Saturday, February 8, 2014

Earning A Living With Game Audio

In recent years, I've had many younglings directed my way about "getting into games", or specifically about getting into game audio. It's happened often enough now that I'm finding myself spending a significant amount of time writing a lot of rather long emails (because a short email won't always do when you're trying to help someone decide whether to pursue their dreams). So I want to have something in the way of a stock response to filter out those who are looking at this the wrong way. I'm still happy to engage with people interested in learning more about this field, but I also want to turn away people who aren't really, really keen.

TL;DR Executive Summary

This post isn't about crushing anyone's dreams, it's about tempering expectations of people who think "meh, I could maybe do that." Sign up if you're ultra-committed. But don't expect it to go anywhere (particularly a trip to the bank with enormous bags filled with of money). Just be prepared to have fun with sound along the way, and you'll be coming at this from a better place.

Where I'm At...

At least in the city where I live (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), it can be pretty hard to find paying audio work. I've spent years building a network of contacts here, and sometimes I have more awesome, lucrative contracts than I can handle. But there are just as often prolonged dry spells. I rely on teaching and other game-related skills for the majority of my income in recent years. I started my own game company with friends, and I currently work as a full-time designer for a really cool mobile company, and teach college courses in the evenings. So I spent 8 years with audio as my full-time job, but for the last few years, not so much.

I believe my current state of not working on sound full-time is reflective of two things: the state of the industry in Ottawa, and the over-saturation of this particular skill set everywhere.

Game Audio in Ottawa

According to some, the Ottawa games biz is booming. Broadly speaking the numbers support this, there are more Ottawa game dev jobs than there have ever been. But there are also more small companies, and some of the big players in Ottawa are more focused than ever on casino games and other smaller projects that require less sound. And in particular less high quality, custom sound.

Sound design and composition are jobs that only exist as serious undertakings for larger projects. If you only make casino games, you can pull stuff off the internet or hire someone for a day to make everything you need. Even a match three game or simple platformer will need quite a bit of audio if you're aiming for any level of real production value. Simpler things, like card games, need almost nothing. You only get sound teams for larger, AAA titles or very big indie projects. This is not the majority of what's happening in Ottawa.

To my knowledge there is currently one studio in the entire city that has full-time staff dedicated to sound. When I was the (one and only) full-time sound guy at Artech, the number of full-time sound people in town was maybe four. There are more dev jobs overall, but it's scattered across smaller studios, none of which could justify having someone there dedicated to sound. Keep in mind this is very much "at the time of this writing" - this industry changes fast.

There are cool projects being made, but people often either go with people they know, or hire really awesome people that live in other places, and just work it out over the internet. I have mixed feelings about working off-site, but that's another discussion for another day.

So... Many... Composers...

Game audio is a skill set that I'm starting to believe this is one of the most over-saturated and competitive fields in game development.

Proliferation of audio tools and high quality libraries of sound effects, music samples and loops make it easier than ever for people to break into this field. You can sound great with less effort than ever! (There's the unfortunate issue of piracy plaguing all things sound, but again... another discussion for another day.) More and more people are getting interested in audio, and writing music for games specifically. Established composers look to games as a new area of media to work in. Generalist game devs find these great tools and hack together their own content. There is a seemingly never-ending supply of home enthusiasts and fresh graduates from game development and music programs from various post-secondary institutions.

During the Kickstarter campaign for STARWHAL, we received many offers to have sound done for us. Even though it was obvious to anyone actually reading the information there that STARWHAL has a complete soundtrack and lots of sound already, many still threw their hat in the ring to provide audio assets for the game. There are a lot of people out there who are trying to get into this field. This makes it very, very competitive if you don't have any experience.

Getting Your Big Break

The two steps to entering this field are:

1. Develop your skills.

2. Meet nice people.

I think most people get work based on social networks rather than just being skilled. However if you don't have a kickass portfolio, you need not even apply. If you're willing to move to a new city (or country) for an entry level job at a larger company, that opens up some possibilities. But you still need to develop a pretty significant level of skill at the craft.

But I Can Make A Ton Of Money, Right?

Another question that I get asked is whether or not it's worth the money. Are you paid well? This is a pretty subjective question, but my new answer is the question "how desperate are you to do audio?" I love audio, and I do it whether or not I get paid. I spend enormous amounts of time on personal projects and indie projects that are unlikely to net me a lot of cash. I do this to keep my skills current, but even more so because I love doing this stuff. It's important to get paying gigs, but it is often essential when you're trying to build your portfolio and resume to do things just because you want to, and because you need to gain experience.

I don't advise anyone enter this field unless they have to. And by that I don't mean they lack other skills, I simply mean that they're so passionate about audio they can't imagine not doing it. That's where you should be if you want to see real success in this field. In my opinion, that's basically what it takes in any creative field.

So if you're wondering if this is a great way to make money because it's an easy win, then no. If you're wondering if it's a great way to make money because it's possible to eke out a living doing this because you care more about game audio than anything else in the universe, then yes, it can be. Pursue it if you love it. Get in touch, I'll listen to your portfolio if I have some time and offer advice on what I think you should be doing with it!

Another thing to mention is that I keep reading salary surveys that make it sound like game development, in general, pays really well. I find the numbers I see are inflated compared to those that have been shared with me by friends and colleagues.

This is NOT a way to get rich quick.

Sound Effects? But I Wanna Write Music!

One final note on what's in demand. My current understanding is that sound designers are in much higher demand than composers. As mentioned I've seen floods of resumes come in for even small projects on Kickstarter when it comes to doing music. A good sound designer can be harder to find, though, and many indies and smaller studios might be willing to pay for those skills if you can cultivate them. I've heard many indies saying it's hard to find someone who "gets" sound. Sound design is another really fun and creative skill. I came to audio world only interested in music, but discovered a real passion for finding and recording original material and using digital sound manipulation techniques to create exciting and unique effects. If you have any interest in sound design, consider investing some effort into that field and looking for indie developers who need help there.


Sound is cool, but to make money at it takes a lot of perseverance and a little bit of luck. Don't be discouraged if you're really passionate, but also don't expect to see a six figure income because you spent a week on your portfolio. Managing even a sustainable income can be tricky until you've invested a lot of hours of your life into this.