Voice actors anchor billion-dollar games but only get paid by the hour.
When Nathan Fillion says you're disposable, it tends to stick with you.
For voice actor Jen Taylor, that moment came when Fillion, star of Firefly and basically geek culture's handsome older brother, dropped by her hometown of Seattle to record a few cameo lines for what would soon become 2007's best-selling video game, Halo 3.
The Halo series may take place on alien worlds, but it's created in an alternate dimension, one in which, for now, Hollywood stars have the bit parts and little-known voice actors are the stars. And in Halo's quadrant of this universe, one of the biggest stars of all is Taylor. Most days she is a charmingly sarcastic stage actor, but a few times a year she creates the voice of Halo's enigmatic digital muse, Cortana.
As one of Cortana's millions of fans, Fillion didn't miss his chance to chat up Taylor, though he left her with a lingering piece of cautionary advice: Don't get comfortable.
The women behind the game
"Nathan Fillion said to me, 'If you don't do one of these games, fans are going to be upset, but they're still going to buy the game,'" Taylor recalls. "There's only so much footing that you have as a voice actor. I don't know if it's because you don't see us physically or what."
To put Halo's success — and Taylor's low public profile — in context, think of it this way: She is the most frequently recurring and plot-central actor in a franchise that has earned well over $3 billion, an amount equal to the combined global box office sales for the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy.
But Fillion is right. She, along with each of her hard-working peers in the competitive world of video game voice acting, is disposable. They have no cultural cachet, no star power to lend. They have become the new generation of entertainment stars, yet they remain largely unknown, uncelebrated and uncompensated for the global success of their work.
And most dangerously, their universe seems to be colliding with another reality: one in which Hollywood A-listers claim all the good seats at the table, leaving even less of what little money there had been to go around.
In an industry where annual sales have doubled over the past decade and blockbuster games are expected to bring in $1 billion each, the top video game voice actors are still paid by the hour for the time they spend in a recording studio, and that's it. No big bonuses. No percentages of sales. None of the "residual" payments that can make other acting gigs, even 30-second TV commercials, so lucrative over time.
"Someone asked me if I get paid residuals," Taylor says. She half-laughs, half-sighs at the question. "I'd never have to work another day in my life."
The best voice talents in the industry are lucky if they can negotiate an hourly fee that's twice the minimum wage guaranteed by their unions. (Voice actors are essentially paid $200 an hour to do up to three video game voices, while a TV commercial voice-acting gig would pay the same actor a minimum of $300 an hour, a bonus of $1,000 or more if the ad airs nationally and online, and offer them additional payments called residuals if the ad keeps running for a long time.)
Meanwhile, more and more game developers are giving the key roles to Hollywood stars for considerably larger sums, eating up budget and parts that could go to professional game actors.
That leaves many wondering if video games could go the way of big-budget animated films, which have sidelined voice and stage actors alike ever since Robin Williams hammed it up as the genie in Disney's 1992 Aladdin. Can you name the actor who voiced Ariel in 1989's The Little Mermaid? Almost surely not. It was soprano Jodi Benson. She's also a video game actor.
The marathon of voice acting
To be fair, dedicated voice actors have always been the underappreciated workhorses of the entertainment industry. From anime and Saturday morning cartoons to cereal commercials and audio books, the voices behind the characters are rarely known outside of the most passionate niche enthusiasts.
But two things make it even more frustrating to be a video game actor. First, pay isn't tied to game success, despite the explosive growth of best-selling games. Second, the work can often be incredibly hard as far as acting goes.
"Video games are the most exhausting, challenging voice-overs you do," says Taylor, who, in addition to her roles in Halo, also starred as beloved zombie slayer Zoey in 2008's hit Left 4 Dead.
"You do them for a very long time, much longer than other voice-overs. You have to be able to stand in a booth for four hours and yell. It is physically challenging. Most of the time, I'm saying things that I don't understand. At a certain point, your brain starts to fry. They are the marathons of the voice acting world."
There are, of course, plenty of positive sides to working on a game. The process is typically less rushed than an animated TV show, and the growing importance of writing in games has created roles that actors often treasure.
Few roles — and few voice acting accomplishments — can compare to Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect series. Gamers who choose to play Shepard as a female are rewarded with more than 100 hours of stellar, nuanced acting by Jennifer Hale.
Hale is an icon in the industry and one of its few publicly acknowledged stars. If you've played a video game since the mid-1990s, you've heard Hale's voice. Her IMDb profile features more than 250 acting credits, which is 100 more than the prolific Michael Caine (and she's half his age).
While Hale has worked commercials, movies and TV shows, she found her sweet spot in video games. Like many of the industry's best actors, she doesn't play games herself, but she became a big fan of the craft as it evolved to become more story-driven.
"Video games are brilliant," Hale says. "The great thing about them is that they can go on and on in terms of the sheer volume of it, so you can get deeper and deeper into that character as you go. When you're doing a video game session, it's a one-person show for four hours with a couple of pee breaks."
For the Mass Effect series, Hale gave the protagonist a voice that was hardened but thoughtful, exhausted by the weight of events but always mustering the energy to save the galaxy one last time. With few cues beyond snippets of dialogue placed in front of her without order or context, Hale managed to create a consistent demeanor in three massive games spread across five years.
Thanks largely to her portrayal of Commander Shepard (known lovingly by fans as FemShep), Hale has become one of the few voice actors that gamers are beginning to know by name.
Prior to the release of 2012's Mass Effect 3, vocal FemShep fans demanded she be included in the game's marketing trailers, which featured the male version of Shepherd throughout months of promotion. Finally, less than a month before the game's release, Mass Effect studio BioWare released a trailer with Hale voicing the commander. Overjoyed fans on Twitter quickly began celebrating the trailer's Feb. 10 release as #FemShepFriday.
"People's connection to games is fierce, it's intense, it's committed," Hale says. "That's something that really impresses me. It was really cool to have people say, 'You, over there, your work means something to me.'"
The name on the game
"With very few exceptions, allocating a major portion of a budget to a big name is a magnificently terrible waste of money," Blum says. "A name on a game is something executives use to impress each other, and I find it difficult to believe that those huge dollars can ever be recouped or even justified.
"I recently walked off a game because they expected me to record over 20 vocally stressful characters in one session for scale because they had blown their budget on a few 'A-listers.'"
In the world of independent film, casting even a single Hollywood star can turn a smart and scrappy movie into profitable fodder for the festival circuit. But similar to their work in TV commercials, celebrities often insist their roles in video games be downplayed or even absent from any marketing.
So what value does it bring a video game to feature a Martin Sheen or Channing Tatum? At best, some voice actors believe, it gives games a tangential PR boost.
"You can't deny the fact that if you get a big star on your video game, there's the hope that you're basically getting the late night talk show interview," says Kari Wahlgren, an actor with dozens of video game voice credits, including Final Fantasy 12's Princess Ashe and Batman: Arkham City's Vicki Vale. "Is Celebrity A really better than Voice Actor A? No. But Celebrity A may go on Jimmy Kimmel and pimp your game."
Some gaming insiders are just as dubious as voice actors about the supposed benefits of hiring A-list celebrities.
"I don't really know why people hire celebrities for games," says Brandon Sheffield, former editor-in-chief of Game Developer magazine and contributor to Gamasutra. "They don't do a better job or even an equally good job to voice actors, because voice actors are professionals, and that's what they do for a living."
Pay for play
The debate over celebrity casting in video games is really just one small piece of a much larger argument: Are voice actors being fairly compensated?
Until the mid-2000s, it might have seemed silly to argue that video game voice actors should be paid on par with Hollywood film stars. Total sales of video games, consoles and accessories hovered around $11 billion every year from 2001 to 2005. Meanwhile, Hollywood was bringing in around $30 billion a year domestically through box office and DVD sales, with the total jumping to more than $100 billion internationally.
But the next generation of consoles changed everything. The Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii elevated consoles from bedroom babysitters to the DVD-playing, video-streaming entertainment hubs nestled under the TV in America's living rooms. By 2012, according to Nielsen, 56% of U.S. homes had a modern game console.
By 2012, with multiple games (and very few movies) in the billion-dollar club, it seemed like a common-sense question to ask why video game actors weren't buying up Hollywood mansions and having their secret cellulite gossiped about on tabloid covers. If vaudeville gave way to radio, then silent movies, then talkies ... why weren't video game stars the new celebrities?
Part of the answer, of course, is that video games have simply not been as profitable as their growth would imply. Bigger games require bigger staffs, bigger marketing budgets and bigger tech. Many studios have buckled under the weight of the industry's girth, and when hundreds of developers find themselves suddenly without jobs, it can be tough to propose paying even more to actors who only drop in for a few days or weeks.
Through all this, the voice actors have been stuck awkwardly on the sidelines. They watch, unrewarded, as some of their games become incredibly lucrative franchises. But they also take as many jobs as possible to keep the bills paid in an industry that just can't seem to make itself profitable overall.
Video game voice actors typically don't dwell on the state of the video game industry, partly because they work in several industries (anime, commercials, TV shows, etc.) and partly because they're simply detached from the video games themselves.
As often as they can, voice actors work multiple recording gigs a day. Long workdays and the usual adult responsibilities keep many of them from sitting down with any game, much less all the ones they work on. Nolan North, for example, has said that most of his exposure to Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception was when he got to watch his kids playing it.
Many of the actors just aren't gamers, though they're quick to say how much they admire the craft.
Jennifer Hale is an earthy mom who wasn’t even allowed to watch cartoons as a kid. These days, she has little interaction with the finished products of the games and animated shows she helps create, other than the responses she hears from fans on Twitter or at the occasional convention
She loves working with game writers and producers, calling herself "just the ink that comes out of the pen," though she and many other actors admit they often have trouble understanding exactly what they're creating. The oddities of the recording process make it hard for an actor to feel truly embedded in a game's lifecycle. Voice actors aren't given full game scripts in any kind of order; they're given small snippets of dialogue and situational cues, seemingly at random. And with multiple dialogue options becoming the norm, the recording process can make it truly baffling for an actor trying to understand how the final story comes together.
"My boyfriend will sometimes mention it to a friend, who will stop and stare at me and get a bit giggly, but that's about it."
"Doing a video game," Hale says, "is like this: Take a film script and cut it into strips, throw it in the air, put the actor in a room, hand the actor those strips and say, 'Read this.'"
For Halo's Jen Taylor, the detachment from video games has a lot to do with where she lives and those she surrounds herself with. One of the only well-known video game actors not working in Los Angeles, Taylor's days are most often spent with her fellow Seattle stage actors.
"It's not been my experience that I get a lot of attention for my games," Taylor says. "My friends are theater actors, so it doesn't mean anything to them.
"My boyfriend will sometimes mention it to a friend, who will stop and stare at me and get a bit giggly, but that's about it."
Anyone and everyone
One of the few game stars who actually seems immersed in the gaming scene is Troy Baker, who can speak with almost laser precision to each of his roles and their relative importance within the games' storylines.
And these days, Baker has a lot of roles to talk about.
In the first half of 2013 alone, he'll voice leading roles in BioShock Infinite, which he expects to sell 10 million copies, and the critically anticipated post-apocalyptic tale The Last of Us.
Landing dozens of game roles each year, Baker has become one of the top rising stars in the industry. But thanks to his understanding of how the game industry works (or often doesn't), he is against the idea of a video game voice actor earning a seven-figure fee. He fears it would rob a game's development of much-needed investments in technology and talent.
"They've got a finite budget," Baker says of game studios. "Let's say they have $50 million. They can spend money on the tech, or on the environments. They can add textural elements like music, dialogue, scriptwriters. If they put $3 million of it toward an actor, that's $3 million away from level design. $3 million away from tech, $3 million away from music and dialogue."
A better solution, Baker believes (along with most of the industry's top voice actors) is a contract that rewards voice actors based on the overall sales of each game.
"What I would love is to get to a point where I negotiate my own deals. It's not about what the union or my agent does. For me to be able to come in and say, 'Next Call of Duty game, give me a quarter of 1 percent for the gross of first week sales.' Based on the last one, that would have been over a million dollars."
It's a lofty goal, one that few actors seem confident will come about. It would require a tectonic shift across the entire industry, otherwise actors would have no leverage for a better fee.
Jen Taylor, sounding almost exactly like Nathan Fillion when he first spoke to her on the set of Halo 3, says she doubts even a gaming star like Jennifer Hale has the leverage to demand a slice of a game's long-term sales.
"If Jennifer Hale becomes a big enough star to say, 'I won't do this video game unless you give me a small percentage,' they're just going to call someone else."
A core problem for voice actors is that, unlike Hollywood A-listers, they're cast for their ability to become anyone and everyone. Even voice actors with starring roles are likely to play several other parts in the same game.
"With some of the really good voice actors, the problem is that they're so good at what they do, they just disappear into a lot of roles," Kari Wahlgren says. "I take that as a huge compliment. The better someone knows me, the more of a compliment it is when someone says, 'I had no idea that was you.'"
Many video game voice actors seem resigned to a life of relative obscurity, despite the global success of their work. In fact, many say they treasure their anonymity and admit it can be awkward to attend large events where they might be recognized, like DragonCon or PAX.
"Celebrity isn't why I'm in this game and never really has been. I love what I do. I loved it before I could make a living at it. I love and respect the people I work with, and I get to do something different every day"
But thanks to the vocal fan support at such events and online — especially on Twitter, where voice actors have large and loyal followings — video game actors are gradually coming out of their shells. The trend isn't accidental. Publicists and marketers are increasingly seeing the value of promoting voice actors in the lead-up to a game launch.
"Within the next year and a half to two years, there will be something that tips over and brings some of these voice-over people a lot more celebrity," Wahlgren predicts. "The fan base is so passionate and so loyal. The numbers don't lie. The money is coming in. It's not like these little niche projects anymore."
While voice actors continue to disagree on whether they'll ever become as celebrated as the games they help create, there's one area where they all agree: They love their job. It's fun, it's flexible, it pays well enough to live a life of comfort and it has rewards that go far beyond a paycheck.
"Celebrity isn't why I'm in this game and never really has been. I love what I do. I loved it before I could make a living at it. I love and respect the people I work with, and I get to do something different every day," says Steve Blum.
"My greatest 'net' comes from the stories I hear from the fans — how animated shows and games got them through hard times. How an anime character somehow flipped a switch in the brain of a non-verbal autistic child and caused him to begin to meaningfully interact with his family for the first time. How playing a game kept a soldier sane in the most dangerous and remote regions of Afghanistan.
"I get all the attention I need and then some. The money is good, but could be a lot better. Until then, gratitude fills me."