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Getting Into Game Audio Part 1: Know Thyself

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This post is part of a series called Getting Into Game Audio (Premium).
Getting Into Game Audio Part 2: Sell Thyself

Not a day goes by that I'm not grateful for my employment in the game industry. My story isn't particularly unique, but I do feel fortunate that I'm able to make a living doing something I love.

Every so often, I'll get the question, "How can I break into the game industry?" This question usually comes from a young and aspiring musician or audio designer, though I've also been asked by visual artists, animators and programmers. Likewise, this question can be found all over the web in forums, video game blogs, and community websites.

flickr image by farnea

Truth be told, there are more resources available for the aspiring game developer than ever before, and the market has never been more rich with opportunities. When we think of game development, perhaps we typically think of large-scale console or PC games. However, it is good to remember that there is an absolutely stunning amount of development going on for web, casual, downloadable, iPhone, Windows Phone, Android, and so on.

Even so, I believe that there's still room for more information on game audio. While there are a number of fantastic resources available on the web and in print, I believe the question "How do I get into the industry?" remains for many individuals.

This series will be educational and biographical. I'm going to share with you my path into the game industry, and offer you some of the wisdom, experience, and knowledge I've acquired in that short time.

I'm no celebrity, nor do I consider myself an industry veteran. But I am happily working in the game industry, and getting paid to do what I love. I've met and worked with some of the best and brightest talents in the industry, and I've even gotten to work on some really fun games. I am writing this series to share my story, my ideas, and my philosophies with you, in the hopes that it will help you get to where YOU want to be.

A few short years ago I sat, despondent, in my bedroom studio, wondering when I would ever be able to stop working a 'day job' and get paid to do a job that I actually enjoyed. Then came the moment when I made the commitment to myself to make it happen: I would become a professional game audio designer. My story isn't much different than most: I grew up playing videogames, with fond memories of Colecovision, Atari, NES and trips to the Nickel Arcades. I also grew up loving and making music. And so it goes: what better way to marry your vocation and avocation? Audio + Games - seemed like a match made in heaven. If you're reading this, and know where I'm coming from, then I'm here to tell you that no matter what anyone tells you, it IS possible to get a gig in the game industry. I hope to help you get there.

Part 1: Know Thyself

"Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

If you've read this far, I'm going to make a couple of assumptions about you. You a) like music or audio production, b) like working with computers and making them make noise, c) like video games and want to get into the industry or d) some combination of all of the above. When you're starting out in game development, the most powerful tool you have at your disposal is a clear understanding of your goals, your intentions, your talents and your weaknesses. If you have clearly defined each of these for yourself, and consistently act from that knowledge, your path into the industry will be much easier. Let's go into a bit more detail about what that means.

flickr image by atxjen

Knowing Your Intentions

Ask yourself this question: "Why do I want a job in the Game Audio Industry?" Really sit with that question for a moment, and say the answer out loud to yourself. If you don't have a solid answer, I highly suggest taking some time to iron it out. Without a solid intention, your trek into this industry will be long and arduous. It is your intention that gives you clarity, focus and motivation to keep moving forward. Without it your energies will be scattered, unable to assist you in getting the job you want.

If you do have an answer to that question, write it down in the form of a goal statement and hang it somewhere visible where you will read it every day. It might read something like, "I want to get into game audio because I have a passion for creating music and designing sound effects. I also love videogames and their ability to tell stories and relay experiences to so many different people. I want to be able to share my talents by helping to craft these experiences, while getting PAID to do it!" With this goal statement at hand, you know exactly what you want to do and why you want to do it. That level of clarity will give your efforts a very defined channel of expression, and with that you'll find doors opening sooner than you even expected.

A Word About Role Definitions In Game Audio

There's something I want to clarify about game audio before we proceed any further. You must understand the difference between an audio designer and composer. Simply speaking, audio designers take care of the game sound effects. This can include, but is not necessarily limited to, background sound effects and ambience, character animation sound effects, special effects and weapons, scripting and implementation of sound assets, dialog/voiceover recording and editing, etc. Generally speaking, a composer will compose, orchestrate, and sometimes record and produce the music of the title. This will include cinematics, in-game background music, stingers (short musical phrases which emphasis particular moments), etc.

Depending on the developer, and whether or not you're contracting or working in-house, these tasks may be more or less specific, and will (on the rare occasion) overlap. It is important, however, for you to understand that the demand for experienced audio designers outpaces the demand for experienced composers by at least a factor of 10. In fact, I rarely see job postings for composers. The vast majority of composing gigs are contracted and will require a skilled and connected agent to get you in. Audio design job openings are far more common.

The other point to note is that composers who specifically work in games are becoming more in demand, rather than composers who also write for film, television or commercials. This is because composing for games has become more complex, given the interactive nature of the medium. Composers who know the intricacies and limitations of writing music for games tend to get more work than those crossover-composers who just want to cash in on the growing industry.

In summary: know the type of gig you want to land and be specific about it. I'll talk more about the delineation of tasks later on, but for now, understand that audio designers typically have more opportunities, composers have more competition, and that no matter which route you choose, it is your own experience and tenacity that will make it happen (or not).

Knowing Strengths, Talents and Experiences

"First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do." - Epictetus

flickr image by d_vdm

I'd like to be able to tell you that all it takes to get your first gig is clear intention, but we both know that isn't the case. Once you've defined the 'WHY' of your journey, you need to take inventory of what tools and skills you have at your disposal to get you to your intended goal. This is usually a pretty straightforward process and of course will be informed by your decision to pursue music, audio design, integration, or some combination of the above. You may say to yourself, "I'd really love to be a audio designer," and yet have more and experience composing music. You may say to yourself, "I'd love to write music for games," and yet have more skill in recording and engineering and crafting unique sound effects. You may say either of these things and yet have more talent in scripting, breaking things down, analyzing and integrating. Whatever your situation, know that you have come to this moment with the experience that you have and the talents you have - these are your strengths. This is the foundation from which you will build your sonic empire!

At the same time, you must also have a very intimate knowledge of the areas in which you do not currently excel. Perhaps you've always wanted to write orchestral music, yet have little or no classical training in music theory and orchestration. Perhaps you'd really love to craft intimate and detailed sonic experiences through the art of foley and field recording, yet you have only played piano your entire life. There is a fine line to walk here. Get clear with yourself about what it is you really want to do and what skills and experiences are needed to do it. If you are lacking in a particular skill or experience, ask yourself if knowledge of that area will help you get to where you're going, or distract you from the path.

There is more crossover between music composition and audio design in the game industry than in similar arts such as film and television. While we are seeing more and more specialization in tasks and duties, the nature of our work often requires us to be more multi-faceted, rather than specialized in any one discipline. This is not to say that becoming an expert in one discipline is not a valuable or viable option. However, if you have applicable skills across multiple disciplines, you should use that to your advantage in pursuing whatever job you want.

I am a firm believer that you can do ANYTHING in this industry if you put your mind to it and give all of your focus and determination to the achievement of that singular goal. In order to do this successfully, you must know the places from which you've come and the places to which you wish to go. While your journey will be somewhat more straightforward if your current strengths and experiences align with your goals, you may find that to really get to where you want you need to broaden your horizons.

Let me put this simply: if you ONLY want to compose music for games, then ONLY compose music for games and learn everything you can about that craft. If you ONLY want to do audio design for games, then ONLY do audio design for games - regardless of any lack of experience or talent, regardless of any skills and experiences to the contrary. If you would be happy with ANY job in game audio - then apply ALL of your experiences and talents equally. Here's the rub: whatever you WANT to do and to be in this industry is what you should be doing and being.

My Story

flickr image by valerianasolaris

My story goes something like this:

I fell in love with games early on, and while it wasn't a conscious revelation when I was younger, in retrospect I realize that a significant part of my love for games stemmed from my love of music, and specifically the music in games. My first big 'AHA!' moment came when playing Myst. Never before had I played a game that so powerfully engaged me with audio and visuals. As the seed of that experience grew, it was only a matter of time before I began focusing intently on the audio experience in games. Ultimately, it was the Playstation 2 which inspired me to set my sights on getting into the industry.

When I set out to get my first gig, I decided that I would be a composer, having more experience in music and composition than in audio design or integration. Over the course of a few years, I worked on a few indie games, continued to sharpen my portfolio and expand my skillset and experiences. When I finally got the opportunity to get a paying gig, it focused predominantly on audio design, rather than music. It was a dilemma, but one that only lasted a short time. Understanding that the opportunity was unique and would give me plenty of room to grow, I jumped at it, and I haven't regretted the decision for a second.

Since then, my career has included a huge variety of tasks, including audio design and integration, scripting, music composition and integration, field and foley recording, and voiceover production.

Your experience will certainly be different, but understand that depending on how adamant you are about following a particular discipline (music vs. audio design), your opportunities may be more or less limited. When an opportunity presents itself, you'll have to weigh your talents, skills, and experiences against your desired outcome to see if this opportunity is the right one to take. Remember that as long as you are wholly dedicated to the pursuit, the doors and windows will open for you.

To be continued...

If you've enjoyed this introduction, stay tuned. There's LOTS more to come. Our next segment will focus on the craft of game audio.

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