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  • Writer's pictureBrian Schmidt

Game Audio Industry Survey 2016

Updated: Jul 29, 2020

The Game Audio Industry Survey tracks compensation, working conditions, contact terms and production information for the video game music and sound industry. Originally designed to provide a more detailed look into the industry than Gamasutra’s annual salary survey, the Game Audio Industry Survey has grown into the most comprehensive analysis of game audio business and production issues. The goals of the survey are to collect information which:

  • Reflects both the freelancer and employee aspects of our industry

  • Covers the range of games produced, from AAA to Indy.

  • Is relevant to the industry

The 2016 survey ran from May 15 to June 30, 2016 and was promoted via social media and other game or music industry web sites. We received 587 responses. In addition to compensation numbers, we wanted to see what some of the business terms and creative issues were current in game music and sound design. This year, we provided greater breakdown for professional status, with 4% reporting they were “hobbyist or aspirational.” These results have been excluded from the calculation of median and mean compensation, except where as noted.

New for 2016 are questions covering

  • Income Breakdown by Gender

  • Total Compensation for Freelancers

  • Correlation with experience/years in the industry

  • Use of Union musicians and voice actors

A Difficult to Define Industry:

Because the game industry (and therefor game audio) is such a wide and diverse business, we broke things down into three main categories:

  • Large Budget Games. These are your typical console or well-funded PC titles. These games are available at retail, and also may be downloadable. Think "HALO"

  • Professionally produced casual games. These are smaller scale; smaller budget games than the “AAA” large budget games, but nonetheless are professionally developed, produced and marketed. Think "Plants vs Zombies"

  • Indie games. These are smaller scale games, which are often self-financed or financed through non-traditional means such as kickstarter.

Of course it is impossible to draw a sharp line between the three categories outlined above. Nevertheless, we believe it serves as a useful distinction so that we’re not comparing the compensation from a blockbuster like Call of Duty with that of a part-time, 2-person dev company making an iPhone game in their basement.


Format of Survey Reporting

1/ Compensation

2/ Work and Environment

3/ Contract Terms

4/ Use of Live Musicians & Middleware

5/ Education


1/ Compensation:

Game Audio is a highly diverse field, and as a result has a lot of variation in compensation. Although it is convenient to talk about “average” game audio compensation (and we will report that as the “mean”)[1], the median and compensation distribution may be more meaningful, which we present in graphic histogram form. Note that all compensation numbers are guaranteed compensation, do not include any kind of bonuses, royalties, stock awards, etc, which are reported on separately.

In order to maximize participation in other areas of the survey, the question on compensation, which some are hesitant to report in a survey, was optional. 106 of the 587 respondents (18%) declined to answer the question on compensation.

To calculate compensation, we broke respondents into three categories:

  • Salaried Employees companies

  • Freelancers

  • Salaried employees who do freelance work on the side

We further broke freelancer Work for Hire projects into:

  • Large-budget Game Work for Hire

  • Casual/Indie Work for Hire

Respondents who listed compensation numbers of 0 were filtered out of all compensation charts, as were entries we determined to be obviously anomalous. For compensation questions, those who reported they were “hobbyists or aspirational” were also filtered out.

For salaried employees, we report the annual salary, not including bonuses or other compensation (health plan, retirement, stock purchase/options, etc.)

For freelance/contractors, in addition to total annual income from games, we asked respondents to give us what their compensation is on a per-project basis, not including any potential or realized bonuses/royalties, etc.

All compensation information is in U.S. Dollars. Note that not all numbers add to 100% due to rounding and because some apparently anomalous respondent data was filtered out.

[1] “Mean” is the average: the sum of all numbers divided by the number of entries. “Median” is the ‘middle number’. There are as many salaries higher than the median as there are lower. The mean can be skewed by a small number of very high or very low values.

Annual Income: Salaried Employees (non-freelancer):

Average (Mean) Yearly Salary: $71,838

Median Yearly Salary: $64,434

Average (Mean) Years in Industry: 8.6

Median Years in Industry: 10

Salaries again in 2016 have two main peaks, one at around 60,000, and one around 150,000. Higher salaries tended to be correlated with descriptions such as “management” or “Audio Director.”

Annual Income vs Experience for Salaried Employees

As expected, those working in the industry longer generally receive a higher total income, with the highest salaries (> $150,000) going to those with at least 8-12 years experience in the industry.

Salaried Employees with Freelance Income on the side

Almost 25% of Salaried employees reported earning additional freelance income on the side

Average “On the side” income: $9,430

Median “On the side” income: $4,309

Note that “On the side” income is NOT included in the graphs above

Annual Income: Freelancers:

Average Yearly Salary: $42,117 (58,291 > 50%)

Median Yearly Salary: $9000 (20,000 > 50%)

Average Years in Industry: 7.25

Median Years in Industry: 5

Freelancers reported a lower average and median annual income than salaried employees. However, the very highest salaries were obtained by freelancers.

Average annual income from a game audio freelancer was $42,117; $58,291 when excluding people who made more than half their income from non-audio activities (“day job”).

Game Music Freelance Income

Annual Income vs Experience for Freelancers

As with salaried employees, freelancers working in the industry longer generally receive a higher total income. However the range of income varies much more than for salaried employees. The highest annual incomes were reported by freelancers.


Salaried Employees by Gender

The average and median salaries reported overall different by gender significantly. For salaried game audio professionals, average salaries for women were 73% that of mens' salaries; the median was 69% that of mens'. It should be noted, however that the average and median number of years in the industry also differed. As noted earlier, there is a clear correlation between compensation and number of years in the industry. It should also be noted that women represented approximately 10% of those reporting; the smaller sampling of women's salaries may cause less accurate results. However, those issues notwithstanding, these results prompted us to look into the data more deeply, which will be presented in a followup posting.

Salaries (Employees of Companies) for Game Audio by Gender


Compensation: Freelance “Per Project” fee

Per project fees varied tremendously, from a low of zero, to a high of over 250,000. Large budget games of course dominate at the higher end, with Indie games clustered toward the low end. However, there are significant number of Indie games (self-funded, kickstarter, etc.) with per project fees rivaling those of Professionally Produced small scale/casual games.

Freelance Per Project Fee (USD) by game type


Compensation: “Per Minute” rates for Composers:

62% of respondents who provided income information also provided their “most typical” per-minute rate for music. Many of the respondents said they did not charge or calculate on a ‘per minute’ basis, or declined to provide their rate.

As seen below, “per minute” music composition rates by freelancers varied with the scope of the game developed:


2/ Work and Environment

Game Audio professionals are evenly split between freelancers and employees

41% replied that they were pure freelancers. However, 16% of those who worked as employees (either at a game company or an audio production house) reported earning additional freelance income on the side.

3/4 of game composers also do sound design

The chart below shows what percentage of people who compose also provide other services for games.

Integration & Programming by Composers

47% of composers also did either integration work or some programming or both.

15% of composers also provided scripting or programming work

30% of composers also filled the role of “Audio Director”

At least some “Integration” is done by 1 in 2 composers

47% of composers also reported using game audio Middleware; 40% reported doing Game Engine integration (Unity, UE4, etc.)

Game Audio professionals are predominantly male

10.4% of all respondents were female (up from 3.5% in 2014)

34% of game audio professionals are currently working on a Virtual Reality Title

Platforms include, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Playstation VR, Gear VR, Hololens and others


2a/ Work: Getting Gigs

Like many other music/sound jobs, networking and referrals is one the largest ways game composers and sound designers found either their job with their employer or their last freelance gig. 17% obtained their job or most recent freelance gig through a job posting. 47% were recruited or referred.

Referrals and previous contacts remain significant ways to find new work. Important for freelancers, networking (via conferences, local events, and on social media) were frequently listed as the way they got their last contract or position.

3/ Contract Terms

“Per unit royalties” are uncommon for the big titles

7% of composers of large-budget games reported receiving payment based on unit sales. For professionally produced casual, it increases to 10%, for Indie games it increases to 28%

Soundtrack clauses are becoming more common, though still relatively low

18% of large-budget composers reported being eligible to receive some share of game soundtrack sales (from 5% in 2015). For indie games, this number is 27%. Professionally produced casual games report only 8% of composers eligible for revenue from soundtrack sales.

Sales Milestone Bonuses

Sales milestone bonuses are fixed payments paid when game sales exceed a certain amount; the may be tiered.

  • 5% of large budget games have bonuses for sales milestones

  • 11% of professionally produced small games have sales milestone bonuses

  • 14% of indie composers receive sales milestones bonuses

“Work for Hire” for Freelancers**

AAA Games Require “Work for Hire”

97% of music for large-budget, freelance games is created under Work for Hire. Only 3% worked as a freelancer and licensed their music to large-budget games.

Professional Casual “Work for Hire”

85% of freelance composers reported music for professionally produced non-AAA games was composed under Work for Hire.

Indie “Work for Hire”

Freelance composers for “Indie” games reported 45% of music was done under a Work for Hire agreement, while 55% reported licensing their music to the Indie developer.

**(Note that salaried employees who compose music or otherwise create content are, by definition, working under "Work for Hire", so their numbers are NOT included above)

Large budget games more likely to register music with a PRO than smaller games

  • For large budget games, 35% of music was registered with a PRO.

  • For Professionally Produced casual games, 23% of music was registered with a PRO.

  • For Indie games, 28% of music was registered with a PRO.

Note that any game music may registered with the PRO, if the publisher (typically the game developer or publisher) so desires.


4/ Music Recording & Use of Live Musicians, Union & Audio Middleware

Most game music is performed by the composer alone, although slightly more than half large budget games are predominantly recorded by live musicians.

Among all respondents who delivered music, the overwhelming majority of the music was created by the composer alone. 63% of music was delivered either as completely virtual or as virtual with any real instruments played by the composer personally.

Among professionally developed large titles (AAA), 38% music is fully live or hybrid score. 41% of the music was created by the composer alone, 21% being created by the composer “virtually” with 4 or fewer live musicians to sweeten the score.


Live Musician Budgets

20% of games where music was delivered had a budget specifically to hire live musicians. The mean budget was $44,961 with a median budget of $7,500.

Use of Unions in Game Audio

The use of members of SAG/AFTRA for Voice Over work in games is significant, but not totally ubiquitous. 30% of games reported using SAG/AFTRA Voice Over talent in their projects

The use of members of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) is rare. 1.8% of all respondents who delivered music reported they used AFM musicians. Counting only games which used live (non-composer) musicians, 3.8% used AFM musicians. The average budget for live musicians for AFM recorded games was $154,166.

Use of 3rd party Middleware

FMOD and Wwise remain the most popular audio middleware, although other solutions such as Fabric, Elias and CRI are growing in popularity


5/ Education

Almost ¾ of respondents reported having a bachelor’s degree or higher, just under ¼ reported having had some college or an associate’s degree; 19% reported one or more graduate degrees. (note: The chart below does not count those who reported <25% income from audio).

Education effect on Income

It is difficult to draw conclusions on formal education’s impact on income. We report in two ways: first a simple average/median analysis, and then graphically.

It should be noted that when looking at the above numbers, the relatively small sample sizes for HighSchool/GED and “Associates Degree” make it easy for a small number of outlier points to have an outsized impact on the average and median results.

To give a better picture of income as a function of education, we have charted income against education and years in the industry. The very highest incomes are generally achieved by those with Bachelor’s degrees or higher (red circles), but not exclusively so. In addition, all “High income” (>$150,000) individuals had at least some college.

It should be noted that when looking at the above numbers, the relatively small sample sizes for HighSchool/GED and “Associates Degree” make it easy for a small number of outlier points to have an outsize impact on the average and median results.

Of note is that those reporting “Bachelor’s Degree or higher” tend to have the highest total income, although there is a significant clumping of lower-income Bachelor’s degree holders as well; this may be due to the large percentage (72%) with Bachelors+.


A bit on statistical validity

The 2016 Game Audio Survey, like any survey, has inherent limits and biases. These include, but are not limited to:

  • The survey was publicized via social media and email networks and known audio groups and via some major music industry web sites. This may bias results towards the ‘more connected’ composers and sound designers in the industry.

  • As noted, compensation questions were optional. for both men and women, just over 81% of respondents provided compensation data.

  • Since surveys with higher numbers of respondents are generally considered to be more accurate, the small number of female respondents (61) compared with overall respondents (587) may mean that numbers for female compensation is less accurate than for the survey overall.

  • A small number of very anomalous looking responses were all or in part discarded. This may result in pre-conception bias.

  • A very small number of responses were not self-consistent. These were analyzed manually to determine intent. This may result in pre-conception bias.

  • In order to increase participation, survey questions directly related to compensation were optional.

  • Some number of participants may have misrepresented their data or mis-interpreted survey questions.

Thank you to the Game Audio Network Guild

For assisting in the survey.


Brian Schmidt

Executive Director, GameSoundCon


Twitter: @GameSound

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