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Rewarding Work: Actors, Video Games and Pay

by Pascal Langlois on 06/15/10 02:27:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


The video game industry is increasingly using a wider range of creative talents from other industries.  Actors are now adding Video Games to their body of work; their services are coming into greater demand as Video Game Developers seek to match improved graphics with improved writing and improved drama that gamers are demanding from big and small titles alike.  “Getting away” with poor voice acting, amateur scripts and ill-conceived narratives is less of an an option as gamers become ever more discriminating, and the market becomes defined by qualities that rely on so much more than graphics alone.

I have often heard the complaint that actors see the games industry as a “cash-cow” and are only interested in delivering the bare minimum of effort required.  In turn, I have also heard actors complain that the Video Game contracts treat them as little more than mannequins.

Lets have a look at the push and pull of values and rewards that is resulting in the moans I hear coming from both sides, by breaking it down a bit.


  1. Actors may provide, body, face, voice performances, or any one of those alone. If you’re using an actor then you’ve already worked out that a professional can be more versatile, work quicker, and give better performances than even the most passionate amateur.
  2. Directors differ in how they communicate their needs to an actor, and as long you’re both hoping to tell a narrative in the best way possible, then it simply comes down to an act of translation;  translating a directors note into a performance.  Sometimes you’re lucky and you find you’re speaking the same ‘language’ - on the same wavelength.  Other times, an actor will use all their resources and professional experience to translate direction that is the equivalent of, and as obscure as, a rare dialect of Inuit.
  3. A professional actor has the required experience and training to solve many of the challenges that surface throughout a production, and ensure a consistent and unique performance.  This is what you hope for when you employ a professional.
  4. The more famous actors also bring something else: Profile. If you have a famous actor in your game, there are more column-inches to be gained from their presence, raising your game's profile, and its sales, in a highly competitive market. If they are respected for their performances in film and theatre, their presence confers a trust in the quality of your game, too.


Pay comes down to a simple question of how much you value, and how much you reward, the talents that create your game.  Although my concern here is of actors, the same argument could also be used for musicians or artists. Even permanent employees.

Film and TV Pay Structures

It comes down to the 3 ways that artists are currently paid.

  1. A “buyout”: a daily fee is established and then a percentage of the fee is added as a lump sum, based on the expected exposure and use of the performance.
  2. Daily fee plus “residuals”: A daily fee is established, and then a percentage of that fee is paid each time it is shown, over time.
  3. Fee + Share of profit: a daily fee - often relatively low, is agreed upon on the basis that if the film/theatre piece is a commercial success, then the actor gets rewarded for his or her part in it.

These all have their merits and their detractions, but one thing is common between all of them: the belief that the performance has value beyond the first airing.  This is not just an aesthetic truth, but financial one too.  Once out there, hundreds of people profit directly or indirectly from the work, and the producers collect on this by selling the rights to show it.  The more successful it is, the more money can be made from it over a period of years, and in a large variety of ways. It is only fair then, that the people who made that possible are likewise rewarded.

Video Game Pay Structures

Most actors (not high profile actors with strong negotiating positions) are on a buyout structure or a daily fee.  This is based on what’s being demanded of the actor, voice, mocap, facial capture or performance capture.  However, when it comes to the use of an actor’s performance, the rules suddenly change.  Contracts are negotiated on “Image Rights”.  That is to say that once captured, the data is bought outright, like a digital photo, and the actor has no further attachment to it.

Different industries... different pay, right?

Transferring the TV/Film pay structures to video game contracts, means taking into account the millions of sales a successful AAA can achieve, resulting in a higher quote.  These quotes can seem outlandish to a video game developer's casting department, but it is simply because it is a quote from another industry.

The video game industry is a broad church and a young church at that making a stable format for generating future revenue streams is hard to define. Some video games can have a short shelf-life, whose only further revenue might be the film rights whilst others may profit from online advertising. Some games are small start-ups with no budget and big ideas, whilst others have budgets larger than most movies, and can reap huge rewards, or fail. Therefore a one-size fits all approach will not work.

The Percentage of Profit incentive

We’ve all heard of games that are deep into their budget, with a vast amount of work still to be done, and a release date demanded by the publisher that is based on a harsh market reality rather than the developer's reality. Pushing your staff, your actors, your artists to work twice as hard, with little or no overtime on the table can seem like the only option.  There are many team-building ways to keep up company morale, and generally speaking, people want their production to succeed.  One tried and tested way is to offer a back-end incentive such as percentage of profit, or residuals. The more people that see your performance, the more you are rewarded.

This situation is not dissimilar to one faced by many a lower budget film, and even some bigger budget ones.  Keanu Reeves and Brad Pitt have been known to take pay cuts to ensure the completion of a production. I’ve been involved in low budget movies, where everyone involved has pulled outrageous hours on no extra pay, because they believed in the film.  We also knew that the producers were happy to reward us for our belief, our extra work, and our shared hope for their film. On an external location at 3am in the chill of autumn, doing reshoots in summer clothes, the knowledge that what you're providing is valued goes a long, long way.

Where were we? Cash Cows and Mannequins..

So why is it that when it comes to video games we talk of cash cows and mannequins?

I believe the answer is more cultural than purely financial.  It comes down to respect. A good contract is not just an accord over pay and obligations, but a statement of respect for both parties, regardless of the sums discussed inside it.

Film contracts are negotiable, and there are a variety of contracts to suit the needs of different productions, but they are founded on the idea that a performance has a right to be rewarded. If nothing else, developers would do well to consider this as the foundation of a fairly successful system in the valuation of actors and their skills.

A fair deal based on the future success of a game would go some way to democratise access to highly skilled actors, musicians and artists, for developers on smaller budgets.  Johnny Two Shoes worked out a deal similar to this with the musician that worked on their latest game “Plunderland”.  What’s strange is that such an arrangement is still considered unusual in negotiating video game contracts.

It is high time that the video games industry put a greater emphasis on creating fair revenue agreements for everyone involved in a game's production. A fair pay agreement means better quality of work, allows for a more flexible budgetary control, and provides an incentive via a shared investment in the success of a production.  As this might make all the difference between success and failure of a project, it seems only logical that it should now be considered an issue of the utmost importance.

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