We have updated our article about Gearbox’s decision not to sign a union contract to bring back Troy Baker as Rhys in Borderlands 3. Readers had questions about why other union actors are voicing Borderlands 3 characters and whether Gearbox’s excuse valid, which Baker’s union, SAG-AFTRA, responded to.
Earlier this year, Borderlands fans were devastated to learn that actor Troy Baker would not be reprising his role as Rhys in Borderlands 3. At the time, publisher Gearbox’s co-founder Randy Pitchford said Baker “turned it down,” but a recent interview with Baker makes things sound more complicated.
Baker is a beloved voice actor who’s voiced dozens of video game characters including Booker DeWitt from BioShock Infinite, Samuel Drake from Uncharted 4, and Snow in Final Fantasy XIII. Baker is also a member of SAG-AFTRA, the union representing voice actors. In an interview with VG247, Baker says that’s what prevented him from joining the cast for Borderlands 3.
“It was simply a matter of they wouldn’t go union,” Baker told VG247 of Gearbox. He continued:
“I can’t do a non-union gig. And without getting too deep into the weeds of that, we had long conversations about this. We always knew going into it, that this was going to be the thing. They were going to take these characters, and put them from the Tales from the Borderlands series from Telltale, into Borderlands proper. I’ve been waiting for this call. They were like, ‘Do you want to do this?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ They never, because they would never move from that position. I’m not mad. It’s invariably a completely different character, but it still stings.”
Baker had previously voiced his desire to reprise the Borderlands role in at least two public instances, VG247 reports. Once, at a Supernova Melbourne panel, Baker said that if Gearbox brought back characters from Telltale’s Borderlands, “It should be the people who originated the characters. They shouldn’t just recast willy-nilly, because as a fan that matters to me.” Later, in an OnlySP interview, Baker said that he’d “love to come back” and added, “I think it’s interesting that Randy Pitchford tweeted out that I turned it down, and then he said he heard that I turned it down. I would fact-check before I tweeted out to the internet.”
(Pitchford also noted in his April tweet that “With how Rhys appears in the game, I don’t think it actually matters at all. You’ll see for yourself when the game comes out and you may disagree with me on that or not.”)
To remain in solidarity with their union members, SAG-AFTRA members can’t accept work on a production that hasn’t also signed a contract with SAG-AFTRA. SAG-AFTRA voice actors enjoy labor protections like guaranteed minimum rates that boost the labor standards for the industry.
Kotaku reached out to Gearbox and SAG-AFTRA for comment and did not immediately hear back.
Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has thoughts on the video game industry: “The video game industry made $43 billion in revenue last year. The workers responsible for that profit deserve to collectively bargain as part of a union.” Come on Splitscreen, Bernie.
“I’m not anti-union, but I don’t really think we need them, right?” said Double Fine head Tim Schafer while hosting yesterday evening’s Game Developers Choice Awards in San Francisco. “We’re all great here and in this show. No one here is union and…” Then the stage lights went out.
“Oh, right,” said Schafer after the lights went out. “Except for the lighting crew. I forgot they’re all union.”
Then the show producers gave him a tiny, nearly inaudible chipmunk voice and changed the teleprompter so it just read, “UNION!” repeatedly, except in one place where it conspicuously said “ONION!”
“I hear you,” said Schafer after the shenanigans concluded. “This is a union show. We’re better for it.”
It was all a staged bit, of course, but one that illustrates that the calls for game developers to unionize are getting louder, and reaching the eyes and ears of its biggest names. The gaming industry’s most visible pro-union organization, Game Workers Unite, is out in force at this year’s GDC, handing out zines and even running multiple conference sessions. With the inescapable shadow of layoffs looming heavier than ever and crunch culture chewing up developers and spitting them out, more and more developers have embraced the idea of unionization. After just one year, GWU has chapters in cities across the world. That said, no triple-A video game companies have unionized yet.
The lights-out bit was neither the first nor the last reference to unionization At the end of the show, after the developers of God of War had taken the stage to accept the award for game of the year, Schafer returned to the stage, his suit covered over with a T-shirt baseball cap emblazoned with the logo of the union whose workers were putting on the GDC Awards show, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 16. In his closing remarks, he also thanked Local 16 by name.
Earlier in the night, Independent Games Festival awards host and narrative designer Meg Jayanth, sporting a pin that read “UNION NOW,” made a more straightforward appeal in favor of unionization.
“It is time, more than time, we as an industry left behind the idea that our work is made better by our pain—that the price of passion is exploitation, that job security and pension plans and workplaces free of harassment are impossible dreams,” she said. “We have to demand them collectively. Not just for ourselves, but for each other as well.”
Other developers also used their time on stage to quietly show support for the idea of unionization. At the end of the IGF show, the Seamus McNally Grand Prize was presented by Night in the Woods developers Alec Holowka and Scott Benson, the latter of whom wore a “UNION NOW” pin and recently founded a worker-owned cooperative alongside fellow designer Bethany Hockenberry to produce their next game.
In a survey of nearly 4,000 game developers published today by the Game Developers Conference, half of developers surveyed said they thought game industry workers should unionize.
Unionization has been a hot topic among game developers over the last few years, as anecdotes of 100-hour work weeks and $28 million CEO salaries circulate among game workers. The idea that unions could insulate game developers from stunning, no-warning layoffs—sometimes without severance—or nine-month-long crunch sprints continues to be popular, although this is the first time the GDC has asked about it in a survey. Advocacy group Game Workers Unite was active at last year’s GDC and, in the intervening months, has been working to spread information about unionization and dispel misconceptions, which perhaps helped inform the GDC’s polling question.
The numbers are similar to a 2014 Independent Game Developers Association survey in which half of 2,200 polled respondents were in favor of an industry-wide union—up from 35 percent in 2009. Although the GDC’s survey, first reported by GamesIndustry.biz, reflected significant enthusiasm for unionization, the reality of forming a union appears intimidating to the game developers surveyed. Only 21 percent of developers said they think games workers will, in fact, unionize, while 24 percent said that it likely would not happen.
Some of the game developers who are pessimistic about the industry’s ability to organize feel that they are too replaceable. “There is too much supply: too many people want into the industry,” wrote one anonymous game developer in their response to the survey. “Those who unionize will be shoved out of the way as companies hire those with fewer demands.”
“Over the decades I’ve seen crunch turn from a ‘worst case’ part of innovating into an expected part of game development,” wrote another. “As a manager and owner, I see no pressure from studio heads or publishers in AAA to change this. When one executive can get a $20 million bonus in exchange for crunching hundreds of people, shipping before the game is ready, then laying off those people, the industry is ripe for self-correction. I would welcome our employees unionizing in the current environment.”
The idea that unionizing could mitigate games employees’ concerns about poor labor conditions is not without its detractors. At GDC’s 2018 unionization roundtable titled “Union Now? Pros, Cons, and Consequences of Unionization,” the International Game Developer Association’s Executive Director Jen MacLean, who led and moderated the discussion, said that unions can’t fix all the issues game developers face. “To assume that suddenly if you unionize, everything will be great, I don’t think that is a reasonable assumption,” she said in an interview with Kotaku at the conference. When Kotaku’s reporter pressed her on what could help games employees muster any leverage at all, MacLean said “I don’t know if there is an answer to that.”
One thing is for sure: Refusing to talk about unionization at all is the surest way to maintain the status quo, or allow the few existing labor protections that games workers do have to atrophy.