnings a game creates, just as in tv and movies. BUT, this latest strike is being pushed as a safety issue and it's obviously not, it's about earnings.

It sounds to me like their demands have been met other than residual earnings. Maybe if they simply had more information pre contract they could negotiate their initial fee more fairly and do away with residuals, which is surely being requested purely to make up their fee if they find themselves working on a AAA title without knowing beforehand?

Just my 2c.

Avatar image for darkelf83
darkelf83

@andrewskipper: I think that not knowing how to negotiate their contract due to not knowing what they are working on is the biggest issue. How can you gauge what something is worth if you don't' know what it is. It sounds like residuals was a good way to let the game companies keep their secrets, but give the voice actor a more fair pay rate if it turned out to be a big title.

The only other way I can see this working is if companies agreed to a tiered voice over system. Game A is projected for this tier and as such is expected to make X amount. The problem is that is a hard system to make and still would need a backup, so they should just stick with some residual system and move on. By no means am I suggesting they should make tons of money, but should at least get a fair shot at a fair contract and not be taken advantage of.

Avatar image for ultralof
Ultralof

So many opinions here when we know so little.

Anyways, some actors are more critical than others. Generic soldier #3? Not so much.

But the person behind Lara Croft or Nate from Uncharted or the cast of Heavy Rain? Maybe they should get a larger cut.

But hey. Im just some dude on the net postning on an article. We all lack insight.

Avatar image for straightcur
straightcur

Fight for safety, fight for working conditions. Drop the BS about being paid more than you're worth and more than your overall contribution to the product. Voice actors are by far the least important people involved in a video game (with some exceptions).

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amaredecree

Blizzard is once again the standard others ha e to aspire to. I love you, Blizz. Still showing everyone how it's done. Quality company.

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Dark_Mits

Can't wait for a big announcement like "Final Fantasy XVI will not have English voice acting"

Avatar image for PrpleTrtleBuBum
PrpleTrtleBuBum

@Dark_Mits: Actually good news

Avatar image for inebriantia
inebriantia

@PrpleTrtleBuBum: While you may not wanna hear English VA. I dont wanna read subtitles for 400hrs of a game, nor hear another language breaking my immersion. Its fine for a phrase here and there, but thats it.

Avatar image for Zignoff
Zignoff

@PrpleTrtleBuBum: Agreed. Most dubs are terrible nowadays, cause they keep using awful voice actors.

Avatar image for deactivated-5828b8c49570a

@Zignoff: I can't say I agree. I think dubs are getting better every year.

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thecatsix

The people that quite possibly work the least time on a project, DO NOT deserve residuals.

Online
Avatar image for superklyph
SuperKlyph

@thecatsix: Is that what they're looking for?

Avatar image for ArthasReborn
ArthasReborn

@thecatsix: Assuming their exact demands are met regarding that (which is extremely unlikely in any negotiation; you over-demand so you have room to give things up), they'd make a little more than $3000 if a game sells 8 million copies. Take a look at any list of game sales and there's only really a mere handful that hits that amount. It's really not that much, especially for a job that is freelance and thus typically doesn't even offer benefits.

Avatar image for lostn
lostn

There's too many leaks to trust anyone with real names of video games. I understand where they're coming from though. But it's hard to trust a voice actor to keep things secret. Nolan North spilled the beans on TLOU2. I think Troy Baker leaked another Naughty Dog game.

The safety demands were already agreed to. The VAs and their union are trying to spin this as a fight for safety and vocal health when it's not at all. It's a fight for shared revenue. Every other demand was agreed to except that one. So they really should stop being dishonest about it. It's a fight for money pure and simple.

I have bad news for SAG-AFTRA and its VAs though. Only 25% of games are actually using SAG AFTRA unioned actors. With only 25% of games being affected by the strike, SAG AFTRA simply doesn't have the clout to get what they want. Their actors will not get any jobs, and this will only create an opportunity for other actors to get work. The publishers are not going to be out of actors believe me. Plenty want jobs but aren't able to get any opportunities because well known actors like Troy Baker, Nolan North and Jen Hale are taking all the roles. Now these lesser known guys will get their opportunities and might prove themselves to be just as capable. A rising star might just become the next Troy Baker and then no one will miss him at all.

This strike is going to hurt the actors more than it will hurt the industry. They should swallow their pride and be willing to compromise. All demands have been met except the residuals. They were given a counter offer of a 9% pay rise instead of the 3% they asked for. That more than makes up for the "tiny" residuals they won't get.

Avatar image for BlackBaldwin
BlackBaldwin

@lostn: Agreed voice actor should be paid less then the actual people designing and making the game greedy a holes..

Avatar image for deactivated-5828b8c49570a

@BlackBaldwin: They should be paid less but be paid more than what they currently get. It's unfair for someone to get paid poorly for bringing a character to life.

Avatar image for solidsnake7882
solidsnake7882

@BlackBaldwin:

Yeah I have to agree. Don't get me wrong i love that games have VA and most games have decent to damn good VA however they are just a small part of the whole and they are asking for way more. Especially no codenames? After the recent leaks that won't fly they are just grasping at straws.

Avatar image for BladeOfBlue
BladeOfBlue

I especially enjoy the quote where they said developers are taken advantage of - it's so true. The 60 hour work week as a developer makes me wish we had a union, regardless of pay unless we are talking get-to-retire-20-years-earlier kind of money.

Avatar image for superklyph
SuperKlyph

@BladeOfBlue: Yet there are always kiddies calling them lazy out of ignorance.

Avatar image for lostn
lostn

@BladeOfBlue: It's absolutely true that publishers are exploiting people. But to be fair to them, game prices have not gone up with inflation (they've actually gone down) while everything else has gone up. Without being able to raise game prices and revenue, they have to make up for it somehow.

If the voice actors get their revenue sharing, soon the developers will unionize and want revenue sharing also. Which sounds fair right? This will cost the publishers a lot more money since they have to share the revenue with a lot more people now. Unfortunately, someone has to pay for this loss of revenue, and that somebody is us the consumer.

If everyone involved in making games gets their cut from the profits what will happen is games will get shorter and there will be more DLC. The publisher is going to ask for more money from us and that is how they will do it. Games will reduce in scope and you will get a bunch more low risk shooters and open world RPGs. There will be very little creativity or risk taking. You'll just get more of the same sequels over and over because they can't afford to take a chance with doing something new.

Avatar image for PrpleTrtleBuBum
PrpleTrtleBuBum

@lostn: Honestly I dont think gamewise things can get much worse than they are now. Short, check. DLC, check. Rebootsremasters, check. Everything about games leaked way before they're in the store, check. Even price has started to go up with these recent DLC editions

The only place where can see some blinks of light are the indies, where most of these issues don't exist.

Avatar image for lostn
lostn

@PrpleTrtleBuBum: They still make open world games where you could play for 60+ hours.

What will happen is the world will drop in size, and the hour count will drop to 20 hours while charging the same price. The 40 hours and new continents that were cut will be sold to you as DLC. There will be multiple season passes. Games will be developed for years after releasing.

A Bethesda game which lets you interact with every object, might reduce its scope so a lot of things can't be interacted with anymore. Quests that can be resolved multiple ways will have fewer ways to resolve them. Games that are dialog heavy will have fewer lines.

A game like MGS5 would have far fewer missions, and the world will be smaller. Optional side content in every game will be reduced.

You will also get a lot more shooters and very few new IPs. Not that this isn't happening already anyway.

When every member of the development team gets a share of revenue, half of them will be laid off, and the remainder will make games that are smaller, shorter and less ambitious while charging the same price. That is how a publisher will adjust to the lost revenue. They are not going to lose money in the end. The ultimate loser is you the consumer.

The devs who are laid off will form their own studios where they too will make less ambitious games. There will be roughly twice as many games but each one will be roughly half as ambitious, so the consumer will have to buy roughly twice as many games to get the same fix they had before, spending twice as much money + DLC.

Almost all of the creativity will have to come from indies and small studios.

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