Courtesy LucasArts entertainment
FIG. 1: Author Nick Peck's first big break in game audio came when he was hired as a sound designer for LucasArts Entertainment's colorful Grim Fandango.
Before seeking work in any industry, you naturally will want a clear idea of what you're getting into. You are likely to inquire about the hours, the balance between creative and technical tasks, your employer's expectations, and what a typical workday is like. You might also debate whether you're better off as an employee or as a freelancer.
It's no different if you are seriously considering contracting or employment in game audio. Whether your focus is on music composition and production or sound design, working in game production can be challenging, exhausting, and rewarding. Tales of nightmare hours and incredible stress abound — as do success stories. But what's the game-audio world really like on a day-to-day basis, and what are the differences between being a game-company employee and being a freelancer?
To help you get a handle on what it's like to work in the game-audio business and what characteristics make up a successful game-audio professional, I'll relate some of my experiences in the field, as well as offer perspectives from several other successful and highly skilled industry veterans. Together, we'll explain what to expect — and what will be expected of you — once you land that killer game-audio gig.
The Way In
My path into the world of game audio was typical. I grew up at the dawn of the information age, dividing my time between keyboards on the piano and the Tandy Radio Shack TRS-80 personal computer. I studied computer science in college before earning degrees in electronic music. Through a succession of multimedia computer-programming and audio-production jobs, I built up my project studio, while constantly networking with people in the game and music industries. Freelance gigs in multimedia became plentiful and were close to what I wanted to do, but not right on target.
Then the LucasArts Entertainment Company called, in search of another sound designer for the new game Grim Fandango. (For the inside story of scoring Grim Fandango, see “Dance of the Dead” in the September 1999 issue of EM, available online at www.emusician.com.) I went in, passed the tests, and was soon off to the races at my dream job. My work at LucasArts led to a continuous stream of positions and freelance assignments in film and video-game production.
The game industry is small and incestuous. You hear the same names over and over as industry veterans migrate from one company to another. Everyone in the industry ends up working on some great games and some not-so-great ones. It's good to remember that no matter how fantastic the game might be, it probably has a shelf life of only a few months — far less time than it took to develop the game. With that in mind, I have found that the most rewarding part of the game-sound process is the day-to-day work flow and the relationships you forge in the crucible of hard work. After all, you will spend more of your waking hours with your colleagues than you will with your family.
Getting the Gig
Before you can build those relationships and create sound for those great and not-so-great games, you have to garner your first gig. Every game-audio artisan had to cross that threshold at the beginning of their career. So what can you do to get that job? What skills do the audio directors of the world look for in a potential freelance or employee candidate? In general, successful candidates have skills in three areas: content creation, content integration, and interpersonal dynamics.
If you aspire to be a sound designer or composer, your first task is to demonstrate that you have the chops to design or compose — and that takes lots of practice. If sound design is your passion, then grab a field recorder, go into the world, and grab a load of sounds. Then manipulate the daylights out of them back in your studio and experiment with layering and mixing until you start to gain an intuitive sense for what works.
Electronic Arts Redwood Shores (EARS) senior audio artist J. White looks for candidates who go the extra mile by creating original sounds. In his opinion, “nothing is a greater turnoff when listening to a reel than hearing the same library sounds being used again and again.”
Aspiring composers must spend hours in the woodshed composing. Fortunately, a clear, well-trodden path helps pave the way to success: music school. Without exception, every successful game composer I know (and many sound designers) has a degree in music. I have no doubt that there are exceptions, but I don't know of one. There is nothing like the distraction-free atmosphere of a practice room to help lay the bedrock of one's musical craft.
It all starts with your instrument, a pencil, and paper. No reverb algorithm or cool Reason patch will substitute for that time spent writing musical notes. “You will need tech chops and business skills,” observes freelance composer Mark Griskey, “but your ability as a composer will ultimately be judged based on the music you deliver. Look for any opportunity to compose music that you can find. Study music from as many sources as you can. Ask questions of all of your teachers, friends, and colleagues.”
The Challenge of Integration
FIG. 2: Audio-integration middleware solutions like FMOD are terrific tools that the fledgling game-audio pro should learn.
Once you've created the content, you need to get it into the game. Audio integration is a huge part of the job, typically requiring as much or more time as it took to make the sounds in the first place. Though you don't have to be a hard-core C++ computer programmer, knowing a programming language such as Lua (www.lua.org) can serve you well, as it did for me on games such as Grim Fandango (see Fig. 1) and Escape from Monkey Island.
White is a fan of graphical programming environments such as Cycling '74's Max/MSP (www.cycling74.com), while LucasArts Entertainment audio lead David Collins suggests buying a game that ships with a game editor (Unreal and Star Wars: Republic Commando are examples) and then going in and creating your own audio cues within that environment. Several audio-integration middleware solutions, such as Firelight Technologies' FMOD (www.fmod.org; see Fig. 2) and Audiokinetic's Wwise (www.audiokinetic.com; see Fig. 3), offer free demo versions for download. Learning one or more of these systems will pay dividends regardless of what system you use for audio integration, as many of the core concepts will transfer from tool to tool.
FIG. 3: Like FMOD, Wwise is an audio-integration middleware tool for games. Shown here is Wwise's audio conversion settings screen.
As with many jobs, interpersonal skills are enormously important. Years ago, during a casual conversation, a highly successful video-game executive tossed off a saying that has stayed with me: “Your attitude determines your altitude.” Everything about being a successful game-audio pro is encapsulated in those five words.
Talented, knowledgeable contributors are so plentiful as to seemingly grow on trees. A good attitude differentiates the successful candidate. Life is too short to deal with arrogance, with prima donnas, or with people who backstab or belittle. I love to hear “Can do,” but I am just as happy hearing “I don't know if I can do it, but I'll look into it and get back to you quickly.” My golden rule for game-audio success is, “Do what you say you are going to do, when you say you are going to do it, with a minimum of drama.”
Sony Computer Entertainment of America (SCEA) sound-design manager Ken Felton looks for the basics in a potential hire. “Have good communication skills,” he advises. “Use a spell-checker. Wear clean clothes. Be polite. Show up on time. It's pretty simple.”
Tools of the Trade
Whether your goal is to be an employee or a freelancer, you should have and thoroughly understand several basic tools. One required tool is a computer, of course. You can use a Macintosh or a Windows PC to create content, but PCs are usually required for audio-integration tasks. EARS audio director Paul Gorman and I use Macs for production and PCs for integration. On the other hand, Jim Diaz, a senior sound designer at Activision's Underground Development studio, uses Windows PCs for both asset creation and integration.
FIG. 4: Pro Tools is the DAW most frequently used by game-audio pros.
Digidesign Pro Tools (see Fig. 4) is the DAW of choice for virtually every game- and film-audio professional I have spoken with. Simply put, you must learn how to use it.
If your focus is on composition, you will probably need some specialized music-production software as well. Griskey employs Apple Logic Pro for composition and Sibelius Software's Sibelius scoring software for notation. He also uses most of the major orchestral sound libraries.
Similarly, sound designers require additional tools of the trade, notably a field recorder, microphones, and a couple of general-purpose sound-effects libraries to help fill the gaps in your personal, custom library. (For a comparative roundup of field recorders, see “Playing the Field” in the October 2005 issue of EM.) Gorman also points out the importance of having “a neutral, balanced listening environment where you design assets and listen to them in the game.”
Let's assume that you've worked on your content-creation, integration, and interpersonal skills and that you've put together a studio where you've mastered the technology. You are ready to rock. Now it's time to get your demo reel together, network with everyone you know, watch the job-board postings (www.gamasutra.com is a good place to start), and be ready for that crucial interview. If you follow the suggestions I've made and you have the talent, that gig is as good as yours.
Of course, you have to find the gigs first. Fortunately, several of the major game companies, such as Electronic Arts and Sony Computer Entertainment of America, post job information on their Web sites (see Fig. 5).
A Day in the Life
FIG. 5: Employment opportunities are often posted on game companies' Web sites. Here are Sony Computer Entertainment of America's game-audio job openings as of late September 2007.
Now that you've settled on a career in game audio, what can you expect? What is a typical day in the life? The answer is that there is rarely a “typical” day; a variety of challenges crop up, and which issues you deal with depends on your position and the phase of project development.
Content creation and integration are certainly part of your day, and the lower you are on the totem pole, the larger the proportion of your day you spend on these creative tasks. As you rise through the ranks of responsibility, more of your time is spent managing people and resources, going to meetings with people in other disciplines who work on their aspects of the game, and evaluating the content created by your team as it makes its way into the game.
For example, as of this writing, David Collins and Paul Gorman each supervise the work of ten content creators for their current games (Star Wars: The Force Unleashed and The Simpsons, respectively). That is the same-size crew that you would see handling audio on a feature film. Different types of tasks often take precedence at various stages of development. As a sound designer, I always set aside time for field recording at the beginning of a project so that we have a new library of raw content to work with.
Jim Diaz likes to break a game project's development cycle into three phases: spotting (or preproduction), production, and postproduction. The spotting phase is filled with meetings where the audio team learns about the project. Lists of audio assets are created and stored in databases. Members of the team work out preliminary development schedules and approach potential contractors.
The primary sound-effects design and music composition take place during the production phase. The team creates and integrates assets, slowly filling the new virtual world with sound as the game levels are created.
Postproduction is filled with volume tweaks, sound-effects revisions, bug fixes, and playing the game over and over while polishing the soundtrack to a high shine. Eventually, the game is ripped from our clutches, packaged, and placed on store shelves.
The Freelance Perspective
Freelancers spend a good portion of their day creating content, but again, that is only the first of their tasks. Mark Griskey and Julian Kwasneski (founder of independent game-audio firm Bay Area Sound, Inc.) work remotely, so they exchange a lot of information via email. As contractors, they must send invoices for work completed, create quotes for prospective projects, and iron out technical implementation details. The all-important schedule must be continually managed and updated.
Once the development team starts hearing the audio in the game, the feedback process begins, with inevitable revision requests that must be managed. You have to maintain a delicate balance here: feedback is critically important, and you have to allocate time for revisions within the development schedule or you will quickly become double booked, trying to revisit old content while creating new materials simultaneously.
As an audio director, I believe there is an art to delivering feedback along these lines. I recommend that audio directors maintain a single line of communication with the freelancer, always keep their eye on the schedule, and know when something is good enough. Of course, this process is made much easier when working with high-caliber freelancers, such as Kwasneski and Griskey, who routinely hit the ball out of the park the first time around.
In the recent past, out-of-house freelancers were relegated to content-creation duties only, because the asset-integration tasks often relied on custom solutions that required being on-site. These days, though, freelancers are being used for integration as well.
Ken Felton prefers all-in-one sound-design contracts, where the freelancer provides the assets prebundled into sound banks that drop right into the game. Collins has a current off-site contractor who does nothing but asset integration. This development style can be excellent for freelancers who have highly developed studios and prefer to work off-site. Griskey, for example, lives in a tiny, remote beach town in Northern California and handles the vast majority of his business dealings via the Internet.
Money (That's What I Want)
As I'll discuss later, you have to love this business to have the dedication to do it. Nevertheless, the goal for a working professional is to make a fair living. While you are unlikely to get rich in game-audio production, a decent middle-class living is certainly attainable as a freelancer or as an employee.
You'll find a wide variance in salary ranges, depending on a company's geographic location and financial health and an employee's experience. A small startup in a region with a low cost of living might offer as little as $30,000 per year for a junior sound designer, whereas an audio director with some major titles under their belt, working for a major company in an expensive area, can earn a comfortable six-figure salary. Typical salaries for sound designers range between $50,000 and $90,000. Some big companies also offer paid summer internships for students. Expect to make between $10 and $20 per hour if you are lucky enough to land one.
In the big leagues, benefits such as stock options, employee stock-purchase plans, and bonuses can sweeten that pot. Of course, the more common employment benefits also have value: paid vacation time and medical, dental, and vision packages are expenses that freelancers have to pay for on their own.
Freelancers have a different set of challenges, though financially they can end up in about the same place. The average rate for an experienced individual freelance sound designer is between $50 and $65 per hour. If you are a well-established freelancer, working with your own gear at home, and with a variety of big games to your name, you may be able to negotiate your rate upward to between $75 and $100 per hour. Your ability to command such rates frequently depends on the size of the project and how desirable you are to the company. If you have a proven track record with the company, you have more bargaining power.
Not surprisingly, lower-budget projects often have less money set aside for freelancers. If you are just starting out and are trying to woo a small company, try aiming for $25 per hour. Next time, when you and the company have some experience and revenue under your belts, you can try to renegotiate for a higher hourly rate.
Freelance composers usually charge by the minute of finished music rather than by an hourly rate. That number can range from $800 to $1,500 per minute, depending on the experience and reputation of the composer. Budgets for orchestras, recording studios, and additional specialists are negotiated on top of the composer's fee.
Striking a Balance
To gain insights into sound design, LucasArts Entertainment audio lead David Collins suggests creating your own audio cues in a game that ships with an editor.
It is impossible to consider a career in the game industry without giving some thought to life/work balance. Rightly or wrongly, the industry has gained a reputation for promoting excessive work hours, setting punishing schedules, and expecting very high output from everyone involved. When a game enters its “crunch period,” which often begins several months before the project's completion, you may face grueling hours, seven-day workweeks, and even an occasional all-nighter. During the past 15 years, I've slept on the floor of my office a half-dozen times and have worked past midnight at least 200 times.
As an in-demand freelance composer, Griskey has had his share of taxing schedules and insane deadlines. But, he observes, “it's the same in the film and TV worlds. It's hard to keep the balance between work and personal time, but luckily I get to do something I really enjoy for a living, so it makes the craziness easier to handle.”
Peer pressure plays an important role in working long hours. Successful professionals take pride in their sense of responsibility, never wanting to let down the game team. Audio production is a customer-service discipline, and it is supremely important to do what you say you are going to do, when you say you are going to do it.
However, there comes a point in the lives of many game-audio pros when a new priority trumps the overarching desire to please the game team at all costs: parenthood. The moment my son Julian was born, I knew that I had a new responsibility that was more important than any other: to give him the love, guidance, and personal time necessary for him to grow straight and true. Ironically, part of this responsibility includes having a stable income stream and medical benefits to provide for his needs, so working has become more important than ever before.
Interestingly, I think I've become a more effective audio director as a result. The desire to spend quality time as a parent compels me to find more-effective time-management strategies, whether it be through creating realistic schedules, hiring more freelance help when necessary, or simply getting it right the first time more often. There are still unavoidable crunches, but setting appropriate work boundaries can result in a better product, because a fresh, rested group is more creative.
Kwasneski, who is a single parent of two, agrees. “Sometimes there is no avoiding a crunch,” he admits, “but I find that if you plan your resources well and are not overextended, you can avoid some of the more nightmarish times. As with anything in life, you need to know when to say, ‘Enough.'' Remember that it's easy to burn out if you don't allow yourself downtime.”
As the game industry matures, more professionals across all disciplines face similar family needs. According to Collins, LucasArts Entertainment's management realizes that they can't just burn out their staff because, he says, “we would lose all of our talent that way. We are very careful to make sure that we have the staff that we need and that we work reasonable hours and keep crunch times down to a minimum.” Felton feels that Sony shares that approach. “Some companies do a better job than others supporting a healthy work/life balance,” he says. “I'm happy to say that SCEA sees value in personal time off.” Such a philosophy represents a significant improvement over the situation found in much of the game industry just a few years ago.
You Gotta Love It
I recently saw a drummer packing up after a solo street performance. His setup was enormous, including a huge kit, a gong, ancillary percussion, a large P.A., merchandise tables, and a portable riser. The effort to simply put everything away after giving his all onstage was impressive. He mentioned that he did about 20 performances per month. I marveled over the sustained effort that he put in. His response was simple: “It beats flipping burgers.”
You have to feel driven to work in game audio. It can be enormously tedious and stressful and filled with disappointments and difficulties. However, it can also be supremely satisfying when you realize that you have just contributed materially to an excellent game that millions of people will enjoy. That will put a spring in your step for weeks — which is how long you will need to recover from the crunch period that was required to complete the project. But you will be making your living doing what you love — and it certainly beats flipping burgers!
Nick Peck is a sound designer, composer, audio engineer, and keyboardist. He is currently serving as audio director of Underground Development, an Activision studio, and has been involved in interactive audio and film for over 15 years. Peck's new album of jazz/funk Hammond organ, Fire Trucks I Have Known, is available on CD Baby.