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LESSON #53:
GAME GRAPHICS & AUDIO

Written in July, 2005; most recently updated August, 2011.

I'm not an audio guy, and I'm not much of an artist. I mean, back in high school I fancied myself to be artistic (drawing cartoons to make my buddy snort milk through his nose at lunch... oh, all right, so it was me snorting milk, but you get the picture). And I worked in the college radio station and learned to play guitar... I played around with art, sound, and music, but I never got a career in any of those fields. I'm a producer, and a game designer. As such, I have experience hiring artists and musicians and sound engineers for my games. So this article is written from the perspective of a relative outsider, not from the perspective of an experienced artist or audio guy. I often get questions about art and sound from game industry wannabes. So I'm trying to help -- I just want my readers to understand a little background here.

First, to define a term I use herein. When I say "portfolio," that could mean a regular paper portfolio that's traditionally used for 2D art - or it could mean a "demo disc" or a "demo reel." A demo reel might be on videotape, cassette tape, CD, or DVD. All of these things fall under the umbrella term "portfolio" when I use it here, okay?

Okay. Let's do this from the angle of "Frequently Asked Questions."

GAME GRAPHICS & ANIMATION

What do game employers look for in a prospective game artist?
Two things: a spectacular portfolio, and game industry experience.

How should I prepare for a career in game graphics or animation?
Three things:
1. Get a four-year art degree. It doesn't matter where you study art. You don't have to get your four-year degree from a "game school" - read Article 44. If you can afford extra education after getting your degree, though, a game school would help a lot.
2. Create a lot of game art on your own. Employers look for passion in their artists. If you just create some art because you "have to" to get a job, you're not going to get very far. The successful artist started out as a sort of madman, constantly drawing, sketching, animating. Talking about comics, cartoons, animated films, anime, manga, even classical art. If your mom never said to you, "hey, darn you, put that sketchbook away (or "stop drawing pictures and turn that computer off") and go to bed (or "vacuum the stairs" or "go to school")," then you're not a budding game artist, and I don't know why you're reading this.
3. Find ways to use your art skills to earn some money. Make signs, ad art, logos for local newspapers or businesses. It could get you a job as a graphic artist. That'd help offset your college or living expenses, give you stuff for your portfolio, and look good on the résumé.

But I'm way past college age, so the degree is out of the question. What can I do in this situation?
Maybe it'll help if I remind you that you have artistic ability - that you can build a portfolio of the best stuff you've already done, and that you can continue to create new works. You're never too old to improve yourself. Not only that, but since you've achieved the age of wisdom, you have work experience. Your resume shows that you aren't some dumb fresh college grad - you understand how the workaday world works. And that ain't bad. Read article 41 for more about switching careers into games.

I'm not as old as the asker of the previous question. But there's no way I can afford college. What can I do in this situation?
You can teach yourself. You can take night classes. You can work on your portfolio. You can volunteer for indy game projects and mods, either locally or long-distance. You're going to have to work harder than a college student, for at least four years, maybe even more. But it's very impressive when somebody brings a spectacular portfolio to an interview, as a self-taught man.

Which is more important, a degree or a portfolio?
Read article 52. You probably won't, though, because you're a lazy bum. (Read the article to find out why I say that this particular question reveals that you are lazy.)

Is it possible to get a job with only a degree or a portfolio, not both?
Read article 50.

So if I get a degree and make a portfolio, that's enough to get me the job?
No. Read article 49.

I have a degree and a great portfolio, but I live in a country where there is no game industry. No company in the US, Canada, England, Japan, or wherever is going to go through the hassle to help me relocate to their country to work. So what can I do?
You're going to have to start by getting involved in international (long-distance) mods or indy projects to build some credits. And you need to get active in recruiting others in your area who are interested in the game industry. And somehow, some way, you will have to build a company. You're going to have to create the game industry in your country. See my August 2004 column, "The Games Game," archived on the IGDA website.

You said game employers look for a spectacular portfolio. I've got a lot of great work I've done, but how do I build a portfolio so it looks the way employers want?
Most people have online portfolios these days. There are places where you can get a free website, or a free blog site, and there are ways to set those up with your own domain name (I can't teach you how to do all that). You have to design the site well, make it easy to navigate, and show off your best work. And put résumé on there, too.

It's also useful to make a hard copy (paper) portfolio; put your résumé in the pocket of the portfolio, and your most spectacular creations on the first pages. Keep it short - no more than 20 double-sided sheet protectors max.

Don't throw in stuff just to fill it out. If you're not that great at faces or animals, don't include any faces or animals - focus only on your specialty. Some artists specialize in buildings and scenes. Some specialize in vehicles and objects. Some specialize in figures, faces, animals. Know your strengths. Know your weaknesses. Embrace your strengths. Accept your weaknesses. Read article 12 for more about portfolios and demo discs. And I think I wrote about portfolios in one or two other articles too, like maybe article 28 (the Game Biz Glossary), I don't know. Go find it.

You know what I dig, man? I dig anime and manga. Man, the Japanese got that stuff down, know whum sayin'? I'm constantly drawing and chatting it up with the other otaku. So my absolute dream career would be to make game graphics in Japan. どうしょう?
That's good that you've learned a couple words in Japanese, tomodachi, because that's the first thing you need (besides your talent in, and passion for, Japanese pop culture art). Read article 48 right now.

You said game employers look for game experience. But how on earth do you get game experience if you don't already have game experience? Isn't that a chicken-and-egg kinda problem?
You can get hired with a degree and a spectacular portfolio, depending on the company's situation. It would be rather silly to submit your just-graduated portfolio only to E.A., or to FedEx it to SquareSoft in Japan. You can't hold out only for the most-desirable position at the most-respected company. Set your sights lower. Ya gotta start somewhere. Read article 27 for some barrier-busting tips. And volunteer for student projects, mods, and indy projects. Negotiate for your name in the credits and the right to use the project's name on your résumé. Unpaid experience is still experience. You have to do stuff, otherwise you can never honestly say you did stuff!

I hear the game industry uses really expensive art programs like Maya, 3D Max, Lightwave - and I mean really expensive! How on earth is a poor grad supposed to get hold of those?
You're not necessarily going to go out and buy them all yourself, but you definitely do need to know how to use game art creation tools and middleware. If you go to art school or a game art school, they'll probably expose you to those tools, but you're missing a more important and basic fact. Tools are just tools. If you learn the principles of using one art program, you can easily enough adapt to another. Read the graphics and animation magazines. Download demos. Try stuff. Employers are impressed if you manage to create an awesome portfolio with cheap tools. You'll learn it quickly enough on the job.

I've seen job ads for artists, with specialties like modeler, rigger, texture artist. Are there other specialties in game art, and what are they?
Yes, you can specialize in game art.

GAME AUDIO (SOUND EFFECTS, VOICE-OVERS, & MUSIC)

What do game producers look for in their audio suppliers (SFX, VO, music)?
They look for independent (freelance) audio experts, with experience making sound for games.

Oh. So I just hang out a shingle (so to speak), like on the web or something? Just say "hey, I'm a game audio guy"?
No, no. Get real!

But how on earth do you get to be a freelance audio guy then??
Come on, you're taking this Q&A format and using it all wrong. Slow down. Stop. Back up. Ask me a different question.

Oh, I get it. You mean, like, "How do I prepare for a career in game audio?"
Yes, that's the question I really wanted. You prepare for a career in game audio with a four-year degree. Study music, the physics of sound, even psychology. Learn about musical instruments, acting, directing, and how speakers are constructed. Learn about computers.

Four years?? I don't wanna have to...
Now don't start whining on me, or I'll stop writing. Get with the program. For more about how much I hate whiners, you can read article 51.

Not meaning to whine or anything, but I think I'm too old to go back to college. I've been working for years in radio [or the music industry]. So how do I break in? You're saying I need to go back to college? Sheesh!
No, that's not what I'm saying at all. Read article 41 for general information about switching into games from another career. You don't need no more stinking degrees - you just need to build a new, game-targeted, demo reel. And I hope you're familiar with audio as it pertains to computers.

Hi, I'm not the guy who wrote the above question. I also don't mean to come across as a whiner, but my situation is that (for reasons I'd rather not go into right now) college is impossible. So what can I do?
You can teach yourself. You can take night classes. You can work on your demo reel. You can volunteer for indy game projects and mods, either locally or long-distance. You're going to have to work harder than a college student for at least four years, maybe even more. But it's very impressive when somebody brings a spectacular demo reel to an interview, as a self-taught man.

Which is more important, a degree or a demo disc?
Read article 52. You probably won't, though, because you're a lazy bum. (Read the article to find out why I say that this particular question reveals that you are lazy.)

Is it possible to get a job with only a degree or a demo disc, not both?
Read article 50.

So if I get a degree and make a demo, that's enough to get me the job?
Read article 49.

I have a degree and a great demo disc, but I live in a country where there is no game industry. No company in the US, Canada, England, Japan, or wherever is going to go through the hassle to help me relocate to their country to work. So what can I do?
You're going to have to do whatever kind of work you can do - like TV, radio, film, theater, or even nightclub audio. Or get involved in making commercial spots. Make a website where anybody anywhere can hear your stuff. Volunteer for international (long-distance) mods or indy projects to build some credits. Join the IGDA and start attending GDC and other international game industry conferences. Bring demo discs and business cards to pass around. You don't have to have a company - you only need to establish yourself as a respected expert in your field, since most audio guys are freelance. Freelancers can work anywhere, then deliver electronically.

You said game employers look for a spectacular portfolio or demo reel. I've got a lot of great work I've done, but how do I build a demo disc so it gives employers what they want to hear?
Make it short and real sweet. Focus on your strength, and make it clear to the listener what it is that you did. If you were the recording engineer at a concert, and the soundtrack is on your demo, make sure that's stated (that you didn't compose or perform the music but only engineered and mixed it). Put only your best work on the disc - not the puppet shows you did as a kid, and not some boring radio commercial you created in college. Employers aren't necessarily looking for the same thing teachers are. Oh, and don't forget to put your résumé right on the disc (in Word or Acrobat Reader format), and mail a paper copy of it with the disc.

Question about voice-overs. So if I'm the audio guy handling voice-overs for a game, what would my responsibilities be? Would I be expected to help find actors, audition them, direct them, and record them? Or would I just work the sound board at the studio?
Stock answer #1: "It depends." You should be prepared to do all the things you mentioned, and much much more. You also need to be familiar with SAG and AFTRA contracts and Hollywood payroll procedures. You need to have the numbers of several local catering companies, recording studios, and talent agencies in your address book. You need to be able to take the recordings and process them into computer audio files, in the game developer's required format, at the required sampling rate, and named according to the project's filenaming conventions.

I want to compose music for games. So what do I need to do differently for game music than for, say, TV music?
It's too bad you asked me that question. It means you don't have a hope in hell of ever getting a gig making game music. You know what people do when they actually do have a hope in hell? They don't ask, they just listen. They get some games, they listen to the music. They read reviews, they talk to fellow gamers. They figure it out for themselves and form their own ideas.

[Sigh.] Hardass. So do game musicians compose and perform on a home setup, or are bands or orchestras ever brought into a recording studio for games?
Yes. Both. It depends. Just get some games and listen, why doncha? Read the game magazines, go to GDC.

Going back to what you said in the first answer, you said game producers usually hire freelancers for their game audio. Why is that?
Because audio work on a game project goes for a couple months at most (can be longer for big adventure or RPG games with a lot of voice-over actors and a huge script). Most big game companies can't keep a full-time audio staff busy all the time. Over the years, the freelance model kinda took over and became the industry norm. There are exceptions - some development companies (read article 28 to learn the difference between developers and publishers) do have full-time audio people on staff.

And how does somebody get to become a freelancer anyway? I started to ask (back in question #3) but you got all huffy on me.
Heh. Yeah, I do that. Well, after you graduate college, you get an audio job. Like in radio or TV or film or music or commercials or something. You work for several years, building experience, expertise, and a demo reel. Then after you've paid off your college loan and saved up some money, you take your passion for games and you start working on mods and indy projects on the side. Then you can either get work at a game development company (some companies do hire full-time audio people, or you can work in QA or something) or go freelance. Heck, I know one guy whose regular job is as a game artist - he does game audio as a sideline. Take your demo to GDC, E3, and other game industry events. Read article 6 and article 46. Ya gotta market yourself.

That sounds hard.
Okay, so read article 26.

That's so unfair!
Read article 47.

Will you stop doing that???
Okay, fair enough.

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Relative to this topic, from the Game Biz Advice bulletin board:


A 2009 article on game audio - http://gamecareerguide.com/features/696/adaptive_audio_a_beginners_guide_.php.

Want the latest word on salaries in the games biz? Go to gamecareerguide.com and type "salary survey" in the site's Search box.

Looking to become a game artist? Read Demystifying the Art of Video Games.

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