Making the most of work experience in the games industry. An Interview with Jamie White.

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Meet Jamie, a student on the Level 3 extended diploma in Games Design at the City of Wolverhampton College. Jamie recently completed a work experience placement at Codies in the Birmingham audio department. The placement would last for two weeks and would mainly be focused on audio QA. Students weren’t necessarily required to be primarily interested in audio; rather we were looking for keen students, interested in finding bugs. Work placement would also involve engaging in basic audio department maintenance while getting an inside look into the world of game development.

Jamie’s interest in gaming started from an early age, as he recalls some of his favourite games (which make me feel old) included Crash Bandicoot, Rayman Raving Rabbids and Pokemon. Although gaming had always been a hobby of Jamie’s he never actually intended to pursue a career in the industry – in fact he’d already started working as a chef. The Halo Wars 2 trailer, E3 2016 changed everything for him though and set him on his current path. He recalls:

“It gave me goose bumps as I watched it, I loved how they could compose such a piece of art, it blew my mind how much effort must have gone into making it. I decided right then and there that was what I wanted to work towards. It was a huge risk for me, as I had invested so much of my life into my previous career”.

IMG_0526.jpgSenior audio designer James “Duke Uterus” Kneen showing Jamie the ropes

One of the key points mentioned here is that Jamie had to take a huge risk, he’d already set out to become a chef. Suddenly he’d decided that he could become a developer, providing he worked hard and applied himself. After meeting Jamie it became clear that he is driven and has so far taken all necessary steps to ensure his dream becomes a reality. Jamie stood out amongst his peers at College and secured a work experience placement and it quickly became apparent why. During his two weeks, Jamie was attentive, valued our feedback and advice, networked as much as possible, asked questions and made an effort to seek out any opportunities presented to him.

Although Jamie would be primarily testing audio, I wanted to figure out how work experience could best benefit him as well as us. I wanted to ensure Jamie had ample opportunities to network, improve his own portfolio and figure out his next steps and experience how different disciplines within game development interact to create the final product.

model23.pngJamie’s in progress modeling work

Jamie revealed his main interest is video editing, he remarks “I love watching cinematic trailers; I think there is nothing better than a clean, well done and polished trailer”. Even while Jamie was a chef he spent time picking apart trailers, analysing how they had been composed and what effects had been used. He would then take what he’d learnt and try and create his own trailers for fun. Based on this I encouraged Jamie to talk to the video editing department and any other disciplines that were of interest to him. I’d already explained to Jamie that the key here is to make yourself known without being a pest. Keep in touch and network, let developers know you are keen and work on your show reel and a portfolio but don’t hassle. Jamie took the initiative and quickly sent his show reel to one of the video editors and asked for feedback.

Jamie also took the time to introduce himself to our animation department, who were willing to sit with him and offer advice and feedback. It can’t be overstated how important a step like this could be to Jamie’s career. Not only did he have the opportunity to talk directly to developers and get feedback on his show reel but he was also networking and putting his name forward. As a student on the outside it can often be difficult to know truly how good your work is and what you need to improve upon without feedback from professionals. College and University lecturers are useful resources but even their feedback can’t replace good critiquing from industry veterans who work in development for a living. It can also be challenging to approach and get feedback from developers via email, they have no obligation to reply to you and emails can often get lost in the void – but being right there, face to face next to a developer who specialises in your area of study? Now that is a rarity. Weeks later Jamie would remark:

“The most important thing I took away from my experience is the links I have created with people from the industry; at my age you can’t put a price on networking with industry veterans”.

IMG_0524.jpgJamie working his way through our audio test plan for F1 2017

As his time with us was coming to an end Jamie asked what other opportunities he might be able to get involved with. We got talking about the possibility of doing a bit of extra work experience directly for the QA department, after all he’d been working through our audio test plans for the last two weeks so he’d already had a taste of what to expect. I had previously mentioned to Jamie that the QA department was my foot in the door (read more about that here) and it might be beneficial to him in two respects. Firstly Jamie would get a bit of experience working in an important and often underappreciated game development role. Secondly if any paid work came up in the months and years ahead he’d likely land himself a position (providing he had done a good job during his work experience placement). Several weeks later Jamie did indeed start 2 weeks of work experience with QA at the Southam studio.

With a month of work experience under his belt I’d asked Jamie how he now felt about the industry. He commented that it was “exactly what I hoped it would be like” and interestingly he now felt that pursuing game development as a career was well within his grasp, rather than the pipe dream it had once been. Jamie has also been hard at work on his portfolio since his work experience came to an end and he now feels he has a goal to work towards as he remarks:

“It was great seeing how a professional studio works; how everyone’s individual skills have such a massive effect on the game. What was great about this was that I could see what level of expertise I need to be hitting to make it into the industry”.

GameJam1.pngPokemon style art assets created by Jamie for a gamejam

Before Jamie starts his career in the industry he plans to continue his education by enrolling at Teesside University in Middlesbrough. Aside from his education Jamie intends to build more relationships with fellow developers before pursuing a career in video game cinematography.

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F1 2017 – Audio Reviews

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“They… sound fantastic”
http://uk.ign.com/articles/2017/08/25/f1-2017-review#article_comments

“…how emotive these vehicles can be for a certain vintage of F1 nerd, and how beautiful they are to behold in F1 2017. Those sounds are spot on, and enough to send a shiver down the spine…”
http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2017-08-21-f1-2017-review

“It’s the audio that really takes the cake in F1 2017, though. The cars sound absolutely fantastic”
http://wccftech.com/review/f1-2017-taking-pole-position/

“The end result is a recipe for what is perhaps the series’ best sound direction to date”
https://www.gtplanet.net/f1-2017-review/

“Overall, the sound quality is spectacular in F1 2017.”
http://www.hardcoregamer.com/2017/08/21/review-f1-2017/268712/

“The car sounds are also intense.”
https://www.gamingnexus.com/Article/5457/F1-2017/

“audio and sound effects are loyal and electrifying”
http://it.ign.com/f1-2017-ps4/129772/review/f1-2017-la-recensione

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“the audio quality is excellent throughout.”
https://www.gamereactor.eu/reviews/584573/F1+2017/

“sounds superb with engines as realistic as their life like brothers”
http://www.gamehype.co.uk/review-f1-2017/

“All the sound in this game is great anyway, but the sound of the classics really emphasizes the hard work that went into them.”
http://www.vpdaily.com/f1-2017-review-setting-the-pace/

“the engine sounds … are thunderous – particularly in some of those aforementioned classic cars.”
http://www.pushsquare.com/reviews/ps4/f1_2017?utm_source=pushsquare&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=review-notification

“Spectacular audio mix”
http://atomix.vg/review-f1-2017/

“the audio of the roaring engines… really does make for a truly impressive entry to the series.”
http://www.thexboxhub.com/f1-2017-review/

So you want a job in the games industry? Musings from Codemasters Birmingham audio department.

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I’m occasionally asked how I got into the games industry and while my path is fairly straight forward I can ask almost anybody else at Codies and they’ll tell a different story of their own path into audio design. The core audio department here at Codies Birmingham consists of three audio designers, myself in a senior position as the project lead designer, James “Duke Uterus” Kneen in a senior position and Dave Gurney in a junior audio designer role. Here we share those three stories.

I never formally interviewed for a job in audio when I was originally taken on. I’d started out as a QA technician at Codies and got talking to the audio department and one of the audio programmers. As well as continuing with my general QA bug reporting I also went out of my way to add each and every audio related bug I could find for each project I worked on. The benefit here was that I was immediately identified by the audio department due to how few people in QA seemed to concentrate on entering audio bugs at the time. On top of that I’d make it my mission to go over and chat with the audio guys that I knew a couple of times a month – not so often that I’d become annoying but not too infrequent that they’d forget about me. The important thing to remember here was that I’d never normally get a great opportunity like this had I not worked in QA. I couldn’t exactly turn up unannounced at game companies for a chat with the audio guys. Even handing in CVs and show reels and bugging designers via email doesn’t have quite the same impact as being able to walk across the office and interact with people face to face.

Luckily, at this stage two great steps forward happened, firstly the audio guys mentioned that there might be some “dog’s body” work coming up. Generally this would be tasks such as chopping and organising assets or adding regions and markers to projects. The second step was that one of the audio teams really needed somebody to focus on audio bugs for a particular game – having seen my list of audio focused bugs on the database and knowing I had an interest in audio they approached QA management and asked if I’d be interested in some focused QA audio work. Even to this day this is quiet a rarity; it involved me temporarily moving over to the audio department and specifically working with the audio guys to identify as many audio bugs as I could, all while still under QA management and budget. You can read more about my QA job role here:

https://leavelucktogames.wordpress.com/2013/02/09/working-in-qa/

06062008287.jpgNew beginnings – My first desk in QA.

After several months of working with the audio team they decided to take me on permanently in a junior capacity. It’s worth adding that before working in QA I’d been studying music technology for 3 years at college and a further 3 years at University. I then gained around 1 ½ years of QA experience which in itself provides great background knowledge when moving into games development. Two of my previous articles go into more detail on my time in education:

https://leavelucktogames.wordpress.com/2013/09/07/studying-music-technology-at-college/

https://leavelucktogames.wordpress.com/2013/05/03/is-an-education-really-needed/

I’m actually the only member of Birmingham audio who started off in a QA role, Dave (our junior) completed a master’s degree in game audio before applying for the junior role we opened up. Both Dave and I enrolled on generalised audio / visual media degrees but Dave furthered his education with a game audio master’s degree where he got to grips with middleware such as FMOD and Wwise. At degree level neither of us went into game audio territory, the assignments I completed during my 3rd year were specifically massaged to steer towards game audio but there was no training with any middleware or any game audio practices.

Dave applied to us straight after his master’s so he had gained no previous professional experience. One of the audio designers at Codies contacted him through Linkedin after seeing his profile, at which point Dave sent in his CV and show reel for us to consider. James and I looked through all the CVs that were handed in before narrowing down the candidate list to around 6 or so or of our favourites. This decision was based on multiple factors such as the applicant’s previous experience, the quality of their show reel and how excited they seemed to be about working on racing games. For us it wasn’t essential that our junior be into racing or racing games but let’s say in a situation where two very similar applicants applied then somebody with a good interest in motorsport would have the edge. Not only would this mean the applicant is less likely to tire of the sort of audio design work we do but they’d also be more likely to be excited to attend recording sessions, watch reference footage and suggest and work on very specific features present in motorsport. This might include things like turbo systems, detonations, engine bundles, mechanical tools and so on.

img_0146David Gurney – We insist he wears this hat when working on critical tasks.

Once we had narrowed down our search we held a skype or phone call interview with each candidate. James and I went through each candidates show reel; before we gave them feedback we asked them to critique their own show reel to see if they understood where their short comings and strengths lay. We then provided our own feedback on the show reel before going over each applicants CV and asking them for further questions. Typical lines of enquiry here were questions such as “Why do you want to leave your current job?”, “What games do you play?”, “Do you play any Codemasters games?”, “How do you feel about re-locating?”. After narrowing our search down further we finally invited our candidates in for a face to face interview. By this stage we were finding it difficult to choose one applicant, there wasn’t a lot in it and in all honesty I’m sure any one of these guys would have fitted in just fine. The main goal here then was to talk to each candidate to see how well they would fit in and so we discussed their hobbies, games, audio and other generalised chat. Importantly though, Dave was also excited at the prospect of working on a motorsport game; he suggested ideas for systems and asked us how existing systems were implemented. He’d asked questions about recording sessions and what we’d be expecting from him. He showed a clear interest in what we were doing and how he’d like to help build upon our work if he were given the opportunity. James and I both felt it was important to take on somebody that we could get on with as a friend as well as a colleague; after all we have to work very closely with each other day in day out.

Unlike Dave and myself, James doesn’t have any formal education in audio design. James seemed destined for a job in the audio industry; he grew up with a passion for all things sci-fi and audio related. Sometimes I wonder if he’s part synth – both of the android and musical instrument varieties. The “Duke” as we affectionately call him here at Codies first became interested in audio when his parents bought him a portable cassette recorder when he was a child. He started off recording joke “radio” shows and silly sounds before moving on to recording episodes of Doctor Who. Listening back to these recordings sparked an interest in sound effects and synthesis. This passion stuck with James through his teenage years and the first wave of hip-hop only helped cement this passion. From here on out James decided that he’d like one day to become a sound designer. With no qualifications to speak of James decided to go down the experience route and seek out a tape operator position in a studio. Unfortunately James found this extremely difficult to secure and ultimately failed.

Capture.PNGExterminate! – Where it all began for James.

Although James remained passionate about audio and production he decided to seek alternative employment and instead tried to break into the games industry. James considered trying to start a career in QA (similar to my own route into games audio). By his early 30s he found himself working for Empire Interactive but rather than a QA role he found himself burning game builds to disc. This ultimately would form the basis of his path into game audio. After a few years James made the move over to EA in a similar role and during his time here he’d spotted the recording studio and over time became friends with the audio studio head. Not one to miss a great opportunity James sweet talked his way into using the studio for a few evenings a week. A junior audio designer role eventually came up and after cutting his teeth with the EA studio gear James decided to apply. Once again the Duke was on the cusp of making it into one of his dream jobs but it was not to be. Although interviewing well, James lost out to an applicant with current experience.

IMG_0148.jpgJames “Duke Uterus” Kneen – He’s really not that grumpy, he really is that old though.

An audio assistant role eventually came up which James did secure – finally he was in! By this point James was into his late 30s, so a relatively late starter. James currently holds a senior audio designer role here at Codies Birmingham and readily admits how difficult his path to this position has been. I’d asked him for advice to pass onto up and coming audio designers seeking a position within the industry to which he replied:

“Securing a position in game audio is difficult, but not impossible. It’s about your attitude, passion for audio and your tenacity. If you keep on keeping on, you will do it. I am of course biased but I reckon it’s the most interesting and fun job on the planet.”

Three designers all with different paths into the industry; so where does that leave you if you’re seeking the best way to secure a job? Well you’ve still got to carve your own path out but here’s some general advice to help you along the way.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. The important points to remember are to network and gain some experience and while these steps are by no means sure fire ways to success they’ll greatly help you out. About a year ago I had a situation where two budding audio designers contacted me about work experience; one was a recent college graduate who was mainly interested in composition while the second was on a temporary contract in QA. Both prospective designers had graduated from sound related courses at college and both had at least started out on the right track; they’d done what many in my opinion fail to do. They had both contacted me and politely introduced themselves and shown some level of enthusiasm. As always I asked both of them for a show reel and a CV and asked them what they wanted to get out of any work experience. The guy in QA replied to tell me he would have to update his CV – I heard back from him about 4 months later! I politely informed him that unfortunately he’d missed the boat on this occasion as I’d taken on somebody else who’d replied with the information I’d asked for. The college graduate who applied was given a shot, despite primarily being interested in composition.

F1_2016_May_012_WM-823x436.pngF1 2016 – Sound design by Brad, James and Dave.

A decent education does help and in all honesty these days I don’t know of many young audio designers without a degree or higher. That being said, you could land a 1st class honours followed up by a master’s in game audio and you’d still not be guaranteed a job. Considering most of the other candidates will also have a degree it probably won’t do a lot to help you stand out. Think of your education then as a good fundamental framework once you’ve landed the job. It’s pretty obvious when we’ve spoken to or taken on work experience designers which are from a University background and which are not. That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions to this rule.

Experience is great but none of us in Birmingham audio took the work experience path and although it’s a great way to get a foot in the door we quickly discovered our work experience graduate didn’t have enough knowledge to be considered anywhere near ready enough for a job in the industry. I have however dealt with one intern here at Codies as well as managed a handful of University students on weeklong work experience. What I will say here is that you should only take on whatever work experience you feel you can manage. Generally you’ll find yourself forking out for travel and accommodation as well as working a full time, unpaid job! On top of that jumping in head first to something you’re totally unfamiliar with may actually deter a future employer from taking you on. Before taking on any experience try and find out what software the company uses, ask what their day today workload consists of then prepare yourself. Work experience is valuable and not easy to come by so if you do land a temporary position utilise it and make the most of it. Jump on new or unique tasks; ask the designers what they are currently working on and how different systems work. Don’t be too pushy but make it clear that you are interested in learning all you can in the limited time you have at the company.

Apply for the right positions and tailor your CV and show reel to appeal to these positions. We had various applicants apply for the role which Dave ultimately ended up getting. Dave handed in a show reel which highlighted various types of sound design, but importantly it also included motorsport. Not only did this show he was interested specifically in the role he was applying for but it also highlighted his aptitude for tailoring assets to suit motorsport content. Contrast this with some of our other applicants who handed in show reels full of low budget mobile games and no examples of motorsport. Some applicants occasionally send in show reels which only highlight compositional skills rather than sound design ability. We were specifically looking for a full time sound designer and there was no mention of music in the job specification so highlighting these skills didn’t really give us any idea as to whether the applicant was suitable for the position. It’s important to note at this point that I’ve had quite a few composers contact me over the years asking for advise, work experience or just to pass on their show reel and CV. I’ve explained to each of them (including our previous work experience graduate) that generally speaking not many game devs will take on a full time in-house composer – it’s just not something that happens. My advice here would be to go freelance or work on some small indie projects. If you are clued up on sound design you could get into the industry and eventually you may even find that you’ll be suited to score some of the projects you’re working on but composition shouldn’t be your primary driving factor.

Some of the really great applications we received showed off actual middleware implementation and video of middleware projects in action. I personally find this an excellent and interesting way to highlight sound design ability as well as the ability to implement finished assets and take into consideration variety and dynamically altering soundscapes. Audio for games is quite a different skill from track laying for linear media such as film so highlighting this ability proves you’re able to fulfil some of the requirements for a job in game audio.

Finally, as James experienced, don’t be deterred by rejection. We’d actually turned down a previous applicant because we were only taking on one designer. It pained us to turn him away as he was just as good as the applicant we offered the job to but we had to make a decision. Several months later we called him again and offered him a job on another project. You’ll apply for jobs and most likely you’ll be rejected for quite a few of them. This could be through no fault of your own, maybe another applicant took the position for a lower salary, maybe you were just as good but a coin flip decided on another applicant for the one vacant position, maybe your skills were tailored for a different role. Refine your CV, ask the company for feedback on why they didn’t proceed with your application, continue working on your show reel and continue applying.

What makes a great sounding game?

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That well known phenomena we as sound designers experience, if the game sounds great nobody bats an eyelid. If the game has any audio issues at all they are quickly picked up on in reviews and on forums. And so the most obvious question to ask is what makes a great sounding game? I put this to Alyx Jones, a recent graduate of the University of Surry. “It might sound a bit pretentious…” she begins, “…but I think the best sounding games are those with something a bit different or memorable about the music”. Alyx believes games that allow for more experimentation are much easier to write music for and therefore lead to better sound design. She also stresses the importance of silence adding “I think it’s really important to know when not to put music or sound in places, Limbo is a really good example of this”.

After graduating with a very respectable 2:1 honours degree in Creative Music Technology Alyx had wasted no time in diving into this fast moving, often cut throat industry. The caveat being however that she was to do things her way and work on small scale indie developments, and so Silver Box Games was born. Not content with working on one project Alyx also began working on her own Oculus Rift project titled Wanderift. Why games development though? Surely for somebody primarily interested in composition she would have an easier time working in TV or film? “…film and TV is a very static experience” she states. Alyx elaborates by explaining how within a linear experience there is only one story to tell, and that’s done by the director. A game on the other hand is shaped by the player. I ask Alyx why a non-linear approach particularly appealing to her. She responds by informing me that:

“…it gives total immersion and I suppose an escape in so many aspects that watching a film doesn’t provide. To be able to create your own character and shape your own story and environment is so much more exciting than sitting and watching the latest episode of Eastenders.”

Growing up Alyx’s Gameboy never left her sight and playing games quickly became her favourite means of entertainment. With her love of music and technology the games industry seemed like the obvious choice. Alyx finds far more possibilities to experiment with audio in the world of games rather than film or TV, after all she states “technology is always changing and improving so the ability to constantly adapt and learn new things is a fantastic process to constantly be involved with.” But I digress, why was I asking Alyx about great sounding games in the first place?

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As it transpires she’s also a freelance editor over at The Sound Architect, an online audio resource for professionals and enthusiasts alike. Since early 2015 Alyx has been critiquing a range of smaller scale games including PSN releases such as Rain, Sound Shapes and the recently released Volume. With Limbo in mind I asked Alyx to give a little insight into what it is about the sound design in that game that is particularly appealing to her.

“Well, Limbo is quite a dark game and I think the music and sound design create that intense atmosphere so perfectly. The composer used a lot of analogue equipment to reflect the distant, bleak imagery of the game. It’s used sparingly in places, sometimes you can be walking and the only sound is your footsteps. I find the whole soundtrack quite experimental and creative, it’s mostly drones and he doesn’t use any real rhythms but I always remember how I felt playing that game.”

Sonically, another stand out game for Alyx is Proteus, an indie game in which the landscapes are procedurally generated giving different objects in the world their own unique sounds. Alyx remarks that “the audio is procedurally generated so if the sound were separated from the game it wouldn’t exist”. I thought this was an interesting choice as in some ways Proteus takes some of the sound design, or at least the presentation of the audio away from the sound designer and into the hands of the player. I posed this to Alyx who suggested “…if you have a soundtrack that’s just generic it’s not quite going to fit. How can you write music for a different environment every time? There are so many possibilities, it would be very time consuming!” So does this mean Proteus wouldn’t have worked as well with a standard approach to its sound design? Alyx doesn’t necessarily think the approach was better, but rather “more interesting” leading to “a different kind of experience”. This kind of process could lead to some interesting situations though; could the audio turn into a disaster if the procedurally generated landscape was a mess? “Well yes it could be considered “a mess” by the average listener”, Alyx remarks. I asked her to elaborate on this, she added:

“There are multiple approaches from a completely random selection of notes, chords, effects etc to a very structured system that might utilize music theory that would tailor more to a “western” listening audience. A totally random approach could use any pitch (not even adhering to western tuning), any velocity, any rhythm and note durations (the list goes on) so it is likely to not sound “pleasant”. It’s likely that a random approach wouldn’t be used commonly in games unless they were particularly experimental. Most composers have their own recognizable sound, the same as they aim to give particular games trademark sounds, so it’s perhaps a better approach to find a generative system that you can set certain rules that would give the game its own consistent sound (probably more likely in the case of Proteus).”

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Having an understanding of how sound travels and interacts with its environment is also very useful. Take for example a racing game. Real world phenomena such as occlusion, reverb and Doppler can all be made use of to improve the sound design and make for a more immersive experience whether in a realistic game or a fantasy setting. How can you achieve an authentic sounding racing experience if sound is not reflected off walls or other cars as it would be in real life? This may seem like a subtle technique but it breathes life and subtle cues into the game world. When another car passes by how can you achieve a sense of realism and more importantly speed without Doppler? Wouldn’t you also expect a car’s engine sound to be occluded when it disappears behind a mountain?

So we’ve established that some boundaries have to be put in place to ensure a pleasant audible experience is achieved. So what would an audio designer have to take into account when designing such a pallet of sounds and how do they ensure that these elements work well together? I proposed this to Alyx:

“To ensure elements work together you might group stems together by key or tempo and compose them in such a way that at regular intervals they might be changeable. It’s a similar approach to reactive music in games that would perhaps bring in a percussive beat as an enemy approaches to signify their presence in-game. Multiple layers are synched alongside each other and can either be switched seamlessly or use a stinger to cover up the “switch” when adding another layer or skipping to a new part of the composition. If you were being more experimental you might compose without rhythm or tempo, or maybe even without a key. You could create a soundscape in the same way by maybe grouping stems by timbre or frequency range, or a combination of both approaches. It really depends what you’re doing!”

Whatever the approach, one thing’s for certain, Alyx is sure that the music and sound design are both integral to the overall audible experience. She explains to me how important it is to have a good understanding of sound design within an interactive medium if the composer is to write an “informed piece of music to function as well as it needs to.” I thought this really backed up what Alyx had already touched upon when talking about Proteus. If Proteus were an indie film for example there would have been a linear soundscape, no matter how obscure the film was. Take this very same concept and apply it to an interactive medium that can be procedurally generated and you have a very different beast on your hands. Alyx goes on to explain this point by adding:

“… You may need to have a lot of layers that can be switched between but that can all play independently and in any combination; it’s very different from writing a 3-minute loop or a “score to picture”. There are no time limits, your music and sound environment need to have the ability to play infinitely and adjust to the player and game environment.”

So does Alyx consider herself a sound designer, a composer or both? After applying for several jobs in the games industry she realised that it wasn’t actually sound design she was primarily interested in. Instead she had subconsciously already decided she wanted to focus more on composition. After figuring this out she resigned herself to freelance work which is a wise move as very rarely these days will a company employ a full time composer. Generally audio staff are employed as sound designers; they might also create music as part of their job role but quite often a freelance composer will be hired. I really doubted that Alyx would have been able to take on a full time job even if she wanted to as her schedule is already pretty busy what with writing game audio reviews, working on indie games and taking on her recent role tutoring school children in the art of sound design, game design and programming during after school classes. On top of this Alyx also plans on returning to the University of Surry in 2016 to complete her masters in music composition.

We’d briefly touched up sound design going hand in hand with composition so I asked Alyx to name a few games she considered to have great soundtracks. The first to come to mind for her was thatgamecompany’s masterpiece, Journey which she describes as “…just so beautiful”. I then asked Alyx if she is influenced by her favourite works when creating her own compositions. Not exactly, rather she takes influence “more from the product as a whole” in that she does indeed use orchestral instruments but not to create classical or epic orchestral scores. In the case of Journey, rather than taking inspiration directly from the score Alyx is instead inspired by the feelings Journey’s music invokes. Another favourite is the Dragonborn theme from Skyrim, she elaborates on its impact by adding:

“I suppose on some level all the music I listen to shapes me as a composer. Perhaps in a way, I might listen to Skyrim and be really struck by the powerful vocals and the way the human voice can be used in a new language (the dragon language in Skyrim) to evoke that sense of power. I might use a similar kind of technique or think about how the voice can be used in different ways.”

Reviewing game audio and taking influences from her favourite scores all goes some way towards improving her own compositions. Alyx believes that the review process helps her understand and make decisions with her own projects and analyse why something may not be working. Alyx notes however that critiquing other peoples work is quite a difficult task.  She approaches a review by taking an analytical and logical approach, playing the game to completion and listening to the score during natural game play (where the developers intended it to be heard). Alyx doesn’t listen to the music in isolation as many scores created for games aren’t really designed to be linear pieces. “It’s the same when I’m writing music”, she adds. In much the same way as she reviews games Alyx doesn’t construct her music in a linear fashion as a continuous 3 minute piece for example as that’s not how the player will primarily experience it. Although over critical of her own work she does share some advice for other composers, “Take a break”! While she adds “asking friends for feedback is much better than trying to be too critical of your own work.”

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And so to answer my original question “what makes a great sounding game?” Different games can sound great for a variety of reasons from Limbo’s very minimalistic but atmospheric approach to Skyrim’s epic theme song and Proteus’ almost user generated soundscape. Music and sound design need to work in harmony by complimenting each other, not only in terms of frequency range but also in terms of placement. That said, the sound design must also be sympathetic to the visual style of a game, take Minecraft. By no means are the sounds in Minecraft the most unique, high fidelity assets yet they perfectly suit the blocky textures that Minecraft sports. A great sounding game can certainly be subjective but we have covered several factors that can ensure the sound design works from a technical and artistic point of view.  Analysing other great sounding games is a good place to start, as is experimenting with different techniques. Knowing what to use and where to use it, how sound interacts with the environment and how music should be woven in and out of that experience all help the audio to sit within the game world, blending into the experience. And so we come full circle by creating a sound design experience that the average player is oblivious towards but the audiophiles out there might appreciate.

Alyx and her work can be found on the following sites:
http://www.alyxjones.co.uk/
http://www.thesoundarchitect.co.uk/

Working in QA – Part 2

pikmin-3-wallpaper-1 As a follow up to the “Working in QA” article I wrote back at the start of 2013 I decided it would be interesting to follow a new recruit through their QA career. I thought it would be an interesting approach to interview them and then catch up with them several months later. This would highlight several key points:

  • How they feel starting off in the games industry and their initial thoughts on the job.
  • Where they aim to take their career
  • Their inevitable run in with contract extensions (after all QA contracts only last for 3 months)

So, meet James Crozier, who after a bit of investigating I came across as he had just started working in QA. Our interview begins in April 2014 and takes place via email over the course of several weeks. As the interview starts James has been in QA for a week and he tells me that this is the first time he’s ever done any QA work but he’s really enjoying it so far. I asked him how he got the job and he informs me:

I regularly checked the Codemasters vacancies on the website and saw the QA technician job. I only applied to Codies because they make some of my favourite games! It’s also realistically the only big games company anywhere near where I live. I think it took just under a month for Codemasters to get back to me, but I got a phone call telling me there was a mix up where I didn’t receive the email inviting me to the interview so it was probably a shorter amount of time. The interview was a week after that.

I can understand James wanting to commute, after all QA contracts are short with no guarantee that you’ll be offered work in the future. Moving away from home to work in a fairly low paying job with a short contract is certainly a risky venture. Even so James still spends just under 2 hours a day driving to the Codies main office in Southam. Knowing what the QA interview process is like I asked James if he did any research to prepare for the interview. He spent some time looking at good bug reports as well as researching Codemasters history which came in very useful as he was indeed asked a “What do you know about the company” question during his interview. For many, becoming a QA temp is the first stage of the ladder with many going on to stay in QA in higher ranking positions while others move into development and production roles. Understandably then, most QA temps are coming straight from University or temporary jobs. In James’ case he quit his job at a supermarket, which he said was a “no brainer” of a decision. We’ve learnt that James had no prior experience with a QA role or the games industry in general. So I asked him to tell me about his education, was there anything he did to tailor his studies towards this industry?

In terms of education, I’ve pretty much tried to gear most of my studies towards games with a view to get into the industry. So it started with GCSE’s where I took Art, Graphics and IT followed by IT in my A levels. That got me on to a course at the University of Gloucestershire doing Interactive Games Design where I pretty much got a taste of all aspects such as modelling, coding, project management etc.

James goes on to explain how his degree indirectly helped with his transition into QA. He was already familiar with certain terms and abbreviations he came across, while he could describe some problems technically in his bug reports. Knowledge like this can help developers when trying to recreate a bug or fix the issue. It can be quite difficult receiving a bug to work on and not having a clue what the other person is referring to because they don’t understand what they are bugging in the first place. So far QA is pretty much what James expected it to be like, he got to grips with the bug database pretty quickly and got on with testing. In just a short amount of time though he’s noticed the repetitive nature of QA:

One thing I have found is that it can get really repetitive just checking the same thing over and over, but I’m so obsessed with gaming and racing games in particular that it doesn’t really get boring.

I ask James if this means he’s eventually going to tire of QA and aim to progress into development. He tells me that he’s actively working on his portfolio, creating a couple of models or projects every couple of weeks. This, he says, helps keep the skills and workflow he has developed over the last few years fresh in his mind. Regardless of the tedium and the progression in development I can tell James is really happy to have been given a chance to work in the industry. He goes on to tell me:

I’d be over the moon just to be given a shot at being in QA on a permanent basis as I enjoy it so much. While progressing into development would be awesome, I’m just trying to enjoy the three months I’m at Codemasters in case I don’t get another opportunity! With that in mind, after the contract I think I’d just try and get another QA position as it’s pretty much my perfect job. I know that might sound like I’m not aiming high enough but QA was always my goal back when I first decided I wanted to work in the industry.

We move on to talking about how James thinks working in QA will benefit him in the long run, aside from being a foot in the door of the games industry. He says he now has a better idea of what’s worth fixing and how much time he should spend on bugs that crop up in his own projects. Even so, after several weeks in QA, James is quite keen to progress through the ranks here, hoping one day he might eventually become a QA lead. With James being fresh to the QA environment and the games industry as a whole, our interview pretty much concludes there. I thought it would be good to give him time to reflect on his position and experience a few of the inevitable contact expiration dates. Not knowing where this would go James could have moved on within a couple of months. 2128997-169_pikmin3_review_wiiU_073013_08 Onwards to December 2014, 8 months since our interview began. I discovered James no longer works at Codies. I begin by emailing him again and asking first off why he left the company. I soon discover James initially had one contract extension (3 months), around July 2014 and that expired around October 2014. After this contact expiration James was not offered any more work. I don’t know the reason for this but contact renewals in this industry are a difficult time. Regardless of whether or not you have performed well, if a game has finished its testing period then there is a lack of work to go around. Developers will have moved onto a new project which would be in the early phases of design or development, in which case there wouldn’t be anything to test. Games which receive DLC and patches will retain a handful of QA but they clearly won’t require anywhere near the same amount of man hours as a full game. James explains that he never assumed he’d be in QA at Codies forever as he already knew what the industry was like in terms of temporary contacts. He tells me that his plan was to stay at Codies until they no longer needed him, at which point he’d look for other work, preferably with a permanent contract. James would return to QA if he could find a role with a permanent contract, however he goes on to note:

It’s really difficult to plan ahead with things like accommodation when you don’t know how long you’ll be there. I guess it’s okay if you’re single and have no commitments as you can just rent a room on a rolling contract but when you have a family and pets and you’re dealing with the usual six month to a yearlong contracts it’s really difficult.

After briefly looking for other QA roles James went on to work for a web design company as a developer as well as dealing with their social media. He has a permanent contract at his new company and as they are fairly small scale he says there is a “family kind of atmosphere” where his skills feel more valued. I ask him how he reflects on his time at the company, for example, what are the best and worst aspects of life in QA? I guess the obvious answer from somebody who is already a big gamer is that you get paid to play games, indeed this was his first answer. I’d stress at this point though that a lot of QA involves playing the same game for sometimes months on end carrying out tedious tasks in order to break the game. James notes that this didn’t matter to him personally and also mentions the social aspect of the job. He comments on working with “mostly people who are just as big a gamer as you and so there’s always something to talk about”. If you compare this to your standard office job there is never really a guarantee that you’ll share common ground with your co-workers. James then talks about the worst aspects of the job, I ask him to put aside the issues with redundancies and short term contracts as we’ve already talked a lot about this. His main concerns were to do with trust, he really felt like an outsider who had minimal contact with the development team. Personally from looking back on my time in QA I never experienced the issues James feels he had. I was given free rein to walk around the entire campus and indeed had friends who were part of the development team. I was able to directly email developers and some of them would ask me over to the studio to help recreate bug’s I’d found. Games development is a very secretive industry so I can understand why James might feel this way and he does acknowledge the security risks but for him, he felt like an outsider. Another point of contention for James was with the bug reporting process. James experienced situations where his bugs would be sent back as “Cannot reproduce”. From somebody who has worked in both QA and development I certainly see where his issues arise from but I also understand why this happens. Developers are generally working on “Bleeding edge” builds; basically the most up-to-date version of the game while QA builds will be slightly older. This is a result of working on builds burnt to disc, or waiting until a new stable build is released and distributed to the QA team. In some instances QA might enter a bug that has already been fixed but not yet incorporated in the QA branch. Regardless of the reasons, James did feel that his University degree and his knowledge were somewhat overlooked which he believes results in a “better not bug it” attitude.

Industry Focus – Will Morton

Leave Luck to Games presents the first in a new series called “Industry Focus”. Here industry insiders give a brief overview of their career and offer advice to people looking to start a career in the games industry.

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My name is Will Morton, and I have been working in game audio since 1998.  As a child I grew up playing games in the 1980s, and in many cases I found I loved the music as much as I loved the games.  I got into writing music freelance, then moved into game audio full time as an in-house sound designer at Rockstar North.  I worked at Rockstar North for 12 years, responsible for the dialogue and sound design for the Grand Theft Auto series of games, and also for other games published by Rockstar such as Red Dead Redemption and LA Noire.  After working as Dialogue Supervisor on Grand Theft Auto V and releasing it at the end of 2013, I left the in-house life and recently started an audio production company called Solid Audioworks with another ex-Rockstar North colleague, Craig Conner (director and producer of the soundtracks for the GTA series since the first game in 1997)

If I was to offer advice to someone starting out who wanted to get into game audio, I would say that it is probably tougher to get your foot in the door now than it ever has been, even though there are probably more opportunities and games being published.  Having said that, here are a few paragraphs of advice that will help you stand out from the crowd.

These days a lot of people applying for game audio jobs come from university and college audio courses, and I have seen many applications and show reels from people who use the projects they worked on as part of their education as their demo.  Nine times out of ten, these show reels are almost always the same – the same sound-to-picture demos, the same sound design techniques… it makes it difficult as an employer to judge what has been creatively designed by the applicant, and what has been produced by simply ‘joining the dots’ on a brief for a piece of college work.  There are tons of talented sound engineers out there, so you really have to do something to separate yourself from the crowd.

If you are coming from a college or university background, definitely don’t rely on your course work to demonstrate your skills.  While you are studying, make sure you work on your own projects outside college – get involved with people making games, get involved with filmmakers.

Just get *something* done that is high quality and unique compared to what all the other graduates will be putting on their show reels.  If you have taken time to create something spectacular rather than relying on what you were told to do as part of a course it shows that you are motivated, dedicated, and above all else it shows you have a genuine passion for what you are doing.

It always puzzled me how many people turn up for an interview for a game job not knowing anything about games.  Game developers are usually gamers (or at least ex-gamers) so it helps to be excited about the same things that your potential employers are.  Having the talent to be a good game audio person is only half the battle.  Good luck!

www.solidaudioworks.com

@solidaudioworks

Studying Music Technology at College

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(Recording a band for a BTEC assignment – 2005)

Further to my previous article discussing education, I am going to briefly summarise both audio courses I studied during my College education. I studied during the period of 2002-2005 and so the courses, content and tutors will have changed. This article is designed to give people interested in studying a music tech course an idea of what to expect and take away from different qualifications.

Sound Engineering and Studio Administration – Level 2

I began my journey by joined the Sound Engineering course at Burton College; it took 1 year to complete and was essentially the equivalent of a GCSE. I did have the opportunity to jump straight onto the more advanced BTEC course (which I will discuss later) as I had already met the criteria (6 GCSEs at C or above and/or my AVCE in IT qualification), however as I was unfamiliar with the subject I decided to enrol on this introductory course first.

The course aimed to give students an understanding of sound engineering with a heavy emphasis on practical tasks. There was a lot of hands on time with students physically hooking up and using hardware including mixing desks, outboard gear and PA systems.

The course was very much self-motivated and allowed students to grab some gear and a free audio booth and get stuck in. For students such as myself who were not musicians, there was plenty to do on the technical and hardware side, from learning how to hook up gear, record musicians and learning basic processing techniques such as adding EQ and reverb.

The course didn’t really focus on assignments as such, rather there would be a list of topics delivered to the students throughout the year and with each new topic students would go away and use the new techniques they had learnt. For example, one of the very first lectures taught students the basic functions of a mixing desk. Following on from this, students would work in small groups with a 4 channel mixing desk and a microphone to complete a task. The students would be asked to connect a microphone to a mixing desk, which in turn would need connecting to an amp and speakers. A minidisc recorder would be connected and students would record and play back captured audio of their choice, be it speech or an acoustic guitar. The idea behind this task was to get hands on with a small, non-intimidating mixing desk and understand the flow of the signal path.

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(One of my first tasks during Sound Engineering – 2002)

I found this hands on approach a brilliant way to get across lectures (something I felt University was missing). The other clear benefit was that students got a good idea of how virtual mixing desks and recording software / sequencing software such as Cubase handle audio and the signal path. Auxiliaries for example can be pretty difficult to explain to somebody who has never used them. Physically connecting a hardware reverb unit into an aux send, turning the aux knob on the channel of the dry signal you want to apply reverb to, then sending your reverb unit’s output into a new channel or the aux return of the mixing desk is a far easier concept to show somebody with hardware and cables rather than telling them how the software is routing the signal.

Students were graded on a portfolio of work that was handed in at the end of the year (but checked by the tutor throughout the year on a regular basis). Essentially the portfolio had to cover each topic the student had studied over the course of the year. A typical entry in the portfolio might be to draw a basic channel strip, label each step in the path (Inputs, Gain, EQ, Aux, Fader, Routing switches, Pan etc…) and show how the signal path travels from the microphone to the speakers. The piece would then be accompanied by a few short paragraphs, perhaps explaining how this works to show you understand what you have done. A minidisc might also be attached in the folder containing the recording from this session. The course was marked as either a “Pass” or a “Fail”, students who passed were then encouraged to progress onto the BTEC course.

BTEC National Diploma in Music Technology

Edexcel define the BTEC as giving students “…a specialist work-related focus, enabling them to extend key sector knowledge and practical skills.  This can add immediate value in the workplace or aid progression to BTEC HND/HNC, BTEC Foundation Degree or a University degree programme.”

The BTEC Music Technology course at Burton is directed specifically to enable students to gain experience and to prepare them for the wider industry.  Rather than simply providing classroom academia the course allows for various practical elements.  Ideally the course will give a student the knowledge and experience to progress onto higher education or provide a better understanding of the wider industry but not necessarily sufficient skills to progress into a working environment.

The BTEC course was a lot more structured than the Level 2, with regular assignments, deadlines and more structured tasks to complete. Students on this course are primed to progress onto University so lectures are given on a more regular basis and are designed to introduce each new topic and build on the theory over several weeks. Assignments at this level have a specific list of criteria that have to be met in order to achieve one of several pass grades (fail, pass, merit or distinction).

A pass would typically mean the student has a basic grasp of the topic and has handed in at least of few paragraphs with relevant information on the subject. During my time as a student I saw pass assignments handed in that contained obvious copy and paste efforts from Wikipedia, but the point was that the student actually had at least searched for and found relevant information.

A distinction would generally be awarded for showing referenced research, diagrams, practical examples of how the student has applied this knowledge to their own work and appendices containing work and extra notes or findings. The written sections would generally be more extensive than “pass” assignments, showing the student has taken the information, digested it and relayed it in their own words.

A distinction would be far closer to the calibre of work expected from a degree student while a pass would be more typical of the type of work that would be acceptable on the previous Level 2 course.

What else can you expect from a college education? Well different Colleges will all vary in what they can offer. Some Colleges may have great tutors but poor facilities and equipment, others may have good links with the industry or organise a lot of guest lecturers and day trips.

During my time at Burton College I experienced the following:

Teaching Staff & Facilities

The tutors at Burton College were from a range of backgrounds and all had different skill sets. During my first year the music technology department was significantly smaller and as such there were only 2 tutors. One tutor taught music theory lessons and helped students who wanted to develop their abilities on a range of instruments. The other tutor, who was the head of the music tech department had his own studio, was an experienced sound engineer and delivered all music technology lectures.

By the time I began studying on the BTEC course the department had taken on more students, tutors and updated its facilities. One of the new tutors had just graduated from University and his knowledge and technical background were a welcome addition to the college. Whereas the head of the department was a seasoned sound engineer with plenty of hands on experience with hardware, this new tutor had a great understanding of newer technologies and software.

Having tutors from a range of backgrounds really helped deliver all aspects of the course. Throughout my studies other tutors would come and go, some came from University, others were session musicians, some were transferring from other colleges.

Facilities at the college were second to none and improved year-on-year. There were enough computers for everybody; all featured a sound card and current versions of standard plug-ins and sequencing software. There was also a wide range of hardware from ADAT recorders, digital and analogue mixing desks, microphones and PA systems. Since leaving the college they have also replaced all PCs with iMacs and all students now have access to Pro Tools and Logic Pro. A professional recording studio was constructed a few years after I had left. Contrast this to the University of Derby, where I studied for my degree. At the time we were using software that was several years out of date and the recording studios were off limits to anybody in their first year. Students with access to recording studios had the choice of using the old studios that were becoming extremely dated or the newly built ones. The latter were not sound proofed; indeed they were standard office rooms that had thin panes of glass to divide the control rooms from the live rooms and hollow ceilings.

Involvement With the Wider Industry

Burton in particular has given students many opportunities over the years to interact with the wider industry. This helps prepare students for a career in the industry and introduce them to aspects of the industry that they may not have considered before.

Guest Lecturers

Students were given an insight into the wider industry from guest lecturers and industry insiders. One of which was a workshop on Ableton Live delivered by an employee who worked for the company. Students were given an insight into how the software works, learning tips and tricks. Students were able to get some hands on experience before taking part in a Q&A session.

In recent years I myself have given several guest lectures at the college, giving students an insight into the games industry. Most students on the course set out to be sound engineers or musicians so this opens up a whole new career path to students who wouldn’t have even considered the games industry. During these lectures students are introduced to the world of game audio, shown examples of work and learn about some of the processes involved in creating audio for computer games.

BBC Radio

Students have had the opportunity to visit BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra where they were able to speak to professionals working in the industry. Many students may not consider a job in the broadcast industry. The visit informs students of how to work their way into the industry, living costs in London and other opportunities.

Music Live

Music Live is a now defunct yearly event held at Birmingham’s NEC, here students have the opportunity to buy, use and get hands on experience with new equipment while meeting industry professionals from many companies. Although anybody can buy tickets for Music Live, students at Burton College are presented with a free ticket and free transport to encourage them to take part in this event and get involved with the industry.

Deciding what to study

Most students probably won’t know exactly what they would like to do after graduating from college or university. I didn’t know I wanted to do audio for games until my 2nd year of university. The sound engineering and music tech courses were broad in scope rather than focusing on specifically becoming a sound engineer or musician. There can be positives and negatives to these types of courses, if you are absolutely sure you have found the right industry for you then a more specialised course might be the answer. If however, you have an interest in music technology but would like to keep your options open to game audio, location recording, broadcast or a host of other industries then these courses will give you a suitable foundation to work with but no real insight into one particular career path.

When I began working in the games industry I didn’t anticipate exactly what the job role of a games audio designer would involve. I had no experience with common game audio tools and software, had I been on a specialised course I could have been introduced to these much earlier and had a few years to learn the basics.