With a Friday deadline looming, it looks like Game Over for negotiations between video game giants and actors who appear in their games.
Immersive games like “Halo” and “Call of Duty” require hundreds of voice actors and motion-capture stuntpeople, but they have a long list of grievances against companies like Activision and Electronic Arts.
The gaming giants said in a joint statement earlier this week that they “have negotiated in good faith” and that working conditions are “excellent.”
“We are confident that no matter what action the union leadership takes, our current release schedule will not be materially impacted,” the statement said.
TheWrap spoke with voice actor Liam O’Brien and stuntman T.J. Storm to get their perspective on their working conditions. O’Brien has worked on games including “Halo” and “Tomb Raider,” and Storm has performed in the “Street Fighter” series, among other games.
Here are the actors five biggest complaints.
1. Gaming Companies Have Been Dismissive
“The few things we put forward were brushed aside,” said O’Brien of the union’s months-long attempt to bring gaming giants to the negotiating table. Sources at SAG-AFTRA offered a similar characterization to TheWrap. The gaming giants deny the claims.
2. Actors Are Blowing Out Their Voices
The union seeks to set two-hour limits on vocal work sessions to help performers avoid vocal chord injuries. The union says video game actors are under serious strain, because they have to perform painful deaths, creature voices and battle noises. “When you shout ‘Grenade!’ or ‘We gotta get to the ridge!’ for hours on end and your shout dial is turned up to 11 for four hours straight, only 60 percent of that audio will be on point,” said O’Brien. “Then the voice will crack and actors won’t be able to deliver at their job the next day.” O’Brien said he has also seen a lot of video game voice actors burn out and quit. “They do this work until they say ‘I’m done.'”
But the gaming companies said in their statement this week that they have shown their “commitment to excellent… working conditions for video game performers.”
3. Stunt People Are Getting Injured
“A lot of times you find yourself on the stage by yourself,” Storm told TheWrap. SAG-AFTRA is fighting for coordinators to always be present during stunt work. “Sometimes it’s a dangerous situation,” Storm said. “A lot of times they’ll rush you through and work you from the morning through afternoon, sometimes nonstop. They’re impressive movements and sometimes you’re not ready for them.”
Storm also said he’s either witnessed or learned of injuries including blown knees, bruises and, in rare cases, broken bones. “We’re constantly getting pulled muscles, twisted joints,” he said, adding that the issue is especially dangerous for performers with less experience. “A stunt coordinator knows what a person is capable of,” said Storm.
4. Performers Aren’t Getting Residual Income
It’s been more than a year since SAG-AFTRA began attempting to get gaming performers some form of residual income. It’s said to be the number one sticking point in the talks.
Actors are fighting for a one-time “performance bonus,” O’Brien told TheWrap. It would be awarded if a game becomes wildly popular and sells more than two million copies. “A smaller game that sells 1.9 million copies doesn’t get touched,” he added. By contrast, for movie and television actors “residuals last forever — every time a Blu-ray sells, for example,” he said, explaining that SAG-AFTRA’s ask on behalf of video game actors is decidedly more conservative. “I don’t think we’re asking for the moon,” added O’Brien.
“We have demonstrated our commitment to excellent wages,” the gaming companies said in their joint statement.
5. Actors Often Don’t Know Who They’re Playing
“I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing on any given day,” said Storm. “I would love to know if I’m a gorilla or a guy in the Marines.” Gaming companies try to keep their games under a tight veil of secrecy, and require performers to sign non-disclosure agreements, according to several people who spoke with TheWrap.
The culture of secrecy is so intense that actors and stunt people often have no idea who or what they’re playing. As part of negotiations, SAG-AFTRA is asking for more transparency so that performers can prepare for their parts.