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.

SEGA Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works

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Being a fan of retro games and gaming history in general I jumped at the chance to back my first ever Kickstarter campaign last year. The book’s Kickstarter page promised:

“…the definitive volume on the landmark console. The book is officially licensed by SEGA and celebrates the 25th anniversary of the console’s release. It will be an unparalleled treasury of production artwork, interviews, development sketches and hardware manufacturing plans.”

After receiving the book last week I have to say the guys over at Read-Only Memory fully delivered…and then some! The 352 page book is rammed full of interviews, concept art, sprites and an in depth history lesson about the Mega Drive and it’s various add-on’s. The hard back book is of very high quality and various types of paper have been chosen throughout to best compliment the content. Included are some nice gate fold pages featuring original technical drawings. The book is also fully supported by SEGA who released never before seen content specifically for this book.

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I’ve taken a few pictures of the book placed next to a standard sized PS3 / Blu-ray box for size comparison purposes.

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Read-Only Memory already had previous success on Kickstarter when their first project (Sensible Software 1986–1999) reached it’s funding goal. This made my decision to back the project that much easier, knowing they had already delivered on a promise.

Throughout the project Darren (Founder of ROM) kept the backers updated on the books progress. This included sneak peeks at initial designs, free desktop wallpapers, interview snippets and photos.

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Photo courtesy of ROM

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 Photo courtesy of ROM

For anybody who doesn’t understand the kickstarter process, a company or person has to state how much money they want to raise in order to complete their project. During the funding period at least 100% of the money asked for has to be raised otherwise the project is not funded at all. This also acts as a bit of a safety net for backers as their money isn’t taken away immediately or at all if the project funding fails.

With great projects like SEGA Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works what can often happen is that funding is so successful that over 100% of the money can be raised. In this case ROM were asking for £30,000 in total but they actually raised £98,725. So what happens with the extra funds raised? Well companies generally have a list of “stretch goals” in order to improve the project with the extra funds generated. Mighty No 9 was one such project that smashed it’s goal by a massive amount and offered several stretch goals. ROM was no exception and addressed how they would spend the extra funds in their Kickstarter update comments. Backers eventually ended up with an improved book with around 50 extra pages of content and several gate-fold pages. Based on the finished product I’m sure our money also went into improving the hardback cover quality and general presentation of the book including the quality of the pages themselves.

At the end of the book several pages can be found listing the name of every Kickstarter backer.

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SEGA Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Work can be purchased now from the ROM site here for £35 with free UK delivery.

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

Leave Luck to Being Rescued – Malin Arvidsson

Malin Arvidsson
Senior Sound Designer
Bigpoint

Notable games Malin has been involved with: LittleBigPlanet, Mirror’s Edge, Buzz! TV Quizz, Wonderbook: Book of Spells, Wonderbook: Book of Potions

www.thesoundofmalin.com

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For the first time I interview a freelance sound designer, however part way through our interview Malin applied for and accepted a job offer from Bigpoint. So let’s see both the benefits and downsides to working freelance and why she decided to take on a permanent contract.

Brad: First of all how did you start off in the industry, you weren’t always freelance were you?

Malin: Well, I kind of started in the games industry by accident in a sense. I was studying sound engineering in Sweden, but more for music, and during that time I decided I wanted to work in film, preferably animation. So when we did a 6 week work experience as part of our course, I asked one of my teachers where I can find film companies in London, and he suggested Pinewood studios. So I searched for Pinewood studios on the internet and came across Richard Joseph’s company, Audio Interactive, which was a company based in Pinewood that did sound for games, and I thought, wow, that sounds awesome! I called Richard up to ask if I could join him for 6 weeks and he welcomed me. We got along really well so when I was made redundant from my TV job in Sweden a year and a half later, he asked me to come over to work for him. We both ended up joining Elixir Studios a year later and worked together for 5 years in total until Elixir closed down in 2005. And that’s when I started freelancing 🙂

Brad: How long have you been freelance and what are the main advantages and disadvantages compared to having a permanent contract?

Malin: I’ve been freelancing for almost 9 years now! I’d say the good things are that you get to meet a lot of people, you get to work on a lot of different types of games, learn a lot of different tools and different ways of doing things and you can decide how much holiday you want 😉 I know a lot of people worry when they don’t know what will come up next, and I do admit that I do that too, but at the same time it’s also exciting not knowing what will come next.

The main downside in my opinion is that you’re rarely involved in the initial planning of the game. You’re not there from the start so can’t be as involved in the design and how the sound should work in the game. And you don’t have as much influence on what equipment you’ll have. And unfortunately, a lot of the time you have to sit on headphones instead of speakers. And I guess it’s not great having to worry about having work or not.

Brad: Obviously working on racing games at Codies has been the highlight of your career, but what other games have you really enjoyed working on?

Malin: He he, yes of course! 🙂

Hmmm, I’ve enjoyed most of the games I’ve worked on in one way or another, either because of the game, because of the people or for other reasons. And of course there have always been frustrations with each game too. I think it’s never 100% either way. I loved working on Mirror’s Edge because it’s a great game and a very talented bunch of people working in the audio team at DICE. I’ve also really enjoyed doing all the games I’ve done at Sony because of the friendship and atmosphere they have there. And even though it was a really long time ago now, I still look back at my time at Elixir as really enjoyable, especially working on Evil Genius as it was a really fun game to work on with lots of humour.

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Brad: Are there any jobs you wouldn’t take on either because you don’t want to work on a certain type of game or because you don’t want to specialise in a particular task?

Malin: I’m prepared to do most jobs, although there are certain jobs I prefer to do 😉 I prefer doing sound design and implementation to dialogue. I prefer doing any games where I can use my creativity a lot, like fantasy and magic games, especially things like creatures that don’t exist in real life. And I can’t say I’m a gun or engine person, I’d rather leave that to people who’re better at it than me 😉

Brad: And how about relocating? You were born in Sweden so what brought you to the UK and are there any places you would really like to live and work?

Malin: Originally I only had a 2 months contract when I came to London so I just came with a backpack even though my aim was to stay for 2 years. My contract kept extending and then I was employed by Elixir and I started dating a guy and my stay here just became longer and longer and now I’ve been here for 14 years!

As I love travelling and love trying to live in new places I would consider a lot of places to live and work. Initially I wanted to stay in London for 2 years, Paris for 2 years, Spain for 2 years and then move back to Sweden, but I guess you can never predict what will happen next. That’s what makes life more exciting 😉 I’m still open to moving to new places, but now I’m more prepared to move for a good job than going to a place just because I want to live there. For example, I wouldn’t be too keen to live in the US, but I would love to work for Naughty dog so I would be prepared to live there because of that. Of course there are places I wouldn’t move to. Funnily enough I’m more prepared to move to another country than moving within the UK as I think if I’m going to move I might as well try a new country. I guess being single makes it a lot easier to relocate though.

Brad: What advice would you give to a graduate who is thinking about working freelance in the games industry?

Malin: I think as a graduate, if you can get a job in-house that’s probably a better start so you can get some experience first. But otherwise, the key thing is networking. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to get a job through an agency, all the jobs I’ve had has been through contacts or through the vgm list. Go to network events like the audio track in Brighton and GDC in San Francisco if you can afford it, and go to any meet up you hear of. Join email lists, linked in groups etc. And don’t give up! It’s a tough industry; there are more people than jobs. It’s the people who don’t give up who make it. And don’t be arrogant. If you think you know everything that’s when you stop learning. This is a fast moving industry so there are constantly new things to learn.

(Malin accepts a job at Bigpoint)

Brad: What made you decide to take on a permanent contract instead of freelance work?

Malin: I loved freelancing for the 9 years I did it! I learnt so much from working with different people, different tools, on different styles of games and even moving to different places. But I guess I got to a point in my career where I felt like I’d learnt what I needed to learn from freelancing. The downside with freelance work is that you don’t often get to work on a project from beginning to end, you’re rarely involved from the beginning so many of the decisions have usually been made by the time you start in terms of style, tools etc. Another downside when working in house as a freelancer is that they’re rarely prepared to invest in your equipment as you’re only there temporarily, so often you get to work on headphones in a noisy room and don’t necessarily have the best tools, plug ins etc. And you don’t always get to choose the jobs you do as you need to keep the work coming in. If you turn a job down, they’re not likely to ask you again even if it’s for something more interesting.

So when this job came up, and it seemed like a good company, a good location and an interesting project, I thought maybe now it’s time to move forward and develop other skills. Be more of a decision maker rather than follow other people’s ideas. And I guess it does also feel nice to not to have to worry about finding your next project constantly 🙂

Brad: Right Malin, I’m going to ship you off to a desert island.

Let’s say on your way back to London by boat (why not?) a storm hits and you end up washing ashore on a strange land. Your only refuge is an abandoned Ikea building so you build yourself a bed from flat pack materials. You find some meatballs to eat and start routing around the warehouse where you find shelves stacked full of games, clearly somebody had used this place for shelter in the past.

The roof in this section starts to crack so you only have time to grab 5 games and 1 soundtrack, one of the games can be a special edition if you like. What were your choices?

Malin: Brrrr, I’d prefer to get stuck on a desert island somewhere warm 😉 and right, now I might offend some people by saying, I’m not originally a gamer. So only started playing games after working in the games industry for 7 years (so I guess I started playing games about 7 years ago) so I don’t really know many of the old games.

Sorry, I still haven’t played a huge amount of games tbh so I guess the selection I have to choose from is fairly small 😉

Hmmm, well I think I’d have to go for:

1)  Tomb Raider (Xbox 360)

Tomb Raider as then I won’t feel alone with being stuck in the middle of nowhere. And because I love the game too.

I’d grab two Naughty dog games:

2)  Uncharted 3 (PlayStation 3)

Uncharted 3 was the first game that really hooked me and was the first game I played from start to finish.

3)  The Last of Us (PlayStation 3)

After Uncharted 3 I just wanted to play anything from Naughty Dog!

4)  LittleBigPlanet (PlayStation 3)

Little Big Planet I think I love most for the sackboy expressions. And it makes me laugh and scream when I play it, hehe.

5) Pain (PlayStation 3)

Pain as it makes me laugh 🙂

Soundtrack – Diggs NightCrawler

Hmmm, one soundtrack is hard to choose. Different ones are good for different reasons. One I was very impressed by was when Dead space 1 first came out, but I’m not sure I’d want to be on my own with that game as I would shit myself (sorry) Maybe for a music soundtrack I would choose Diggs Nightcrawler. Even if I worked on the sound for it, I just love Jim’s music on it and it would keep me happy 🙂

Brad: I know you love the cold but if you now have to burn all your games for heat which one would you save until last?

Malin: Hehe, hmmm, I think it would have to be tombraider. I think as a game I probably think Uncharted is better, but I guess I just associate better with Lara Croft being a woman 😉 so I feel more attached to that.

About the choices

Tomb Raider

Developer – Crystal Dynamics
Publisher – Square Enix
Platform – Xbox 360
Release – 5th March 2013

Uncharted 3

Developer – Naughty Dog
Publisher – Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform – PlayStation 3
Release (EU) – 2nd November 2011

The Last of Us

Developer – Naughty Dog
Publisher – Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform – PlayStation 3
Release – 14th June 2013 

LittleBigPlanet

Developer – Media Molecule
Publisher – Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform – PlayStation 3
Release (EU) – 5th November 2008 

Pain

Developer – Idol Minds
Publisher – Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform – PlayStation 3
Release (EU) – 20th March 2008

GRID 2 Show Reel

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This is my GRID 2 show reel which highlights a few of the cars I worked on during the development cycle of the game. Stylistically we aimed for the vehicles in this game to be realistic but slightly larger than life. This is in contrast to our previous project, DiRT Showdown where the vehicles were more heavily processed with a smaller dynamic range.

A variety of cars have been selected for this show reel, the details of which follow:

  • Nissan Silvia S15
    • 4 Cylinder
    • Turbo
    • Street
  • BAC Mono
    • 4 Cylinder
    • Natural Aspiration
    • Open Cockpit
  • Nissan 370z
    • V8
    • Natural Aspiration
    • Drift Tuned
  • Mazda RX7
    • Rotary Engine
    • Twin Turbo
    • Drift Tuned
  • Dodge Challenger SRT8
    • V8
    • Natural Aspiration
    • American Muscle
  • Chevrolet Cruze
    • 4 Cylinder
    • Turbo
    • Touring Car
  • Volvo S60
    • V6
    • Natural Aspiration
    • Touring Car
  • Chevrolet Camaro SS
    • V8
    • Natural Aspiration
    • American Muscle
  • Aston Martin Zagato
    • V12
    • Natural Aspiration
    • GT

Club Nintendo Game & Watch: Ball

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Anybody who buys a reasonable amount of Nintendo games will probably be aware of the Club Nintendo Stars Catalogue. This is a store that allows a user to spend points of a range of items such as key rings to miniature statures to rare items such as a replica SNES controller specially designed for the Wii.

Stars are collected by buying a Nintendo system or game, generally you can pick up something like 500-1000 stars for registering a code included in a system box such as the WiiU or the 3DS while games will generally bag you 250 stars. In the past I have spent stars on “Nintendo Points” which can be redeemed on the virtual console to purchase digital games.

Some of the rare items cost thousands of points, one of which is the Game & Watch reissue of “Ball”. This classic was the first Game & Watch game Nintendo released, dating from 1980. I decided to save my points and bag myself the exclusive Club Nintendo gift.

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The system comes complete with a cardboard box, packaging and far too many manuals (multiple languages).

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The system itself is tiny, far smaller than I expected. For dimensions I’ve compared it to a 3DS XL (the blue console) and a DS Lite (White). The build quality is fairly decent, with a burgundy shell and a mock chrome faceplate. The buttons are rubber while the screen itself is a monochrome LCD display.

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As for the gameplay, don’t expect to be blown away, after all the game is over 30 years old. The premise is to catch the balls that you toss up into the air, in other words it’s juggling. Game A has the player throwing 2 balls and scoring 1 point per ball caught, each ball is tossed into the air and over to the opposite side of the screen. The left and right buttons are then used to adjust the position of the left and right hands in order to catch each ball. Game B is much the same but there are 3 balls in play and 10 points are scored for each successful catch.

As the system name suggests (Game & Watch), the system is also used as a watch. You can set the time and when not in play the LCD screen will display a demo and the current time.

Studying Music Technology at College

Scan 62(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.

Scan 3(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.

Rod 03Annoying a college tutor – Despite doing well at College I was still a right shit

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.

col2Visiting Radio 1 with my college peers

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.

Leave Luck to Being Rescued – Vincent Diamante

Vincent Diamante
Audio Director
thatgamecompany

Notable games Vincent has been involved with:
Cloud, Flower, Skullgirls, Castlevania: Order of Shadows

flower-game-screenshot-1-b

One of my favourite things about this generation is the great indie games we are getting to experience on consoles. Recently I have been particularly fond of games such as The Unfinished Swan, Thomas Was Alone and Journey but the first few games to really grip me were flOw and Flower, both of which were developed by thatgamecompany.

thatgamecompany really shine when it comes to telling a story simply by engaging the player with great music, visuals and gameplay. Vincent Diamante has been kind enough to suffer the fate of leaving luck to being rescued but before I send him away to survive he’s going to talk a little bit about the award winning game that is Flower, his time in education and what games make him tick.

Brad: Flower is a fantastic game but explaining the concept to somebody cannot do it justice. The game takes the player on an incredibly emotional journey simply by allowing the player to guide petals through the world; this is thanks to the soundtrack and level design working perfectly together.

As the composer of Flower’s soundtrack how did you approach the difficult task of creating the score? Did you start work based on concept art and game flow alone or were some of the levels partly fleshed out?

Vincent: Well, I started Flower really early. I began writing music even before there were any core game mechanics, art, or levels were defined. Granted, pretty much all those early tracks didn’t make it in the game, but they had an influence on everyone when it came to searching for all the different aspects that comprised the game. Back then, there were a lot of really rough mechanics prototypes that we were experimenting with. These were really rough pieces with mostly programmer art that I’d do music and sound effects for.  Back then, I think a lot of the influence came from the shape of the controls and the really low-level decisions being made with your hands while playing the game. That continued to be a huge part of the music and sound all the way to the end.

Brad: Typically, with many games it feels as though the sound design is created to complement the visuals so it’s refreshing to see that the audio and score actually had an impact on the overall game design. Were there any instances during development where you thought something didn’t quite work from a visual point-of-view and it was subsequently changed to better suit the soundtrack or vice-versa?

Vincent: There were some subtle changes here and there to better match the audio, but nothing too drastic. There were, however, a few places where the match of visual and aural originally struck the rest of the dev team as: not right. The most notable example of this is probably the exit from the canyon and the entrance of the wind level’s third music. I felt very strongly about the sound there and had to really stand my ground to keep it the way it was. From there, the guys decided to humor me a bit and work around what I was giving them, I guess! The audio and music there in the retail copy is the same as the first pass there, save mixing and mastering.

Now that I think of it, I believe that was the first time in the process I was really obstinate about my position on the overall game, and I got to really elucidate that with the audio. I’m glad they let me do that, even though my relationship was technically just as a contractor at that time rather than as an employee…

Brad: I know you had a hand in the level design and layout of the flowers throughout the game. Do you feel this was an important part of allowing the score to gel with the level design?

Vincent: When it came to level design, well, it was less about the big level design and more about flower design.  The arrangement, shape, size, and density of flower groups, lines and areas were really important because of their direct impact on the sound effects, which were designed to be an extra musical layer on top of the rest of the score.  Because of that… yeah. The flower arrangement in the levels was incredibly important to the success of the score.

Brad: Interacting with flowers to trigger audible feedback to complement the soundtrack is a nice touch. What other games stand out to you as doing something particularly interesting or unique with audio?

Vincent: I was a huge fan of X-Wing and TIE Fighter back in the day. Besides getting me really into the whole modding and level design thing (thanks to a program called TIE Mission Builder), I was hugely enamored with the interactive score and all the fast splicing of MIDI that was happening on the fly. Can’t ignore the NanaOn-Sha games; I really loved Vib Ribbon when it came out. I was just gobsmacked by the music for Vagrant Story, and I always do a close-listening of the extremely subtle interactive score for the game’s playable title sequence. More recently, I’ve been pushing Diamond Trust of London for Nintendo DS on guys; besides being a really neat electronic board game about blood diamonds, it has a looping/branching type interactive score that responds to the board game state. Oh, Rez… can’t forget about that! Loved the fact that the sound effects of the enemies and the player were an integral part of the musical score.

Brad: I know you’re a bit of a jack-of-all-trades and you’ve worked in other industries but did game modding and level design help you decide that you eventually wanted to work in the games industry or was it just more of a hobby at that point?

Vincent: Game modding was part of it. I did have fun messing with TIE Mission Builder, doing 3D Studio Max stuff in high school, messing with Pascal… things like that. I actually knew that I wanted to work in the game industry ever since the beginning: playing games on my cousin’s Commodore 64 back as a 6 year old brat. I’m pretty stubborn.

Brad: So I guess the stepping stone into the games industry then began at University with projects such as Cloud? How did you get involved with the game and did you feel like you were part of something special during its development?

Vincent: Cloud was definitely a major part of it.  Prior to that, I got some repute for writing, having co-founded a website called insertcredit.com, which was rather well-regarded as an enthusiast/New Games Journalism type site with a crazy writing staff. (I guess my niche back then was hardcore vehicle simulation, fighting games, and visual novels.)  As a games maker, I was part of a team at USC that just got a game called Dyadin into the IGF student showcase. Most of that team continued on the Cloud project that came afterward, though that game had a very different development structure, with Jenova as a clear creative director compared to Dyadin which was much more design by committee.  Dyadin definitely got some positive press, but the contrast of Cloud to both games in the IGF and in the mainstream really caught guys by surprise.

I think we had a feeling that this game would get a good response, though we weren’t quite sure just how much. As the sound dude, I was asked early on to create music to set the tone for both the game itself as well as inspiration for the fledgling design. It was a really interesting position to be in, though it made immediate sense to me as someone who fiercely believed in music NOT being a post-production process in games.

Brad: How important was it for you to network with other graduates during your time at University?

Vincent: The networking was pretty important. I just started working as Audio Director over at thatgamecompany, which means I’m back to working with Jenova and others who’ve come from USC.  Of course, it’s not just the networking within that grad program. While I was an interactive media student, I provided music for some senior animation thesis projects from CalArts students; that experience was probably a factor in me getting hired on that Skullgirls team which didn’t have any USC connections but more than a few CalArts guys who happened to also be connected with that website I helped build. 🙂

Skullgirls_01

Brad: Well you definitely keep yourself busy, especially being audio director at thatgamecompany and on Skullgirls. It’s probably fair to say then, that you can tire yourself out and have some pretty vivid dreams such as this one…

On returning home after a day at work you look out of your window and to your astonishment you see a lush green meadow and a series of windmills. You close your eyes and upon opening them your apartment has disappeared and so you begin walking towards the only visible landmark, a derelict skyscraper. Once inside you find the building has been used as a warehouse to store a rather large games collection, as the building begins to creak you manage to grab 5 games. As you run for the exit you notice a pylon has crashed through and damaged a wall, peering through you find a game soundtrack on the floor.

You set up camp next to a windmill that is powering a generator and you decide to have a look through your haul of games. What did you manage to grab?

Vincent: Haha… all right… let’s see…

1)  Garouden: Fist or Twist (PlayStation 2)

This is one of my favorite fighting games ever. The concept of hitstun is very different in this game compared to other fighting games; here it’s a variable that changes over the course of the match as opposed to simply a function of the attack landed, and this changes the story and drama of the fight in a wonderful way.  For me, at least!  Not a popular game among the mainstream or hardcore fighting game guys, but I absolutely love it.

2)  Star Wars: TIE Fighter (PC)

I mentioned this as being my first real foray into video game modding and level editing. Back in the day, I just ROCKED at this game, and I kept on giving myself ever more ridiculous challenges to survive. (Ex: In a TIE Fighter, dogfighting escort shuttles in a mine field with both lasers and concussion missiles…) I could probably play this game forever.

3)  Sid Meier’s CPU Bach (3DO)

Less a game and more a wacky piece of music software, this 3DO game tries to compose music in the style of JS Bach… and it sometimes succeeds… in places. 🙂  It’s not a bad version of a young music student trying to employ high baroque composition techniques…

4)  Puyo Puyo!! 20th Anniversary (Nintendo DS)

Probably my favorite competitive action puzzle game series. They finally got the online multiplayer thing going, so nowadays I actually have a challenge fighting against some very good competition over in Japan.  Or at least I did when I had the time to open up my DS…

5) Radiant Silvergun (Sega Saturn)

This shooter is not only my favorite scrolling shooter, but it also has my favorite video game soundtrack.  It’s pretty short when it comes to the actual music (the official CD soundtrack release actually has the soundtrack twice… once in original ST-V/Saturn mix and again in a slightly upgraded synth arrangement) but it’s a near perfect combination of clever and elegant.

Soundtrack – Vagrant Story OST (Hitoshi Sakimoto)

As for the soundtrack… hrm…!  I already mentioned my favorite soundtrack above… and number 2 would be another Hitoshi Sakimoto score in Vagrant Story… hrm… (man, maybe I should have put that game above, considering the legs of the core game loop there…)

Brad: I tell you what I’ll do; generally I allow the castaway to select a special edition of one of the games. I’ll give you the Radiant Silvergun soundtrack along with the game, which means you can also take with you the Vagrant Story OST.

Vincent: I didn’t mention one of my other favorite fighting games, and that game happens to have a brilliant soundtrack as well.

Honourable Mention) Radiant Silvergun (Sega Saturn)

Asuka 120% Limited for Saturn is my favorite 2D fighting game, and the soundtrack by Keishi Yonao is just ridiculously good fun. The best release of the soundtrack, most of which was actually written in the early 90s, even though the game continued getting updated releases all the way to 2000, comes from the Tilde Game Music Collection Vol. 3 – Asuka 120%. Just great fun to listen to.

Brad: You have certainly chose a varied selection with a mix of fighting, flight simulation, puzzle… and I’ve never played any of these choices, probably due to most of them being released in Japan!

Unfortunately, being exposed to the elements in an open field a large gust of wind rushes in your makeshift camp. Your games are caught up in the wind but you manage to reach out and grab one of them. Which game did you decide to save?

Vincent: Hrm… Radiant Silvergun? Probably that. For me, playing that game is along the lines of revisiting a Scriabin or Beethoven Sonata. I can play it for fun as well as furthering mastery of the game…

So I say, but then I just end up watching superplay videos locally or on Youtube showing the true masters what it’s like to really turn in a virtuoso performance in that game. When you play that game smoothly, it’s a thing of beauty…

Brad: There certainly are some masters out there. I always find with games I like, when checking an online leader board there is always somebody with a ridiculously large high score. It makes you wonder how many hours they have to plough into studying and practicing the game to get that good at it!

Thanks for taking the time to talk about what you do and what games you love. I can’t wait to see what’s next for thatgamecompany.

Vincent: This was fun!  Thank you!

About the choices

Garouden: Fist or Twist

Developer – Opus / ESP Software
Platform – PlayStation 2
Release (JP) – 15th March 2007

Star Wars: TIE Fighter

Developer – Totally Games
Publisher – LucasArts
Platform – PC
Release – July 1994

Sid Meier’s CPU Bach 

Developer – MicroProse
Platform – 3DO
Release – 1994

Puyo Puyo!! 20th Anniversary 

Developer – Sonic Team
Publisher – Sega
Platform – Nintendo DS
Release (JP) – 14th July 2011

Radiant Silvergun 

Developer – Treasure
Publisher – Sega
Platform – Sega Saturn
Release (JP) – 23rd July 1998

Asuka 120% Limited 

Developer – Fill-in-Café / Success
Publisher – FamilySoft / Kodansha
Platform – Sega Saturn
Release (JP) – 1994

SNES Controller Mod

IMAG1552

A while back I decided to have a go at creating a bit of a console mod, I had no intention of taking apart my original SNES and giving it a lick of paint without first experimenting. After routing through boxes of retro consoles and accessories in my loft I came across a SNES controller with a broken shoulder button. I decided this would be my guinea pig and if it failed I hadn’t lost much.

The Preparation

After taking the pad apart I found the problem – the shoulder button had snapped so I repaired that with a bit of super glue. I gutted the pad and removed the circuit board then washed all the plastic and rubber.

IMAG1553

I had to spend far more than I originally thought, I ended up with a pack of sandpaper of varying grades, a face mask, a can of white plastic primer, a can of white spray, blue spray and finally a can of lacquer for the finish. In total that lot came to about £40.

The Process

  • Take the controller apart with a standard screwdriver. No “gamebit” screwdrivers are required for these controllers.
  • Wash all plastic and rubber parts in hot soapy water.
  • Sand down both the front and rear sections of the pad
    • This process should be done in stages, starting from rough sand paper such as 120 then onto 400, 600 and finally 1200.
  • Use a plastic primer spray.
    • You should give the pad 2 or 3 coats, leaving at least 15 minutes between each coat.
    • It is also a good ideal to gently go over the primer with very fine sandpaper (1200) to smooth out each coat.
  • On with the colour, I chose white and dark blue as I wanted to compliment the original SNES colour scheme.
    • The pad will require about 3 coats of paint; this process is similar to the priming stage but you should leave a few hours in between each coat of paint. Preferably leave each coat to dry overnight.
    • After each coat sand down with a fine grade sand paper, again 1200 is probably the best for this.
  • The final stage is to spray the controller with a clear lacquer. Use 2 to 3 coats and allow time to dry in between each coat.
  • Reassemble the controller.

DSCF4031

DSCF4032

The Problems

  • Spray in a garage or dust free area.
    • I don’t have access to a garage so I waited for dry, sunny days. Unfortunately, even with the relatively calm weather each coat of paint still ended up with tiny dust and dirt particles being attracted to it.
  • That damn grey sticker!
    • The A,B,X,Y grey section of the controller is actually a sticker, not a clip on face plate as I presumed it would be.
    • I had already started trying to remove the supposed faceplate so I continued removing it and reapplied it with a coat of super glue.
    • I used masking tape over this section to preserve the original design but the blue spray with a grey sticker really didn’t suit so I removed the sticker.
    • This resulted in a scratched up mess where the sticker used to sit. This proved difficult to smooth out with sand paper, so if you look at the final pictures of the controller you can still see an awful lot of scratches.
  • Choose a colour and stick with it!
    • Originally I wanted the entire controller to be blue but after the initial spray I thought the blue front made the controller look like a cheap knock-off.
    • I once again sanded down the front but it became very difficult to strip it back down to the original plastic.
    • I then ended up having to use many layers of primer and white paint to cover up the previous colour.
    • This resulted in uneven coats, paint running and layer upon layer of paint being used. None of which are ideal!
  • Leave the controller to dry
    • I didn’t leave long enough in between most coasts of spray. Because the good weather is generally limited in this country I tried to get as much spraying done as possible.
    • This resulted in some coats not being adequately dry, so when sanding down coats I would find the paint would still be soft just under the surface.
  • It just doesn’t look that great
    • Maybe with a bit of practice and dry indoor location and plenty of time in between coats the controller might turn out a lot better. As it is this still looks like some sort of 3rd party controller.

DSCF4030

Is An Education Really Needed?

Bash_st

During my time at University I reached a point where I contemplated the value of the education I was paying for. Would the cost really be worth the end result? Are the skills and theory I am being taught really going to be relevant in the real world? What you get out of education varies greatly depending on the individual, the course and the establishment. During this article remember that I can only speak from my experiences at College and University based on the subjects that I studied, none of which were directly related to the games industry.

My post-school education consists of 5 years at College and 3 years at University. I began by studying I.T. for 2 years because I thought it was the right thing to do, however I quickly bored of the way the course was delivered. The most important thing I took away from this course was the fundamentals of assignment writing and organisation. I then enrolled on a 1 year Sound Engineering course at Burton Technical College before progressing onto their 2 year BTEC in Music Technology. The next 3 years were spent at the University of Derby studying a BSc (Hon) in Multimedia Technology and Music Production.

During my 3 years at Burton it became clear that many people had enrolled on the course to sit around play instruments all day, while disregarding any written work. Being a technical course, rather than a music course this didn’t really do them any favours and many of the students scraped a pass and didn’t progress onto University. From this point on I presumed the time wasters would have been shaken loose; much to my surprise a few still ended up in the wonderful world of University. I quickly learned how to identify the people who were wasting their time. These people rarely attended, paid little attention and completed their work at the last minute; often handing it in weeks late by taking advantage of the “extenuating circumstances” card.

College and University

Generally the first step towards specialising in a career will be at College, many people then choose to continue their specialisation at University. College and University are both very different and personally I have more fond memories of my time at College. College was my first experience of really studying something I actually had an interest in and during my time at Burton I picked up all the basics I would need to progress onto University and eventually into the games industry.

col3With my college peers circa 2004

From my experience College is very lenient with regards to deadlines and quality of work, the audio courses I studied were very much a case of asking for help when you needed it. This isn’t a bad thing, it simply meant the students that did want to sit around, copy and paste information from Wikipedia and scrap a pass could do so. The students that wanted to improve their work, find out more and learn new skills were also free to do so and help was always given to them. My College had excellent facilities and tutors and constantly updated software and hardware; there was a lot of hands of time with equipment, occasional guest lecturers and days out.

I imagine University can bring a shock to a lot of students who slacked off at College but somehow managed to achieve enough points to progress further. University is very much a self guided experience; at college there was a register call and tutors would ask why you haven’t been attending, in contrast it is entirely up to the individual as to whether they attend a lecture or a lab class at University. Notes are provided by some tutors but on the whole you are expected to take in a lecture, note down any relevant points then apply that information at a later time when constructing your assignments.

After 3 years at College, being very hands on with software and hardware I almost felt like I had taken a step back during my first 2 years at University. There was not much hands on time, indeed most of the first year was pure theory, diagrams and numbers. I’m not sure how some of the students with no previous hands on experience got through this as personally I need to see practical uses of theory and diagrams for them to sink in. Imagine learning to play the guitar by simply reading sheet music and leaning the techniques but without ever picking up the instrument. After studying an awful lot of theory, hands on experience became more of a focal point during the 3rd year and with that a lot of what students had been taught over the last year or so could now be put into practice.

DSC_0394Working on my live performance for my 3rd year FMP at University

Learning Skill You Won’t Realise You Need

I remember feeling very agitated during one module at University; we were leaning about memory management. When I cannot apply what I am being taught to something practical I find it hard to figure out why I should be taking it in. Perhaps this was down to bad structuring of the module but essentially the lesson here is to never disregard something you might latter need.

I found it pointless to learn that 1024kb = 1mb, I found it pointless to worry about compressing a music track as an mp3 when I could keep it as a wav. I challenged the tutor on this by informing him that at home I had a 1tb external hard drive, why should I be concerned that I could save a few mb? Again, part of my problem with learning this was that we were never given a clear reason for this during the module.

Now let’s fast-forward a few years. Towards the end of the first game I worked on as an audio designer I was asked to help with memory management. Here we found that not all of the music and sound effects could fit in the game uncompressed. Some assets would have to be optimised, meaning they would have to have their quality settings adjusted to allow them to be compressed as much as possible before an obvious degradation of sound quality was apparent. Some 48 kHz assets would be converted to 22 kHz for example, while some of the larger assets might be converted from wav to mp3. All of this was necessary to ensure all of our assets could remain in the game.

Another example, a few years later when I began working on the audio for vehicles and found each vehicles engine bundle (the engine and exhaust recordings) could not exceed a given size. When certain recordings are too long they have to be compressed or chopped up into smaller assets. I have encountered situations when some of my work has exceeded the slot size by 1kb! I have then had to go back through my work and make it ever so slightly smaller in order to meet the strict size limit.

So the lesson here is that when you are being taught something you should always try and think about how it could realistically affect you. Is it really a waste of time or are there other uses for this information, are there certain situations where, yes, keeping a file under a certain size is beneficial?

Networking

Networking with your peers and industry professionals can be just as important as gaining a qualification. In my situation I attended a lecture given by an audio programmer at Codemasters, he gave me some useful information and feedback while I was writing my dissertation. A few years later I began working at Codemasters and got in touch with him again, he showed me around the building and introduced me to the audio department. This stage of my career was extremely important as I got to know the guys I would eventually be working with, when small bits of audio work was available they already knew I’d be interested.

In some situations, networking with your peers may also prove invaluable. After all, in a few years time some of them may work in the industry, they may be able to give you a heads up for a new job role or give you a good recommendation. Several people I met at college and University are now sound or lighting engineers, some work as road crew all over the world, others build websites while others are now tutors.

Education Cannot Fully Prepare You

Enrolling on a course isn’t a free ride in which you can approach an employer and instantly expect a job. In my opinion I don’t think education can prepare you for a job in the industry, real world experience is vital. Some courses do offer sandwich years and work placement schemes (as did mine) but I still felt very underprepared when I finally arrived in the audio department. Let me elaborate. Working to deadlines while at College can be very flexible; you are already undertaking the course in your own time so effectively you can set aside as much or as little time as you like to complete an assignment for a certain deadline. If your work isn’t up to scratch you get a bad mark or are asked to work on it a little longer until you pass. In the games industry, the reality is you have a deadline in which the game must be on shelves; thousands or even millions of pounds have been spent to promote a game and its release date. If your work isn’t at the level required you have to fix it, a game cannot ship if it doesn’t work. If a game ships late or with bad graphics, game play or sound, reviewers will pick up on it and bad reviews can mean your game might not sell as well. The best-case scenario is you lose your bonus (many bonuses are in part based on achieving a good metacritic score) and have a credit on a game that has been poorly received. The worst case is the company makes redundancies or goes bust. This is an all too common scenario in this industry.

Modules are designed to be passed and a tutor will be looking to see that a student has met certain criteria. You will also be assessed on the quality of your work, artistic flair and creativity but tutors do not always have a full understanding of the area of the industry you are pursuing. A good example of this was during my final year at University; I had decided to tailor as much of my assignments as possible to be relevant to the games industry. For one particular assignment I decided to recreate the audio for several game trailers, mostly using original recorded assets and some library sounds. I received a good grade for this particular piece of work as I had made use of a lot of equipment at my disposal, showed different mic techniques, sourced library assets and completed the trailers, presenting them on a final CD complete with all my details. Essentially this was ready to hand out as a demo reel to potential employers and I was pretty pleased with the end result, backed by favourable feedback from my tutors. When I went for my first open day at a games developer, the audio lead reviewed my demo reel and picked out plenty of flaws. At the time this was a big blow, after all I thought it was pretty good and it had been well received at University. On reflection I really appreciated the feedback and took a lot from it, essentially though my tutor didn’t play computer games and wasn’t too familiar with game trailers. They would have been marking my work based on my written assignment, techniques I had used and how resourceful I had been rather than if the demo reel rivalled a professionally released game trailer.

Although there are ways around it, you generally cannot get used to working practices in the games industry without actually spending some time working in it. For instance, I can create my assets, hook them up to the games framework, along with parameters and effects then test them in a working game. This working practice cannot be achieved unless you have the build of a game in front of you, all the game related work I did at University was set to video and as a result it was linear. In a real life situation you have to think about how your assets might change based on different situations. Let’s think about a racing game, my vehicle engine needs to dynamically change based on whatever RPM the player car is currently at. It might act differently based on how much traction is on a surface or if the engine becomes damaged. The engine will have to sound different based on the camera view that the player is using, what gear the car is in or how much it has been upgraded.

P8020007.JPGLearning the ropes at my first vehicle recording session for Codies

Summary

The overriding factor is that a degree is almost essential if you want to work in some sort of development role in the games industry. It is a competitive industry and if you are the only person applying for a job without a degree you are immediately put at a disadvantage. QA itself is a great stepping-stone into the industry and many employees start out their career in this department. During my time in QA almost everybody I met who wanted to or eventually went on to become a developer had a degree of some sort. Education is expensive and the cost to study has risen dramatically since I was at University, nevertheless you can’t avoid the fact that graduate jobs pay better.

College and University can throw up many opportunities from networking to future freelance opportunities. Starting out at College may even make you realise that a certain industry is not for you, as I discovered when studying IT for 2 years.

The important thing to remember is to take in as much as possible and always consider how these modules, techniques and new knowledge can come in useful later on in your career. There are certainly times when I wish I had delved a littler deeper into certain modules or paid more attention during a lecture.

Industry Tools

If you are interested in working in the games industry as an audio designer you might want to consider familiarising yourself with some audio middleware. You can download full versions of middleware for free as long as you are not using it in a professional capacity. Some of the common tools you might encounter are:

The Benefits of Education

  • Learn organisation and time management
  • Graduate jobs are generally better paid than non-graduate jobs
  • Generally you will need a degree to work in the industry
  • You will learn vital skills such as
    • Memory management
    • Recording techniques and the theory behind them
    • Professional work experience
    • C++
    • A chance to network
      • With other students
      • With professionals in the industry