Online retail services like Steam and Good Old Games have done much to change the way we consume videogames. Pricing is more elastic, purchasing is simpler, but their impact isn't limited to cost and convenience. With no physical production to consider, publishers and developers are free to delve into their back-catalogues, releasing classic and long-forgotten games for just a few pounds. The value of this shift to preserving the cultural heritage of videogames should not be under-estimated, but the experience isn't always a pleasant one.
Returning to a mid-Nineties masterpiece can open your eyes to elements of game design that aren't weakened by the passage of time, but all too often older games clearly illustrate the myriad ways the medium has improved. Take Planescape: Torment, for example: excellent writing, memorable characters, boundless imagination, but with audio quality and voice-acting that, by modern standards, can be difficult to take.
Improvements in sound design and voice-recording are the reason why companies like Game On Audio exist. Founded in Montreal nine years ago by Samuel Girardin, Game On Audio is now one of the premier recording studios in the games industry, with a portfolio that includes franchises like Assassin's Creed, Prince Of Persia, Splinter Cell, Kinectimals and Dragon Age. Girardin started in the days when a game had, on average, 500 files (lines of dialogue) per language – now, blockbuster games need anywhere up to 15,000.
"Reviews started to play a big role," he says from the seclusion of Game On Audio's soundproofed Montreal studio. "Every bad comment about sound was always [aimed at] dialogue. Games were losing percentage points because of it, so [developers] realised they would have to do something else. A lot of companies out there were using their employees as actors in their games. That changed drastically."
Ten years ago, all of the voice actors Girardin worked with saw videogames as cartoons you could play, and very few took the work seriously. Now, only those above a certain age still hold that opinion, but the dedication of younger talent is making an invaluable contribution to the sense of immersion.
However, technological progress is inexorable, and new techniques are fundamentally altering the role of performance in game design. Game On Audio recently added facial capture to its suite of services, with motion capture certain to follow in the near future.
"We're part of the pipeline now," Girardin beams, but while these technologies allow developers to create a more coherent experience, it has left the voice-actors who did so much for the development of the medium in a difficult position. With facial capture, the performance must be physical as well as vocal. Voice-actors now need to do more than just read the lines – they need to learn them.
"We're doing Assassin's Creed: Revelations right now in LA and Montreal, and we need the actors to learn their script, but they're not used to that. Voice actors usually come in, "Hi guys! Can I get a coffee? What's the script? So, I'm playing what? A badass? Okay, perfect." With [facial capture] they need to learn their lines."
This not only narrows the pool of actors a company like Game On Audio can work with, it also increases the cost. A normal voice-actor with a reasonable amount of experience can demand $900 for a four hour session; a highly experienced voice-actor like Roger Craig Smith, the voice of Ezio in the Assassin's Creed franchise, is paid double that amount. Traditional actors, on the other hand, generally ask for more, and if they have any significant degree of fame the fee can be as high as $20,000 per session.
This invokes the current trend for celebrity voice-performances. These days it's rare to find a blockbuster game that doesn't feature some small contribution from Hollywood talent, but they are rarely involved with or even aware of the job they are about to do. The conversation turns to Kristen Bell's famous talk-show appearance where she spoiled the plot of Assassin's Creed, but in Girardin's opinion mistakes of that nature are a calculated risk of working with famous actors.
"This is how it works," Girardin begins. "Kristen Bell [Lucy in the Assassin's Creed franchise] has a super-tight schedule – very busy woman – so she has an agent taking care of her appointments. 'You're going to [do voice-work for] a videogame on Tuesday. You need to be at that address, at that time.' She walks in, and she knows that she's going to get that much money, and that it's 9 till 1 – that's it... Sometimes [a famous actor] won't know what's going to happen because they don't have interest in more than being there."
Girardin is clear about one thing: famous actors can be a pleasure to work with, citing Michael Ironside's performance in the Splinter Cell games as a prime example. But even with the extra demands of facial and motion capture, the only reason to choose a star over an experienced voice actor is marketing. If it sells more copies of the game then it's justified, but it's an expensive gamble if it doesn't pay off.
"I'll tell you a story. I won't mention any names, but a very famous actress was being recorded for a game, and she did a very, very bad job. The management had four hours with her to do an eight hour job...and really the result was crap. She had no experience as a voice actress – she's an actress. She was moving all around the studio and they're like, "no, no, no". The result of it was they paid a ton of money, and they didn't end up using her voice. They used her name, and hired a sound-a-like actress in Los Angeles to mimic her."
"It happens. It's a marketing thing...sometimes these actors don't bring out the quality of your game."