Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Does Niko Deserve More Money?

After reading this article on Yahoo!, this one from nytimes.com and talking with my brother about Michael Hollick's financial woes, I'm left conflicted. Hollick, the voice of GTA IV protagonist Niko Bellic, is complaining because he only made $100K for his efforts. He spoke countless lines of dialogue and performed motion capture work for Niko yet he'll get no residuals, no checks after reaching a certain amount of sales...nada.
My initial reaction was that he was getting robbed. Actors, musicians, writers and other artists receive money for their work based on sales but because the Screen Actors Guild has nothing in its contract covering electronic media, actors in video games get paid a standard daily rate. While I'm certain big name actors like Samuel L Jackson and Ray Liotta got treated like royalty from Rockstar, the average actor is screwed. $100K for 15 months is nothing to sneeze at, but when your work grosses $600 million in two weeks and you were an integral part, that has to suck. It seems that Rockstar would at least throw him a bone and give the guy a little love, right? Once again the corporate "man" makes his money and runs.
But after I talked with my brother (who did some fine impressions of Niko, Master Chief and Solid Snake, but a weak Mario) I started to change my mind and thought about the following things.
- Hollick signed a contract so he knew what he was getting paid, nobody made him agree to it and $100K is good money for a no-name actor. In fact, this should help him get more work in the future.
- Rockstar was playing by the rules, its the Screen Actors Guild that should get with the program. They're hurting their own clients by not having electronic media accounted for in their contracts.
- If you pay Hollick, who did make a strong contribution, when does the compensation end? Do the scriptwriters get more money? The designers? At some point you have to accept that you just get paid for the work you agreed to do.
But the most important reason this is a non-issue is because Hollick is completely replaceable. Niko is certainly a compelling character but the game would have been just as good if I was the one performing his voice overs. The story, GTA's successful history, the setting, and the crazy things you can do in the game are what sells GTA IV - not the voice over work of Michael Hollick. The same could be said for pretty much any game with an iconic character. I can't really see anyone doing a better job than Charles Martinet (the voice of Mario) or David Hayter (Solid Snake) but if Gilbert Gottfried did the voice of Master Chief instead of Steve Downes would anybody really care? Well, yes you probably would. But when my brother does a dead on Master Chief, I realized how relative voice work in a game is. Just like those times when the importance of graphics are discussed about games (usually when new consoles come out), the truth is that when it comes right down to it, its the gameplay that makes a game memorable. That's always how its been and how it'll always be.
So what do you think? Is Hollick being underpaid or does he just need to get over it? Let me know your point of view.


David Houston said...


Great post. As a voice actor, I'd like to share some thoughts:

It's important to remember that sales-based residuals aren't "bonuses" or "extra money", as many people out there seem to think. They're deferred payments against the lifetime value of the work.

In other words, when residuals are part of a negotiated contract --- something that's not currently part of SAG and AFTRA's "new media" agreements, as you pointed out --- the studio is essentially saying "your work is worth X, but that's too large an amount for us to pay up front. Therefore, we'll pay you a smaller percentage up front, and if the game is a success, then we'll pay you the remainder of that value over time." Samuel L. Jackson and Ray Liotta get weekly checks for their movie roles not because their performances are stellar, but because their client (the studio) is on an installment plan.

Also: you brought up the oft-used "anyone could do it" argument. Let's be clear. Hollick may be replaceable, but he's not "completely replaceable" as you suggest. It's true that there are many talented actors who could have gotten that role, and your brother may well be able to to dead-on impressions of existing videogame characters. However, unless your brother is a trained professional actor with the ability to create characters and sustain a performance in that character over the life of a session --- perhaps he is, I don't know --- then it's not likely he would have landed the role of Niko, much less turned in a solid performance.

Thanks for the soapbox, and keep up the good work.

~ DH

Terry Terrones said...


Thanks for your comments. Its nice to have the perspective of a professional voice actor.

Just to clarify something quickly, I mentioned Samuel L. Jackson and Ray Liotta specifically because of their work on previous GTA titles. Being well known actors, as opposed to Hollick, I'm sure their financial arrangements with GTA publisher Rockstar were much different.

Also, I still stand by my statement that Hollick is replaceable. Maybe my brother couldn't have done as good of a job (my brother would disagree) but another voice over could. My point is that from a gamers perspective, its the gameplay that makes the experience of playing GTAIV enjoyable. What gamers will remember long after they've finished playing GTAIV is the ridiculous things they did, not the sound of Niko's voice.

Is this always the case? No. The voice work done by Charles Martinet and David Hayter are irreplaceable. Not so much in this case.

Terry Terrones said...

One other quick thing. I saw on your website that you do intros for podcasts. Whenever I get the coloradojoe podcast running again, I'd love for you to do the intro and it would be great to have you on and get your full take.

Anonymous said...

I think you get into a very difficult area when you consider whether voice actors should get rights to residuals.

As Terry pointed out while another person may not provide as good of a performance as Hollick another professional voice actor can perform an adequate enough of a job that the drop in the game would not be significant enough to hurt sales.

I would argue that a fixed rate wouldn’t be a good idea either. Look at the success of Halo 3. Do you think the actor who does the voice of the Master Chief should get XX of a percent of the sales? No. He spoke maybe 5 words the entire game.

Obviously voice work for certain games are more valueable (RPGs come to mind) but since negotiating residuals for each game would have to be on a case by case basis I can’t imagine game publishers being very willing to go that direction.