With competition in the already-overcrowded video game market about to heat up with the launch of two brand-new software lines for Microsoft’s Xbox and Nintendo’s Gamecube later this year, interactive publishers are scrambling to find new hooks that will make their titles stand out on the shelf. One under-utilized element that’s starting to gain ground as a must-have app is the use of celebrity voice talent.
Disney Interactive has been incorporating star voiceovers into its vid games for years, starting with The Lion King line in 1996, which featured all the original talent from the movie, including Matthew Broderick and James Earl Jones. ‘We try and do it on every single title,’ says Dan Winters, DI’s VP of product development for consoles. ‘Obviously, the primary objective is to maintain the authenticity of a project across all of our various products.’
To this end, Disney has set up an in-house organization called Disney Character Voices that acts as the voice police of the Mouse House. The unit negotiates ancillary deals with Disney flick actors for voice work on interactive games, as well as on advertising and promo clips, DVD extras, voice-chip toys, etc.
Getting the actors on-board for vid game voiceovers was a pretty hard sell a few years ago when poor audio and video quality made the medium largely unattractive to the Hollywood set. ‘But today, most celebrities are genuinely excited by the reach and the level of realism in the interactive medium-particularly the console platforms,’ says Winters.
Although the final deal was just being signed at press time, Michael J. Fox is eager to lend his voice to the studio’s next kids game line: Two CD-ROMs (an activity center and an action game) and a PSX title due out this summer based on the feature film Atlantis. Following closer to Christmas will be an interactive product cluster featuring the voices of Monsters stars Billy Crystal and John Goodman.
Studios like Disney have a distinct advantage over smaller indie software outfits in that vid game voiceover work is often tacked onto the celebrity’s movie contract for a nominal fee. LucasArts recently signed Ahmed Best, who played the character Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars: Epsiode 1: The Phantom Menace, to voice the same character for Star Wars Super Bombad Racing, which launches for PlayStation 2 this month and for Sega Dreamcast and Mac CD-ROM in March. ‘Since it’s a Star Wars title, using voice talent from the movie was kind of a no-brainer,’ says project lead Michael McCormack. ‘This time it didn’t cost nearly as much as I had anticipated, but using celebrities can be prohibitively expensive-sometimes as much as twice the budget.’
A high-budget title using non-celebrity talent generally runs in the US$15,000 range (US$500 an hour for an average 30-hour total recording time), according to Janice Iraci, director of client services for Annex Digital. This Menlo Park, California-based recording studio casts, directs and records the voice talent for three to four interactive games a year, with companies like Konami, Crystal Dynamics, 3DO and Psygnosis on its client roster.
In addition to driving up the total budget on video game projects, celebrity voicing poses some scheduling challenges as well. Acclaim brand manager Evan Stein, who works closely on the year-old Mary-Kate and Ashley interactive franchise, explains: ‘As with any license, we push back our production cycle by about six to eight weeks to allow for script approval time. Working around their schedules is a bit trickier-they’re going to school, making videos and CDs and launching a fashion line at Wal-Mart-but so far, no products have been delayed.’ Acclaim released Mary-Kate and Ashley Magical Mystery Mall for PSX and a new Game Boy Color Pocket Planner PDA title in Q4 2000, and a horseback riding game will lead the 2001 slate with a summer release date planned.
Disney Interactive’s Winters says voicing is one of the last game elements added to a title because the script must be 100% complete first. By then, the celebrity is often out of the country shooting their next film. ‘Sometimes we have to fly out and meet them on location, sometimes we do a phone patch-but we have to make it absolutely convenient for the talent whenever possible,’ he says.
Lastly, there’s the, ummm… enthusiasm. Each new Mary-Kate and Ashley title involves six to eight conference calls or meetings with the ubiquitous twins to define content, plus periodic production check-ins. ‘We also work with their costume designer and hairstylists-they’re Hollywood stars, but they’re also 14-year-old girls who want to look good in their video games,’ says Acclaim’s Stein.
Despite all the inherent difficulties, the bottom line is that celebrities actually work more efficiently than amateur voice talent. ‘It’s a faster and more professional process because they know the role and can usually get the take in one shot,’ says LucasArts’ McCormack. ‘Ahmed Best created the Jar Jar character, so he knows better than anyone else what noise Jar Jar would make when he’s falling into a bottomless pit.’