Why Do So Many Video Games Have Such Bad Voice Acting?

by Kevin Delaney

A friend sent me this YouTube video — “The 50 Worst Moments in Video Game Voice Acting”:

Is this supposed to be funny? Watching the clips, I felt gripped with terror that at any moment I’d be hearing one of my own performances.

Mercifully, I didn’t make the cut. But it got me thinking about a question I’m often asked. It’s not the nicest thing to say to a voice actor, particularly one who does video game VO frequently. But it’s a legitimate question, and it deserves an answer: Why do so many games feature less-than-stellar voice acting?
First off, I’m not sure that so many games have inferior VO. Lots of games are praised for their excellent voices — sometimes even when the game overall isn’t.

But the industry is vast, and hundreds of titles are produced every year. A significant number have acting that most fans would agree is sub-par.

I can tell you why in a word: Budget.

When game developers don’t have much to pay for sound design, VO performances usually suffer.

Big companies tend to have the beefiest budgets, and therefore the best audio. Music, sound effects — it’s easy for these to be superior when there’s no trouble paying for them.

Smaller outfits lack monetary oomph. Limited funds means fewer options. When you have little money to pay people, it’s a challenge to attract top talent.

This is true not only for actors, but also for directors. A stellar voice cast needs guidance. It’s hard to be believable if you don’t understand the context of a scene, or if the meaning of what you’re saying isn’t clear to you.

Sometimes merely having a director is a luxury. I’ve done sessions where the only other person in the studio was the engineer. If I had questions about the script or my character, I was entirely on my own.

Video game sessions tend to be about recording lines; actors are recorded individually, with each bit of dialogue performed as a separate take. For leading characters with hundreds of lines, this means many hours in the studio.

I once worked on a game where we began by doing three takes of each line. Later the producer said this was taking too long, and reduced it to two takes per line. Eventually we were in such a rush to finish, I did just one take of each line.

When cash is tight, you’re ruled by the clock.

As the video game industry has grown, the caliber of the voice work has steadily improved. When I started doing VO in the mid-90’s, hearing dialogue coming from a game was a novelty. One company I did voice work for had only recently started to use real actors — before then, the programmers and game designers themselves voiced the characters.

Today’s gamers demand more — and should!

Do your part to help stamp out lousy video game VO: check out my online teleclass, Voice Acting for Video Games. We’ll cover all aspects of creating exciting vocal performances — best of all, you can attend no matter where you are!

Click here for complete info

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Xe Sands August 2, 2010 at 11:19 am

HI Kevin!

Found you via Bob Souer’s blog – thanks for the article. As a video game voice talent still trying to establish myself (while living far away from LA), it does frustrate me quite a bit to hear audio for games that is pretty flat. When I record voice over for games, I give it everything I’ve got, even though the pay isn’t even close to what those recording for major releases are pulling in – as I should. Regardless of the rate paid, the director deserves everything I’ve got, and I’m thankful for his/her faith in my ability to deliver. My frustration comes in when I hear less than stellar performances and realize that many of us located outside the LA area could perhaps do better, if given the chance.

So my thought is this: why not widen the net? Yes, it’s easy pickins’ in the major voice over locales (NY, LA), but there are so many talented voices that are far flung and recording in home or local studios. Perhaps casting directors should take a broader look? Might come up with some fresh talent who are more amenable to a modest budget because they are still getting a toehold in the industry (but who aren’t working for sub-standard wages and undercutting other talent – NOT what I’m advocating). Because as you astutely pointed out, gamers demand more these days, and deserve it.

Thanks again!
Xe Sands

sonicmega August 2, 2010 at 2:31 pm

Or, failing that, they just hire their own family members.


David Beach August 2, 2010 at 2:32 pm

HAHAHAHA… those are absolutely wretched.. and sadly not the least bit uncommon…

Scott "Scooter" Fortney August 3, 2010 at 4:38 am

At first I thought this was a joke. Can it really get this bad? Some of them even sounded like they had speech impediments.

One company that I’ve been working with for a couple of years originally just provided the lines for our characters. All of the voice actors got together, and contacted the director to explain why we need to see the other characters’ lines. There was no way that we were going to end up in the top-50 of this video! Haha!

Sadie Medley August 3, 2010 at 8:33 am

Love all these points Kev. Video games gigs are super challenging—emotion times a bajillion! After all, how many of us have experienced being thrown on the back of a giant gorilla and run off with? And yet it’s our job to make it real. This is exactly the direction I was given in my game session last week, where I was very lucky to have 3 folks from Nintendo keeping me on track. We are, after all, not just voices, but actors! Thanks for painting the realities of a tricky (but awesomely fun) part of our world. 🙂

Andy C August 14, 2010 at 7:34 am

The lousy VO in so many of these games continues to startle me – Yet the “budget” question is even scarier.. I’ve seen and auditioned for XBox games on the “Pray-To-Play” websites that have done an amazing job of destroying quality in the VO industry – And I get rejected for even the most trivial of budgets… Yes – I’ve even been asked to work for LESS than I’d get at Maccas flipping burgers to do character VO work… (and politely declined). So.. Maybe budget is part of the question..

Even the Indian Outsourcing havens like eLance will get you a crud VO for a fiver these days… It seems that $100 for a presentation VO fully mastered is “way over the top” or so I was told!! But these people scalping for VO can spend more.. They just don’t understand why they need to…

So.. Where does that leave the industry? If producers can get away with turning out such complete and unadulterated faeceal matter – calling it “character voice acting” and have their clients sign off on it.. Then maybe we should all quit at VO and start game writing companies ?

Personally, I think a company that’s turning out such trash isn’t cash-constrained, or time constrained – they’re just flamin lazy.. I’m sure the drinks at the launch party cost a LOT more than the VO work for the whole production… So budget just doesn’t cut it and they can get 100 decent character voice actors in an hour with a google search or hit Voices.com / Bodalgo etc and get swamped with 1000 auditions in 10 seconds.

I suspect there’s an issue with the way the industry is VALUED these days… Given that our services seem to have been commoditised online like buying batteries or a toy on eBay… where is it going to go?

I just hope there’s a revival in quality VO work – with some real leaders standing up and suggesting that the industry should be treated as a creative artform – not a chore that can be done by anyone, anywhere… (Like the corporate video that was voiced by the mail-room guy… we’ve all seen them!)..

Rant over..
Andy C

David D August 29, 2010 at 5:51 pm

Preach it, Kevin! It makes me so mad… Telltale is too cheap to hire Bill Farmer and Nick Jameson for their Sam and Max games… Lucasarts owns the rights to both of the Farmer-and-Jameson voiced games, but they refuse to sell either of them, much less allow the second one to actually be finished. Not fair.

After The City That Dares Not Sleep is released, we should HOUND Telltale and demand a high-quality redub. I have no idea who David Nowlin and William Kasten are, and I don’t know why people would prefer them over the original.

Nice job with the Bill Farmer interview, Kev! Do one for Nick Jameson next! 😉

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