A button worn by picketing actors at last week's E3 video games trade show suggested they might pull the plug if they don't get a bigger share of the industry's huge profits. It read "Game Over."
About 2,000 union actors give voice to characters such as Obi Wan Kenobi in the latest "Star Wars" game. One actor can provide the voice of several characters during a single recording session.
Talks between game publishers and the two main actors' unions broke earlier this month. Actors will decide over the next two weeks if the impasse is critical enough to call a strike.
Voice actors have worked under a contract with game publishers since 1993. But now that video games generate nearly as much revenue as domestic movie ticket sales, actors say they want a piece of every game sold rather than one-time up front fees.
"To deny working-class performers their fair share of the tremendous profits their labor helps to generate is illogical, unreasonable and unjust," John Connolly, president of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists said recently. "It is simply shortsighted to believe that consumers don't care about the artistic quality of the characters."
That's a risk game companies seem willing to take, especially in light of divisions among actors, some of whom feel a strike would lead to the complete loss of union protection on video game jobs.
"The union's demand for an equity stake, or residual structure, is unreasonable and not fair to the hundreds of people who often spend years developing a game," Howard Fabrick, an attorney representing publishers in the talks, said in a statement. "Voiceover work represents a small fraction of a video game's development and consumer enjoyment."
No more than 15 percent of all games are produced under union contract, the unions say. But that includes nine of the 10 top-sellers last year.
In some cases, celebrity voices and likeness are key to selling a game. Electronic Arts Inc. recently signed a deal with actors James Caan and Robert Duvall to reprise their roles in the game version of the Oscar-winning film "The Godfather."
But in most cases, anonymous actors lend their voices to game characters. And while professional voices lend reality to games, analysts say the voices are not the key to a game's ultimate success.
"They have no leverage," Yankee Group analyst Mike Goodman said of the voice actors.
"In 99 percent of all games, the voice actors are irrelevant," Goodman said. "You replace one voice actor with another nonunion actor and no one will know the difference."
The two actors' unions have sent ballots to their members working in video games asking for a strike authorization. The results are due in two weeks. If actors fail to support a strike by a significant margin, union officials will consider accepting the latest proposal from publishers or restarting talks.
Actors say the residual model is standard practice for TV shows and commercials as well as home video sales. They also say they have been flexible in talks, backing off an earlier demand for straight residuals and instead proposing that producers pay actors an additional session fee after the game sells 400,000 copies.
Fees would also be paid for every 100,000 copies sold after that.
Producers have countered with an offer of a 34.8 percent wage hike over three years, bringing the one-hour rate for union actors to $375 from $278.
Publishers have also proposed raising overtime payments, limiting the number of voices that actors would be required to perform and agreeing to pay extra when a publisher uses a voice recording in another game.