Video Game Voice Actors: An Introduction for Game Developers

Video Game Voice Actors: An Introduction for Game Developers

You probably know Mark Hamill as the hero Luke Skywalker—but Hamill is also a great portrayer of villains, including the aptly named Evil Guy, who you won’t recognize from the silver screen. That’s because Evil Guy is a character in the 2015 video game Lego Dimensions. Alongside his Star Wars legacy, Hamill is a prolific video game voice actor. He’s been playing Joker in Batman games since 2001, to terrific fan acclaim. In a surprising poll by fan site Behind the Voice Actors, more than 70% of respondents named Joker as their favorite Hamill role; only 6% preferred Skywalker.

Hamill’s just one example of Hollywood’s drift toward video game work. While you might not have the budget to score Keanu Reeves (Cyberpunk 2077) for your studio’s next project, you will need skilled video game voice actors to bring your characters to life. Keep reading to learn the basics of hiring voice talent, from budgeting to incorporating synthetic voices in the design process. Here’s what every developer should know about video game voice actors.

Where To Find Video Game Voice Actors

Major game development studios often cast Hollywood actors for their tentpole titles. For instance, you’ll find Josh Duhamel in Call of Duty, Elijah Wood in Legend of the Spiral, and Kristen Bell in Assassin’s Creed. Then there’s a whole universe of voice actors who aren’t necessarily household names (see the sidebar below for examples). Independent game studios are unlikely to hire established voice stars or the Hollywood elite right out of the gate. Instead, up-and-comers should develop their own bullpen of talent, says voice-over artist and teacher Philip Galinsky, who appeared in Grand Theft Auto Five and trains the next generation of video game voice actors through his online studio.

“Develop your own voice team that sets the bar and the tone for all your productions,” says Galinsky. “Start with a really good small team of voice artists who are committed and understand the vision. Then branch out.”

That’s good advice for the developing game studio, but where do you find your initial core of voice talent? Good news: There’s a process.

Your best bet is to reach out to an established voice agency. Search the internet for “video game voice agency” and you’ll find dozens. Voice agents know the talent, and they have the connections to provide experienced voice actors who are ideal for all sorts of roles. “Agents are really good sounding boards,” Galinsky says. “They know their actors. You can say, ‘Is this guy reliable?’ and the agent’s going to know more than anybody, like, ‘Yeah, I worked with him for 10 years and it’s always been good.’”

Eventually, your studio may benefit from setting up an internal voice department. First, though, it’s best to work with the voice agents who’ve spent years building a vetted network of professional video game voice actors. “You can learn about voice casting that way,” Galinsky says. “Maybe you create a voice department, but learn from experts first.”

Of course, voice agents do charge a fee for their services. This brings us to an important question beginning developers ask: How much should you budget for video game voice acting?

How Much Do Video Game Voice Actors Charge?

Your first decision is whether to go with union actors or independent freelancers. You’ll pay more for members of SAG-AFTRA, the actor’s union that advocates for voice-over artists, but you’ll also eliminate risk; union actors are vetted and experienced in the industry.

“Ultimately, it’s up to the person who’s putting the budget together if they’re going to use union talent,” Galinsky says. “They’ll pay a lot of money for union actors, considering they could find someone off the street to do it for $300. However, you don’t know the quality. That’s the risk of trying to save the money upfront.”

One industry rate card for non-union voice actors recommends a pay rate of $200 to $350 for a standard four-hour recording session (limited to two hours for vocally stressful performances). By contrast, the SAG-AFTRA pay schedule for interactive media places the rate at $929 per four-hour session through most of 2021. That wage climbs to $956.75 between November 14, 2021 and November 7, 2022, and will likely rise by 3% per year from there.

Experienced voice actors, union or independent, may charge more than these base rates. Agents may negotiate for royalties or buyouts. Fees will mount for motion-capture work, of course. In short, paying for video game voice actors is complicated, and must be approached on a case-by-case basis—but the base rates listed above should help you put together a preliminary casting budget.

A Sample Video Game Voice Actors List

Voice acting for video games is a growing industry full of its own bright lights outside the film, stage, and television mainstream. Here are just a few of the stars.

  1. Troy Baker is triple-A royalty, voicing protagonists like Joel in The Last of Us franchise and Booker DeWitt in Bioshock Infinite.
  2. Jennifer Hale portrayed the female version of the Mass Effect trilogy’s hero, Commander Shepard, known fondly to gamers as FemShep.
  3. Dave Fennoy brought a hefty dose of gravitas to Telltale’s Walking Dead series as main character Lee Everett.
  4. Kim Mai Guest voiced the classic character Mei Ling in 1998’s Metal Gear Solid, reprising the role for Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots a decade later.
  5. Nolan North gave the Uncharted franchise’s hero, Nathan Drake, his signature roguishness.
  6. Laura Bailey has major credits in video games from World of Warcraft: Shadowlands to The Last of Us Part II.
  7. Roger Craig Smith is probably best-known to gamers as Ezio Auditore da Firenze, the renaissance assassin from a handful of Assassin’s Creed games.

Synthetic Voices in Video Game Development

Given the cost of skilled voice performances for video games, thrifty developers may be tempted to rely on text to speech (TTS) for character voices. Thanks to advances in machine learning, AI-driven TTS sounds increasingly natural—but it’s not the best choice for most final-cut performances. Human artistry remains the gold standard in narrative art, including interactive media.

That said, every game development studio can benefit from access to high-quality, runtime TTS with ReadSpeaker AI’s game engine plug-ins. These game engine-native TTS solutions expand the creative possibilities in many ways, including:

  • More accessible video games. ReadSpeaker AI began developing TTS for digital accessibility more than 20 years ago, and that mission continues into our work in the game development industry. Introduce user interface (UI) narration to remove barriers for players with vision impairments and other disabilities. Provide an audio stream of in-game chat messages for second-language learners and people with reading disorders. Game engine plug-ins allow you to integrate these crucial accessibility features into your system without cumbersome audio file management.
  • Proof of concept for prototyping and fundraising. Onboard TTS allows you to test your dialog in scenes throughout the development process. That can help raise funds by providing a compelling rough draft to investors. Even better, it allows you to tweak pacing and language as you work, saving time and money when you finally reach the recording studio.
  • Dynamic, responsive non-player characters with conversational AI. Imagine a procedurally generated game world populated by NPCs who can respond meaningfully to anything the player says. This is possible today. Natural language processing technology generates original, relevant dialogue for AI NPCs. Runtime TTS from ReadSpeaker AI allows those characters to speak out loud without perceptible latency.
  • Vocal performances that would strain a human actor. Sometimes you just need an evil, screaming robot. Human voices are fragile, and while you can and should limit recording session length for strenuous performances, some roles may be safer left to a top-quality TTS voice. The human voice is best at what it does, but your game may call for an inhuman voice; TTS could be the solution.

Whether you’re building your game with Unity, Unreal Engine, or another tool, ReadSpeaker AI provides game engine-native TTS with dozens of voices in more than 30 languages—with latency-free synthetic speech that renders in runtime. If you’d like to learn more, contact us for a free demo.

In the meantime, best of luck casting your video game voice actors! (It can’t hurt to check on Mark Hamill’s availability…)

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