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Confessions of a Small Working Studio—Cracking the Code: Breaking Into Game Sound

So you’ve been thinking about trying your hand at the gaming industry, but is it a realistic goal for a studio like yours? The optimistic answer is, anything is possible. However, we’re not going to mislead you into thinking it’s going to be easy or that it’s going to happen overnight. In fact, “If you’re trying to transition into the gaming industry, you should not give up your day job,” cautions Paul Ruskay

Paul Ruskay, the owner of Studio X Labs

So you’ve been thinking about trying your hand at the gaming industry, but is it a realistic goal for a studio like yours? The optimistic answer is, anything is possible. However, we’re not going to mislead you into thinking it’s going to be easy or that it’s going to happen overnight. In fact, “If you’re trying to transition into the gaming industry, you should not give up your day job,” cautions Paul Ruskay, the owner of Studio X Labs, a small full-service audio facility in Vancouver, B.C., that has been responsible for sound design, music, speech production and surround mixing of such games as Turok, Homeworld, Def Jam Vendetta and Flight Sim. “If you pin too much hope on quickly obtaining a substantial income from sound design for games, you will probably regret it,” adds Ruskay, who is a 15-year veteran of the industry.

The good news is—if you’re willing to work hard at it, be patient and consider doing some pro bono work—the timing for breaking into this lucrative industry may be right. “One of the best times to seize opportunities is when things aren’t going well economically,” says Dave Fraser, owner of New York City’s Heavy Melody Music. And he has the experience to back up his claims. His studio had scored Superbowl commercials for companies like Gilette, GE, Pepsi and Campbells when the commercial work started to evaporate. Heeding the early warning signs of diminishing returns in the commercial world, the studio diversified its portfolio to include videogame work, and continued to thrive, in spite of a more challenging climate in the advertising world. The studio, which produces brand-defining music, sound design and voice acting, has since completed work on games such as BioShock 2, Mafia 2, World of Zoo, Alone in the Dark and Neverwinter Nights 2.

The team at Heavy Melody

But Heavy Melody wasn’t able to do what it did without having the right connections. In fact, no matter who you are or how good you may be, chances are you won’t get very far without them. “Even though the gaming industry is a big business, it’s small in terms of who works in it and who makes the decisions,” according to Julian Kwasneski, the audio director of San Francisco’s Bay Area Sound, an audio production company that specializes in custom sound design, original music and voice-overs for games and has credits on such names as Saboteur, Sam and Max episodic series, Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic (1 and 2), Monkey Island episodic series and the recently released Dante’s Inferno. “You’ve got to get yourself out there in front of these people and put in as much face time as possible.” He says venues like GDC are a great place to start, but he admits there’s a little luck involved in getting that necessary “in.”

And Ruskay agrees. “Cold calling may work, but you’ll have a much better shot at breaking in if you’re invited to the party rather than if you’re trying to crash it; at least you know you’ll have a seat.” Even if you do make connections, he confesses that studios that don’t have an established past in the videogame industry will face the classic Catch 22: You can’t get any work until you have the experience, but you can’t get the experience without the work. His advice: “Start by making a list of what you have going for you and what you can provide that would be useful to a developer.” For instance, maybe you have a Foley stage. One way to get a foot in the door is by describing what specific benefits that part of your studio could offer to a developer’s projects. “You really have to be sure to focus on the one thing that you do really well and for which you are able to produce a good result,” says Ruskay. “You have to give a developer a solid reason to believe you’re a good fit for their project and illustrate how much your contribution will be beneficial,” adds Fraser. Kwasneski suggests that the key to breaking in is “finding someone who wants to take a chance on you.”

The team at Studio X Labs

Studying the Science
If you’re under the impression that once you do break in, sound for videogames will be just like creating sound for film or other media, you’re in for a rude awakening. According to Ruskay, who has spent his entire career in the industry, starting his career in 1994 at Radical Entertainment fresh out of music school, “There’s a specific language that developers communicate by. It’s subtle, but it’s important, and you have to know it to create sound for games effectively.” For instance, whereas the music in a film will be played once and that’s that, the music in a videogame may be played for an extended period and repetitively. “When you work on music for a videogame, you have to consider the different choices a player can make and how these choices will affect the scoring of certain levels of the game. A player can walk around the same environment for five minutes, for example, so you have to take that into account when working on the sound,” says Fraser. “You are essentially manifesting environments with sound. It’s not something you can fake. You have to do your research. You have to know how to break down music beds into different stems and place different musical elements in properly to make it adaptive in the design so that it doesn’t get stale. It really is an art form.”

Mastering that art from comes from understanding that different platforms, themes and age groups will call for different treatments. Fraser says it’s important to understand the difference between these factors and how sound must accommodate them appropriately. “Each type of production is specific. If you approach a company and you don’t have a good working sense of the different models and how sound for the latest games is being produced, you won’t make it.” For Fraser, it comes naturally, as he considers himself a “die-hard” gamer. However, if you’re not one, you really have to do your homework. There are learning curves, and it takes a good amount of time to fully grasp the logic behind game development.

It’s also important to note that you may not always be working in a creative capacity when doing sound design or music for a game. Oftentimes, it’s the technical side of the equation that requires attention. “So much of what we do is the unspoken part—the technical implementation aspects of a game,” says Kwasneski, who says he works with level designers, testers and programmers to ensure that the technical parts are in place, which ultimately allow the developer to pull off the things they want to with sound. “You can take really great sound effects but implement them poorly and the game will be junk, so you really have to know what you’re doing.”

Studio X Labs has worked on such videogames as Turok.

Knowing What You’re Getting Into
You also have to know what you’re getting yourself into. “This is a very subjective business, and the worst thing you can do is take criticism personally,” says Kwasneski. “You may pour your soul into a group of sounds and still get ‘re-do’ requests that are not worded in the nicest way, but you can’t take it to heart. It’s how you react in the face of negativity that can make or break you.” In fact, Fraser says one of the biggest challenges in doing music or sound design for games is dealing with rejection. “When you do work that you’re proud of and others aren’t picking up on it, you have to take it in stride. It’s really not uncommon to have your work blasted apart, but at the end of the day, you have to remember that you have a job to do and your focus has to remain on the client’s vision, not your own.”

Another prerequisite is having the wherewithal to work under intense pressure situations. “Most of the time, doing sound design on a game requires that you accomplish a lot of work in a short amount of time, so the pressure can get pretty hard-core,” says Fraser. “You can get fried easily if you aren’t careful.”

It’s also vital that you have a grip on your limitations. “It’s your job to make the client look good, so be realistic,” says Ruskay. It’s crucial to learn how to harmonize the client’s vision with their resources and be willing to say no if something’s not going to work, but back it up with practical alternatives.

“You’re not going to know everything out of the gate; there will be things that will surprise you and things that you have to adapt to, and failure will come from time to time,” says Ruskay. “However, there are a lot of positive lessons that can come out of difficult situations, so just remember that it’s all a part of the process and can only help you to run a more efficient and productive studio environment.”

Kevin Hill is the owner/engineer and Lisa Horan is the creative director of Studio Unknown, a full-service audio post-production facility and recording studio that specializes in helping clients discover creative sound for film, video, Web, gaming and artist projects.