So here is a list of pretty frequently asked questions I get from people trying to find out more about game audio. If you’re curious about how I broke in to the industry personally, check out this article I wrote last year.
1. What is the workflow/production cycle like at Gearbox? What was it like at Volition?
While this is a pretty broad question and can be answered in great detail, I’ll try to sum it up as best I can. At Volition I did content creation in my DAW as well as implementation work inside one PC. Also, as a secondary part of the implementation process, I would use an Xbox Devkit to test all of my changes. Before Volition began utilizing Wwise as their middleware, we were using XACT, which is much less DAW-ish (is that a word?) than Wwise. Basically XACT is more like a database to store and organize files, but doesn’t do anything fancy or interesting to audio files like Wwise can. We would import audio files into XACT and run a build tool created in house that would look at our newly imported sounds and create sound cues (aka events) out of them. These events are simply name tag references that can be referenced in different types of game scenarios. For example, if I wanted to play the “Exploding Tree” sound I would go into the proper place to reference that, which in this case would be the visual effect, and go into the visual effect tool and apply the reference there. That way, anytime that sound ‘cue’ or sound ‘event’ is referenced, the system could go back into XACT’s database of sounds behind the scenes and play the sound. All of our attenuation settings for 3D sounds were controlled through what we called ‘table files.’ Each individual sound event got a table file that had data values (i.e. 1-10000) that would simulate volume rolloffs based on distance and so forth.
In Summary, the process of creating the sound started with using various plug-ins, synthesizers and a host of library sounds stored on our server. I would make the sounds in Sony Vegas, export them to mono (for being played positionally in a 3D environment) and then drop them into XACT, run the build tool, and wire up and test the events after that.
At Gearbox, it’s a little bit different. I have a Mac Pro that runs my audio software (ProTools) and a PC that I implement and test my audio on. On the PC side, we’re using Wwise as middleware and Unreal as our main development engine. So I will create on the Mac and do all the technical work and testing PC side. The biggest difference between Volition and Gearbox in this respect is that Volition did their world editor in house and Gearbox licenses Unreal. At Volition, before they licensed Wwise themselves, we had to control parameters like 2D/3D attenuation and things of that nature OUTSIDE of the middleware environment in the in-house developed table file system. With Wwise, all those values and much, much more are controlled in the same box.
2. What software(s) do you guys use to create and implement your sound design, VO, and music? (and) what software do you reccomend that I should be familiar with, going into this industry?
Besides, “How Do You Break Into the Industry?” I get this question probably the most. The best answer is, learn whatever DAW you want, because it’s going to be different no matter where you work, and let’s be honest, once you learn one, it’s not too hard to crossover into getting familiar with another. I do, however, recommend Reaper (www.reaper.fm) to people because it’s highly efficient, inexpensive and powerful. The editing tools are very sleek and actually pretty similar to Sony Vegas. The best thing outside of DAWs to learn is middleware. FMOD and WWise are worth of being practiced and researched. There are several Wwise tutorials available on Youtube and I highly recommend checking them out to get an overview of how to work with them.
3. Do you guys have any sort of metering system or levels guidelines for listening/mixing/deliverables and all that?
This is a great question and it’s actually a hot topic amongst game audio developers across the spectrum. In short answer, yes, we do have a metering system, but the guidelines are often loose because we’re always adjusting them based on a project’s needs. On Borderlands 2, we managed to sort of fit most of the sounds around the weapons, though I can’t give more detail than that without sounding like a post mortem which would probably result in some sort of NDA breakage. It’s a hard thing to do, to set that sort of a guideline, though, but it’s something we’re interested in perfecting a little more for future releases.
4. If there is a typical day in the life of a game audio professional, what is that like? (especially concerning work for triple A titles)
The short answer is, it’s AWESOME. The longer answer? Well, for me personally I typically wake up around 9:00-9:30 everyday and come to work around 10:00-10:30 and work until 7:00-7:30. Routinely, I come to my office, boot everything up, sync all the latest data from Perforce, read and respond to emails, make tea and look at my task queue to decide what is going to get done that day. Every company has some sort of task tracking software of some sort where tasks can be created and resolved. So, for example, I might see a list of weapons that need audio, or a bug that a tester found where a moving door is silent or not playing audio correctly. If I need to find out more information on a task, which I normally do, I need to find the owner of that task and try to get a breakdown on what’s needed for it. So if an enemy designer is creating a robot creature, I need to drop by his desk and take notes on what his vision for that robot is. We can usually brainstorm back and forth together on ideas for it and then I’ll come back to my office and begin work, after I make my second cup of tea, of course. If I’m being very efficient that day and things work out well, I’ll usually spend the first half of the day in ProTools just creating content for my task and spend the second half of the day implementing that content, iterating and testing it. If all works out, then I can close those tasks and move on to new ones the next day! As part of the studio culture here, people are encouraged to take the time to play games at their desk between 5-6, which I don’t normally do because I’m normally ‘in the zone’ at that point and trying to get things done.
5. How much of the games you have worked on have been comprised of originally recorded material (field recording and the like) vs. library content?
Unfortunately, we haven’t gotten a chance to do as much field recording as we like here. I guess most game audio guys will tell you the same, but we do have a fair amount of original material in our games despite that and moving forward the goal is to always get as many original recordings as possible into the game. All foley sounds like player movement and footsteps in Borderlands were recorded by our guys. When I worked at Volition, a colleague of mine, Frank Petreikis (who is now at Bioware in Edmonton) and I took to the streets of Chicago with some shotgun mics and a Sound Devices 702 to get some street ambience for the Saints Row series. At Gearbox we also try to take time to record and create original synth source for things in our pre-production phase as well. Since Borderlands is a pretty sci-fi game, we need as much futuristic content we can gather, so we’ll take the time in our offices to come up with cool and interesting patches, we’ll record long source files of us using those patches and then drop them into our SoundMiner database where we can pull up those sounds later and apply them where they seem to fit. This is actually one of my favorite parts about the gig since I’m a synth nerd.
6. In the event that you guys do use things that are field recorded or recorded in a controlled environment, what mics do you guys use? Have you purchased anything specifically for recording in the field?
I’ve used a variety of different mics and don’t have a real strong opinion on which is best but the standard when it comes to field recording is definitely the Sound Devices 702. I love that thing!
7. Does the audio team work along side the project for most of the time it is in development, or is it only towards the end(ish)?
We’re a part of the team from beginning to end. While we may be at the end of what’s known as the dependency chain, we’re concepting out ideas alongside designers, animators, programming and effects artists throughout the whole process. Due to the fact that we’re at the end of the chain, though, our busiest moments are at the very end of the development cycle. Usually by then, it’s a race to get everything in and sounding as good and as well-mixed as possible. This usually ends up turning into a few months of late nights that we call ‘crunch time’ in the industry. It’s challenging, but if you’re passionate about what you’re working on, that’s what is driving you to get to the finish. Sometimes just taking a break, going online and reading comments and articles about anticipation for the project you’re working on really can give you a pep to keep going and put out something that people will love.
8. Is the development of audio assets divided up into different teams (such as a team for SFX, ambience, dialogue, environmental, etc.), or do you guys just tackle things as you get to them?
We mostly tackle things as we get to them, but we all try to divide the tasks out and play to each other’s strengths. At Gearbox, we have four audio guys. We have our Director, Mark Petty, who handles a lot of things like trailers, music direction, cinematics, coordinating new purchases, outsourcing, licensing and other directorly things. Raison Varner is our lead audio guy on Borderlands 2. Raison is really talented with music direction, creature audio and coordinating with the team to make sure we get coverage in all aspects of the game. Andrew Cheney is our main go to guy when it comes to setting up more technical things like vehicles and other in game systems. He’s good at speaking the language to code and driving home our ideas to get them performing properly in the game. I normally play the role of mainly an all around content guy, which is mostly the sound design role. I’m responsible for most of the weapons, some creatures, and various other things. We all split the ‘map related’ audio up between us pretty evenly. So things like ambience, map movers (things that move in the game) and general performance tweaks/bugs are given to just about everyone.
9. Can you give me all the sweet, insider information on Borderlands 2 & Aliens: Colonial Marines?
They’re going to be awesome!
10. Is it a reasonable expectation that I can transition from being a tester to full time sound designer?
Yes, I think it’s reasonable but not all studios are friendly towards growth from QA within the company. Sometimes testers are discouraged from approaching developers for anything unrelated to testing. I’d say do your research on a company by contacting employees about what the culture at the studio is like in this regard.
I have seen testers go on to become producers, writers, coders, artists and so forth. Have I seen a tester transition into full time sound design? I have not, but it can happen and I’m confident it does occur. If someone has good enough chops at something and aren’t afraid to show their abilities, I believe their talent and hard work will speak for itself and it’d be hard for them to not be a good candidate for the gig.
There are great things about working in quality assurance, too. You will become very educated on the various moving parts of a developer, from the production pipeline to the inner systems created within a game. That sort of knowledge will always give you a leg up and help you learn to speak the language of dev. In some cases, testers that enjoy testing audio can qualify themselves to become full time quality assurance by specializing in testing the sound for a game. We have a guy at Gearbox who reports audio issues and is trained to do things like run the Wwise debug profiler to give us very specific information what might be occurring in a bug. That kind of experience can also help someone learn a lot about audio too and will look great on a resume, even if a developer isn’t interested in growth out of QA.
I think the best bet is to apply for internships in audio whenever possible. They offer the best experience stand out more in a resume. In some cases someone may even hop from QA at one company to an internship at another, and then go on to full time sound design. Also, internships are more likely to be the job that someone can segway into a full time role in. There are many different avenues to breaking in!
11. Obviously there are certain qualities that you’d expect from an aspiring sound designer - ability to edit audio, use a DAW, use Fmod or Wwise, and be creative with sound. Are there any additional skills that you’d recommend for somebody to learn. e.g. computer programming or graphic design?
Other than the obvious technical skills, I’d say the most important skills to have are communication, both verbal and written (you’ll write a lot of emails in this industry) and personable/social skills as well as the ability to be self motivated enough to pursue tasks on your own, though the latter part might not become instinctive to you until a few years into your career as a game dev. In the beginning it wasn’t easy for me to know who the best person to talk to about finding work was without the aid of my lead or a producer. For the former skills I mentioned, I want to work with people who can communicate their ideas effectively or are even not afraid of letting me know if they need help. Also, it’s really good to just be able to be social and get along with others really well. We’re in the industry of designing fun, so it’s good to have that kind of a personality. We’ll work better together if we enjoy each other’s company. Of course, it’s always good to show that you have creative skills in other areas, whether it’s programming, graphic design, music composition, photography or whatever. They’re good to include as additional skills in your resume and will broadcast to others that you just love being creative and learning!