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  • How to Break into Game Audio

    - Vincent Diamante

  •  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 and has previously worked for XM Radio.


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