Game Audio Industry Survey 2021
Updated: Jul 31, 2022
The 2021 survey ran from June 30 through August 30, 2021, and was promoted on various game audio social media and industry/professional websites. 602 people responded; 572 of whom were working professionals (not students, hobbyists or ‘aspiring’). In addition, 467 stated that less than 50% of their income was from non-audio related sources (their ‘day job’).
This represents the highest survey turnout we have had to date, and represents a more than 40% increase in professional turnout over the 2019 survey.
We continue to break the industry into three main categories of games:
· Large Budget Games. Often referred to as “AAA” games, these represent well-funded console or PC titles from major game publishers and developers. They typically have team consisting of hundreds of people and budgets of tens of millions of USD per year.
· MidCore: these are smaller scale games with smaller budgets and shorter schedules than AAA games, but represent professionally produced and developed products. Game team sizes vary, but are typically from 10-50 people
· Indie. These are small scales, often self-financed via kickstarter or other methods.
Of course the line between the different types of games is impossible to draw cleanly. However, it still provides a useful way of comparing similar game types, so that we are not comparing the composing rates of a AAA blockbuster with a 2 person indie team.
Video Game Music and Sound Design Jobs, Salaries and Education
6 in 10 people working in game audio are employees of companies, though some 'moonlighting' occurs.
Average Salary: $88,140, a 9% increase from 2019. U.S. Salaries significantly higher than the rest of the world.
Only 1 in 6 game composers received any PRO income in 2020, for any game they have ever composed for.
Freelancers have lower average annual income ($55,811) than salaried employees, but freelancers also had the highest annual incomes.
Almost 8 in 10 game audio professionals have a bachelors degree or higher, mostly (75%) music/audio related
1 in 20 reported having both a music/audio and a technical degree
The industry is 84% male (lowest percentage since the survey began in 2014)
The "gender gap" in game audio salaries reported in the 2016 survey does not seem to exist in the 2021 data. After accounting for experience, men and women do not have significant salary differences.
77% of respondents were white/Caucasian, with Hispanic/Latino (8.4%) and Asian (6.3%) being the next largest categories.
Video Game Music and Sound Design Employment:
As with previous surveys, we separate out salaried employees from freelancers, recognizing the fact that some salaried employees also do some freelancing on the side ("moonlighters").
Within salaried employees, we further break down people into employees of game companies and employees of audio companies; the latter would be an audio ‘outsourcing firm’ that provides audio services to game companies, but is more than just a single freelancing individual.
Among respondents, 61% reported they worked in game audio as a salaried employee. 35% said they were pure freelancers, while 14% said they worked as a full-time salaried employee, but also did some freelance work on the side.
Salaried employees refer to employees of game companies or of audio companies that provide services to game companies. A salaried employee receives a regular paycheck, and is typically eligible for benefits such as paid sick days, vacation, health insurance, retirement plan, etc.
As noted above, approximately 14% of salaried employees also do some 'moonlighting' in game audio
The chart below shows annual compensation of salaried employees. For ease of comparison, all compensation has been converted to USD.
Salaried Employees: Salary by Geographic Region
Salaries in the US are significantly higher than those in the rest of the world. Note that salaries reported do not include fringe benefits such as healthcare, vacation or other benefits, so it can be difficult to compare total compensation between the US and the rest of the world. (Note: Salaries were reported in local currency and converted to USD based on the exchange rate as of Aug 31, 2021).
Annual Income vs Experience for Salaried Employees
Not surprisingly, the more experience employees have working in game music and sound design, the higher their salaries.
Performing Rights Income for video game composers
Royalty income from PRO’s is uncommon in games (see a detailed article on PRO’s and game music). Among both freelancers and employees, less than one in five game composers reported receiving PRO income from any game score they had ever written.
We specifically asked the question:
“Did you receive any payments in 2020 from a Performing Rights Organization (PRO) for any game scores you have written, no matter when they were written?”
Additional Income Opportunities
In addition to salaries or contracting fees, game audio employees or freelancers report being eligible for additional compensation, as described below.
“Per unit royalty” is a specific payment for each copy sold.
“Bonus based on Sales” is a bonus paid when certain sales milestones are reached, such as “$10,000 bonus if the game sells 5,000,000 units.”
Among employees of companies, cash bonuses, bonus based on sales and company stock were the most common additional compensation types.
Among freelancers, additional compensation is rarer, with the exception of game soundtrack sales, or per-unity royalties, particularly from indie developers
Video Game Music and Sound Design Freelancers
Game Audio Freelancer Income
Unsurprisingly, freelancers had the greatest range of income, however their average and median income is significantly less than that of a salaried employee. (Note: Average and Median income calculations removed freelancers with more than 25% of their income from non-audio sources; i.e. a 'day job.'
Average Income: $55,811
Median Income: $30,000
However, although both the average and median income is lower for a freelancer than a salaried employee, the highest annual compensations reported were from freelancers.
Video Game Composer: Freelancer Game Music Contract Terms
The majority of music composition for games is done as "Work for Hire," where the copyright of the music is owned by the game developer or publisher. In smaller games, it is more likely that a composer retains copyright ownership of the music they create for the game, generally to compensate for a lower up-front fee.
For AAA games, 91% represents the lowest percentage for Work for Hire this survey has ever recorded: in 2019, this number was 98%.
Freelance Music Rates
63% of freelance game music composers said they typically charged on a 'per finished minute' of music rate. $1,000/minute is among the most popular rate across all game sizes, although the highest rates (>$1,500/minute and has high as $4,000+) are limited to AAA and midcore studios.
Freelancers: Other Compensation
Compared with salaried employees, freelancers generally have fewer types of additional compensation. However, in indie and midcore games, additional compensation from game soundtracks is not uncommon. Additionally, freelancers are more likely to be eligible for a per-unit sales royalty, typically negotiated to compensate for a lower up-front fee.
Game Audio Tools and Engine Usage
Game Audio middleware remains extremely popular. However in the AAA space, custom developed solutions are also very popular. The most popular audio engine depends on the game type, with Audiokinetic's Wwise engine being very popular with AAA game studios, while FMOD Studio being very popular with Indies and mid-sized games.
Compared with the 2019 survey there are a few changes.
A larger percentage of indie games using FMOD Studio
A larger percentage of games overall using Unreal’s built-in audio engine
Note: each audio engine listed in the chart represents at least two responses. Other responses included: Game Maker, Game Maker 2, Gadot, Twine, and Ren py.
Game Audio Job Roles
The tasks required by game sound designers and composers go beyond just creating music or sound design. The act of 'integration' (incorporating sound into the game itself) as well as taking sounds and incorporating them into audio middleware (custom game audio tools to facilitate interactive audio creation and deployment) are also required.
Video Game Composers: roles beside composition
Only one in four respondents who said they composed music did only music. Among AAA composers, almost 6 in 10 said they also did either sound design work or work with audio middleware (such as Wwise or FMOD). Among indies and midcore games, almost 7 in 10 composers also did sound design, with half also working with middleware.
Video Game Composer and Sound Designer Education
In a statistical analysis of the data we commissioned, no correlation was found between game audio income and formal education levels.
However, among all respondents, more than 75% reported to having received a bachelors degree or higher, with almost one in four said they had a graduate degree. In addition, as previously reported, education is starting to appear on game audio job postings, although it is not ubiquitous.
Game Music and Sound Design Education: Degree Type
Unsurprisingly, the most common degree among employees of companies is a music or audio-related degree. In addition, around one in twenty game audio employees reported having degrees in both music and a technical field, typically computer science. Other degree types varied greatly ranging from Philosophy to Journalism. A growing trend is colleges and universities offering video game music and sound design degrees.
Game Music and Sound Design Education: Recent Hires
For those considering a career in game audio, it can be useful to look at the education levels
and degrees of recent hires. We define “recent hire” as a salaried employee with two years or less experience in the industry.
Among recent hires, close to 90% have completed a degree program, with the majority being a bachelors.
Average Salary of Recent Hires: $40,731
Median Salary of Recent Hires: $38,400
Gender and Diversity
Game audio overall is a male-dominated profession, though with a small increase in the percentage of non-male respondents. Audio employees of game companies are somewhat more likely to be male that employees of audio outsourcing companies, with game audio freelancers generally in the middle.
Game Music and Sound Design Salaries of Employees by Gender
The salaries of game audio employees for women are generally less than that of their male counterparts. However, based on a commissioned analysis, the difference in salary is most likely attributed to the difference in reported years of experience, and not to any particular systemic bias based on gender.
This is a different outcome from a previous look into the salary discrepancy between men and women in game audio in 2016, which did find such a bias.
Of note: in 2016, the average (Mean) years of experience for women was 6.7; it has dropped to 5.3, while increasing for men from 8.9 to 9.3 years. Whether this reflects larger number of less experienced entering the field or experienced women leaving the field could not be determined.
Game Music and Sound Design Gender Makeup
For all respondents, 15% of game audio professionals are not male. Considering only non-freelancers, in the US/Canada, almost one in six employees are non-male. In the rest of the world, approximately nine in ten are male. This is the highest percentage of non-male respondents to date, and is a decrease from 89.7% in 2016 and from 86.4% in 2019.
Gender Makeup by Region
Considering only non-freelancers, in the US/Canada, almost one in five employees are non-male. In the rest of the world, approximately nine in ten are male
For the first time, we asked respondents their race or ethnicity. More than three in four of respondents listed White/Caucasian, with Hispanic/Latino (8.4%) and Asian (6.3%) being the next largest categories.
To determine correlations between gender, education and income, we contracted Dr Mary Siegrist to analyze the raw. Dr. Siegrist was also the analyst for our 2016 analysis of the "game audio gender gap." Her results concluded:
The data did not demonstrate a correlation between income and gender
This is a different from the 2016 results
The data did not demonstrate a correlation between income and education
There was a positive correlation between income and years of experience, both with and without controlling for geographic location
The above conclusions were separately determined for both freelancers and salaried employees.
You can read Dr. Siegrist's formal analysis here (wonkish):
A note on statistical validity
While this survey attempts to gather and analyze data from the industry in as neutral a fashion as possible, it is not a rigorous MIT-PhD-thesis level report! The 2021 Game Audio Survey, like any survey, has inherent limits and biases. These may 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, which likely biases numbers a bit high
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.
Thank you to the Game Audio Network Guild for assisting in the survey.
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Executive Director, GameSoundCon