Freelancing is an advantageous position for creatives looking to find work in game audio, as well as other areas within music and audio. It's increasingly rare to find a fixed position these days in your chosen field, and as many of our industry guests have said, freelancing can allow much more flexibility and freedom that you wouldn't otherwise find in a permanent role.
The major downside is the uncertainty surrounding freelancing. There's no assured pay cheque waiting at the end of each month, no health benefits or sick day allowances, not to mention the dreaded tax returns!
However, that's no reason to be put off. So if you're keen to enter into the competitive world of game audio and show your worth then we've got some top tips to help you along the way.
1. The importance of in-house experience
So this is an odd way to start, but gaining in-house experience is a really great way of kickstarting your career as a freelancer.
Whether your specialism lies in creating incredible sound design or affecting music, it's important to realise that you'll be contending with thousands who bring the same thing to the table. What will truly set you apart is your understanding and experience working across the entire audio production line. From developing initial ideas, to finalising, recording and mixing those ideas and then understanding how to implement them into a video game - they all tie into making you an invaluable all-rounder.
Couple that with the ability to understand how to communicate with the rest of the team, how your role feeds into the development process and how you can make everyone's lives easier, and you're shaping up to be a game developers dream employee.
Now, the caveat here is gaining that experience means finding work in-house on some titles, which can be just as tricky as freelancing. This doesn't mean you need to get a job working for a AAA studio, but any experience you can get working in-house will give a wealth of knowledge and skills that will help immeasurably further down the line.
2. Get involved with your local community
Right about now you're probably asking, "how can I get the experience needed for an in-house position?" and the best advice we can give is starting with your local community. There's a good chance your hometown has several gaming network groups already established; hosting coding parties and game jams where you can get involved on small projects and pick up some great experience, not to mention contacts.
These groups are almost always free so it's an excellent way of accruing the skills you need before aiming for bigger projects. What's more, there's a high chance that you'll work alongside someone with in-house experience that could put you in touch with the right people.
We regularly host these kinds of events here at dBs Music Bristol too, with last year's Global Game Jam being a particularly great weekend, so if you're in the area and interested in getting involved then just get in touch.
Additionally, and we can't believe we're writing this, but don't forget the internet. Thanks to the world we currently live in there is an abundance of online communities all eager to help you on your journey into game audio. Check out r/GameAudio on Reddit, connect with online forums and seek out resources through Twitch, Discord and YouTube.
For those budding sound designers out there we have to give a shout out to previous guest, Bjørn Jacobsen, whose channel Cujo Sound regularly posts fantastic tutorial content on how he creates sound for video games. Check it out on YouTube here.
3. Know your tools
Due to how difficult it is to know when work will find its way to you, being able to crack on with a project as soon as it lands in front of you is vital to maintaining a healthy career, and that means you need to know your tools. You can't afford to be hunting down a particular plug-in instrument or wasting time setting up your track in your DAW when there's a deadline to meet.
Find the tools that work best for you across a range of projects and learn them inside out. Having a template can also be incredibly beneficial in streamlining the process and help you efficiently map out your time. However, depending on what specific role you're working in, a template may not be the best idea:
"Working with templates has never been my thing, for two reasons. Number one, I like to start fresh and not know exactly what I'm going to do. And number two, when you're creating video game music you need to go along with the technology, and the technology is evolving every day. You have a new feature, a new possibility and you need to reset how you think."
Olivier Derivière, video game composer (Innocence: A Plague Tale, Vampyr, Remember Me)
Read the full interview here
4. Be the whole package
Don't assume that it's enough to just understand the tools that tie into your specialism, because again, your competitors will possess the same experience. Where you'll really be able to stand apart is the knowledge outside of your specialism, which ties in with our tip on gaining in-house experience.
Get to know game engines like Unity and Unreal Engine and understand how audio interacts with those engines. Build your skills using middleware software such as Wwise, FMOD or Fabric and discover how to edit and implement audio into a game.
A look at Unreal Engine's cutscene creator
If you know what possibilities each of these tools brings to a project, are aware of their limitations and can problem-solve around them, you can not only create dynamic and interesting audio, but can streamline the process for the other people on the team, and that kind of thing will not be forgotten.
The tools listed above are all industry standard, but more importantly are free to download and use, so there's no excuse for not getting stuck in and using them. You can learn more about them in our piece on the best free tools for building your own video game.
Two additional tools worth learning are Pure Data (Pd) and Max MSP, which are both heavily integrated into our Sound for Games & Apps course. Both pieces of software are visual programming languages that can be used for a number of audio scenarios for video games, but can also have some additional benefits.
"If you understand the basics of object oriented programming, how to put a basic synthesis patch together, how to put a sample playback system together, and how to customise those systems based on a brief or your own ideas, that's essentially what software design is. And it's really quick and easy to do that in Pd and Max, so it's a great starting point for going deeper into code, C++ or any kind of audio programming.
"Also, it's great for being able to communicate with other programmers because that's really important if you're working in a team. If you've got coders, sound designers and musicians etc. and you're able to be the person between those people, then that's a really unique position and not many people are able to do that."
Matthew Collings, Krotos Audio
5. Create your perfect workspace
Nothing kills creativity like a poor workspace, and as a freelancer you'll be spending the majority of your time in that space, so make sure it's conducive to not only focussing, but also creativity.
From a technical perspective you'll need to ensure you're working in a space that is acoustically treated. It will do no good to submit your work if it's not been mixed in a suitably treated space. Similarly, be sure to invest in some quality speakers for much the same reason.
Aesthetically, we'd advise clean and clear surfaces, as clutter naturally starts to affect mood and focus. Some natural light is also very beneficial, though for some purists a window means slightly less sonic fidelity in the room. Mood lighting is another great way of setting a nice vibe for the space, even if it's just something simple like some fairy lights. And don't forget to add some plants!
6. Have a strong visual identity
You can say a lot about yourself without ever uttering a word. One way is with the work you produce, and the other is with your visual identity.
Think back to a time when your eye has been caught by something visually striking. A lot of the time you've not even processed what it's advertising, only that visually it has appealed to you. By that point you're invested enough to want to know what you're looking at.
If you can use the same process on developing your own brand it will not only attract people who weren't even trying to find you, but will also display a level of attention to detail and care to potential employers that they can only assume is reflected in the work you do.
ELPHNT has placed huge emphasis on his branding, not only in the appearance but also how controls are designed presented in rack instruments to help users understand its functions.
Don't worry if graphic design is not your strength. You've already cut your teeth finding new communities online to engage with, so just repeat the process with graphic design and find people who are happy to offer advice and perhaps even their creative skills.
Don't avoid dipping into your pocket for a professional design, either. Your brand should be treated with as much care as the kit you use to create your work. A cheap-looking brand will reflect poorly on you and damage your reputation before you've even had a chance to prove yourself.
7. Never stop working
It seems obvious, but we've encountered so many freelancers who just stop as they wait for work to come to them. As we previously mentioned, how you appear to others plays a massive part in your chances of finding work, and if you're portfolio hasn't seen any new additions for months at a time, then many potential clients will turn you down.
"In my experience, work brings more work. People want to work with musicians who are doing something, not someone who says they could do it. I’ve received commissions based on some music I did as an unpaid passion project. People don’t care what you got paid to make something, they just know if it sounds good or not.”
Drew Morgan, composer (Halo 4, Massive Attack)
Read the full interview here
8. Build your network
Tying in with our previous tip, you'll invariably find that the more projects you're involved with will increase the number of people you know. Impress those people and they will remember you and put your name forward to others. That cycle will grow exponentially and before you know it, you'll have a vast network of contacts, all of whom know your work and how effective you are in your role.
We often host guest lectures here at dBs. where seats are open to the public so keep an eye out on any updates regarding these sessions on the blog and our social media as this could be a great place to soak up some wisdom and meet new people.
Video game composer Richard Jacques taking us behind the scenes of his work on Mass Effect
If you're still in the early days and yet to be involved on many projects then refer to our second tip and see what's taking place in and around where you live. Venture out to exhibitions, meet-ups and dedicated networking events and meet the people that you want to work with. Go armed with business cards and forge those early connections that you can reach out to when you're ready to. Someone is more likely to take a chance on you if they've met you in person.
9. Don't do it for free
This point always comes up in articles like this, but there's a good reason. The audio industry believes that working for free is an excellent way to climb the ladder and it's just not. Sure, there are occasions when no fee can be accepted, for example on game jam projects where no one is being paid, or perhaps as Drew Morgan said on unpaid passion projects, but for the most part you are offering a service and should be paid.
On the other end of the spectrum, maybe you've accrued a lot of work in your specialism and are pitching to companies you're keen to work with, and to sweeten the deal you're offering to work for free, only to be met with a rejection. Why?
"When I finally got into the industry I actually learned, in a very positive way, why I had been rejected in the past. I never understood - and I'm sure that most people who apply and offer themselves for free or as an intern - why am I being rejected?
"That's usually because in the past any company that has let everybody in, or the first person who applies, has had bad experiences with that person. It's no offence to that person, but not everybody has what it takes, and that's a shame because once you let just one person in who doesn't fight for it then that ruins the chain for everybody else.
"Also, when I got into the industry myself, I would come running into the room full of enthusiasm and ideas and then BOOM! You find out all your ideas are invalidated because you have no clue how things work. You need to understand pipelines, production schedules, implementation - completely different ways of working to what you were used to. If all you've done before is sound design and redesigning videos for your portfolio then when you get into the industry you realise there are so many things you had no clue about and why they are only hiring people with experience."
Bjørn Jacobsen, video game sound designer
Watch Bjørn's masterclass on video game sound design here
10. Be realistic
By now, we hope you're still excited to follow this path in your career, but perhaps our most important piece of advice is to be realistic. The career you envision isn't going to materialise overnight, and requires a lot of work.
If you're still a student or about to start a degree now is the perfect time to start building up your portfolio and contacts. Do as much as you can alongside your studies as this is most probably the last time you'll be able to get away with not earning money to survive.
Should you already be working in a full-time role, decide on how much you need to get by and go part-time, so that your free days can be dedicated to your freelance position. Having a regular stream of income whilst you laying the foundations will alleviate a lot of the stress you can experience in those first couple of years.
Bonus tip: Enjoy yourself!
You're making this decision because you're passionate about it, so don't ever forget it. Though there are challenges waiting ahead, some so tough you may think it's not worth it, this is what you love doing so make sure you to enjoy it.
FIND OUT MORE ABOUT OUR GAME AUDIO DEGREE - BA (Hons) Sound for Games & Apps