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How to make it as a games audio composer

Oct 14, 2019

In early October, game audio composers, studios and devs gathered at the Arcade - Melbourne’s collaborative workspace for game developers - to discuss creating sonic landscapes and ‘breaking in’ to the industry. Jumbla’s in-house composer and sound designer, Sean Crowley, went along. Here’s what he found out.

Entering High Score for the second year in a row it was clear that the question on everyone’s  mind was the same as in 2018: how do I make it as a games composer? 

From the moment we donned our ceremonial lanyards, you could feel it -- it was officially time to schmooze. And you could almost smell the social anxiety in the air.

But as the day unfolded, and the kitchen banter began to mellow, we each settled in and realised we were all equally as unsure of ourselves, and just as desperate to unearth that secret nugget of information. 

The emerging theme of the weekend soon made itself clear. Success didn’t always depend on gear, technical knowledge or even branding, but instead on relationships and the ability to simply keep turning up.

 

Takeaway 1: Get involved 

Our first lecture featured composer royalty Manami Matsumae, famous for her early contributions to the gaming world in her work with CAPCOM and the original Mega Man.

As I took my cup of still-hot tea back to listen to her, I had no idea I’d find myself sitting beside one of the talents set to speak later, Kamil Orman-Janowski, the composer for online RPG Path of Exile.

Here were two well-respected professionals, one on stage with a wealth of success behind her, the other kicking off a major composing career in the gaming world.

As Matsumae spoke about her initial foray into the industry, she shared familiar composer struggles and how - through a combination of good luck and survival-driven opportunity-seeking - she found herself composing for games - an industry that would soon become one of the biggest and most profitable in the entertainment world.

Back in our seats during the break, Kamil and I discussed his similar struggles in finding a financially-stable career as an electronic music producer. It quickly became evident that he too, had simply fallen into a job with Grinding Gears Games, where over time, he’d transitioned into a role as their full-time in-house composer. 

Meanwhile, the High Score speakers were echoing what I was hearing on the ground about how to break in to the game audio composition industry: Turn up where the games are being made. Be present and get involved.

Could it really be that easy?  I wondered. Despite what I was being told, my experience suggested adding one more (and admittedly harder) rule to this playbook - allow things to take their time. Because there’s a lot to learn.

 

Takeaway 2: Get to grips with new tools

Like many of the other attendees with  a more traditional composition background  , it was becoming clear that a transition from film or animation into the gaming world would require a whole new suite of tools and ways of thinking.

Take for example the integration tools used by devs and game sound designers such as  Wwise & FMOD, which are used to enable the interactive elements of a games score and its sound design.

Though not essential programs for composers to fully master, it is highly recommended that we have some understanding of their capabilities.

While it may seem simple to move from a linear approach of composing, where we control our audience’s journey from one sonic landmark to another, traditional linear composers must learn  to think in an additional dimension of fluid time when it comes to gaming music. We can no longer be sure when and in what context a player may be hearing a piece. 

 

Takeaway 3: Show up in the right places

So to return to the original point -  just show up to get a career, you say? 

Show up where?

Each year I’ve attended this event, I’ve been invited to participate in one of the many 48-hour Game Jams. These are a great way to start making connections.

After that, inside word is that Twitter’s the place to find devs in their natural habitat  More importantly, conferences such as High Score, and others like PAX, PAX East or your closest Games Developer Conference (GDC) are all perfect ways to cement your identity in the industry.

Or you can start small, with local festivals like Melbourne International Games Week. But don’t let location limit you. International B2B conferences such as Games Com and Tokyo Game Show are all ready and waiting when you are

.

Takeaway 4: Know what you're doing

Getting noticed by publishers, record labels, devs, or anyone for that matter may seem impossible at first. The secret is that all these people are looking for the same thing. They each want career composers  - people who are going to stick around. So just start.

Define your musical identity, as this will help you seek out those projects which will gain the most benefit from your inclusion.

But keep in mind that defining your identity as a composer is just as tricky as defining your identity as a person. Tastes and opinions will change over time.   So pay attention, and your niche will begin to present itself over time.

To summarise, it’s never a matter of ‘eventually making it’; it’s an ongoing evolution of both career and self.

So best of luck and I’ll catch you all out there!

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