While Grand Theft Auto IV gets its first big expansion on Tuesday with the Xbox 360-exclusive release of The Lost and Damned, don't expect to see a whole lot of Niko Bellic.
The main character from the best-seller makes only a cameo appearance in the downloadable content, which focuses on new lead Johnny Klebitz and a whole lot of bikers. But does Niko even get anything new to say?
"Hell no," says Rockstar Games' vice president of product development, Jeronimo Barrera. He told MTV's Stephen Totilo that gamers shouldn't expect Niko's return, and while The Lost and Damned (and the forthcoming Chinatown Wars for DS) were always planned to focus on new characters, it seems Niko's banishment is mostly because Rockstar may be done working with actor Michael Hollick.
Last May, Hollick told the New York Times that he was unhappy with the roughly $100,000 he was paid for 15 months of work for the game, which included not only reciting hundreds of pages of dialogue, but also day after day of motion capture work.
Rockstar was apparently nonplussed. It is rumored they felt Hollick should have been happy with making 50 percent over SAG scale — about $730 a day — for a total of about $1,050 a day, the Times wrote.
To be fair, Hollick badmouthed his union, not Rockstar, for not having labor contracts in place to provide residuals for game talent. The New York Times points out that virtually any other recorded performance — such as TV, an album or a movie — allows for royalties; games do not.
Hollick said he "asked about residuals when we negotiated, but I was told that was not a possibility."
Pay of $100,000 may sound like a lot, but consider that GTA4 has moved about 7.3 million units at $60 apiece and it's obvious the pie wasn't cut fairly.
Postell Pringle, who is currently the lead in the American Stage's production of August Wilson's King Hedley II in St. Petersburg, played the role of Playboy X in Grand Theft Auto IV. He worked with Hollick throughout 2007, and told me that the amount of energy that goes into game acting is much more intense than he expected.
"It's the weirdest combination of live acting and film acting," Pringle said. "We had to be in the scene, but we had to be slightly more animated than normal; they want something to animate later."
He described how he would get his script, rehearse for a day, then put on a skintight suit with motion-capture sensors to act out the scene again, this time with a special camera pointed closely on his face.
Hollick "was a very talented actor," Pringle said. "There was a scene where we were all supposed to be playing pool, but there's no table, and no pool cues. You would play a scene just like you were shooting a scene."
After all that, he had to head back to a sound studio to re-record all of the audio, turning video game acting into twice the work of a regular job. And yet the industry insists that star power doesn't sell games, so the actors' compensation is not a strong consideration when budgeting for a title.
Why bother touting Kiefer Sutherland or Gary Oldman in Call of Duty: World at War? Why keep churning out celebrity endorsed games featuring Tony Hawk or John Madden? In fact, why make those 50 Cent games at all? Well, that's a different question.
The games industry may whine about worries over costs spiralling out of control if they pay more than union standard, but how many gamers would be infuriated if David Hayter didn't return in another Metal Gear sequel because he was paid scale?
Yes, developers do the heavy lifting, but the actors bring it to life. And when a game rakes in billions, its star deserves recognition.
— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at firstname.lastname@example.org.