How To Become An Audio Designer For Video Games
In this piece, Berklee professor and audio design veteran Gina Zdanowicz outlines how interested parties can break into the specialized industry of audio design for video games.
Guest post by Ashely Pointer of Berklee Online’s TakeNote
You enter the war zone and achieve a triple kill streak in Call of Duty; you hit your opponent with a combo in Super Smash Bros; you battle the undead in Resident Evil. The sounds you hear fuel your adrenaline, get you pumped up, and help create your experience. Behind these video games are people and teams who are responsible for the audio that is keeping you locked in.
When Gina Zdanowicz isn’t teaching Introduction to Game Audio at Berklee Online, she’s running her own sound design company, Serial Lab Sound. Her passion for video games started as a child in the ’80s. Playing one of her favorite games, Super Mario ENS, she noticed how the music would make her feel as she explored the different levels. Being pushed towards playing musical instruments by her parents and her natural inclination to technology made this career choice an easy one, even though back then, it wasn’t the most popular profession.
“I think I had some kind of force of nature watching over me,” she says. “I was always interested in how things work. Back then we didn’t have the internet—It wasn’t the stone age, but we didn’t have the internet, where I could go on and say, ‘Hey, I’m really interested in games and music, what do I do?’”
This curiosity led her to Berklee where she studied Music Synthesis. At the time, this was the best major to prepare for a career in game audio design. You can hear her work on more than 100 game titles such as Runewards, Wolfenstein: Youngblood, Just Cause 3, Bioshock2, and The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, just to name a few.
Since Gina graduated, Berklee introduced a game scoring curriculum. One of the people to come through that program is Renzo Heredia. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Electronic Production and Design and Film Scoring with a minor in Video Game Scoring and is now working for Obsidian Entertainment as an associate audio designer.
Berklee Online has adapted the campus’ game scoring curriculum, offering courses and a certificate program that can prepare you for a career as a game audio designer, like Gina and Renzo. Below they offer some tips to consider if you’d like to compose for video games.
1. Compete in a Game Jam
Game jams are a great way to break into the video game design scene. They are events where you and a team have 48 hours to make a game from scratch. Usually game jams have a theme and each teammate tackles different elements such as the storyline, visuals, audio, and code and work together to have a finished product by the end of the two days. Renzo competed in game jams and says that they helped him earn some cred in the field early on.
“We made a platform called Hoop Snake, and I became known as the Hoop Snake guy because I made a song—it’s still on SoundCloud, and I made a song that anytime the snake powers up, a ballad for Hoop Snake plays,” he says. “That’s something that made people laugh, and people go, ‘Oh Renzo, you’re the Hoop Snake person. How are you?’ whenever I would go to a video game meetup.”
Renzo says the game jam was a great way for him to practice his game scoring skills with the added pressure of competition, and to meet others who were interested in the same field. Down the road, these connections can be invaluable.
“I know that everyone from that project did happen to continue working on games,” says Renzo. “That Global Game Jam was helpful, not just for me, but for everyone else on the team.”
2. Freelance Your Audio Design Work
While most game audio design jobs are based in Los Angeles, freelancing provides the opportunity to work from anywhere in the world. Sometimes freelancing can be the stepping stone to working in-house at the company of your choice or starting your own company; or it might just be the right destination for you. However, there are both pros and cons of freelance work just as with any other work.
“When you’re working freelance, obviously you have to make sure that you’re invoicing, and that you’re working out a good payment,” says Gina. “You also have to generate the business, too, so you have to be out there networking. And you can’t wait until you’re finished with one project to say, ‘Okay, now I’m going to look for my next.’ It’s this continuous process.”
With this type of work, much of the battle is putting yourself out there to get the work flowing. Gina stresses the importance of meeting people and relationship-building.
“I think the biggest thing is networking, which can be pretty difficult,” she says. “I’m a pretty shy and introverted type of person but I think my passion for wanting the career in audio outweighed that shyness and introversion. So, I just got out there, and I started to go to conferences around that time games were becoming a bigger thing.”“I think the biggest thing is networking. I’m a pretty shy and introverted type of person but I think my passion for wanting the career in audio outweighed that shyness and introversion.” Gina Zdanowicz, @SeriallabCLICK TO TWEET
At one of the conferences, Gina met Jason Canter, who brought her in to do the audio for projects like BioShock 2.
3. Explore In-House Audio Design Opportunities
Once you’ve gotten some footing in the field, try exploring in-house opportunities at a company.
“It’s been a blessing. I’ve been very fortunate to be with the team here,” says Renzo of his work at Obsidian. “I think what I enjoy the most is, even as an associate audio designer, I can still ask anyone here questions.”
Working in-house guarantees a consistent pay timeline as well as a team of people to learn from and connect with that are all in the same field. Unlike freelancing, you don’t have to worry about contracts, health insurance, or when your next job will come.
4. Study Game Audio Design
Berklee Online has several options ranging from a professional certificate in Game Audio Design and Production to a bachelor’s degree program in Composition for Film, TV, and Games. We recommend starting with the following three courses that will not only give a nice introduction to game audio design, but also help you prepare a solid foundation and develop the necessary skills to succeed.
Game Design Principles
With this course, you’ll learn an overview of video game design, and explore the iterative process of coming up with ideas, prototyping, testing, and revising, that is at the heart of the video game industry.
Introduction to Game Audio
If you have no experience working with sound production or engineering, this course will give you the tools needed to work at a game development company or as a freelance game audio professional.
Game Audio Production with Wwise
This course is designed for the musician who wants to compose music and create unique sounds and creature voices for video games. This class focuses on both the creative process of designing unique audio and the practical challenges of putting that content into a game, and will prepare you for all major aspects of game audio production and implementation.