Voices for Games

by | May 6, 2009 | Uncategorized

Mattthew lesko Back before Matthew Lesko began wearing that ridiculous suit with question marks all over it, he had what appeared to be a legitimate publication called "Information USA" (this is pre-internet, when you had to buy books).

I won't go into whether Lesko is a scam artist, but back then, his premise was simple, and today it's still true:  In an obscure office or cubicle somewhere there is an expert at some very specialized endeavour, who is basically very happy to share their knowledge if someone would just ask.

I like to ask.

The most recent person I asked is anything but obscure, but he IS an expert, and his name is JS Gilbert. 

Those of you who frequent this blog may remember a couple of exchanges I had with JS earlier this year about the challenges of doing VO for video games.  At that time, I had hoped to pry more nuggets of information from JS.

  Well, he came through with a whole gravel truck of knowledge!

Js gilbertI think JS kinda prefers not to make a splash.  He's obviously a hard worker, and highly successful in this niche, but doesn't even have his own web-page (yet, he says).  But he certainly has some meaty answers to my neophyte questions about the video game industry.

-Has the economy hurt gaming opportunities for voice-actors?
-Do you need to enjoy video games to be good at voicing them?
-What special equipment does a voice actor need to move into this area?
-Do you work in your studio, or theirs?
-How do you approach this industry for work?
-Where do you find practice material?
-Does the industry hire only Union talent?

So prolific were his anwers that I'm blogging them in two parts.  The first half is below-the-fold.  JS was worried his answers were too wordy.  Well, 'turns out he's an excellent writer too.

I think you'll find them extremely revealing, helpful, and, honestly….inspiring.

More info about JS HERE.

Dave:  In your estimation has the current economic downturn hurt, helped, or had no effect on the video gaming opportunities for voice actors?

JS Gilbert:  The Economic turndown hurts everything. Many people who have lost their jobs and can't find appropriate work are turning to voiceover, with little true understanding of the rigors and hardships. Smaller and larger production houses of all kinds are under pressure to cut costs and often do so by using friends or themselves to perform voiceover. Others in position to influence the hiring of talent may feel an obligation to hire friends or family members who are unemployed and simply need money.

The general attitude towards most industries, and gaming is not exception, is to do more with less. If nothing else, the pressures being put upon game developers to tighten development cycles and maintain low budgets are highly demanding.

The trickle down to consumer means that the gamer will buy less games over a period of time than last year. Many gamers will also choose to trade in games, swap games with friends, etc. This hurts new ideas and concepts in the marketplace and means that most efforts will be placed on proven game franchises and games based on top selling movies.

In general, projects closely linked to motion pictures and strong existing game franchise, most of which produce audio in Los Angeles, will probably be okay and little affected.

On a whole other note, the hardware industry has their heads spinning from the recent movements of onlive.com , which is a story for another day.

Dave:  Is it an advantage to enjoy video-games personally to be a success at voicing video-games?

JS Gilbert: Many people turn to voiceover because they think it will be fun and creative. Sometimes it is. But if much of what you do is voicemail, commercials and corporate narration, one can sometimes feel a lack of that fun and creativity. Games often call for big and bold characters and large emotional acting choices. Plus you get to be the voice of zombies or pirates or intergalactic bounty hunters. I certainly think that it helps to have played some games and to also keep up with how games are changing and how voice is implemented in the various types and genres of games. If you're not into playing games, then at least visit the gaming sites and watch the various game trailers to get a sense of what the work is about and to spot trends.

Dave:  Had you specifically chosen to be a voice actor for video-gaming at some point in your career, or did you discover over time that was your niche? 

JS Gilbert: I had three things going for me: I was an existing voice actor. I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area at the birth of video games. I have a background in computers and was active with the Commodore and Atari Users groups and met lots of people who were pioneers for the videogame industry.

There were also a couple of other things working in my favor. In the very early days, much of the dialogue was done via concatenation – I have a very good ear and was able to develop these skills very quickly. Another thing in my favor was that my voice compressed very well. In the early game days, they developed codecs to make audio files very, very small. These codecs essentially required you to throw away a lot of information regarding the sound and often speech might become somewhat indecipherable. Audio engineers worked long and hard to get speech to sound as good as possible, but often parts like esses and t's and f's just got lost. Sometimes they were so pronounced it was painful to listen to. My voice, for whatever reason didn't require a lot of fiddling, even when I did characters and this made it easier for the engineers.

Soon after I started doing voices for games, I found that the combination of movement in the industry along with referrals and the willingness of the gaming industry to take a sales call, all worked in my favor to get work. Later on people started asking me to cast other actors, direct, produce, engineer and write for the gaming industry. At the same time, the Bay Area boutique advertising industry was booming and I had lots of pressure to respond to the needs of my local ad market.  It was a juggling act to say the least. Some people are better suited to work more narrowly defined types of VO jobs. Other people encounter opportunities due to geographic location, existing relationships or perhaps even just being in the right place at the right time.

The SF Bay Area at one time probably produced 90% of all of the video games being produced. Nowadays, I find myself closed out of some decent work because the audio is recorded in Toronto and the developer insists on only using local talent.  It doesn't seem to matter how much experience you have. It's always about impressing the next person; nailing the next audition, and often convincing them to let you audition in the first place.

Dave:  Does a voice-actor need special equipment in his/her home studio to be successful in voicing for video-games?…i.e. ISDN, Source-Connect, phone patch, etc.

JS Gilbert: I would recommend that an actor not purchase anything special as far as equipment is concerned, unless they have a specific job that would lead it to being a good sense purchase. I question someone purchasing a $200 phone patch if they are using a $50 microphone. A better quality microphone utilizing a wireless telephone held near the microphone and put on speakerphone can work ok for the odd phone patch. If you have a client or clients that you work for regularly who want to direct you over the phone, then invest in a patch.

Same goes for ISDN, although ISDN is a much larger expense and requires a bit of skill to use. Many ISDN owners have regular gigs doing imaging or working as tv station announcers. In many cases the stations put in the ISDN boxes and handle most, if not all of the associated costs. Things I do recommend are taking improve acting workshops, seeing a speech pathologist (if warranted), studying dialects, and taking traditional acting classes. AS long as one doesn't blow their grocery money, all of these things are fun and can support you in many aspects of voice acting and in other areas of your life as well.

Dave:  Do video-gamers typically insist that you do your work for them in THEIR studios?
If so, what geographic areas are hotbeds for video-game production?

JS Gilbert: The short answer is yes. It is changing to some extent, but perhaps not as rapidly as other industries under the giant voiceover umbrella.  Los Angeles is the number one place for union game work. San Diego has had a lot of dialog production shifted to it over the past couple of years. Austin, Dallas are still pretty strong and the Bay Area still manages to get a fair share, albeit a fraction of what was once done in th

e San Francisco area.  I have however heard of games being produced and game audio being produced all across the United States.

I recently polled a number of dialog producers for games about using out-of-market talent and almost 90% seemed to be in agreement that they either felt they needed to use local talent or go to Los Angeles to find L.A. based actors to be in their games.  This is a complete turnaround from the first 7 or8 years of using voice talent in games, whereby the gaming community wanted no part of L.A. Of course many of the major players these days have strong ties to Hollywood and the nature of gaming now causes many games to be very film like or in many cases the game is based upon a movie. (Movies become games and games become movies)

It is now April 28th, and in the past 4 months I have performed VO for 14 games. 10 of which required me to go to a local studio (studios) and 4 I recorded in my home studio with phone patch. A game like X-Blades had extensive ADR (or dubbing). It was originally done in Russian and recently ported to X-Box and P.C. and the dialog was localized to English. While this is something I can and do in my personal studio, 99% of actors do not have proper facilities to do ADR or Dubbing. And even though I can do this in my studio, most of the time I go to another studio to do the ADR. It benefits greatly from having other ears and eyes guiding you as the talent along.  Sometimes, the reason for having actors go to a local studio may be as simple as having everyone perform on the same microphone and in the same environment, thus making it easier to put all of the dialog together and have it sound right.

Dave:  In your previous letter to me, you offer several excellent suggestions for getting involved in voicing for video-games: Join the IDGA, Visit video-game stores, read the literature, visit fan sites and forums, etc… Is the video-game industry unique in this way of increasing your chances by immersing yourself in THAT sub-culture?

JS Gilbert: To some extent, the gaming industry is still one that you can market yourself to. There are also many ways to identify who the players are, what different genres require, and to learn how to walk the walk and talk the talk. While gaming does use talent agents and many standard methods for auditioning and hiring, there is still a tendency for its participants to consider their "art".

This varies greatly from the ad industry, whose participants don't often have the time or energy or inclination to deal with voice actors. Many have expressed being offended by the lack of business acumen that voice actors tend to display. Others within advertising simply prefer the existing structure of using talent agents or casting directors to shield themselves from the actors.

Again, these are generalizations and there are plenty of people within the gaming industry who do not want to see or hear from a voice actor under any circumstances, while there are  quite a few people in advertising who more than make themselves available to actors.

As the gaming industry continues to grow and feels continued pressures to perform, I have discovered that this is not quite the once "happy go lucky" group that opened their doors to me as a voice actor.  While still being approachable, one might find they don't get many second chances.

Dave: How does one practice for the realities and rigors of doing voices for video-games?  Where do you find practice material?

JS Gilbert: I'd like to think that as the gaming industry has grown, I have grown along with it. Visiting gaming sites and watching the trailers and reading the game mags will give a strong insight into where the industry is and where it's going.  There are certain things that continue to be in demand: women and men who can do adolescent or kids voices well tend to top the list. 20 something good guys with an edge, both male and female are high in demand as well. Older voices tend not to be needed so much, since all actors get old and there are plenty already who can do those voices. Very believable accents and regionalisms work well for gaming as well.
The best thing I can say is that an actor does themselves a great service by having a bagful (or pocket full) of very well formed characters. Not just a voice, but a fully formed person, complete with their own set of emotions and unique approach to life.
You can use almost anything to practice, movie dialog or dialog from a play or even reading some of the comic books aloud.

Dave:  Do video-gamers choose to hire ONLY Union or Fi-Core talent, typically?

JS Gilbert: The industry as a whole still tends to not want the unions to be involved. The numbers are purposefully kept obfuscated so that the public won't know how low the percentage of games being done under a union contract actually is. A source in the IGDA (International Game Developers Association), who wishes to be anonymous, says the number of games produced in 2008 under a franchise agreement was probably less than 10%.  However the relatively few games that were produced under a SAG or AFTRA agreement often tend to be linked to a movie or existing strong game franchise and may result for 30% of total game sales or more.

Dave: What should a video-game demo have on it?  Length?

JS Gilbert: Perhaps the toughest question to answer. If you asked 30 gaming audio guys, you'd get 30 different answers. I know what the VO teachers say, but there's a difference between doing something that works and something that works well.

So, let's see what I can say. It's a good idea to not have any demo over 90 seconds in length. As with many impersonation demos, you're better off giving them a few things you do well rather than ruin it with a bunch of mediocre performances.  AS for content, it depends considerably upon what you plan to do with your video game demo.  Understand that there are many genres of video games and many different types of voices and characters that might be needed. Given that this can include monster voices all the way down to the voices of rainbows and unicorns for early learning and everything in between, including historically accurate voices and real-person accents and regionalisms, one might be able to come up with 10 or 15 minutes of applicable varied content for game demo(s).

 I should point out that people involved in the video game industry generally refer to it simply as gaming. Yes that can get confused with slot machines and so forth, but whatever.

I have a total of 6 different 1 minute – 90 second audio demos that I use for purposes of marketing myself to the gaming community.  One features "dark" voices, monsters and more unusual things, another has lots of accurate accents and regionalisms and sounds a little more like bites from a historical documentary, 1 features lots of warm and fuzzy voices that would be used for early learning and some casual games, another has some impersonations of game characters, many I have actually performed in a pinch, 2 have a mixture of all of the above.

The one thing I would recommend whether the talent is attempting to showcase 2 or 20 voices is to have some pi

eces that show your acting ability.

Should a voice-actor have a website promoting JUST video-game voicing?
How best to approach possible clients?
How to charge fairly for your work?
What acting skills should you work on?

———–and more!




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