GAMES WITHOUT FRONTIERS

If you still think video games can be dismissed as kids’ stuff, perhaps it is time you thought again. The games industry is already huge and it is getting bigger every year. It has become an industry that performers can no longer afford to ignore. Fortunately, as Martin McGrath reports, Equity is already on the case.

On April 29, 2008 Take-Two Interactive launched the gangster-based game Grand Theft Auto IV (pictured above). It was a launch that generated some truly startling figures.

Within one week, 6 million players worldwide had bought a copy of the game for either Microsoft’s XBox or Sony’s PlayStation3 – spending a total of over $500 million – and making Grand Theft Auto IV the biggest launch in the history of video games. That also makes it, almost certainly, a bigger opening week than any movie or music album in history.

Take-Two Interactive, a company founded less than a decade ago, is currently the subject of a $2 billion take over attempt by the industry’s biggest player, Electronic Arts.

And Grand Theft Auto IV didn’t just sell games – Microsoft revealed that the game’s launch saw sales of XBox 360 console leap more than 50 per cent. Microsoft has sold 19 million units of its latest console, a similar number to Sony’s PlayStation3, though both lag behind Nintendo, with 25 million of its latest generation Wii consoles sold around the globe.

In 2005 the global sales of video games passed those of the movie industry for the first time and in 2007 they equalled music sales, according to PriceWaterhouseCoopers. And the consulting company predict that growth in the video game market will continue to outstrip other forms of entertainment media for the foreseeable future – estimating a global average growth rate of 9.1 per cent per year and more than 10 per cent annual growth predicted for Europe until 2011.

“There’s a tendency for people to hear the word ‘games’ and assume that somehow this isn’t a serious industry,” said John Barclay, Equity’s senior organiser responsible for new media. “But the sums of money involved are vast, the potential is enormous and the importance of this emerging entertainment medium for Equity members cannot be overstated.”

Equity has been working in the area of new media for some time, seeking to agree basic terms and conditions so that members can take advantage of the new opportunities offered by the new technologies. The recent Annual Representative Conference saw the union launch the New Media Deals document – which contains examples of success in podcasts, mobisodes and internet-only productions as well as for computer games (see box below).

So far, however, ensuring that performers are properly rewarded for their contributions has not been easy. Equity has been involved in negotiations with video game makers for some time and has a long-standing agreement with the industry’s leading company, Electronic Arts (EA), though both sides conceded that the agreement is too complex and difficult to use in practice.

Other obstacles include a tendency to undervalue professional performances in the video games industry – there is a tradition of games studios (many of which are relatively small units) using whoever is available to provide voices or act in their games. The result is that, even when these companies do bring in professional performers they tend not to appreciate the value of their potential contribution and to undervalue their work.

But ultimately it is the global scope of the computer games industry that presents the greatest challenge to developing agreed standards for performers. Take-Two Interactive is an American company, with headquarters in New York, Geneva and Vancouver. But Take-Two is primarily a publisher and distributor of games. The games themselves are largely created by one of Take-Two’s five subsidiaries based across America, Europe, Asia and Australia. The Grand Theft Auto series of games is produced by one of those subsidiaries, Rockstar Games – but Rockstar too has studios working across the world. Rockstar North (in Edinburgh) and Rockstar Leeds are primarily responsible for the Grand Theft Auto games but there are divisions of Rockstar Games in Lincoln, London, Japan, Vancouver, San Diego, Toronto, Vienna, and Andover, Massachussets – all working on other game titles or on corporate services.

“It’s a tremendous challenge, these are large, diverse companies with studios all over the world,” said John Barclay. “And I don’t think it is one that Equity as a union in the United Kingdom is going to be able to address on its own. We already have strong co-operative links with our sister unions around the world – especially in America, Canada and Australia – and I believe that Equity can lead a coalition of unions that will be able to approach employers across their major markets and core areas of production.”

Such a global alliance of unions remains at the very earliest of stages, but it demonstrates the determination of Equity to explore every possible avenue in representing members working with new technologies.

“The era of stability has passed,” Equity vice president Jean Rogers, who chairs the union’s Future Media and Technology Working Party. said. “It is an exciting time to be a member of Equity as the union faces the challenges the new technologies are bringing. Members can play their part in ensuring that Equity remains the united voice of professional performers in the United Kingdom and contributing to the development of agreements, guidelines and providing us with the information the union needs as we adapt to this challenging era.”

PROFESSIONALS DO IT BETTER

One of the difficulties facing performers in the computer games industry is convincing games producers of the quality that professional actors, stunt performers and other artists  bring to their final product. Here are just three reasons why game producers should value professional performers.

  • Greater immersion: Games are increasingly story driven and demand that the audience is able to immerse itself in the game world. Amateurish performances and poor acting are a sure way to break the spell of a story. As games move increasingly from the teenage bedroom and start being played by the whole family, expectations about the quality of production are increasing.
  • Better efficiency: Professional performers bring experience, training and skills to the job. Able to take direction and able to deliver the performance demanded of them, professionals may cost more to hire but they work more efficiently.
  • More predictablity: Professionals deliver what the producers need and they do it on time, every time, reducing the risk of expensive delays and reworking material.

NEW MEDIA DEALS

On Sunday May 18 at the Annual Representative Conference, Equity launched New Media Deals, a document that sets out the progress the union has made thus far in agreeing terms on productions for mobile phones, podcasts, internet-only broadcast and computer games. The document contains sample agreements that Equity has already agreed for performers working in these areas and contains a useful guide to common terms in new media productions.

For copies of New Media Deals visit the TV is Changing website (www.tvischanging.com)

(Originally published in Equity magazine, Summer 2008. © Equity)
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