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  • Getting a Job Creating Sound and Music for Videogames

    [04.14.15]
    - Will Morton
  • Who am I? And why do you care?

    My name is Will Morton. Until just over a year ago I was Senior Audio Designer and Dialogue Supervisor for Rockstar North, creators and developers of the Grand Theft Auto games. While I was at college in the 1990s I got involved in creating music for a couple of small commercial games as a freelancer but in early 2002, just after the release of Grand Theft Auto 3 on the PlayStation 2, I started work as an audio designer at Rockstar North. I stayed at Rockstar North for twelve years, mainly working on the Grand Theft Auto games but also helping on other titles published by Rockstar such as Red Dead Redemption and LA Noire. After Grand Theft Auto V was released, I left my in-house job at Rockstar and following a short break working on film sound I formed a video game audio production company, Solid Audioworks, with my friend and fellow ex-Rockstar colleague, Craig Conner (Music Director for the GTA games since the series began in 1997).

    In the year since I left Rockstar, a lot of people have contacted us to ask for advice at getting into the game industry, specifically how they can create sound effects or music for games. The sound designers and composers that have asked for advice all come from very different backgrounds. Some are hobbyists, some are students, and others are experienced but from another field such as film or TV. It seems a lot of people are keen to get into a career in video game audio - be it sound design or music composition - but there does seem to be a gaping black hole where advice and guidance about how to achieve this should be. I'm not going to go over the pros and cons of being in video game development - if you are reading this article then I presume you have already made your mind up. I will do my best to explain some of the mystery that seems to surround entry into getting to make noise for games as a career.

    For the best part of fifteen years I have had a lot of experience on both sides of the employment fence in the video game industry, so with any luck I will be able to offer aspiring video game audio designers and composers advice that will help them to reach their goals. I have also asked friends and colleagues who are employed in various areas of game audio for their input, so you can be sure that this information isn't just the opinion of one person - it contains snippets of advice from many seasoned professionals.

    I was asked by a friend while I was writing this article whether I should be making it as easy as possible for people to get work in game audio when I myself am now a freelancer, saying that I shouldn't be creating competition for myself. I don't see it like that at all. As I explain later there are more opportunities in game audio for the right people than ever, and having friends in the industry is ultimately more valuable for a long-term quality career than scooping-up jobs indiscriminately. Besides, having been on the hiring side of the fence in a large AAA studio for 12 years I can say that it's better for the game audio industry (and the games industry itself) if people are more educated about what is involved in game audio production - it makes it easier to increase the quality of game audio, which increases the quality of the end product, which is better for everyone involved in games.

    Disclaimer
    (aka "Don't blame me for anything")

    The first thing I should mention is that there are no hard and fast rules. Everything differs from company to company, from job descriptions and requirements to application processes. Any advice I give should be followed at your own discretion and at your own risk - what you do is entirely up to you, and don't blame me for anything. I'll do my best to explain what I have found from my own experience and I give this advice with the best of intentions, but ultimately whether you get a job or not is down to your skill and personality, not this article. Also, any company or individual I mention in this article shouldn't be seen as any kind of endorsement.

    Can I make a living out of game sound/music?

    Yes, absolutely, and it's an amazingly fun job too. In fact, with the immense amount of mobile games being produced, the growing indie game market, and the fact that video games as an industry has grown to such a size that it has overtaken film as a source of entertainment, there are more opportunities to make sound or music for video games than there ever has been. However, don't assume that it's easy to get into, or that it's an easy route to earning vast amounts of money quickly. Many people assume that because they do some DJing on a weekend and they've knocked a few tracks together from the latest [insert fashionable music style here] sample pack that they can walk into a game audio job. As the video game industry has grown and matured, so have expectations of video game sound and it is a lot more involved than you might think. Once upon a time your mate Dave with his pirated copy of eJay and a dictaphone might have bluffed his way into writing some music for a game or two, but not any more.

    Job Titles & Descriptions
    (aka "What do I actually want to do?")

    GIANT SECTION ALERT. There's a 'too long; didn't read' summary sentence at the end of this section if you're skimming.

    You know how I said in the previous section that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to employment in game audio and that everything will be different from company to company? Well here's the first example of that. The duties expected of someone with the a particular job title may be completely different to the duties expected of someone else with the same job title at a different company. Having said that, jobs in game audio can be broken down into a few broad categories.

    Firstly, and I'll deal with this in greater detail as the article goes on, there are two main types of working in game audio - freelance or in-house. Freelance is exactly as it sounds - you get a job for a temporary amount of time, get paid, job done. Rinse and repeat. You can work for many different companies on many different projects, and as long as there aren't any no-compete clauses in the contracts you sign and as long as it doesn't interfere with your existing work, you can take more than one job at a time. Being freelance can pay well, but of course the wages can come in far less frequently than if you make a day-job of it (and in the current climate of employment I would imagine that the thought of not having a regular pay cheque at the end of each month would terrify most people).

    Working in-house is where you are a full time employee of a company and you work 9 to 5 on Monday to Friday, plus overtime. You get paid regularly, but you will only work for that company and on the projects they give you. There is also 'temp' contract work which falls somewhere between freelance and in-house. As a temp you will likely work in-house as a part of the team, same hours, same office etc., but you will be contracted for a certain amount of time, usually 3, 6 or 12 months depending on the project and the employer.

    Whether you want to work freelance or in-house is up to you, and that decision will most likely be affected by many factors - willingness to relocate, how important it is to have a regular wage, your own 'artistic' needs (as an in-house employee it's more likely that you will have less creative freedom), whether you have anything else going on in your life, and so on and so forth. As for the job types themselves, the words 'sound' and 'audio' are largely interchangeable, and if you do a search on any games job listing page you will find titles such as (or variations of) these:

    Audio Programmer
    Audio Designer

    And that's just about it. If you are wondering why I haven't listed music composers, it's simply because people employed as in-house video game composers are as rare as unicorn poop these days. Aside from a small handful of people, the in-house composer is a job that almost doesn't exist any more. Some years ago people were employed to write music for games and at the same time would also do the sound effects, but as time has gone on development time has got longer and longer and now music is outsourced more than it ever was. If your ambition is to write music for games and *only* write music for games, then being a freelancer is your best bet. However, that's not to say you will never get to write music as an in-house employee... more on this later (paragraph describing the role of 'Audio Designer' for those who want to skip ahead).

    I will describe a typical audio programmer first, just for the sake of completeness and to get it out of the way - this article will mainly concentrate on non-programmer roles.

    'Audio Programmer' covers a few different types of jobs. There are audio programmers who will tackle game-related audio coding, audio programmers who will handle DSP, audio programmers who create tools for audio designers (aka the Audio Tools Programmer) or any combination of the above. Some Audio Programmers may be tasked with implementing sounds into the game and dealing with playback logic and the like, but truth be told most AAA game developers with large audio teams will expect their audio designers to be able to manage at least some of the sound implementation (and to be honest, with audio engines like FMOD and Wwise implementation and playback logic is more accessible to non-programmers than it ever has been). As I said, what a job title entails all depends on who is doing the hiring, but where a job is listed as Audio Programmer or Sound Programmer you will be expected to write code - it's not going to be like the old school synth programmers of yesteryear where you would spend your days designing patches on synthesisers.

    'Audio Designer' covers a handful... well, a lot... of different types of jobs. Creating sound. Recording sound. Editing sound. Editing dialogue. Sequencing sound. Mixing and mastering sound. Implementing sound. Testing sound. And maybe... just maybe... you might get to write a bit of music every once in a while. As I have said (again and again) an audio designer to one firm is different to an audio designer to another firm. You may have to do one of the above jobs, or all of the above jobs. Of course, the more skills you have the better. If by looking at jobs as audio designer (or sound designer) you want to sit in a studio creating awesome sound-scapes and spend your days creating earth-shaking patches in whatever super-cool plug-in you have just picked up or if you just want to be out in the field recording new sounds, then you'll be better considering freelance. Many smaller indie games that require a freelance sound designer simply require someone to provide bespoke sound effects, and you may even be given a 'shopping list' of what the game's producers require. This is the perfect job for someone that just wants to create sounds. Larger game companies often hire freelancers to contribute to particular areas. I had a friend who was hired as a freelancer to deliver explosion sound effects for a successful AAA game on PS2. That was it. Good clean fun for someone who just wanted to make sounds and not worry about all the other stuff.

    An in-house audio designer in my experience will be expected to be multi-skilled job and in many cases will have many fingers in many pies. My own career at Rockstar North was just like this. My first job was on Vice City, and I spent a decent portion of this editing and mastering dialogue but I did also create a few of the sound effects. The balance of my responsibilities changed between dialogue and sound design (and all the other bits and pieces that come with it - see previous paragraph) for a few years before the increasing dialogue requirements of Rockstar's games meant that my role was focussed 100% on managing the dialogue production for GTA V.

    Do make an effort to understand what is required of the job you want to apply for *before* you apply - don't just read the job title and assume you know what they are looking for. As an employer one of the most irritating things is spending time dealing with applications for a job which are simply irrelevant, or are long and full of filler. It happens a lot, so make you you stand out from the crowd by knowing what you are applying for. Chris Sweetman, audio designer for Sweet Justice Sound, summarised this like so: "Don't come to sound designer interview with a showreel full of music". Honestly, don't waste your time and don't waste anyone else's time - just make sure you understand what you are applying for and make your application relevant and to the point. 

    TL;DR - Read job descriptions properly as the job title will not tell you everything you need to know. Make sure you know what you are applying for to save your time and the time of your prospective employer.

    Qualifications

    A lot of people ask what qualifications they need to be a game audio designer. The general answer is 'none'. Personally I have never made a hiring decision where an applicant's qualifications have been more than glanced at, and I've never not hired someone because they didn't have any qualifications. In fact, on one of my own previous successful applications for a music & sound related job I listed my A-Levels, which (embarrassingly) were two grade Ds and a grade E including A-Level Music. I got the job, and it was a bit of a running gag for a while that the new music guy got a D in A-Level music :) If I were to apply for an in-house job now, I wouldn't even bother listing my A-Levels. It isn't lying or even bending the truth, it's just that in 99% of cases it isn't relevant.

    This isn't to say that qualifications are a waste of time. Firstly, if you ignore the certificate you get at the end, the process of studying means you are gaining knowledge, and that knowledge is valuable. It's an old cliché, but knowledge is *definitely* power. There will even be things you are taught whilst studying that you won't be able to see a use for, but you never know when that knowledge will help you (I'm pretty sure that when I was at college I could not see a reason for learning what 'slew rate' meant, but lo and behold 15 years later that tiny crumb of knowledge needed to be unearthed and dusted off for a paying job).

    Secondly, the time you spend at college or university gives you time to hone your skills and build up polished demos. I will deal with this in greater detail later, but any employer handling any quantity of sound design applications will be able to spot applications from people who have recently graduated or are just about to graduate. The reason for this is that many applications from recent graduates and soon-to-be-graduates have identical showreels. You should use your time at college to work on projects outside of your college syllabus, and build a varied and interesting body of work from which you can tailor demos when it comes to applying for jobs. Simply bundling your college work onto a DVD doesn't cut it, I'm afraid.

    Thirdly, and admittedly this is a bit of an expansion on the paragraph above, your time at college is the ideal time to start networking. Make friends and work with people who are doing sound design. Make friends and work with people studying composition. Make friends and work with people on game development courses. Make friends and work with people studying TV or film production. Make friends and work with people studying any kind of performing arts. This will again help you build a better body of work to use in your showreel, and arguably more importantly gives you a network of people who may at some point ask you to be involved with a project they are working on.

    That person studying film? After leaving college they may get a directing job on a film or TV show and need a sound designer. The people you helped out with their game development coursework? They may leave college to set up a studio, and you can imagine that they'd feel safer hiring a sound designer they already know and trust. You will also notice that I said to make friends with these people, rather than just work with them. Having friends is a lot more valuable than having acquaintances - people want to work with people they like.

    The time you have at college or university is very likely to be the last time you will have this amount of time to do this stuff. When you leave and get a job (whether it's a sound-related job or not you will need to pay the bills) you suddenly find the hours you used to waste on Facebook becoming a distant memory. While you've got the opportunity to make friends with a bunch of like-minded creative people who also have a ton of time on their hands, make the most of it.

    Demos and Showreels

    This sounds so obvious it borders on ridiculous, but you absolutely need to have a showreel or a demo. Also, you need to have it ready before you start contacting people. It sounds obvious that you need a demo when applying for a job like game audio but it is genuinely surprising how many people don't put any thought into this. I have personally been approached by three people on different occasions (they were basically in the right place at the right time) who have asked me if I had need of someone to write music or create SFX. When I said "Yes, have you got a demo?" not one of them was able to produce anything more than "Erm, I'll put a CD together for you". I never received a demo from any of those three people. Huge opportunity blown by all three, and they looked very unprofessional, or certainly a lot less interested in game audio, to boot. You don't have to be carrying around a folder of CDs and DVDs with you all the time, you can have a Soundcloud account with MP3s ready to give people links to if you need to when you're caught on the hop. It is easier than ever to have your work on-line and accessible from anywhere these days.

    I touched on this earlier, but if you are a student or a recent graduate you will likely be applying for the same jobs as other people in your class, and if you stuff your showreel with your college work then your CV and showreel just look and sound identical to countless others in the same sack of mail. I remember a time when I was helping deal with applications for a sound design job and came across an interesting DVD - some nice realistic news-style sound to picture stuff with some old black and white footage, and some nice 3D animation with a more over-the-top Hollywood style sound design. The variation was good - it showed that realistic sound design was good and that they were also capable of more extravagant 'artistic' sound design. The demo got put to one side. Out of the next dozen DVDs we looked at, four or five of them had the same black and white sound-to-picture and the same 3D animation. Not only was it the same footage, but the sound design and 'style' of sound design was almost the same between the different applications. When I realised it was simply college/university coursework that had been bundled without any thought it made it impossible for me to decide what sound design or creativity was actually down to the student and what was the result of following a project brief and doing nothing more than simply 'joining the dots'. One thing it did show me was that none of these applicants had taken the time or initiative to create anything of their own in their time as a student, which did nothing to demonstrate passion and keenness. The pile of identical showreels went into a pile which we decided to come back to if we were stuck (we never went back to that pile).

    If you are a student or graduate the above paragraph may sound bleak, but please don't let it put you off. By all means submit the projects you create as part of your coursework, but make sure it is relevant and tailored to the company you are applying for. On your demo DVD make a folder for your personal projects and one for your coursework - at least then employers will see what you have done on your own and what you have done by following your college's strict brief. It's about relevance and organisation. You don't get much time to win-over the person handling your application, so make it as easy for them as possible to see what your work is about.

    There isn't a standard way of presenting a demo for game audio jobs. Where DJs and music producers may have been able to burn a stack of identical CDs that they can send out to club promoters and label owners at the drop of a hat, it's not quite as simple for us in game audio. Some companies may request an audio CD, others may request data files on CD or DVD, others may require you to upload files to the company directly and others may want on-line links. Make sure that when an opportunity comes along you can deliver a demo not only tailored to the company's creative needs but also make sure you can put it together and deliver it quickly in the exact way they require it. Do a little homework and ensure you understand what the company needs from you.

    Having a few bits of music you have written in some random folder on your laptop is not the same as having a showreel. It's a very time-consuming process to build and polish a decent demo, so make sure that yours is an ongoing concern - it'll make it easier in the long run. Make sure your material is not only of as high a quality as you can make it but that it is polished and presented professionally. An oversight made by many who have digital demos is not making sure files are named sensibly and not having useful metadata - embed MP3 tags with your contact details and add your name to the file name (files like 'track01.mp3' are not remotely professional). When companies are recruiting for a particular role they will receive many demos, and quite often all the demo files that come with applications will end up in a single folder as it makes listening to masses of files easier. If your demo attracts attention then you really need to make sure your files identify you in case your application has become separated from the demo.

    Long ago when I used to send demo tapes (yes, tapes) to record labels, the harmfully idealistic and naive thought behind presenting your demo was basically 'my music will shine through, it doesn't matter what the tape looks like'. Creating sound and music in home studios is now more affordable and accessible than ever which makes competition fierce for jobs in game audio, so you don't want to leave things like presentation to chance. You HAVE to make sure your demo is well organised and well presented. It doesn't have to be presented in an elaborate glossy custom CD sleeve that cost a fortune to produce, but an important fact is: if it looks like you don't care enough about your demo to present it nicely then why should anyone you send the demo to care about it?

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