Almost exactly five years since the longest actor’s strike in US history came to a close, video game voice actors are in the spotlight once again. Back in 2017, it was about voice actors refusing to work with publishers like Activision and Take-Two over fair payment concerns. Now, a fiery controversy surrounding Nintendo and Platinum’s upcoming Bayonetta 3 has reignited the debate over fair pay for voice actors in the video game industry.
It all started over a week ago, when former Bayonetta voice actor Hellena Taylor released a thread of videos on Twitter claiming she was offered only $4,000 in total to reprise the role for Platinum and Nintendo’s upcoming Bayonetta 3. In addition, Taylor asked fans to boycott the game and instead donate the money they would have spent on it to charity.
In the middle of the ensuing social media firestorm, a conversation surrounding voice actor wages in the video game industry started to develop, with some actors sharing their accounts of how much they were paid for taking on certain roles.
Then, the story took a new turn. On Tuesday, a report from Bloomberg (and later corroborated by VGC) revealed that Platinum allegedly attempted to hire Taylor for five four-hour sessions at a rate between $3,000 and $4,000 apiece. This would have put Taylor’s total compensation for Bayonetta 3 at $15,000, much higher than the amount she claimed she was offered. Taylor has since released a new statement, saying she was in fact offered $15,000 for the role.
Through all of the drama and changes to the story, though, there’s still a very real discussion to be had surrounding pay and workload in the voice actor industry. So, IGN sought out to learn the following: what is the standard rate for a voice actor, and what is the workload like? IGN spoke to three people in the voice actor industry to find out.
What Voice Actors Get Paid, and How Much Work it Takes
As with any industry, a voice actor’s compensation greatly fluctuates depending on the scope of a project and the resources from a studio. We spoke to one voice actor with experience on multiple AAA titles who chose to remain anonymous. It’s worth noting that we spoke to this actor before the Bloomberg report changed the discourse surrounding the Bayonetta situation, when $4,000 was still the primary number being thrown around.
“[Four-thousand dollars] is slightly more than I got paid for being a supporting character in a fighting game,” the actor said. “I had like three sessions, and it was a union game… It was a lot of work. It was ‘efforts’, which is getting hit, attacking, and all that. [It was] the story mode, the arcade mode, and it was a lot of work. And I’m a supporting character, I’m not even a main character.”
The actor mentioned it was a union job, which is a huge factor in determining how much these performers get paid. The union that represents voice actor talent in the video game industry is SAG-AFTRA, and the actor we spoke to is a member of that union. In a document from SAG-AFTRA detailing the minimum wages their members will work for, it shows that one day has a going rate of somewhere between $900 and $1000.
We also spoke with Sean Chiplock, the actor who voiced Revali in both The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and its spinoff, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, in addition to Teba and The Great Deku Tree. On Twitter, Chiplock revealed he was paid between $2,000 and $3,000 per game, which was higher than normal because he was voicing three separate characters.
I was paid approx $2,000-$3000 overall because it was based on the total number of hours in the studio (which was higher because of voicing 3 characters in a single game).
I made MORE from voicing Spade/Dail in Freedom Planet 1 because *that* generously gave me sales royalties. https://t.co/37tDNdshOU
— Sean Chiplock @ Anime Texas (Woodlands, TX) (@sonicmega) October 15, 2022
Chiplock had two offscreen lines in the Detective Pikachu movie, and the actor said he earned more from those two lines alone than he did for the entirety of Breath of the Wild and Age of Calamity. This is because actors earn royalties for film/television, with Chiplock adding he still gets checks from his work on Detective Pikachu.
Speaking to IGN, Chiplock said the general sentiment is “the cost of living — and corporate profits — continues to increase, but none of that is reflected in the payments made to those who help these games see success”. The actor is a big proponent of royalties or residuals for voice talent, adding “the major concern is that despite the video game industry reaching literal billions in profits for companies each year, video games do not currently offer royalties to any members who work on them nor is there any precedent.”
The actor pointed out the 2016 SAG-AFTRA strike as a turning point for gaming contracts in some regards, but that the union did not manage to get royalties/residuals added as part of those adjustments.
The SAG-AFTRA union does impose limits on how long a “day” or “session” is in the industry. According to the union’s wage sheet, one “session” is a maximum of a 4-hour day, and the anonymous actor we spoke to said there are limits imposed if a session is vocally stressful. This includes combat scenarios that would include a lot of screaming, grunting, or other “efforts”, as they are called in the industry. The anonymous actor we spoke to shared their experience in a vocally stressful role, saying it’s very taxing on the body.
“[One AAA game I worked on] was two sessions, and that was a ton of work… My voice was shredded after that. Because it’s a lot of screaming, and getting thrown across the room, and now you’re getting punched… That was two sessions, and was also union — that was less than $4,000, but it was a ton of work.”
The Race to the Bottom: The Problems with Non-Union Voice Acting Gigs
Where things start to get murkier for voice actor pay is when actors take non-union jobs. This happens when a studio doesn’t go through SAG-AFTRA to hire talent, but rather hires individual actors themselves. According to our source, the standard rate for non-union video game work is $250 dollars an hour. This number has been corroborated by many other voice actors, but as voice actor Ben Diskin pointed out on Twitter, this rate only stays steady if enough voice actors continue to demand it. In an ideal world, all studios would respect this going rate, but as you might expect, that’s not always how things go down.
As our source put it, “If you’re working non-union, there’s really no oversight”, and in some cases, the rulebook is thrown out the window. As in any creative industry, opportunity can outweigh compensation if it means another credit on your resume, or a shot at appearing in a desirable game or role. While $250 is the industry standard for non-union jobs, some actors will participate in a “race to the bottom” just to make sure they secure the role they want. According to our source, some studios are unwilling to meet that $250 benchmark, which leads to difficult decisions for voice actors.
“Six hours at $100 an hour is $600… Everyone wants $600 for doing what they love, right? But then it becomes easier and easier to take advantage of people who really want in… Because there are so many people who really want to do this. So it’s a slippery slope. People who want these roles, if you do it for less than the industry standard it’s going to end up hurting everyone. It’s not healthy for the environment if you are kowtowing to people just to say, ‘I really, really want to be in this, I’ll do it for whatever’, that hurts everyone. It’s just not a good idea to do it… but people are still gonna do it. Because they really want to be in games… but it sucks and it hurts everyone, and I wish people would understand that.”
This “race to the bottom” when negotiating non-union jobs is especially prevalent in the indie game space. We spoke to Eliana Zebro, who has experience as a voice director working on indie games. They told IGN they are consistent advocates of wage increases for voice actors working on indie games, and shared with us some of the low rates these voice actors just starting out will accept to get their foot in the door.
“So many indie projects especially have low, low VA rates — mere dollars per final line delivered, or worse, a flat rate for an entire project that means well under a dollar per line,” Zebro said. “Two dollars per line in the indie space is incredibly common. Some projects pay even lower rates, or a low flat rate for tens or hundreds of lines. And some indie projects are completely unpaid, and sometimes that’s even if the final product will cost money!”
In union jobs, actors get paid per session, which doesn’t necessarily count the time spent preparing for the role ahead of time, by either practicing the voice or reading over the lines. As a voice director, Zebro said they expected actors to come into the session with some prep work already completed before hitting record.
“The workload on a video game for a VA greatly varies based on the scope of the game, how big the VA’s character’s role is, if the game has full or partial voice acting, and many other factors. As for prep, as a voice director, I do expect the VA to have at least looked at the script — if not practiced lines as well — before our recording session.”
A ‘Desperate Attempt to Get Character Credits’
In many cases, an actor wants to take a role not for the paycheck, but for the valuable experience it will net them in the long run. Zebro told us that getting specific, named characters can go a long way in landing gigs in bigger titles. This can cause an actor to sign on to a project for less than what they’re worth, just to get that credit in their portfolio.
“In my observation, the biggest aspect of VA that I’ve seen is a desperate attempt to get character credits,” Zebro said. “Have characters, besides unnamed characters — Soldier A, Townsperson, roles of that ilk — and fandub characters, that a VA can point to and say, ‘I voiced that.’ And the process of getting those credits involves auditioning for even badly paid projects, because even if it pays poorly, a VA can still add that character credit to their resume… Most VAs want — need — character credits to advance in their career, and they have been exploited by folks wishing to take advantage of that fact.”
Low pay for projects means many voice actors don’t make enough to get by on these gigs alone. Zebro said many voice actors they know have a second source of income unrelated to the video game industry to make ends meet.
On the other end of the spectrum, many of the most popular and high-profile voice actors without a second job rely on conventions for income. Appearing at comic-cons, streaming on Twitch, or otherwise promoting their own personal brand can be a huge chunk of a voice actor’s income that can in some cases outperform what they may make for the voice work itself. For many voice actors Zebro knows, it seems that becoming famous enough to get invited to conventions is the goal not just because of the fame, but because of the essential revenue stream.
The sustainability of an industry can come into question when high-end voice talent has to rely on profiting off of their own brand to make a comfortable living. And now, the industry is looking forward, as the current SAG-AFTRA union contract is set to expire in two weeks. According to Stephen Totilo of Axios, there are currently ongoing negotiations that could result in a new contract, or an extension of the current deal. Whether it makes any meaningful changes to voice actors’ pay remains to be seen.
Looking at the top of the industry, there aren’t many publicized examples of how much a voice actor gets paid for playing the lead role in a AAA game. One notable instance dates all the way back to 2008, where Michael Hollick — who voiced Grand Theft Auto IV protagonist Niko Bellic — spoke out against Rockstar Games over his compensation. Bellic was apparently paid around $100,000 over the course of 15 months, with no residuals. At the time, Hollick said, “But it’s tough, when you see Grand Theft Auto IV out there as the biggest thing going right now, when they’re making hundreds of millions of dollars, and we don’t see any of it.”
Years later, on an episode of the Play, Watch, Listen podcast, popular voice actor Troy Baker voiced his opinion on Hollick’s problems with Rockstar. Baker implied that $100,000 is a significant amount of money for a single role, and shared some issues with the call for residuals. While Baker said there should be some form of residuals for voice actors, the actor argued that it could work for actors working with top developers that ship financially lucrative games like Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, or Red Dead, but the system would fail for studios that aren’t guaranteed that same financial success.
“What would end up happening is [smaller developers] would scope their game, and they would hire less actors, so less people would work, so it actually goes against what people actually wanted to do,” Baker said.
On the same podcast, video game composer Austin Wintory argued that mandated residuals could also lead to legal departments requiring studios to only hire non-union actors to sidestep the requirement. They argued that with so many studios struggling to profit or break even on their games, making residuals was a tough and unlikely task.
But the bottom line is that right now, voice actor pay is widely different across the board, depending on if it’s a union job or not, or if it’s in the indie scene or on a AAA project. And, despite the constantly shifting narrative of the Bayonetta 3 controversy, the people we spoke to seemed grateful that this conversation is a byproduct of this past week’s industry drama. As Zebro put it, “there is so much more work to do in getting voice actors paid their worth.”
Logan Plant is a freelance writer at IGN