How to Break into Game Audio

By Vincent Diamante [12.14.06]


Before we get started, let me clarify one thing: Breaking into the game audio industry is difficult. That's game audio, not game music, game effects, or anything else you'd like to call it.

Still with me? Excellent, because that's something that you may have to wrap your head around. Whether you're into music or abstract soundscapes, ADR or foley, mixing or field recording, you're going to be touching all components of audio production early and often as you make your way into the game industry.

Don't worry if there are things in the audio world that you haven't touched. Very few people come out of school or wherever they were knowing everything there is to know about every facet of audio in the games world. All that means, though, is that you should be willing to tackle anything and everything that a development team can throw at you.

And they will throw everything, because more likely than not, you will be the only person thinking about anything audio related in the game. But we'll get back to that in a bit. First we need to make sure that you've done the preparations to get that first gig ...

Presence for Everyone

So you have a website, right? If you said no, I suggest you go get one right now. A domain name, webspace, and bandwidth can be had for less than the cost of a fast food lunch these days. Besides having a catchy domain name to replace your old @yahoo.com or @school.edu address with some professional flair, you'll need a place where people can easily see what you have to offer. Resume, CV, and a demo reel should all be easily accessible.

I can't tell you exactly what to put on that demo reel; however, it should be reflective of not only your ability, but also your passions. While a diverse showing in your demo reel is a good thing, don't simply add something for the sake of plugging into a perceived hole. If dilapidated space ships and B-movie robots are not your cup of tea, you shouldn't feel compelled to add some more soundscapes of creaking metal and old servos to your reel. Far better to concentrate on something you want to work on and communicate what it is you're passionate about. If the right person hears it, maybe the resultant gig will also be something you can be passionate about.

But how to get that gig? In the vast majority of video game development companies out there, audio positions are few and far between, vastly outnumbered by the art and programming masses that make up the majority of the development team. Which is not to say that it's impossible to grab an entry level position or internship in audio at a big company like Electronic Arts or Activision. The demand and turnover isn't as high as in other positions, but openings do happen.

If the planets aren't aligned, however, there's always something outside of BigGameCompany's Next-Gen Killer App that needs the aural touch. Maybe it's an acquaintance's vanity project, or the RPG that a group of friends are finally sitting down to make. Of course, searching locally and within immediate network branches aren't the only options. Just as the halls of film schools around the country are littered with ads for composers searching for student films to score, so too are forums and websites like garagegames.com, gamedev.net, and even craigslist.org. True, you likely won't be working on a AAA title for the WiiStation 360.

It does however lead to some other perks.


 Hello Mr. Director

Being part of a small development team as an audio developer typically means that you are the only audio developer on the team. I suppose you lose the fun of potentially having someone to boss around (or being bossed around, on the flip side), but being the director of audio is a big responsibility on even the smallest of teams.

What does this mean? Let's take a quick gander at the large development team paradigm. There, being an audio lead often means that you are constantly interfacing with the other team leads, making sure that assets are not only delivered, but also integrated properly...

Ah ha! Integration! "But I'm not a programmer!" you might say. That's okay; it's all right to not know how to integrate your assets into the game; that's why you're audio director on this game and not the coming popular franchise next-gen iteration. So, never mind the fact that you don't actually have any programming knowledge and try to explain to your lead programmer how you'd like your dynamic music cue system implemented. Really. It can be done without needing to be a crazy C++ whiz!

And if you are a crazy C++ whiz? Go and work your way through FMOD or some other middleware sound API and show that programming lead you can hold your own in the audio domain! No, you don't have to do everything yourself, but part of being a lead is communicating your wants and needs with the rest of the team. Knowing basic programming and knowing the capabilities of the system helps significantly, while knowing the inner-workings of the API helps even more.

Another thing being the sole audio director means is that you are likely the sole advocate for the audio life of the game. While audio has become increasingly important to game designers in recent years, it's all too easy for it to be forgotten thanks to the sheer numbers of the rest of the development team. You should be ready to stand up and be heard for the needs of audio. And I don't just mean memory allocation or polyphony requirements. If artists are proposing changes to assets that you think have a significant impact on the audio assets you are delivering, the rest of the development team needs to know about it.

Small Fish, Big Pond

Obviously being skilled in the audio domain is a requirement in this business. I trust you don't have a problem on that end. There are, however, quite a few other people out there vying for the exact same opportunities. A poke at Gamasutra's website for contractors yields an audio contractor list that's nearly as long as the list of visual arts companies and slightly longer than the list of programming contractors. It's extremely difficult for your voice to be heard in such a crowded space.

And this is in conjunction with the whole chicken-and-egg problem that is felt by everyone looking to make it into the games industry: you can't get work without experience, and you can't get experience without work. Nowadays that's less of a problem, with small development teams being formed out of thin air... or at least out of copper and fiber, as project members can be connected to each other from across the globe.

The quality of that experience, however, can vary quite drastically. On some of these young and small teams, you might just be the guy who e-mails a handful of sound effects in reply to the lead designer's latest design doc change. While that's not a bad thing per se, if you feel you can be more involved in the creative process, you should propose that relationship to the rest of the team.

 


The Fat Man, infamous game audio purveyor.

Moving On

And if you think that relationship can't continue as you make the move from student and amateur developers to professional independents and console game developers, think again. While team sizes will go up as you go to bigger and better projects, audio team sizes don't change quite so quickly. The experience that you had being an audio director with lots of responsibilities (music, sound effects, ambience, ADR direction and recording, integration) on that small project will come in handy as you find yourself acting as an audio director on a next-gen console project. Even if you're just the small fry contractor they go to 50 percent of the way through production because someone realized library sounds aren't good enough, you should be able to assert yourself, your ideas, and your leadership. You might not be leading people, but you do have to act as a director, bearing the responsibility of a significant portion of the game that the artists and programmers aren't thinking about.

Sure, your title won't say audio director, but when you're the only person thinking about audio day-in and day-out on a team of two dozen ... yeah, I'd say that counts.

Vincent Diamante, MFA student at USC's Interactive Media Division, is a freelance game audio designer and senior editor at games website insertcredit.com and has previously worked for XM Radio.

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