Leave Luck to Being Rescued – Alexis Mavropoulos

Alexis Mavropoulos
Audio Designer
Codemasters

Notable games Alexis has been involved with: LEGO Star Wars: The Force Awakens, LEGO Dimensions, DiRT 4

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Believe it or not, this is actually the first time I’ve done a “Leave Luck to Being Rescued” with a fellow Codies employee. Alexis is one of our newest members of the audio team and he’s fairly new to the industry, after dabbling in other audio roles and a brief stint in QA over at Tt Games. We chat a bit about the audio department, QA, his Master’s degree and working at Codemasters.

Brad: After completing your BSc what made you decide to study for your master’s degree? After all, you’re one of only 2 audio designers in the department to have studied for this qualification.

Alexis: It was a combination of different reasons really. After completing my BSc in Music Technology, I decided to postpone my academic studies for the time being to see what I could do in the ‘real world’, solely with my degree. I thought this would also be a good opportunity for me to test the water and evaluate if I wanted to further pursue an academic path.

During this period, I decided to move to London and full heartedly go for it, in pursuit of what would be the start of my audio career. Upon arrival, I was fortunate enough to secure an assistant sound engineer position at ‘The Limehouse’, a high-end music recording studio.  Combined with other jobs outside of audio such as bar-tending, I worked as an assistant for a number of months to follow. This period was a great learning opportunity for me not only in terms of audio, but also life in general and it will always be cherished. For various reasons, however, I gradually began to feel less passionate about the whole situation I was in and slowly lost interest and motivation. The main reason is that I felt that I wasn’t really reaching my full potential and that I had a lot more to offer, especially creatively. This is when a master’s increasingly started to make more and more sense. Furthermore, I generally felt a bit lost in a sea of other graduates who had general music tech degrees like me. I didn’t really feel qualified enough in order to competently work in a world filled with rapidly evolving technologies, where sound can be created and applied in so many new and exciting ways. This made me seriously consider a master’s degree even more, so long story short; I decided to take the plunge.

 

Brad: When did you decide to get into the games industry? Were you open to other audio professions or did you always plan on getting into sound for games?

Alexis: I’ve always enjoyed playing video games and really liked how a good piece of music or memorable sound effects were often present in games. Growing up, I had no idea about how the whole implementation side of things worked, or that it is someone’s actual job to create sound effects and music in order to make them work in-game. It was just one of those cases where I remember thinking to myself “How do they put the sounds in the game? How do they make them change like that depending on what you do?”, but never really investigated it further. I certainly didn’t picture myself working in the industry back in those times.

Years later, when I was already in London making my first professional steps in audio, I found out a bit more about video game sound design. I got really intrigued by it and as I learned more and more about it, I started to seriously consider it as a potential career path. Up until now, game audio was still a bit of a mystery to me compared to other areas such as post production, where everything is linear based. I knew that I was capable of producing audio content that would potentially suit a game, but I was lacking a lot of the technical knowledge in implementation and other areas that you need to posses, in order to pursue a career in it.

In one of my MSc modules, I started learning about Fmod and Wwise and different game engines like Unity and how you could implement audio and I became hooked! I was even designing my own levels, trying to make little mini games that I would add audio to. There was something about game audio that I just found fascinating. The fact that sound was dynamically evolving in real-time blew my mind and it opened up a whole new world for me. From that point on, I started learning as much as I could about game audio through my course and my own personal endeavours and put all my efforts into one day getting into the games industry as a sound designer.

Naturally, I was also open to other audio related opportunities in order to build up my portfolio and CV and did quite a bit of freelance work on different media related projects before I landed my first official game audio job.

Brad: How did you find the transition from QA into an audio role?

Alexis: The transition was pretty smooth to be honest. Obviously, going from working on small projects that needed sound to being an audio designer for a major title like Dirt 4, there was a steep learning curve in the beginning-especially in terms of implementation. However, I was already familiar with a lot of key concepts surrounding game audio, so it didn’t take me very long to adjust to the project.

Brad: Did the experience you gained while in QA help prepare you for your current role or do you find there is little overlap?

Alexis: My prior QA experience definitely helped a lot in this also. Working in QA was very useful as I was introduced to many aspects of game development such as bug fixing, JIRA workflows, dev menus and platform specific testing, which is still a big part of my job today. Also, working with audio bugs and testing games early on in development gave me a great insight of what goes on ‘behind the scenes’.

Brad: How difficult did you find it to land your first game audio job? Did you apply for many jobs beforehand?

Alexis: It’s a known fact that breaking into game audio, especially in a junior position, can be quite difficult. I most definitely didn’t find it easy but, in retrospect, it wasn’t as bad as I had expected either. I’d say perseverance combined with constantly developing yourself is a key factor more than anything in landing your first job. And, yes, I did apply to quite a few places.

Brad: Did you tailor your portfolio and CV to suit the jobs you were applying for?

Alexis: I didn’t really feel the need to tailor my CV each time apart from certain minor adjustments here and there that would potentially suit a role better. As for my portfolio, I basically tried to have what I thought was my best work combined into a single, game audio specific show reel. I’m not saying this is the best way to do things-this is simply how I did it.

Brad: Before working at Codies did you already have an interest in racing games? If yes what are some memorable racing games that you grew up playing? Do you think it is important to be interested in the genre of games you are developing or is this something you get into once in that role?

Alexis: I had an interest in racing games, although I definitely wouldn’t call myself a ‘petrol head’ or anything like that. I generally enjoyed a well made, fun racing game. Some memorable racing titles (of varying style) for me growing up were Mario Kart 64, Diddy Kong Racing, F-Zero X, Collin McCrae Rally, Star Wars Episode 1: Racer and a few of the Need for Speed games.

I wouldn’t say it’s essential to be fully interested in the genre of games you are developing, but it definitely helps. In my case, I found myself getting a lot more interested in racing games after I actually started working on one as a developer. I guess you get so involved with what you are creating that you naturally grow fond of it. Also, when new titles of the same genre come out from other companies you want to compare them to your game, so you’ll spend some time playing the competitor’s games as well.

Brad: I agree with this, I found that myself when working on various games. I also think it helps to be able to really get into what you’re working on. Before working on F1 I never watched F1 races but now I find myself watching a lot of content and following various stats and reading a bunch of F1 articles on a regular basis.

What’s a typical day like for a junior audio designer at Codemasters? Is it what you were expecting?

Alexis: A typical day would normally involve getting to work in the morning, grabbing some coffee and then having an audio department daily meeting or ‘scrum’. During these meetings we all gather round and mainly discuss our work progress, any issues we may have and our thoughts and ideas concerning the development of the game. After our meeting is over, I’ll go work on whatever sound design or implementation task I have assigned to me for the rest of the day. Depending on how far into the development cycle we are, work will shift more and more towards problem solving and bug fixing and less towards the creation and implementation of new features.

Working at Codies, I was fortunate enough to be quickly trusted to work on major areas of the game like front end, ambiences, reflections, reverbs and various environmental assets. I also helped other members of the team with bits and bobs of work whenever I could. To be honest, as a junior, I was expecting to probably do more tedious, dogsbody work, but that hasn’t been the case and I am really thankful for that.

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Brad: Ok, well it’s time for you to go on a recording trip.

Unfortunately while off on location the Evo X you were in breaks down with you inside, with no idea where you are you head for a derelict tower block. Obviously this was used as a games warehouse, so heading on over to a box you remove the layer of dust off of the games on show. They just so happen to be your 5 favourite games and 1 soundtrack, what are they?

Alexis: What a series of coincidences! Most of my favourite games are old so I guess the derelict tower block scenario works just fine…

Top 5 (in no particular order) would have to be:

1) Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (PS2)

I’m a big fan of the MGS series but ‘Sons of Liberty’ stands out a bit more than the rest for me. That moment in the tanker incident intro where Solid Snake jumps off the bridge in the rain accompanied by that amazing Harry Gregson-Williams piece…epic! Electronic music nerd fact: This piece of music was also sampled by Burial in his track ‘Archangel’.

2) Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 (PS2)

If you were, or still are, a skater and you’re currently in your 20s-30s, chances are you most probably played a THPS game growing up. I chose 3 as it has the best selection of music, levels and pro skaters.

3) HλLF-LIFE2 (PC)

Great gameplay, smart level design and memorable sound effects.  The gravity gun was definitely one of my favourite features.

4) Portal (PC)

Need I say more? Such a brilliant game concept!

5) The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (N64)

Although a few people I’ve spoken to aren’t a fan of this game compared to other Zelda games, it is by far my favourite. I’m a big fan of the dark, eerie theme that the game has throughout both visually and sonically.

Soundtrack – Deus Ex

Very synthy! The ‘UNATCO Headquarters’ theme is an amazing piece of music!

About the choices

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty 

Developer – Konami Computer Entertainment Japan
Platform – PlayStation 2
Release – 8th March 2002

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3

Developer – Neversoft
Platform – PlayStation 2
Release – 30th November 2001

HλLF-LIFE2

Developer – Valve Corporation
Platform – PC
Release – 16th November 2004

Portal

Developer – Valve Corporation
Platform – PC
Release – 18th October 2007

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

Developer – Nintendo EAD
Platform – N64
Release – 26th October 2000

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