The video game industry is in the midst of a boom, with $23.5 billion in domestic revenue in 2015 — including spending on hardware and accessories — up 5% from the previous year. Popular games often gross more than Hollywood’s biggest movie releases, with “Call of Duty: Black Ops 3” raking in $550 million in three days to become the bestselling game of 2015.
But one group feels left out in the cold — actors. Performers who lend their voices for shrieks and guttural growls as well as their bodies for motion-capture scenes, say that they face physically daunting working conditions as games become more demanding and cinematically sophisticated. Many actors are also unhappy that they don't get to share in a game's financial success, since they don’t receive residual payments for their work.
The grievances are now at the center of an escalating labor dispute between Hollywood’s largest union and video game publishers. SAG-AFTRA is threatening a strike as early as Friday if its demands — including a new compensation structure that provides bonuses — aren't met.
A work stoppage would affect some of the industry’s biggest publishers, including Activision Blizzard, Electronic Arts, Disney, Take Two and Warner Bros. Many have large operations in the L.A. region.
The rift signals a significant sea change in Hollywood as the major studios make fewer movies per year while the gaming industry continues to thrive. Actors have seen their importance in video games grow in the last decade as the lines between movies and gaming have blurred.
“The push for realism in games demands that there still be a lot more voice and live motion capture in games,” said USC senior lecturer Tom Sloper, who has worked at Activision, Atari and Sega. “We can’t yet generate voices that sound convincing and have the emotional capability of a human character. Humans are the best.”
More recently, games have used the voices of widely recognized actors, including Kevin Spacey and Kiefer Sutherland, to help market games and widen their appeal. Social media apps are enabling players to form bonds with actors, and online video apps are raising the prominence of signature lines and scenes too.
But gaming hasn’t caught up to the rest of Hollywood in terms of how it treats actors, according to SAG-AFTRA.
Actors don’t receive residual checks in the mail for their gaming work. They receive a fixed rate for their work, which can be $825 for a standard four-hour vocal session. While some actors will have only one to five sessions on an entire game, a lead in a game could have as many as 20 sessions or more.
The existing contract — known as the Interactive Media Agreement — expired in late 2014, but actors have continued to work under it as negotiations have dragged on for 19 months.
SAG-AFTRA is proposing a bonus system under which performers receive additional payments for every 2 million copies or downloads sold — or unique subscribers for online-only games — with a cap at 8 million.
The gaming industry remains one of the least-unionized sectors of Hollywood and has traditionally not used a residual compensation system . Video game publishers said SAG-AFTRA represents performers in less than 25% of the games on the market.
Video game publishers who are signatories of the agreement don’t have to hire union members or give preference in hiring to members. In the event of a strike, they can hire non-members.
Publishers said in a joint statement that they “have demonstrated our commitment to excellent wages and working conditions for video game performers.”
A federal mediator was called in Wednesday afternoon as the sides continued their talks. Representatives of SAG-AFTRA declined to comment.
Opting for union-backed professionals can sometimes put game companies at a disadvantage. Rivals in Europe, Canada or Asia — already lower-cost places than the U.S. — have access to professional voice actors for lower fees and with fewer strings attached. There is also no shortage of non-union actors willing to do the work should game makers drop out as union signatories.
“I completely support the actors’ union claims about a safe workplace, but beyond that, don’t think that they are going to win many concessions,” said Michael Pachter, a Wedbush Securities analyst who tracks game companies.
About $100 million can go into developing a high-quality mass-market game. Those games sometimes generate more than 10 times that in sales. Voice actors cost about $200,000 per game, Pachter estimated, adding that publishers are unlikely to boost the amount too much.
As part of the negotiations taking place this week, SAG-AFTRA is also fighting for more transparency in the hiring process.
“A lot of times we don’t know what we’re auditioning for,” said Josh Keaton, who has done extensive voice work on titles including “World of Warcraft.”
“As an actor, when I approach an audition, I try to research as much as I can about the franchise and other characters and try to put together a polished set of choices for my character,” Keaton said. “If you have no idea, it doesn’t benefit anybody.”
Actor Orion Acaba recalled that producers didn’t reveal that he had worked on a “Call of Duty” game until two months after he had completed the job.
“Developers will say it’s secrecy. It’s not because of that,” he said. “Most actors get gypped from the beginning.”
But Acaba said he doesn’t support a possible strike because for “actors like myself who aren’t booking constant work, it affects me quite negatively. That one job is going to pay for my phone or electricity.”
In the event of a strike, “publishers are just going to find different means to cast their games. They’re going to find cheaper ways to get it done.”
Some actors believe that the world of gaming has changed exponentially and that the labor contract needs to change with it.
“Video games have become immersive – one game is like a 70-hour movie,” said JB Blanc, a voice actor and director who has worked on numerous games, including “Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.”
“My performance is an indelible print on the game. It’s my gestures, my features. The intellectual property I’m putting into the game is the same as an actor on camera.”