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The Soapbox: MMOs waste millions on voice-over


Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

A-list voice actors are not new to the video game genre. Over the last 20 years, video games have pulled from the same pool of talent as cartoons and commercials. But it really wasn't until last year with DC Universe Online that we started to see MMOs advertise the voice talent they had in the games. DCUO filmed multiple documentary-style videos to impress us with the level of voice-over work the game had. Although DCUO was the first fully voiced MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic made a point to tell us that it had over 200 different voice actors (300 if you believe IMDB) with over a thousand recording sessions for over 200,000 lines of dialogue.

In the end, what's the pay-off? Six months after launch, the majority of players will threaten to leave a SWTOR pick-up group if the other players don't skip over the dialogue. Although a large portion of players did watch all the dialogue shortly after the game launched, all the players I spoke to said that the cutscenes started to grate on them before they'd even reached level 50. And even though DCUO was the first MMO to be fully voiced, SWTOR got away with advertising that it was first mainly because voice-overs were considered so insignificant by the MMO community that almost no one noticed the fib. And dare we even talk about the expense of recording 200,000 lines of dialogue? Is fan excitement over, say, Mark Hamill's Joker worth the cost of bringing him in on the project in the first place?

The Soapbox Voice over wastes millions in MMOs
Budgeting the voices

When I hear that some famous voice actor is a part of the cast of a game, I get excited. I was ecstatic when I heard that the Batman, Kevin Conroy, who voiced Batman throughout most of the animated series, was playing Batman in DC Universe Online. As a Mass Effect fan, I don't think I could hide my joy upon hearing that Jennifer Hale was going to make an appearance not only as the voice for the female Trooper but also as Satele Shan in Star Wars: The Old Republic. Perhaps it's because of my background in performing arts, but I am extremely happy to hear that professional actors at the top of their games are finally making it into the MMO genre.

A couple of years ago, Reuters reported on A-list actors in the video games. Specifically, the article spoke about Keith David, whom you might recognize as Admiral David Anderson from the Mass Effect series. David has been an on-screen and behind-the-screen actor for decades. The first time I heard of him was in one of my favorite cartoons from the '90s, Gargoyles, in which he played the leader of the Gargoyles, Goliath. The 2008 Reuters article mentions that a voice actor can expect to make about $760 per four-hour session on the low end, but actors as seasoned as David can expect to make double that and beyond -- not a bad gig for an actor looking for a steady paycheck. Can you imagine what Mark Hamill was paid for playing the Joker in DCUO, what Adam "Jayne Cobb" Baldwin earned for voicing Superman, or what Lance "Bishop" Hendriksen made for performing Master Gnost Dural in the SWTOR timelines? In the Reuters article, General Manager of Blindlight Lev Chapelsky said that it isn't uncommon for top voice actors to receive a check in the high five figures for a single session.

An MMO the size of SWTOR or DCUO must already contend with considerable costs, so adding voice-overs might tack on an additional five million dollars to your already inflated budget. Most likely it's in the tens of millions. Is an MMO worth that extra overhead?

The Soapbox MMOs waste millions on voiceoverComparing apples to apples

Until recently, the most successful subscription MMO, World of Warcraft, has had very little voice-over, but that game is eight years old now. Times have changed. Let's look at another recent MMO that I deem as being quite successful: RIFT. I mentioned in my Choose My Adventure tales that I loved the story in RIFT. However, the voice acting left something to be desired. I also praised the aesthetics of RIFT, and I loved taking screenshots of that game. For a post-WoW MMO, it fares well with its 11 well-populated servers and another dozen or so lightly populated servers. And obviously the producers of the game feel that the subscription model still works well for the game since they have not announced any plans to go free-to-play.

On the other hand, our MMO clad in super-powered voiceover, DCUO, changed its business model before its first anniversary. If you remember, I used to livestream DCUO. I love the game's story, so that wasn't the issue for me. Art design was obviously not missing from DCUO, either; one of the greatest comic book artists of all time, Jim Lee, served as artistic director for the game, and if he didn't personally do the concept work, his renowned WildStorm studios did. I also loved taking screenshots of this game. From a theatrical perspective, the only thing setting RIFT apart from DCUO was voice acting.

The Soapbox MMOs waste millions on voiceoverBut DCUO and RIFT are not the only games we can compare and contrast. Some people might argue that the game mechanics of DCUO made it a very different game from RIFT. I will concede that, so let's add Guild Wars 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic into the mix. Both of those games are story-heavy, too. Guild Wars 2 boasts a very dynamic and different combat system, while SWTOR's combat system is very traditional for an MMO.

I've already talked about the voice acting and story in TOR so much that's it's been done to death. The story and VO is great; SWTOR doesn't get points for that anymore. Aesthetically, it's also one of those games that I like to take screenshots of. My SWTOR gallery here on Massively is one of the largest, and it's still being used in articles now. Needless to say, it's a pretty game.

Guild Wars 2 is no doubt pretty too, or so says our latest gallery from the game. Yet when you examine the voice acting in GW2, it falls short, similar to the way RIFT does. Generally, though, the story received favorable reviews, especially in the way it was integrated with the players' personal investment in what was happening in Tyria.

In my opinion, we have four successful games (although GW2's fate is yet to be determined). Two have high-quality voice-overs, and two don't. But in all other ways, they are equal. For all the time and money SWTOR and DCUO spent on voice acting, it gave them no advantage in the end.

The Soapbox Voice over wastes millions in MMOs
Lessons learned

I don't believe cutting voice-overs is the answer to all MMOs' problems. As I said, I was excited to hear that certain actors were featured in DCUO. I also think that MMOs need a high level of voice acting if you want the game to be immersing. However, I believe a line has to be drawn. Did we really need Wil Wheaton to play Robin in DCUO? He has only a few lines. What about Rachael Leigh Cook as Jaesa Willsaam, the companion for the Sith Warrior? I don't believe her salary was justified by the few lines of flat dialogue she gave. On the other hand, it is worth it to me to know that my Jedi Knight will be voiced by Solid Snake (David Hayter) and that when I'm facing the Joker, I'm facing the Joker who has played the role for literally decades (Mark Hamill). In the end, that kind of thing should be a marketing piece, not a driving force behind the game as a whole.

I believe that since these are games players will invest years of their lives into, developers should concentrate on what the players will be spending the majority of their time doing. Unfortunately, that will not be listening to well-trained actors read dialogue. They are great advertising hooks and a valid part of immersive gameplay, but players will spend the majority of time building communities within the game. Give us more tools for that before you spend another 10 million bucks on voice-overs, please.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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