The Game Audio Career
by Composer & Sound Designer Nathan Madsen
If you're reading this then you obviously have some interest in video game audio. That or you're really bored and waiting to be called for that doctor apt. Video games, while still a relatively young industry, has exploded into a business that is highly complicated, risky, extremely rewarding, lucrative and a great deal of fun. But it can be hard to know where to start and even once you've achieved take off there will come times when you have to reorientate yourself, figure out what's next and how best to keep this crazy train moving forward. Here are ten brief but helpful tips that I've learned on my way.
#1 - Network, network, network!
This business is very much about who you know just as much as it is about what you know. My friend, and fellow composer, Dan Reynolds put it this way "your job is to be known" Probably can't say it much better than that! However be careful with how you network. There's a right way and a wrong way. Basically what you want to always do is bring attention to yourself and your work. What you don't want to do is create negative attention. I've seen some young(er) composer-sound designers make outrageous claims like "internationally renowned composer available for projects!" and yet nobody in the industry has heard of him, he only has a Myspace page for his online presence and his samples, to be honest, sound like crap. Instantly this guy has lost a great deal of credibility. Don't do this! We all started from somewhere and even industry pros understand that at first you don't have many credits, clients or PR materials. You available gear will be limited too. That's okay! Work with what you have to the best of your ability. But lying or inflating your reputation can only back fire on you.
There are many ways to network so try to think creatively and avoid just using the "hire me!" approach. Speaking at conferences, taking part in online forums and communities, entering contests, writing tutorials, books and articles, conducting polls, announcing released game projects, sharing audio projects that are outside of the game industry (such as films, CDs, etc) are all ways to have exposure without using a “hire me” approach. Also be careful to not over saturate the market. While you do want to be known you don't want to be seen everywhere all of the time.
#2 Keep your demo materials updated.
This ties in closely with the first point. Having an up to date portfolio, or even relatively up to date, really helps you be ready for sudden job opportunities. I once had a good friend apply for a graphic designer job with the company I worked at. The job wasn't posted online yet so I was able to give my friend the inside scoop and a heads start on the competition. The only problem? I didn't know he hadn't updated his demo reel in five years and didn't have an online portfolio at all. He worked until 3AM the night before cramming his stuff into a sloppy demo disc. Needlessly to say the demo he was able to produce didn't have the polish, professionalism or impact he wanted. Even worse he had some better material that didn't make it on to the demo reel due to last minute technical issues. He was frazzled, ill-prepared, stressed, tired and thus didn't get the job offer.
Save yourself the trouble. Keep your stuff updated so you can reply almost instantly to a job opening.
Side note: Do NOT use Myspace, Facebook, Soundcloud, Soundclick or any other free generic website as your sole online portfolio. This doesn't look professional and doesn't help make you unique. Instead using these websites as satellites that orbit and point towards your custom, unique website.
#3 - Keep the value of your work high.
If you spend any amount of time freelancing in this industry you're going to run into clients that want everything super fast, super cheap and of very high quality. The old saying is:
Pick two: Fast -- Cheap -- High Quality
Part of your job, especially as a freelancer, is to ensure that clients view your skill set and talents at a high value. Does this mean ripping off the clients? Absolutely not. But a client shouldn't be able to rip you off as well. Audio gear can be (and usually is) very experience. Add in the fact that there is always some new software or hardware coming out and the need to continually invest in your studio is high. On top of that you're doing a task and using skills the isn't all that common. How many people do you know that can produce a professional level music track? How many top notch voice actors do you know? What about sound designers? Compare this with how many people could perform a simple data entry job? Can work a desk job?
I'm not going to say “do not work for free.” But I will warn you against doing that too much. Working for free devalues your work, skill set, investment in your gear and it also lowers the value of our industry. I've heard from many young(er) audio guys that they feel they have to work for free to start up. I disagree. Even charging five dollars per track of music is something. Or construct a clause where they only have limited use of the track and create a situation where an exchange of services/goods happens. “I'll write this 3 minute track for your game for non-exclusive rights and you'll create a new portfolio website for me.” When you tie value to your work, the client will take you more seriously. When you don't, all they'll see you as is expendable.
Here's a slightly off-topic analogy: In Grand Theft Auto you can steal almost any car and drive it around. If you smash it into a building it doesn't matter. Just go and steal another one. However in real life very few people treat their own cars in this way. (Unless you're really, really rich.) There isn't any value tied to the cars in GTA and they're easily replaced. You don't want someone to feel that way about you and your work. Make sure they see the value of choosing you over the next guy.
#4 - Know thy gear!
I'm intentionally not focusing on any particular program or set up since there are so many options out there - but you need to know your set up! If you don't know what program(s) will suit you best then download trial versions of the software and take them out for a spin. Everyone works in a unique way and each program has it's own set up strengths and weaknesses. One bit of advice about software: they're like different brands of shoes or bikes. They all basically do the same thing but the actual steps or names of the functions may differ somewhat. A cool side note about working with various audio programs is that it can help you become more flexible when working in-house. I've worked in two different in-house situations where both already had studios set up. This means I had to come in and work on their gear and since I've worked on a wide variety of software set ups, this wasn't a problem.
#5 - Under commit, over perform!
Simple concept. If you think a game project is going to take three weeks to score, then estimate five weeks to the client. Then, if possible, turn in the score in two. Sometimes this approach works well, sometimes not. With some projects I was able to seriously exceed the client's expectations which creates a win-win for everyone involved. For other projects there were “uh-oh” moments and having those extra weeks of buffer time proved invaluable. Remember it is all about setting the right expectations!
#6 - Over communicate.
I've never had a client tell me: “you communicate too much.” If anything, my fast responses to emails and constant input/output has been seen as a positive. The best way to avoid completely missing the target is to have a clear idea of the game's needs and direction. I've seen some audio directors/leads/freelancers hide away in their studio and not share any audio elements with the crew whatsoever until the very last minute. This does two things:
A) It does keep control over the audio content in your hands, but...
B) ...it creates a non-team player atmosphere or impression which can hurt your standing with the crew.
It can also put the game in a bad spot if your audio doesn't mesh or match the game at all. What if the project's leadership hates your audio and wants everything changed with
only two weeks left of the dev cycle? You could be looking at a good deal of work in a very short amount of time. That or causing the project to miss it's deadline. Either one isn't preferable. Communicate before starting the project to get the best vision of the game then communicate during production to ensure you're still on track.
#7 - Keep control of the audio.
This point may seem to contradict with the previous one but that's the difficult and careful balance of game audio development. You are the audio person. They hired you for your audio expertise. But the project management wants to sign off on the audio material, and rightfully so. It is up to you to find that delicate balance of getting feedback and approval from the project leadership while also maintaining that this is your content and area of expertise. Good communication can really help set the right expectations, make the team feel involved and valued (with regards to their opinions to the audio) and help you keep your audio vision intact.
The last thing you want is each team member feeling like they can steer the audio direction. Especially with large(r) teams this can, and usually does, lead to chaos.
#8 - Always meet the deadline!
I don't care if you have to pull an all-nighter. It doesn't matter if the new levels just got checked in the day before the deadline. If you've agreed to a said deadline - MEET IT! Because if you don't, the small details won't matter. What is going to matter is what content didn't meet the deadline. You don't want that to be your stuff!
Simple as that.
#9 - Be likable.
This sounds like a given but be a nice person. Be likable. This doesn't mean be fake or be everyone's best friend but you should make a point to be social with your team members. Go out for drinks. Take part in company/team events. Talk about things outside of the game project. The more a team knows you as a person the better they can relate to you. This will help when discussing project-related topics as well as make you more memorable than if you are completely shut off and only stay inside your audio cave. You are going to come across all kinds of people in the game industry. Always try to leave each of them with a positive view of you and your work!
#10 - Don't be afraid to walk away or say no.
While definitely a last resort, you should never feel like you have to work under conditions that are unfair or inappropriate. I had one client that I had worked on a number of projects together with that started to treat me in an aggressive, abusive manner. Every audio request was always a rush job, he talked down to me and wanted to pay me very low rates. Since he was a repeat client I tried to work with him as well as figure out an agreeable situation for both of us. He refused to hear any of my suggestions and yelled at me for a while calling me names and insulting me. It was at this point that I told him that it was probably best if we didn't work together anymore. I left the project (which still hasn't launched nearly five months later by the way) and I haven't worked or talked with him since. While I hate losing a client, it became a situation that was much more harmful than beneficial. Don't let people take advantage of you. Don't let people disrespect you. You're better than that. End things professionally in writing and then move on. In the end it will be their loss, not yours.
So there you go. Short and sweet. If I had to give any last parting advice it would be to remember that the game industry is always changing. The methods used, the gear and software available, the type of games that are selling well as well as the people working in this industry are ALWAYS changing. Try to remember that when you're working with others. You never know when someone may go from associate programmer to project lead of a successful game so work hard, treat people with respect and have fun! It's a great and crazy ride!
Nathan Madsen is an award winning composer-sound designer who has worked on over 140 projects in the video game, anime and indie film markets. On top of audio work, Nathan has written articles for various game audio books, hosted two video game composition competitions, taught college audio classes and taken part in a lecture series at Austin GDC. More info and samples of his work can be found at: www.madsenstudios.com.