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  • Getting a Job Creating Sound and Music for Videogames

    [04.14.15]
    - Will Morton

  • Direct applications

    Most companies these days have a section on their website for jobs or careers, and quite often those that aren't currently advertising audio roles have a way of contacting their recruitment team as they may be keen to be approached by high quality people at any time. Elsewhere in this article I have mentioned about specific jobs and making sure you understand exactly what you are applying for and what sort of demo the company will require so I won't repeat myself. Instead I will give a few pointers about contacting companies who ask for general applications when they aren't advertising specific roles.

    First, don't spam them. 'Copy and paste' letters will come across as just that. Humans will be dealing with your application, so make it sound human and again you must tailor it to the company. Even though these types of invitations for applications usually won't say what they expect on a showreel, you can usually take a guess at what would be relevant and what wouldn't be. Using music as an example, a company that makes a long-standing FPS set in the future is less likely to need some expertly produced Country & Western songs than orchestral or synth music. However, don't assume that the Country songs won't be relevant - who is to say that the company hasn't announced their plan to branch out into Wild West FPS games, for which your music skills may be more relevant? Deal with this by making your demo varied enough to show your skill and versatility, but organise it in such a way that what you think is most relevant for the company's projects comes first.

    If you apply to a company directly you might find you wait weeks or months for a response, if you receive one at all. I personally think it's a shame when companies don't acknowledge receipt of an application or notify you of an unsuccessful application, but it does unfortunately happen. The key is to not stress about it and don't pin all your hopes on one job. By all means drop the company an email or give them a quick phone call to ask for a status update if you haven't heard anything after a few weeks, but don't be pushy. If you feel like you're getting fobbed-off, don't harass the company for more info.

    To give you a very made-up example of what might be happening behind the scenes while you are cursing the company for not replying to you in a fortnight, imagine this scenario. A company is working on a game, a major deadline is 7 or 8 months away and they need some more staff to make sure the game gets through crunch on time and in a decent state. The job ads go out, applications roll in, and then the publisher surprises the team with a new 'request' - they want everything put on hold to prepare a highly-polished demo to show to the press (which will of course be happening in a month). The leads of each department, who would have been dealing with the applications to find people to interview, suddenly find themselves pulled back into the game's production and the applications are put on hold. The application you sent is going to be the most important thing to you, but at the same time the company's priorities may have changed and your application isn't as important to them *at that time* than it was when the job was advertised. That's not to say that the applications won't become important again when the deadline passes - some companies will be open about it, others will not, but no company wants to be dealing with phone calls or emails from someone unnecessarily pushy. There is a fine line between being 'keen' and being pushy.

    Agencies

    There are a few agencies that supply staff to game development studios here in the UK, of which OPM Recruitment and Aardvark Swift are perhaps the two most prominent. A long time ago I got my first in-house game audio job via Aardvark Swift, and although I didn't seek work through OPM I have had more recent discussions with one of their senior consultants Daniel Fox, so this information is as current and as accurate as can be. Another disclaimer - where I may say 'agencies' I am specifically referring to my experience of Aardvark Swift from 15 years ago and from more recent conversations with OPM Recruitment. I cannot speak for all game agencies, and if you are considering using an agency you should speak to the agency directly first to make sure you understand how they work and that you are happy with everything before proceeding.

    When I was successfully placed by an agency nearly 15 years ago, I discovered I had completely the wrong idea about how agencies work in the game industry. I had been warned away from using agencies by people from other industries and I was told many horror stories... agencies charging companies a fortune but hardly anything going to the worker, workers having fewer employment rights, blah blah... I found out that this was not the case for video game agencies. It is probably easier to think of agencies as talent-scouts, and it is their job to funnel suitable high-quality applicants to companies that have jobs to fill.

    Reputable agencies for video game staff will be asked by companies to help fill their toughest vacancies, and the agency will act as a filter between applicant and employer by only submitting applications from people who are genuinely suitable for the job. However, Daniel Fox from OPM explained that agencies don't get all roles from a studio. Many studios handle graduate roles themselves as they will get a flood of applications, but you will also get studios that will ask for agency help for the same reason: they don't have time to sort through bags full of applications to find the handful of gems. The key is though, agencies don't get asked to fill 'easy' roles.

    Once the agency has successfully placed a member of staff with a company, the company pays the agency a fee for bringing the successful applicant to them. In simple terms, the agency gets a finder's fee. The fee the agency is paid by the company is based on a percentage of what the applicant's salary is. I have to make it clear at this point that this fee does not affect what the applicant gets paid - it is a separate fee entirely and doesn't come out of the applicant's wages or anything like that. If you apply for a £30,000 a year job, if you get the job you then you get £30,000 a year whether you go through an agency or directly to the employer. Employers hiring via agencies will already have budgeted to pay this finder's fee, so it won't affect the amount an applicant is paid.

    Agencies will know of many more job openings than you will be able to find on your own, agencies can help guide you through the application process, and assuming you get this far agencies can advise on the interview process. A positive of using agencies from the company-side is that a good agency will only send applications for people who are genuinely suitable for the job, which lessens the amount of effort the company has to do when wading through the piles of job applications they receive. When I spoke to friends in the industry who are in positions where they hire staff, they all said that dealing with irrelevant or unsuitable applications from people who are simply 'hoping for the best' is by far the biggest turn-off for them as employers.

    Using an agency is not an autopilot process for applicants - it really helps to be communicative with agencies and for you to be organised with your applications and the applications the agency is making on your behalf. Daniel Fox told me it is especially important that junior types follow their own leads, as well as using an agency in tandem. If people do use more than one agency then it's essential they keep a list of where their CV has gone, how a company was applied to (direct or agency) and on what date. Duplication should always be avoided which is why it is key to work with agencies that are willing to communicate with the candidates as to where they will send CVs, getting their permission in the first place.

    I should also point out that reputable agencies will not automatically take on any applicant that approaches them. During our conversations, Daniel Fox said at OPM he frequently sees applications from people who may have one or two pages of credits (usually TV or film) but they may not have much, if any, video game experience. Experience will never count against you, so while you may be looking at employment in the games industry your film and TV credits won't hurt things, but it's not as valuable on its own as having game credits on your CV too. Similarly, if you ever want to move from game audio to film or TV audio it won't do any harm to have a bunch of game audio credits mixed in with the TV and film work you've done. This again brings me to point out that in the video game audio industry having relevant experience is absolutely vital. Simply being a good musician does not necessarily make you a good video game musician. Get some relevant experience, either in your own time or while you are at college, and it will help you go a long way.

    Transferring from another department

    'Another department' basically means QA (Quality Assurance, or the testing team). Quite often junior vacancies on teams can be filled with people from QA. What usually happens is that teams will require a bit of help with a task, either long term or short term, which can be done by any capable person who is keen to learn. QA staff usually have a really high percentage of people who are very organised and meticulous (it's the nature of their job) so tasks such as testing certain sound systems in a particular way, or even logging or processing data, are a good fit for them.

    The next time the department needs a temporary extra pair of hands they'll likely go back to the person who they know from working with before. I have heard of this sort of arrangement happening over and over, with several members of QA staff eventually transferring into junior roles in their new department permanently. When borrowing QA staff, departments will usually have an idea of who they might like to work with - you deal with so many bugs that you soon get a feel for testers who are good at reporting audio issues (which shows they have a good pair of ears and are concious of audio detail).

    Being transferred from QA to a permanent audio role is the least reliable way to get into game audio, and probably the most time-consuming (if it will ever happen at all), but it *does* happen so I am at least putting it in this article for completeness. I absolutely do not recommend getting a job in QA with the sole intention of using it as a 'foot in the door' to eventually being transferred into another department, but if you did take a temp role as a tester you would find that being in QA does mean you get to see game development from all facets so it can be quite an education.

    Networking

    Social networking is one thing but for freelancers in particular, actual networking in person to get a job is arguably as important as having the skills to do the job in the first place. There are tons of books and articles available on the subject of business networking so get on Google and see what you find. Just this second I searched for 'how to network as a creative' and that brought up a ton of promising results. Read what you can, and work on your social skills.

    While I'm not going to pretend to be an expert at networking when there is so much excellent information out there already, I'm not going to fob you off with 'Google is your friend'. My personal experience successfully networking in game audio is to simply make friends with people. People like to work with people that they are not only familiar with but that they personally like, and if two people with identical skills applied for a job it's going to be the person who is most liked that is hired.

    If you meet someone new at an event or a conference, connect with them some way (LinkedIn, Twitter, email) and drop them a short message after the event. Making friends is so much better than simply forcing your business card on everyone you shake hands with. Be friends with people and you will likely be told about jobs as soon as they are advertised, and sometimes you may be simply recommended for a job by another audio designer that has to turn down the work for whatever reason. Friends are good.

    As for places to go, GDC (Game Developers Conference) in the spring is the big development conference in America, and one of the biggest in the UK is Develop Conference in the summer, and a game audio-specific convention is GameSoundCon. There are plenty of events to try out though, you don't have to limit yourself to the big ones. Get on Twitter and follow game development people and teams as you will often see tweets from developers saying they are going to such-and-such event - conferences, conventions, meet-ups. It's easy to find events, and easy to get a feel for what the events are like (YouTube often has videos from previous events, so you can see what you are letting yourself in for). If you are new to game development conferences, make sure you do this research early - you will often need to schedule a few days to do a conference, including travel if you don't live near main cities, and there is often a lot of extra details to be sorted out when going to a conference.

    Interviews

    This is another area where things can differ wildly from company to company. Some companies may be happy with one interview, some may require several. Some will interview over Skype, some (especially companies within reasonable travelling distance) need in-person interviews, or a combination of both. Some companies may have work tests to verify you can do what your CV or resume claims you can do. Basically, there is no single set of guidance I can offer for how to deal with this.

    In my experience, for 'in the trenches' game development roles, you won't need to dress up in a suit. Of course you should ask the company how you should turn up, but generally as long as you are clean and tidy and have good hygiene that's usually all you need. It's unlikely you'll be sat wearing a suit to work, and nobody else will be either.

    Assuming that your demo has got you through the door and you have the skills to demonstrate that you can do the job, the main thing your interviewers will be looking for is whether they would actually like to work with you or not. In-house staff may end up working very long hours at busy parts of the project, and you want to be sure that you enjoy working with the people you are stuck in an office with. You have to be likeable, and you need to be able to work with people.

    Just because you're used to spending hours on end working on your own in a studio you shouldn't assume that you will be doing the same in a game development studio. Fryda Wolff, a video game sound designer of nine years turned voice actor, summed this up nicely. Fryda told me "Unfortunately some audio people will exhibit loner behaviour and will not want to share and interact with their co-workers on an audio team, as a way of claiming ownership over their work. Video games by their very nature are an assembly line job which require the cooperation of many people and teams. An audio worker can sabotage themselves by closing themselves off to working with the rest of the team. Qualities that impress me most are the willingness to mentor others or to learn from others, regardless of seniority or pedigree. When audio team-mates choose not to feel threatened by each other, they can accomplish so much more."

    Being able to work as part of the audio team isn't just the end of it, either. You will also need to communicate and work effectively with other departments. I have often said that the people who know most about a game are usually the audio folk. You need to be able to work with everyone from QA, to design, to script, to art, to code. Jason Poss, who has worked on games such as World of Warcraft and Assassin's Creed 2 told me "Sometimes people fail to understand that having technical and creative skills is only part of the job. Being able communicate effectively and deal with other people in a pleasant, professional, and respectful manner is often just as important."

    As well as being likeable, you also have to show that you want the job for more reasons than getting a wage at the end of the month. I have been in interviews where applicants have turned up and demonstrated they know absolutely *nothing* about games. This is not only that they don't know about the games the company they are interviewing with creates (bad enough) but that they don't know anything about games at all. Amazingly, some people I have seen in interviews said things like "Nah, I don't really play video games, that's more my nephew's thing".  Game developers are usually gamers, or at the very least they are ex-gamers, so you really want to be excited about the same things that the people interviewing you are. At the absolute minimum you should educate yourself about the company you have applied to and their products.

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