SAG-AFTRA Strike: Performance Matters

Starting today, in about 2 hours, many of our favorite Voice Actors – Crispin Freeman, Jennifer Hale, Steve Blum – are going on strike against Game Development companies. You might be wondering what this means and why. I can’t do the cause justice like the ones actually involved in the strike are doing, but I’ll try to summarize some of the points they are striking for.

I think that I’m in a unique position to comment on this because of my involvement with the indie game company Nic3Ntertainment; as well as the other Indie studios I have worked as a freelancer for. One of the major aspects of Nic3’s games are voice acting. We might not be making Call of Duty, Final Fantasy, or Dynasty Warriors – that’s for sure, but we make the extra effort to include voice work in many of our games. Why? Because in this modern day and age even indie games seem lacking if they don’t at least have narration. Having good, high quality voice work can make a good game great, or even a not-so-great game seem kinda okay.

At the same time having no voice work or arguably worse – poor voice work in an otherwise beautiful game diminishes the whole property. That’s why as someone who has worked on both sides of the mic – as a voice actor and as a producer – I’m with the striking actors, because #PerformanceMatters.

Now before I go any further, let me just give the caveat that I am not a member of the SAG-AFTRA union, I am not striking, and I do not work on union contracted jobs. That being said, it doesn’t preclude me from being an ally of these union workers fighting to get the same recognition that workers in incredibly similar fields receive such as a safe working environment and fair compensation.

Essentially the voice actors want 3 major things, near as I understand it:

  1. Safety Protections – They want to be able limit high intensity studio sessions to 2 hours, instead of the usual 4 hour sessions, but still get paid a normal daily wage. You see the way being a professional union voice actor works, generally, is you do a 4 hour recording session and you are paid for the session. The standard rate of pay is about $825. Not bad for 4 hours of work, I’ll admit – but remember that most of these studios are also in major cities like Los Angeles, New York, Toronto, Houston, etc. so $825 doesn’t go nearly as far as it might where I’m at. So they want to be able to limit strenuous voice work – such as screaming like a Dragon Ball Z power up, doing fighting kiais, and the likes. I’ve worked with an actor who had to turn down a part in one of our games because they did a big screamy project and lost their voice for two weeks. I’ve also worked with an actress who had to have throat polyps surgically removed – thankfully she was able to continue working after that. Another safety aspect they’re demanding is having stunt coordinators in place on performance capture jobs. Performance capture is where they actually have the voice actor doing the motion capture for either the character’s actual movement or at least their facial expressions. A lot of times they are actually doing the stunts in the scenes of your favorite games while in a mo-cap suit…and apparently without a stunt coordinator. This a good way to get yourself hurt or even permanently maimed.
  2. Secondary Compensation – The second part they’re fighting for is secondary compensation, this is basically getting a bonus if the project you worked on performed well. And they have a cap on it that basically means if they do voice work on a game and it sells 8 million copies they get paid a $30,000 bonus. Let me just tell you that EA’s CEO got a million and a half dollar bonus…and he’s probably making a lot more than $825 a day.
  3. Transparency – Imagine walking into your job and being given a list of parts to assemble, but not being told what you’re assembling them for. You’ve got a half dozen parts you’re supposed to weld together and it might be a car, it might be a boat, or it might be a nuclear bomb. That’s what a lot of these folks are dealing with, one of the actors interviewed said he was a main character for Fallout 4…and didn’t know it until the game was released. Knowing your part and how your character is involved in the complex chemistry of the game’s world makes it much easier to play your role more efficiently and make the character more believable and relatable. Imagine you were a voice actor and you were being brought in to play a character for what you thought was just a regular AAA gaming title called Project Repo. But once the project is released you find out the game is hardcore political propaganda for a position or political party you were vehemently opposed to. The actors just want transparency – they’ve been forced to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements anyway, so they’re not allowed to reveal any information about the project anyway. Imagine if Sir Patrick Stewart showed up the set of the X-Men and everything was just green-screened and there were no other actors on set and he was given just Professor X’s lines and told to act out the movie for 4 straight hours. Also he’d need to be there for the next ten days to complete his role. Because this is another aspect of transparency: Many of these actors are forced to either accept or turn down a role without knowing how many sessions would be necessary to complete the role. They don’t know if they’re a side character who will be done in a single 4-hour session, or if they’re playing the main character and will need to do thirty sessions to complete role.

With those points in mind, I bring up something that one of the industry defenders brought up in one of the articles I link to. He stated that it doesn’t make sense to put all this effort and money into the voice actors on these games, because they make up less than one tenth of one percent of the overall work on the game.

Having done voice work myself I know that its a little more than one tenth of a single percent. But regardless of whether it’s one tenth of a percent, one percent, or one hundred percent…they have a right to a safe and prosperous work environment to further their career in.

Now imagine, since the industry seems to believe that voice acting is only one tenth of a single percent of a game’s worth. So let’s imagine what some modern games would be like without voice actors.

I don’t know about you…but I’d rather see talented voice actors performing those roles. Because I strongly believe that #PerformanceMatters.

For more information, check out these sites and stories:

SAG-AFTRA Members Authorize Strike Against Video Game Industry

Game Making Blooper: Nasud’s Bloody Scooting

I mentioned it on our Facebook page, but in case you don’t follow us on there here’s the story…

You see, I’d just wanted to give everyone an idea of how making games works sometimes.
One of the changes we’ve made for Monster: DC is a minor visual one, but it was important to us.
After the final boss battle we had wanted the boss to wander away from the battle wounded, leaving a trail of blood behind him. But we hadn’t had enough time to get the blood trail to work properly before the original release date.
We’ve implemented it now for the Director’s Cut, but when we were doing it I’d had some trouble getting it to work right.
So, I made an empty chamber to test the feature in. This was attempt #8, and it gave us the information we needed to make things work. However it had its own humorous bug to tweak out, too.

Just one of the many implementations we’ve had to debug.


A Desperate Mother’s Love Update 8/30/15

So the contest is still going on and you can still vote on our game and leave us some nifty comments and such.  The game is free to play and you can still find it right here.

You might also notice that it now has it’s own page under the Nic3Ntertainment banner.

That was all I had to say on that.  Enjoy!

Wag Challenge: In Over Their Heads

Remember the game that the Wife kept mentioning all month for why I was so scarce around here?  Well that was the Write A Game Challenge put on by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA).  The goal was to make a game in 30 days, that centered on writing.  Only the writing will be judged for the game.  You were supposed to match a theme, too; the theme being “Down The Rabbit Hole”.  The game’s goal was to be 10-20 minutes long.

I dragged out an old game idea I’d toyed with but never been able to make into anything about a 1930’s detective who gets caught up in an occult plot to summon demons and such.  I figured that was a pretty good interpretation of going down the rabbit hole.  The challenge also had three sub-themes that you could try to weave into the story: Mistaken Identity, Empathy, and Birth.  I really didn’t utilize much of the sub-themes, although you could argue the demon summoning could be construed as ‘Birth’.

Anyway, the game is called In Over Their Heads.  It’s about a twenty minute play through, maybe a little less if you find the book quickly in the shop.  It’s got multiple endings and a few interactive choices in its short play time.  It is also free and you can pick it up by clicking on the title picture below.

So if you’re interested in checking it out, give it a shot.



Game Dev: Character Development for Parody

Now that Dynasty Heroes has been released I figured I’d do another of these Game Development posts.  This time we’ll be talking about some of the things I touched on in my Developer Commentary videos on YouTube.  One of the things that we worked on a lot for this project was the character development.  As with any parody, we were working with established characters, in this case from Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo Yanyi).

Dealing with any parody of RTK, though, is a pro/con situation because there are already so many different takes on the original.  Look at our main character, Xuande, and all of his different characterizations, alone:

Picture based on the original story:

Xuande, painted during the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

Xuande, painted during the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

For reference, this is what we went with for Xuande:


So…how did we get from the Tang dynasty painting to Dynasty Heroes’ version of Xuande?

Well, the first thing we had to do was simplify the names.  You see, in China everyone has a thousand and one frickin’ names!  Our main character’s real name is 劉備.  But unless you actually read Traditional Chinese characters, that means nothing to you.  So you translate it to English, called Romanization; and you’ve got a dozen different ways to Romanize the name.  Liu Pei, Lou Pei, Liu Bei, etc.  We always go with the Hanyu Pinyin style, by the way.  So that would be Liu Bei, and since Asian cultures put the family name first, that equates to Bei of the Liu family.

But Liu Bei also several other names; his courtesy name is Liu Xuande, or just Xuande.  His posthumous name was Zhaolie.  As king he was known by his title, Hanzhong-wang (King of Hanzhong), his posthumous title was Shuhan Zhaolie Huangdi (Zhaolie, the Emperor of Shu-Han), or even by the title of Xianzhu (First Sovereign).

So as you can see, it can get kind of difficult in remembering even who you’re writing.  So our first step was to simplify the names.  We decided everyone would be known by their Courtesy Names.  This simplified the names to a single name, instead of two names for each character, and gave a bit more room for uniqueness.  You figure that even Mimi can’t always remember the difference between Xiahou Dun and Xiahou Yuan, but Yuanrang and Miaocai are a lot easier to tell apart.

With all the names figured out we then had to determine what influences we would parody and how we would turn the character into our own.  We’ve been talking about Xuande, so let’s continue to look at his progress.  There are several versions we could draw from…


Originally the story began as a straight, legitimate story, but after the script was started we decided to switch everything to a parody.  As a result we decided that somebody in the parody had to not be in on the joke; that was Xuande.  He was written to specifically be the straight man of the joke.  So we decided that making him physically look out of place would be funny, so we decided to dress him anachronistically by putting him in Heian era Japanese clothing.  This parodies two things:

1. The fact that a lot of Americans don’t realize that Japan and China have different cultures.

2. The fact that the straight man is so out of place in the story of the joke, so he’s incredibly out of place in his clothing.  He lives around 200, China; his clothes come from around 900, Japan.

Another point we took was that KOEI has been basing their renditions of Xuande (Liu Bei) on the younger years of his life, lately, making him more youthful and androgynous.  So we made him a bishy pretty-boy.  We also wanted him to have kind of an annoyed look.  And, ultimately, we wind up with this…



BTW, Developer Commentary Video Part 2 is up, as well.

Game Dev: Title Screens

Since we’re all patiently waiting for me to finish the touch-up work on Dynasty Heroes and Monster, I figured I would let you all in on one of the processes of Game Development that I like to call:

Temporary Art Assets!


These are files that you use in place of finished art in the game.  Then you just name the finished art, when it’s completed, the same thing and upload it into your development program or library folder (depending on what program or coding you’re using), and ta-da, it magically replaces the temporary assets.

To give you a step-by-step, uhh, -ish example of how this works, I’ll walk you through how I did the Dynasty Heroes Title Screen.  First we started off with a picture of the title screen that we wanted to pay homage to, the background for the character select screen of the old arcade game Dynasty Wars.


Pretty nifty, right?  So we size that to our needs and throw a pretty generic title on it, then call it DH-Title.png (for Dynasty Heroes Title Screen, get it?).  We wind up with this in our game when it goes out to testers:


Pretty simple, right?  The title is green, because that’s the main character’s associated color.  The reason the title in Chinese is on the right is in homage to Koei’s Dynasty Warriors series, which always had the pictographic characters for the Japanese title (Shin Sangoku Musou) on the right side of its titles.  By the way, the Chinese characters are Chao Dai Ying Xiong.  So we’ve got a pretty nifty looking title screen, albeit a little rough-looking, for all of about 30 minutes of work, maybe less.

But it’s still a copyrighted image, so we can’t actually use what we’ve made.  But we have a good idea of what we want.  In the original picture we have, from left to right, the equivalents of our characters Yide, Xuande, Yunchang, Zilong, and a character that won’t appear in our game, Kongming; but Kongming was, historically, an advisor to Xuande so Bogui takes his place in our game.

And none of that last line made any sense to you, because you haven’t played it yet and don’t know who anybody is.  Uhh, moving on…

We then hire an artist to make us some real art, that artist happened to the same one who made all of our battle art, Rich Graysonn.  And in case we have to release without Rich’s art, since we were on a deadline originally, we made a new set with the art we had gotten from our portrait artist, Sketoart (Farid).  And by we, I totally mean I threw them all in GiMP and made, well, this…


Is it just me, or does Yide (the guy in the red cap) look like he’s shyly hiding behind Xuande (the guy in the front)?

We then made up a new title panel and put that over top of the picture to arrive at this terrifying destination (along with some spacing reassignments):


Now instead of Yide hiding, it’s Bogui (the older guy in orange) hiding.

And there we have it, we have a temporary art asset that, worst case scenario, we can use if the game has to ‘ship’ (a figurative term, since there are no physical copies of the game).  But remember, that our deadline issue is solved (bleh), so we had more than enough time to get all of our art assets from our artist friend(s).  Rich made us this:


Not quite a perfect homage, but it gets the point across and still has a similar motif to it.  With a base we have our artist a few more fine touches to it and we get this dandy picture…



So now we have a cool picture with an awesome fire effect.  But we still need it to say what we’re playing.  So we throw together a title panel, that really doesn’t do the professional artist’s work justice I admit, and we wind up with our final version of the title screen!


We then rename that picture as DH-Title.png and put it in the folder with all of our game’s art assets, effectively replacing the second picture, which had already replaced the original picture that we couldn’t use for copyright reasons.  And ta-da, we have a title screen.

We did the same thing for all of the character portraits.  The villain, Zhongying, was actually the first portrait to be finished.  So we just made a dozen copies of his portrait and renamed each copy as one of the other characters’ names.  Then when each of the other characters, in turn, had their portraits finished by Farid we just resized them and replaced the original portrait of Zhongying with the new picture.

This meant that we didn’t have to wait for the art to be finished before we could continue the development.  And that’s what Temporary Art Assets in game development are really for.

Hopefully my next post will be announcing the game’s release, right?  Either way, I’ll try to make a few more posts about the development process.  And as we work on our next project, Possession, I’ll try to somewhat regular updates and insights on how we make it.