A friend sent me this YouTube video — “The 50 Worst Moments in Video Game Voice Acting”:
Is this supposed to be funny? Watching the clips, I felt gripped with terror that at any moment I’d be hearing one of my own performances.
Mercifully, I didn’t make the cut. But it got me thinking about a question I’m often asked. It’s not the nicest thing to say to a voice actor, particularly one who does video game VO frequently. But it’s a legitimate question, and it deserves an answer: Why do so many games feature less-than-stellar voice acting?
First off, I’m not sure that so many games have inferior VO. Lots of games are praised for their excellent voices — sometimes even when the game overall isn’t.
But the industry is vast, and hundreds of titles are produced every year. A significant number have acting that most fans would agree is sub-par.
I can tell you why in a word: Budget.
When game developers don’t have much to pay for sound design, VO performances usually suffer.
Big companies tend to have the beefiest budgets, and therefore the best audio. Music, sound effects — it’s easy for these to be superior when there’s no trouble paying for them.
Smaller outfits lack monetary oomph. Limited funds means fewer options. When you have little money to pay people, it’s a challenge to attract top talent.
This is true not only for actors, but also for directors. A stellar voice cast needs guidance. It’s hard to be believable if you don’t understand the context of a scene, or if the meaning of what you’re saying isn’t clear to you.
Sometimes merely having a director is a luxury. I’ve done sessions where the only other person in the studio was the engineer. If I had questions about the script or my character, I was entirely on my own.
Video game sessions tend to be about recording lines; actors are recorded individually, with each bit of dialogue performed as a separate take. For leading characters with hundreds of lines, this means many hours in the studio.
I once worked on a game where we began by doing three takes of each line. Later the producer said this was taking too long, and reduced it to two takes per line. Eventually we were in such a rush to finish, I did just one take of each line.
When cash is tight, you’re ruled by the clock.
As the video game industry has grown, the caliber of the voice work has steadily improved. When I started doing VO in the mid-90′s, hearing dialogue coming from a game was a novelty. One company I did voice work for had only recently started to use real actors — before then, the programmers and game designers themselves voiced the characters.
Today’s gamers demand more — and should!
Kevin Delaney is an actor and voiceover artist in Los Angeles. His video game credits include World of Warcraft, Disney's Kingdom Hearts II, The Watchmen: The End is Nigh, and Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe. Check out his VO blog at www.VoiceoverNinja.com
In my experience, my worst gaming performances result from re-tooled games that originated in non-english-speaking countries (Japanese and Russian produced games come up most often for me).
It's quite possible that the experience and competence of the person(s) companies hire to do the translating have a huge bearing on the believability and quality of the finished product. Often the director and I (engineers might chime in too) are forced to re-write entire blocks while I'm standing in the booth... while the client watches the clock tick, tick, ticking away.
That being said, I've also done a few homegrown games where no amount of improv or desperate attempts to make bad copy work could save the project. And no... I ain't naming any names. I'm grateful for EVERY roll, and will do every crappy game thats thrown my way, and give them my best possible performance.... as long as the pay is fair, and the client pays on time. Guess that might make me a bit of a VO whore... but a gig's a gig in my book. 'Specially now that dues-paid pros are competing with Bob from the mailroom, who will take the gig for 50 bucks to impress their kids: "Dad's gonna be in a video game kids!!". Not to mention good ol' Pay-To-Play bottom feeders who will do the gig for 25 bucks. But don't get me started on that! That's is a whole new discussion.
Thanks for the great article Kevin. And by the way, I too squirmed when I first viewed this video a while back. Listened on the edge of my seat in one of those rare moments where you actually DON'T want to hear your work being showcased. Thankfully, I didn't make the cut either.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again... 25 bucks will almost certainly get clients a 25 cent read for their project.
You can look at the history of video games and see (or rather *hear*) the pattern, and the root of the problem -- budgetary concerns -- becomes glaringly obvious.
Back in the 90s (and unfortunately still occurs today), when watching the end credits you would often see the same names credited for voiceovers who were also part of the development team. And just judging from some instances I've personally encountered through Craigslist ads and other regional casting notices, they're recruiting voice talent who are willing to work for free -- in many cases, college students and other inexperienced actors and fledgling voice talents. (I know of a specific recent instance where a voice talent at least got screen credit and pay, but did not get a copy of his work for a demo reel or a comp copy of the finished product.)
And if you're not offering pay or you're auditioning for low-ballers via P2P sites and Craigslist (as Adam mentioned), your chances are slim of casting professional talent.
And as you pointed out, Kevin, the lack of a voice director in so many games is often painfully obvious. Even veteran VOs (and especially celebrity voices) benefit from skilled guidance.
Craig Crumpton is a full-time performer and acting/singing coach in Atlanta. His video game credits include...not very much to date and nothing particularly notable so far except for a couple web games that only people in another country will ever see. Check out his VO blog at www.voiceactors.wordpress.com