How To Break Into Game Music Composing: Advice from GDC 2015

During the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this year, attendees of the GDC Audio Track were treated to not one, but two sessions on how to break into the industry as a game audio professional.  Since this is always a topic of intense interest, I thought I’d use this blog entry to sum up some of the ideas from those two sessions. Hopefully some of this information will prove useful!

First, let’s look at the basic details about those two GDC talks.

Amongst the many different speakers at the two presentations, there were a lot of ideas and strategies put forward about ways to break into game audio development.  A few common themes definitely rose to the surface, and I’ll go over those here:

You gotta have good connections.

networking

The importance of friendships and relationships was an oft repeated idea at these talks.  When the members of the “Landing Your First Game” panel were asked about how they got their first gig, they all said that they owed it to a referral from a friend.  Likewise, the Audio Bootcamp talk stressed the importance of making friendships during in-person meetings and conferences.

According to the speakers, it’s important to simply hang out with game audio pros in a low-pressure environment in which prospective gigs aren’t discussed at all.  Taking the opportunity to form friendships without pursuing career objectives was considered the best approach for an aspiring game audio professional attending a conference or convention.  The speakers suggested that opportunities would eventually surface from these friendly relationships, but patience would be required, and years might pass before any of these relationships lead to a game audio gig.  I can confirm from my own experience that maintaining relationships is vitally important, and that a friendly acquaintance can lead to a game audio job years down the line.

At this point, I should probably mention that a certain aspect of my early career experience would be considered highly atypical – I landed my first gig by doing something that the speakers labeled as a “cold-call.”  According to the speakers, a “cold-call” is a phone call or an e-mail sent to someone who is essentially a stranger.  This isn’t supposed to be a successful approach, and the speakers strongly advised against cold-calling… but that’s what I did.  I sent an e-mail to a music supervisor who didn’t know me, and I introduced myself and asked about music opportunities at that company.  This led to my first game job, as a composer on the music composition team of God of War from Sony Computer Entertainment America.  My experience in respect to the “cold call” seems to be the exception that proves the rule, according to the speakers at these two presentations.

Be willing to negotiate, or to work for free

negotiation

One of the speakers told a story about breaking into the industry by donating music for free to a mod.  A “mod” is a modification to the program code of a retail game by an indie team, resulting in a new game that requires players to own the original retail game in order to play the modification.  Since a mod team typically consists of hobbyists with little or no budget, creating music for a mod is usually a charitable endeavor on the part of the composer.  At one point, an audience member asked how long any aspiring game composer should donate their services before finally resolving not to work for free anymore.  The response was that free work can continue throughout an audio professional’s career – this kind of free work was referred to as a “passion project.”  When we become uncomfortable with working for free, however, the time has come to negotiate for compensation.

Both presentations spent considerable time discussing compensation structures that diverged from traditional rate-per-minute work-for-hire agreements.  Licensing agreements were mentioned repeatedly during both talks, which might (or might not) include participation in the “back end” revenue that the video game would earn once it was released.  Also under discussion was the possible retention of the rights to release a soundtrack album and collect its earnings.  This trend seemed to indicate that offering an agreement that would require less money from the developer up-front might convince the developer to pay something, rather than nothing, and that this might help the aspiring audio pro to secure their first paying gig.

On a personal note, I donated music to a “mod” early in my career.  Although it allowed me to gain a bit of experience as a game composer, I didn’t enjoy any particular career advantages for having done so. However, the mod I scored ended up as vaporware (i.e. unreleased), which underlines the importance of evaluating the mod project in order to estimate whether the mod is likely to be finished or not. I talk about this experience, along with several of my other early game projects, in my book.

Lately, I’ve heard a lot of buzz about licensing agreements in the game industry, and I imagine that it might be a viable alternative for new game audio folks looking to transition from free gigs to paying work.  However, according to the latest Game Audio Industry Survey conducted by GameSoundCon, only 12% of professionally produced indie games allow composers to license their music rather than selling the rights on a work-for-hire basis.  Most of the game development teams open to music licensing would be characterized as “not professionally produced,” according to the language in the Game Audio Industry Survey.

Some final thoughts

The speakers mentioned several conferences and other resources for the aspiring game composer, which I’ve listed below:

Also, just as an addendum, audio designer Will Morton, best known for his work on the Grand Theft Auto games, has recently published an article on Gamasutra.com called “Make Some Noise! Getting a Job Creating Sound and Music for Videogames.”  The article offers lots of interesting advice and personal anecdotes from industry pros.