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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Is Voice-Acting Overvalued?

By LUDWIG VON KOOPA - ...Probably, yeah.

In an era where the talent cartel known as the SAG-AFTRA union is still making demands of gaming companies to this very day, one must ask: Is professional voice-acting worth it, given how expensive it is? How about voice-acting in general? What role does it play in the gaming industry?

I'd like to explore these interesting questions by way of using KoopaTV's own games as an example. I've identified the following categories of games, in terms of how they use voice-acting:
  • No voice-acting at all
  • Voice-acting for action scenes
  • Voice-acting for cutscenes
  • Synthesised voice-acting
  • Everything is voice-acted 

I mean, I guess there's some possible overlap (what if you voice-act in fights AND cutscenes but that's it? HUH, LUDWIG? HUH?), and there's also the rise of what I call “partial voice-acting”, but we'll get into that and more in the article! I believe through exploring each of these, we'll figure out, together, what voice-acting is good for and perhaps then companies can really know if dealing with SAG-AFTRA and its ilk is worth it. Let's go!

The Silent Game: No Voice Acting

Largely seen as a product of a long-abandoned era, these are games with no voices. Many games are here simply because the technology did not even exist for voice-acting to occur. There's just sound-effects in Super Mario Bros. because you're not going to get a good-sounding YAHOO! from Mario with Nintendo Entertainment System technology. (Now that we do have the technology, it's annoying to hear.)

However, there are still lots of games that don't voice-act for many reasons, such as Pocket Card Jockey developed by Game Freak on the Nintendo 3DS. The closest thing to voice-acting is a horse neighing.

Pocket Card Jockey I like omelettes story cutscene
Amusing dialogue in Pocket Card Jockey.

There's definitely story scenes in Pocket Card Jockey, and some dialogue. But would it benefit at all from voice-acting? The writing and even characters are meant to be throwaway and amusing filler, and the focus is on the horses and gameplay systems. Knowing what the jockeys and Horse Off-Course sound like wouldn't help immersion or the experience in any way, and the repetitive nature of some of the text from Horse Off-Course would certainly be grating. ...The game also wouldn't be profitable as a low-budget endeavour if they had to spend money on voice-actors.

If voice-acting would add nothing to the game or the experience, then don't add it.

Voice-Acting in Action!

Voice-acting in fights, or action scenes, is actually quite important. While it may just be grunts and one-liners, these are critically important to a game's sound design.

My example for this is Trayvon Tyson's Punch-Out!!, a wonderful game that you can play right here through KoopaTV. Of particular note is how it treats voice-acting. It pretty much (with a small handful of exceptions) only has voice-acting during the five fights of the game, with sound effects during the dialogue scenes that exist in-between fights.

What makes it critically important? The player needs to listen to the cues in order to know what attack is coming, and when to dodge it. You look at those strategy guides, and you'll see a lot of cues and evasion techniques are voice-dependent. While at the same time the game is giving these cues, they're provided in a character-specific way, with character-specific quotes and jokes that add to the game's charm.

Bear Hugger Need a Hug Catch and Release Title Defense Punch-Out!! Punch Out Wii squirrel
One added benefit that Punch-Out!! on the Wii has to its NES counterpart are voice-based cues.
Bear Hugger has BEAR HUG and CATCH AND RELEASE attacks that have different timings
but look similar at start-up and execution. He says the name of the attack in advance, though.
(For your information, Bear Hugger is voice-acted by Richard Newman, a professional actor.
But many of the other characters are casted by people with only Punch-Out!! Wii as experience)

Besides cues, sound is also critically important for feedback. Because games cannot provide a sense of touch (besides controller presses), smell, or taste for actions, they need to rely on sight and sound for feedback. Feedback is what connects the game with the gamer. If games are about user choice and action to do SOMETHING, feedback is what lets gamers know that their button presses are being registered and something is happening. They're actually affecting the world.

Often, designers focus on extravagant graphical effects, and these are certainly important. But don't forget that sound is also a whole half of the equation.

Defend Anita Sarkeesian took great care to ensure that aural feedback was well taken care of. Half of the game's audio, by length, is Bendilin screaming as he is shot by Anita Sarkeesian in self-defence. Bendilin's sprite is divided into ten hurtboxes, and you need to shoot each one twice to complete the game. Each one of those twenty shots has a unique audio feedback that only plays that one time. In short, if you don't hear something, nothing happened. If you did hear something, you know it's unique because you've only heard it that one time. So you're making progress. That kind of sound design is critical to let the player know they're doing the right thing.

I believe that you can have very effective sound design in this area without needing the services of a professional. However, characters that have distinct voices — and you'll want distinct ones, especially if there are other sounds going on — are going to have those voices become THE voice of the character. So if it'll be a franchise, you better have that same dude on-call for future voice-acting or have people that sound just like them, or you're gonna get the fans confused.

They still don't have to be a professional, though. People aren't expecting the world with these. The voices here exist to aid the gameplay experience, and as long as it does that and it's not completely awful, you're fine.

Voice-Acting for Cutscenes

With the notable exception of Super Smash Bros. Brawl's Subspace Emissary mode, pretty much every AAA game with prerendered cinematic cutscenes in the past ten years that clearly have a lot of budget sunk into them has voice-acting in its cutscenes if they have characters with things to say. The purpose here is to amaze you with the beauty of the cutscenes, and to basically act as mini movies within the game that players can watch.

Meta Knight Marth Subspace Emissary cutscene duelling fighting swords Fire Emblem Super Smash Bros. Brawl Falchion Galaxia
If only Meta Knight and Marth could use their words to talk things out.
(Marth DOES has some trouble with languages, however.)

Clearly, listening to someone talk rather than reading text is a better experience for players if you're acting like a mini movie director, so you want the characters to talk their best. Would I suggest you get just anyone to be a movie actor? No. So it'd be hypocritical for me to suggest non-professionals if the whole point of you having cutscenes is not just to relay information in a non-interactive format for your game, but to draw attention to these particular moments in the game.

If the voices are bad, people will hate the whole scene (or make videos that make fun of its inconsistencies years later), rendering whatever budget you've sunk into the graphics useless. Still, despite me hyperlinking to it as a bad example, Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance  and Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn are actually perfect examples of what I'm talking about here, with anime-style cutscenes that have voice-acting that aren't present anywhere else in the game, with reviewers moaning about having to read text.

Aside from Super Smash Bros. Brawl, there are a number of games with voice-less cutscenes, like Final Fantasy IX. Today, fans want a remake of the game with voices in it. That's also the situation with Final Fantasy VII, which literally did have cinematic cutscenes just to impress people back then. Those didn't have voice-acting, but the Final Fantasy VII Remake will feature full voice-acting, which will put it in a later category of this article.

Synthesised (Fake) Voice Acting: Text-To-Speech

What do you do when you want the players to have some kind of feedback with reading dialogue, or you want more than just background music? Why, you synthesise the text. That means that you run the text through a machine that spits out something that kind of resembles what exists. It's like automation for voice-acting.

You get a weird result, but that can add to the charm of your game. Examples include Animal Crossing, Pikmin 3, and Tomodachi Life. You have different settings on your output machine, such as a range of pitches (males get a low-pitched voice, and females a higher-pitched one), and you're off. Since the audio is generated on-the-fly, you're free to edit the script even very late in the development process. Normally, voice actors come at the end of the development process because you need a finished script for them to use. But if you want to make an edit to the script even after that? Well... too bad, you already paid hundreds of dollars to have that voice-acted.

Not recommended for games trying to be realistic and not quirky.

A question that comes up for me is, why not have all of the games with no voice acting at all use this method? Well, you might not want to make or license a synthesiser. You might really not like how the output is and would prefer silence. Maybe you'd like players to read at their own pace instead of being goaded along by a weird robotic thing. See this Animal Crossing Animalese parody video:


Full Voice-Acting: Voices are EVERYWHERE!

In your cutscenes. In your fights. In NPC dialogue. In your head. Voices!

This is what professional voice-actors would prefer all games have, because it gives them more work. (Except then they complain how long they're doing voice-over work for and demand stunt pay compensation.)

Capture the Confederate Flag has full voice-acting, and as a result, the sum of all of its voice-acting is pretty lengthy. There's voice-acting for feedback. For moves. For opponents doing anything. For moving in-between states. For an omnipresent narrator. And for the lines and lines of dialogue in the game.

...And I voice-acted it all. And I ain't a professional. But I think I did a very good job, and I accomplished what I wanted to with the game's sound design.

Besides being expensive if a game is huge, amplified by the demand that you use professionals for everything (think how much the voice-acting must've cost for something like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim), having omnipresent voice-acting means that every line of text in the game must absolutely be finalised before you call all of these actors in.

Consider this: Of the tens of thousands of lines in Skyrim and the ludicrous amount of money that must've went into it, the only thing people remember the game's voice-acting for is the arrow in the knee meme.

Was that a good investment of resources? SAG-AFTRA will say yes. I'm a lot less supportive of that.

Partial Voice-Acting

There are lots and lots of throwaway lines that get voice-acted just because EVERYTHING gets voice-acted. All it does is give more money to the voice-actor. That's why more and more games are doing something called “partial voice-acting”, where any aspect of the game could be voice-acted... if it's important (judged by the developers, I guess). Games like the Professor Layton series do this, along with Fire Emblem Awakening, where you're reading text and all of a sudden the whole or part of a line is read out loud by the character. Then you go on to the next bit of text and there's no voice. It's weird, but it certainly saves money.

So, what does The Wonderful 1237 fall into? I'd say partial voice-acting. Almost everything except the in-between dialogue sessions is voice-acted (and even that has Sergei Goldwitz's laughing sometimes play when he laughs, along with him voice-acting the names of all of the candidates in the tutorial). The minigames are voice-acted, though some of the instructions appear as text-only. The rallies and negative ads are completely voice-acted, because The Wonderful 1237 uses audio not only to convey information (there are hints in the Rallies, and obviously audio can be mission-critical during the endorsement minigames) but as a reward for doing certain actions. In other words, the voice-acting is fun to hear in and of itself.

That's the best kind of value that voice-acting can add, and with the ability to be selective about where you put limited resources in, you can be sure that whatever does get voice-acted are the very best, most-worthy lines.

...That, and because The Wonderful 1237 hit the file limit allowed for Scratch files, so I couldn't add anything else to the game. Sound files are the biggest contributor to file size! Let that also be a reason not to voice-act absolutely everything in a game, if you care about the space available of your consumers on their hardware/external hard-drives.


Of course voice-acting has its very important places in games. Voice-acting, and sound in general, is critical to relaying feedback for the player. It can provide cues for their actions. It can aid with characterisation as characters become identified with having a kind of voice, and can help bring characters and their stories to life. The best kind of voice-acting can even serve as its own reward.

However, voice-acting has many downsides, many of them on the development-end. Voice-acting brings many challenges with the development cycle and timing. It is also very expensive, and will be even more expensive if you have to keep succumbing to the demands of the SAG-AFTRA cartel. Additionally, besides the few lines that ascend into memes, voice-acting often is one of the least-memorable parts of a game for players, making the return-on-investment in terms of value-add quite dubious. If the voice-acting is judged to be of poor quality by the players, they will ridicule it or even mute the game entirely, which impacts the works of a company's musicians that are sharing audio channels with the voice-acting. In the case of localisation, you may have to voice-act a game not just once, but twice... or even more. This multiplies the cost (on top of localising the text), and if you try to save cash by hiring chumps off the street for the German or French version of the game while English and Japanese get professionals, there'll be controversy over that.

As for the professionals vs. anyone else argument, there are times where you'll want professionals (if the whole point of having voice-acting is to be movie-esque), but justifying such large budgets will be more and more difficult to do as SAG-AFTRA voice-actors whine and go on strike. Seriously. Don't these guys understand they're replaceable, and almost everyone can talk into a microphone?

Were you expecting Ludwig to publish the voice-acting and sound-effects video for The Wonderful 1237 for this article? ...Well, too bad. It's too soon for that. But when it is released, it'll be linked-to in this article right below this footer! Ludwig doesn't even play that many games that feature a ton of voice-acting, and he has no trouble reading lots of text. Hopefully you don't either, since this article is on the lengthier side.

Voice-actors like Aisha Tyler believe they are critically important to the gaming industry and will try to refute this article's conclusions.
After eight months, it is finally the right time to release the voice-acting and sound-effects video for The Wonderful 1237!
SAG-AFTRA is trying to spread their voice-acting first philosophies into videogames, succeeding even in getting Nintendo on-board.
Some voice actors believe they are THE defining element that makes a character who they are, far above any other person involved.


  1. So where does voice acting for fake language dialogue clips fit into this? Callie and Marie have actual voice actresses but they talk in a fake language instead. But besides for some that can be directly translated into a real language "Stay Fresh" they use the same voice clips for different things they say.

    What do you think of Pikachu in main games from gen 6 and onward saying "Pikachu" while all the other Pokemon make more animalistic sounds?

    1. I remember you bringing this up before the last time SAG-AFTRA appeared on this site.

      I guess it's a subset of the Synthesised Voices part, except without any of the benefits of actually being Speech-to-Text. (In that it's automated and obviously cheaper.)

      I think the only justification for why Splatoon does it and no one else does it that way is that they were planning all along to have the Squid Sisters hold concerts and stuff, and they didn't want to try to develop a Speech-to-Text technology that has a fake language that also sounds melodic.

      So, KoopaTV's staff a few days ago were listening to some of the Pokémon cries because we don't know what Mark Block's cry is in his Super Smash Bros. 4 trailer, even though Rawk made the trailer. (Or his evolution, which is a KoopaTV Quiz Part VIII question.)
      (I was rewatching it because it was one of the videos we had to re-embed.)
      Anyway, I wouldn't classify a lot of the Gen 1 cries as animalistic. They're literally just static-y disastrous screeches that bleed your ears. So... good for Pikachu.
      It's also good that Gen 6 (or whenever) gave updated cries to the Gen 1 ones back from Blue/Red/Yellow, though Genwunners think it's worse that way.

      I'm considering writing an article just on Pokémon cries in the near future, though, and I will say there are certain Pokémon (see: Kricketune) that benefit from having it NOT say "Kricketune"! So...whatever works.

  2. And yet, even when they spend so much money on having voice actors for multiple languages, the region-locked games mean that you can't access the European or Japanese voices on an Anerican 3DS or Wii U.

    Silly silly region lock.

    1. You could listen to them in a YouTube compilation video! It'd get a bunch of hits.


  3. So you're saying that the Wonderful 1237 was not voiced by professionals? I thought that it was for sure.

    1. If I was gonna spend money on it, it'd be on original music.

      ...or someone else to program it. Do you know how much of my free time I spent on the game? 'cause I don't.

      Gotta cut costs wherever I can to have a game with no budget!

  4. Can you like, not hate on Skyrim?

    1. I thought you'd appreciate that I mentioned Skyrim at all!

    2. That's like thanking the person who burned down your house because they knew it existed.

    3. But I didn't trash Skyrim, I just objectively pointed stuff out about it.

    4. You could learn some things about objectivity.

    5. Skyrim is game of the year, every year.

    6. Well, I guess if it keeps getting remade or remastered every year...

    7. Skyrim needs a remaster every year.

    8. Isn't it already at native 4k resolution?
      Does it even go any higher than that?

      The only thing you can do from here is make it in Virtual Reality.

    9. I can see why some people would want that.

      ...Not me.

    10. I want to be pummeled by Mike Tyson in VR.

    11. I didn't know you were a masochist, too.

  5. You kinda advocate for the only option I hate.

    I'm totally cool if a game has 0 voice acting (I actually kinda like it). I'm cool if only battle dialogue is added for cues. I love when the whole game is voice acted (though I don't require it to enjoy a game)

    I absolutely hate partial voice acting. When voices drop out in the middle of a conversation is quite literally the most annoyed you can make me while playing a game. I actually stopped playing Persona 5 cause it bugged me too much.

    I always try turning voice volume to 0 in these kinds of games and I generally like it that way until you hit a scene that was designed around voice. Such as in persona you hit some scenes that are kind of like cutscenes where the dialogue advances on its own and it doesn't tell you who is talking. So when I turn voice volume to 0 those scenes are terrible.

    I wish all games would just choose. Do you want to invest in voice work? or not? this in between thing has got to go.

    1. also I'm okay with cutscene voices but generally only when the cutscene presentation is notably different than the game presentation. Persona is my go to example cause it is the most let down I've been. I would really love it if the entire gameplay experience had 0 voice (besides battle cues) but the anime cutscenes were voice acted. That would be optimal for me. The comic book style actually almost works better without voice.

    2. Heh, thank you for commenting here. You definitely made valid points and I can see why that'd be so... loathesome. Like it's luring you with the partial voice acting only to take it away when you want to hear more.

      My biggest peeve, and this has developed after this article was written, is what Breath of the Wild and Fire Emblem: Three Houses does, where everyone is fully voice-acted except the main character, which makes them look like an out-of-place freak.


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