How to become a sound designer in the games industry
I get asked this question a lot so I thought it'd be worth having a page here with some info on this subject. However, ex-Rockstar North Senior Sound Designer and Dialogue Supervisor, Will Morton of Solid Audioworks wrote an excellent article on Gamasutra in August 2015, summarising this topic better than I ever could. With his permission, I've reproduced it here.
Any questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch.
Make Some Noise! Getting a Job Creating Sound and Music for Videogames.
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.
(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:
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.
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?
Most companies these days have a section on their website for jobs or careers, and quite often those that aren't currently advertising audio roles have a way of contacting their recruitment team as they may be keen to be approached by high quality people at any time. Elsewhere in this article I have mentioned about specific jobs and making sure you understand exactly what you are applying for and what sort of demo the company will require so I won't repeat myself. Instead I will give a few pointers about contacting companies who ask for general applications when they aren't advertising specific roles.
First, don't spam them. 'Copy and paste' letters will come across as just that. Humans will be dealing with your application, so make it sound human and again you must tailor it to the company. Even though these types of invitations for applications usually won't say what they expect on a showreel, you can usually take a guess at what would be relevant and what wouldn't be. Using music as an example, a company that makes a long-standing FPS set in the future is less likely to need some expertly produced Country & Western songs than orchestral or synth music. However, don't assume that the Country songs won't be relevant - who is to say that the company hasn't announced their plan to branch out into Wild West FPS games, for which your music skills may be more relevant? Deal with this by making your demo varied enough to show your skill and versatility, but organise it in such a way that what you think is most relevant for the company's projects comes first.
If you apply to a company directly you might find you wait weeks or months for a response, if you receive one at all. I personally think it's a shame when companies don't acknowledge receipt of an application or notify you of an unsuccessful application, but it does unfortunately happen. The key is to not stress about it and don't pin all your hopes on one job. By all means drop the company an email or give them a quick phone call to ask for a status update if you haven't heard anything after a few weeks, but don't be pushy. If you feel like you're getting fobbed-off, don't harass the company for more info.
To give you a very made-up example of what might be happening behind the scenes while you are cursing the company for not replying to you in a fortnight, imagine this scenario. A company is working on a game, a major deadline is 7 or 8 months away and they need some more staff to make sure the game gets through crunch on time and in a decent state. The job ads go out, applications roll in, and then the publisher surprises the team with a new 'request' - they want everything put on hold to prepare a highly-polished demo to show to the press (which will of course be happening in a month). The leads of each department, who would have been dealing with the applications to find people to interview, suddenly find themselves pulled back into the game's production and the applications are put on hold. The application you sent is going to be the most important thing to you, but at the same time the company's priorities may have changed and your application isn't as important to them *at that time* than it was when the job was advertised. That's not to say that the applications won't become important again when the deadline passes - some companies will be open about it, others will not, but no company wants to be dealing with phone calls or emails from someone unnecessarily pushy. There is a fine line between being 'keen' and being pushy.
There are a few agencies that supply staff to game development studios here in the UK, of which OPM Recruitment and Aardvark Swift are perhaps the two most prominent. A long time ago I got my first in-house game audio job via Aardvark Swift, and although I didn't seek work through OPM I have had more recent discussions with one of their senior consultants Daniel Fox, so this information is as current and as accurate as can be. Another disclaimer - where I may say 'agencies' I am specifically referring to my experience of Aardvark Swift from 15 years ago and from more recent conversations with OPM Recruitment. I cannot speak for all game agencies, and if you are considering using an agency you should speak to the agency directly first to make sure you understand how they work and that you are happy with everything before proceeding.
When I was successfully placed by an agency nearly 15 years ago, I discovered I had completely the wrong idea about how agencies work in the game industry. I had been warned away from using agencies by people from other industries and I was told many horror stories... agencies charging companies a fortune but hardly anything going to the worker, workers having fewer employment rights, blah blah... I found out that this was not the case for video game agencies. It is probably easier to think of agencies as talent-scouts, and it is their job to funnel suitable high-quality applicants to companies that have jobs to fill.
Reputable agencies for video game staff will be asked by companies to help fill their toughest vacancies, and the agency will act as a filter between applicant and employer by only submitting applications from people who are genuinely suitable for the job. However, Daniel Fox from OPM explained that agencies don't get all roles from a studio. Many studios handle graduate roles themselves as they will get a flood of applications, but you will also get studios that will ask for agency help for the same reason: they don’t have time to sort through bags full of applications to find the handful of gems. The key is though, agencies don't get asked to fill 'easy' roles.
Once the agency has successfully placed a member of staff with a company, the company pays the agency a fee for bringing the successful applicant to them. In simple terms, the agency gets a finder's fee. The fee the agency is paid by the company is based on a percentage of what the applicant's salary is. I have to make it clear at this point that this fee does not affect what the applicant gets paid - it is a separate fee entirely and doesn't come out of the applicant's wages or anything like that. If you apply for a £30,000 a year job, if you get the job you then you get £30,000 a year whether you go through an agency or directly to the employer. Employers hiring via agencies will already have budgeted to pay this finder's fee, so it won't affect the amount an applicant is paid.
Agencies will know of many more job openings than you will be able to find on your own, agencies can help guide you through the application process, and assuming you get this far agencies can advise on the interview process. A positive of using agencies from the company-side is that a good agency will only send applications for people who are genuinely suitable for the job, which lessens the amount of effort the company has to do when wading through the piles of job applications they receive. When I spoke to friends in the industry who are in positions where they hire staff, they all said that dealing with irrelevant or unsuitable applications from people who are simply 'hoping for the best' is by far the biggest turn-off for them as employers.
Using an agency is not an autopilot process for applicants - it really helps to be communicative with agencies and for you to be organised with your applications and the applications the agency is making on your behalf. Daniel Fox told me it is especially important that junior types follow their own leads, as well as using an agency in tandem. If people do use more than one agency then it's essential they keep a list of where their CV has gone, how a company was applied to (direct or agency) and on what date. Duplication should always be avoided which is why it is key to work with agencies that are willing to communicate with the candidates as to where they will send CVs, getting their permission in the first place.
I should also point out that reputable agencies will not automatically take on any applicant that approaches them. During our conversations, Daniel Fox said at OPM he frequently sees applications from people who may have one or two pages of credits (usually TV or film) but they may not have much, if any, video game experience. Experience will never count against you, so while you may be looking at employment in the games industry your film and TV credits won't hurt things, but it's not as valuable on its own as having game credits on your CV too. Similarly, if you ever want to move from game audio to film or TV audio it won't do any harm to have a bunch of game audio credits mixed in with the TV and film work you've done. This again brings me to point out that in the video game audio industry having relevant experience is absolutely vital. Simply being a good musician does not necessarily make you a good video game musician. Get some relevant experience, either in your own time or while you are at college, and it will help you go a long way.
Transferring from another department
'Another department' basically means QA (Quality Assurance, or the testing team). Quite often junior vacancies on teams can be filled with people from QA. What usually happens is that teams will require a bit of help with a task, either long term or short term, which can be done by any capable person who is keen to learn. QA staff usually have a really high percentage of people who are very organised and meticulous (it's the nature of their job) so tasks such as testing certain sound systems in a particular way, or even logging or processing data, are a good fit for them.
The next time the department needs a temporary extra pair of hands they'll likely go back to the person who they know from working with before. I have heard of this sort of arrangement happening over and over, with several members of QA staff eventually transferring into junior roles in their new department permanently. When borrowing QA staff, departments will usually have an idea of who they might like to work with - you deal with so many bugs that you soon get a feel for testers who are good at reporting audio issues (which shows they have a good pair of ears and are conscious of audio detail).
Being transferred from QA to a permanent audio role is the least reliable way to get into game audio, and probably the most time-consuming (if it will ever happen at all), but it *does* happen so I am at least putting it in this article for completeness. I absolutely do not recommend getting a job in QA with the sole intention of using it as a 'foot in the door' to eventually being transferred into another department, but if you did take a temp role as a tester you would find that being in QA does mean you get to see game development from all facets so it can be quite an education.
Social networking is one thing but for freelancers in particular, actual networking in person to get a job is arguably as important as having the skills to do the job in the first place. There are tons of books and articles available on the subject of business networking so get on Google and see what you find. Just this second I searched for 'how to network as a creative' and that brought up a ton of promising results. Read what you can, and work on your social skills.
While I'm not going to pretend to be an expert at networking when there is so much excellent information out there already, I'm not going to fob you off with 'Google is your friend'. My personal experience successfully networking in game audio is to simply make friends with people. People like to work with people that they are not only familiar with but that they personally like, and if two people with identical skills applied for a job it's going to be the person who is most liked that is hired.
If you meet someone new at an event or a conference, connect with them some way (LinkedIn, Twitter, email) and drop them a short message after the event. Making friends is so much better than simply forcing your business card on everyone you shake hands with. Be friends with people and you will likely be told about jobs as soon as they are advertised, and sometimes you may be simply recommended for a job by another audio designer that has to turn down the work for whatever reason. Friends are good.
As for places to go, GDC (Game Developers Conference) in the spring is the big development conference in America, and one of the biggest in the UK is Develop Conference in the summer, and a game audio-specific convention is GameSoundCon. There are plenty of events to try out though, you don't have to limit yourself to the big ones. Get on Twitter and follow game development people and teams as you will often see tweets from developers saying they are going to such-and-such event - conferences, conventions, meet-ups. It's easy to find events, and easy to get a feel for what the events are like (YouTube often has videos from previous events, so you can see what you are letting yourself in for). If you are new to game development conferences, make sure you do this research early - you will often need to schedule a few days to do a conference, including travel if you don't live near main cities, and there is often a lot of extra details to be sorted out when going to a conference.
This is another area where things can differ wildly from company to company. Some companies may be happy with one interview, some may require several. Some will interview over Skype, some (especially companies within reasonable travelling distance) need in-person interviews, or a combination of both. Some companies may have work tests to verify you can do what your CV or resume claims you can do. Basically, there is no single set of guidance I can offer for how to deal with this.
In my experience, for 'in the trenches' game development roles, you won't need to dress up in a suit. Of course you should ask the company how you should turn up, but generally as long as you are clean and tidy and have good hygiene that's usually all you need. It's unlikely you'll be sat wearing a suit to work, and nobody else will be either.
Assuming that your demo has got you through the door and you have the skills to demonstrate that you can do the job, the main thing your interviewers will be looking for is whether they would actually like to work with you or not. In-house staff may end up working very long hours at busy parts of the project, and you want to be sure that you enjoy working with the people you are stuck in an office with. You have to be likeable, and you need to be able to work with people.
Just because you're used to spending hours on end working on your own in a studio you shouldn't assume that you will be doing the same in a game development studio. Fryda Wolff, a video game sound designer of nine years turned voice actor, summed this up nicely. Fryda told me "Unfortunately some audio people will exhibit loner behaviour and will not want to share and interact with their co-workers on an audio team, as a way of claiming ownership over their work. Video games by their very nature are an assembly line job which require the cooperation of many people and teams. An audio worker can sabotage themselves by closing themselves off to working with the rest of the team. Qualities that impress me most are the willingness to mentor others or to learn from others, regardless of seniority or pedigree. When audio team-mates choose not to feel threatened by each other, they can accomplish so much more."
Being able to work as part of the audio team isn't just the end of it, either. You will also need to communicate and work effectively with other departments. I have often said that the people who know most about a game are usually the audio folk. You need to be able to work with everyone from QA, to design, to script, to art, to code. Jason Poss, who has worked on games such as World of Warcraft and Assassin's Creed 2 told me "Sometimes people fail to understand that having technical and creative skills is only part of the job. Being able communicate effectively and deal with other people in a pleasant, professional, and respectful manner is often just as important."
As well as being likeable, you also have to show that you want the job for more reasons than getting a wage at the end of the month. I have been in interviews where applicants have turned up and demonstrated they know absolutely *nothing* about games. This is not only that they don't know about the games the company they are interviewing with creates (bad enough) but that they don't know anything about games at all. Amazingly, some people I have seen in interviews said things like "Nah, I don't really play video games, that's more my nephew's thing". Game developers are usually gamers, or at the very least they are ex-gamers, so you really want to be excited about the same things that the people interviewing you are. At the absolute minimum you should educate yourself about the company you have applied to and their products.
Hints and tips
When I began writing this article I asked several friends and colleagues in game audio if they had any bits of advice they wish they knew when they started their careers, what they wish applicants knew before applying to them for jobs, and how they got their break in game audio. Here are some of the things they passed on to me. There is a lot of information here, and you will notice that some of the points are similar. I kept it like this rather than delete them as I think it's important to demonstrate that nearly twenty experienced game audio staff from different companies in different countries are all looking for the same things.
On getting a break:
"My first game audio gig came on the floor of E3 when a composer overheard me talking to someone else about work I had done for films. It was a lucky coincidence of being in the right place at the right time and accidentally being heard saying the right things."
"I was asked to do a rough "pitch" as part of an interview process and landed the job freelancing on a few AAA games. I thought I'd be a smart ass and delivered two different UI/HUD treatments rather than just one, each with a different approach. One of them was predominantly synthesised and the other was predominantly based on my own manipulated recordings (in other words I ran round my house recording sounds and then pissed about with them) but they seemed to appreciated the extra effort I put in and hired me."
"Go to as many industry and social events as you can handle, it's all about who you know. Also try to find a niche nobody else has exploited yet. I emailed a big London YouTuber on a whim and by meeting more people through word of mouth, YouTube content is approximately 1/2 of my income now. Also some of those YouTubers have started financing and making their own games - even better!"
"I was in bands and DJing when I was younger, always wanted to get into game audio, so I made a point of attempting to network with people who were doing it. When I got out of school I took an internship at a traditional post house, but kept networking aggressively and beating on every door I could. Eventually one of my contacts became aware of an opening and connected me. I worked on a Tony Hawk game and, after that, found it much easier to get my foot in the door."
On networking & friends:
"Participate in the community, come to game audio events, get to know your peers. Know that the industry exchanges jobs constantly. Do not treat peers as threats or enemies. Always be learning and experimenting."
"If you want to get a job in game sound/music it takes trust, and trust is established over time when you build sincere relationships with other people."
"Hone your craft. Be wonderful to everyone you meet along the way: Remember 'networking' isn't something you do in an evening handing out business cards; it's a lifelong cultivation of contacts with people you're genuinely interested in."
"Be kind. Make friends. Be helpful. It's a marathon, not a sprint."
"Make friends, contribute to the community, learn everything you can about game audio and game development. Be helpful, respectful, and humble. It's not about you as an individual trying to be a star, it's about the team and the project. If someone helps you, show appreciation."
"The most important thing is a combination of someone who has *clearly* put masses of time in on their own and also is just generally friendly. The last thing you want is someone who is either aggressive and self-aggrandising, or sycophantic / pathetic. If you're not comfortable in social situations it's worth taking some time to work on that - go out to more events, hang out with people more, try to relax and be yourself."
"Don't give up easily. This is a highly competitive field, and I saw people give up in the first year because they didn't get anywhere, while I saw other people succeed after years of effort. While you aren't working in games, that is your chance to better yourself, build your friend network and improve your skills and experience."
"Don't hang your hat solely on games. Learn how to do other music/audio related jobs (ProTip: live sound doesn't pay a ton of money, but the barrier to entry for making money is pretty low). Not only does this give you a bit of a backstop in case times get rough and you have to pay rent, but it also broadens your experiences, exposes you to new people (who may coincidentally have game industry connections) and, most-importantly, gets you in the mindset of being a freelancer, which is imperative even for those people who have permanent in-house jobs. No matter what your employment situation, you should always be networking and always be looking for new opportunities, even if you don't have much interest in taking them now."
"I used to hear a lot of demos sent in by people who only seemed to be able to do one thing. If you are going to be working on lots of different projects in different genres, then you have to adapt your style to suit. So, if this versatility can be demonstrated in a showreel demo, then I would be more impressed."
"Work on your own stuff! So easy now to download a free engine and join an indie team. Having actual game work that you've done is a much better thing to show prospective employers than just a video showreel."
"If you want to get a job in game audio, just to do work - always have examples to show to people rather than just talking the talk."
"I often see sound design demos that are poor quality. If you're going to do a sound replacement video, make sure you can at least do as good a job as the original game did. We play a lot of games, we will have played what you’ve replaced, so it better impress. Interactive demos are best, we don't see those very often and they always catch our eye when we do. Send us shipped work, but if you're doing demo work that wasn't shipped, tailor it to what we're doing. Use spell check, be clear and concise and organized, keep your resume to one page (I've worked on 15 games now and even I would try to keep it to one page)."
"Have a kick-ass portfolio - all killer no filler - and do work placements. Be ready to learn fast and take a lot of criticism well."
"Be flexible with your demo material and submit demo material that fits the genre of the position you are applying for. I've had demo reels showcasing FPS war games and Radio Advertising when applying for High Fantasy MMORPG titles. Check your production quality. I've had demo reels with quite poor quality sound design. Bad quality is a waste of your time and the employers time. I've seen some very boring demo reels where there was little variation in sound design, and long drawn out areas of silence or repetitive sound design. You have 30 seconds to make an impression so make it a relevant and good impression."
"Aiming for a sound design demo you need to showcase your sound design work without extra music on top. That will help the employer to see only the sound creation skills."
"Don't settle for mixes that fail to stand up against well regarded commercial work. That's the level you need to be at."
On experience and qualifications:
"Be honest about the limits to your knowledge and experience. A willingness to admit that you don't know something reveals much about your character. Sell your strong points, but nobody expects you to know everything. Trying to look like you know it all often ends up telling more about what you don't know!"
"I wish I knew how little people cared about degrees once you've got a decent portfolio under your belt - it's mostly about who you know and the work you've done. I put a lot of time and effort in to my degree and got pretty much the best marks possible and nobody has really asked about it since! I wish I'd started getting in touch with people and putting myself out there far earlier on by getting involved with small indie games and short films whilst at University. It would be a great way to learn the ropes in a less pressured environment whilst also developing a nice portfolio of work."
"I wish I had learned other skills like sound design and audio engineering earlier as I had only focused on being a composer and never knew how much I'd love sound design and technical sound design. Audio engineering really helped in terms of audio theory and improving my general quality."
On learning audio middleware:
"In order to be even more valuable to a game team, having scripting and programming knowledge and ability makes an audio person exponentially more valuable to a game team, particularly when working in house. It is more difficult to justify one's cost to the team when one also requires the cost of extensive audio programmer support."
"I wish I would have started learning FMOD/Wwise a bit earlier."
"Look at all of the free game engines and audio middleware and become familiar, as this is what you spend lots of your time doing - you need to be good. Do your homework and make sure you know all aspects of the job, there are enough resources on-line to get you to good junior level."
"People from traditional media usually stumble over some of the more unique tech or implementation challenges we have in game audio. So either learn that stuff yourself, or team up with someone who knows it cold. There's no such thing as 'too much implementation knowledge' in game audio."
"Play lots of games. Understand how music contributes to gameplay and the compositional tools that are behind that. Understand the basics of implementing adaptive music, so that you have "visualization" tools by which to try out your music, and get better at the interactive piece of game music. Don't follow the pack. Strike out and find your own bold and unique style."
"Implementation is (at least) 50% of the sound design process - technical skills are as important as creative."
"Prepare for a very long haul to get your first gig. It will likely take years. If you're a sound designer, work on your sound design skills as well as implementation. Find mods or indie projects to work on."
"People don't go to enough effort to learn games tech. There's plenty of it accessible for free these days so there's really no excuse."
"Learn to program a bit - that will really give you an edge. I wish I'd started learning programming earlier and that I was better at maths. I was surprised at how much time is spent *not* doing sound design."
"Get your hands dirty! Working with XNA developers was a real learning experience for me on almost every level, and was invaluable. It is also advisable that you tinker around with the game engines available - I followed a few tutorials and created my own UDK engine level, complete with animations. This will give you a greater understanding of how game engines (and development) work. Audio for games is a very technical endeavour - creating your sounds is only half the battle!"
"Work on the interactive side of things. In games the focus is more on interactivity so a good place to start is to make variations of the same sounds using Wwise and creating mechanics for navigation, music, etc. that could be implemented in a game. I wish that I started working in an interactive middleware when I started working in sound."
Assorted bits of advice:
"If you're looking to go in-house, look local - try to get savvy about what your local developers need and when in the project cycle they'd need it."
"Don't get discouraged if you don't land a job at a AAA studio right out of school! We (GameSoundCon) did a survey last fall (http://www.gamesoundcon.com/#!survey/c1hp9), which showed that the average # of years of experience for "AAA" game audio developers is almost 11 years. So be patient, practice and put yourself into a position to make your own luck."
"Take every chance you can get, but don't sell yourself short."
"Before applying for a job in game audio, make sure you REALLY REALLY REALLY want to do it. There are far more people trying to get these jobs than there are jobs available, so you're in a flooded market. Be sure this is what really motivates you to get out of bed in the morning. If you just think it 'might be cool' or that it's 'better than a normal job' then go do something else."
"I've been surprised by the overwhelming positive response I've received to sticking to my principles of making music that can stand up *outside* the game. If you make music that is good in its own right, that someone can listen to in a different context, people will always respond to that."
"This is largely a time and motivation issue: if the jobs aren't there that you want then do your best to create them. Do it yourself. Start your own development or production company, make your own contacts, learn things yourself."
"Make sure you're better than everyone else: spend longer learning, put in more hours producing and composing music, get as much information as you can from experienced people; be willing to spend money to work with an amazing engineer, producer or mastering engineer. You will learn more working on an actual project than you will on any course. Be open, friendly and self-confident when you attend events or meet people: get yourself out there and be persistent but polite. A lot of people at industry events are in a very relaxed mood and will be happy to hang out and chat, as long as you don't come across as annoying or overbearing. Again, make sure your music is outrageously good in comparison to other stuff out there - that way people giving you critique will be much more motivated to engage with you. Keep trying and don't give up."
Well, there you have it. That's a lot of information distilled from nearly 15 years of my own game audio experience plus countless nuggets from many other game audio professionals. I hope it gives the aspiring game sound designers and game composers who feel lost a push in the right direction.
If you have any questions, and I am sure that there will be some, please ask in the comments and I will do my best to answer or clear things up. If you want to speak to me directly, you can reach me through the Solid Audioworks website and our Facebook page, and you can always follow us on Twitter.
I would like to thank the following people for the gems of advice they shared while I was writing this article.
Duncan Bradshaw, @ZerodB_Sound
Yannis Brown, firstname.lastname@example.org
Guy Cockcroft, email@example.com
Craig Conner, @craigconner01
Eric Goetz, www.ericgoetz.com
Steven Hernandez, gugasaudio.blogspot.ca
Kole Hicks, @kolemusician
Mark Kilborn, @markkilborn
Paul Kilduff-Taylor, @mode7games
Jason Poss, @jasonposs
Dan Pugsley, @DanPugsleySound
Brian Schmidt, www.GameSoundCon.com
Chris Sweetman, www.sweetjusticesound.com
Michael Taylor, @Stomp224
Jon Vincent, rare.co.uk
Fryda Wolff, frydawolff.com