by Keith Creighton
Insider tips and tricks on breaking into the game audio industry — from reels & internships to diverse storytelling.
You’re passionate about audio, and you love games -- so much so, you want to have a go at a full-time career in the multi-billion dollar gaming industry. What could be better than making a living doing one thing you love in order to help create another? Thanks to rapidly evolving technology, the look and sound of games improves dramatically year to year, and even title to title in the same series. But how can you get from the sidelines to the front lines at a major game developer?
Well, we decided to save a trip to Silicon Valley or Seattle, and head to the heartland, Madison, Wisconsin, to talk to Mark Kilborn. He’s one of the top sound designers in the business. In his former role at Raven Software, he worked a variety of iconic titles including Activision’s Call of Duty series. He took some time between raising his twins and working on some top secret projects for a major developer, to answer a few of our burning questions.
In this feature, we focus exclusively on how to break into the business and what to expect once you’re there. We’ll hit a few other hot topics with Mark in future posts.
There’s the old Catch 22, you need experience and skills to get a job, but how do you get them without a job? Is an internship the only way into the biz?
Mark Kilborn: An internship isn't the only way into the business, but it's a good one. It's mostly about just getting the skills and developing a demo reel that will catch peoples' attention. You can do this through an internship, through an entry level position, or by working on personal projects, game jams and more. There are a lot of approaches to this.
The value of getting into a studio in an entry-level or internship capacity is that you get to grow there. There's something to be said for growing somebody in house, developing them in your ecosystem and teaching them your way of doing things. At Raven, we had some of our best successes hiring people really early in their career and growing them internally, rather than trying to pull in more senior talent.
What are you looking for, when hiring junior or entry-level talent, in terms of skills and abilities?
It's a little bit of everything, but the key thing is we're looking for potential, we're looking for taste, we're looking for “ear”. The hard thing is teaching somebody what sounds good, what doesn't, teaching them how to focus their attention and listen to things, and pick apart a scene or pick apart a game and understand what they are and aren’t hearing. If they're trying to fill a certain sonic gap in a game to solve the experience, getting them to understand what would sound good and serve the purpose in that spot, even getting somebody to a point where they can look at a game and say, ‘Well, I can see what's happening. I can see all the stuff on the screen, and I can make a list of sounds from that, but what does the player actually need to hear? What does the player need to feel?’ Teaching those instincts is really difficult.
"The key thing is we're looking for potential, we're looking for taste, we're looking for “ear”. The hard thing is teaching somebody what sounds good, what doesn't."
Can a good demo reel clue you in on an applicant’s “ear”?
We would try to derive that from a demo reel, but we’d also try to derive that from conversations. One of my favorite things to ask during interviews is, ‘Let's talk about some games you've played, some movies you've watched. Let's talk about some of the sound decisions that you heard in those things. What did you like? What did you not like?’ You can get a lot from that.
You have lots of hands-on experience working on Call of Duty; sound design for that title must go way beyond gunfire and explosions…
Attention to detail is important. Differentiating between, let's say, ‘what does the player's gun sound like relative to the enemy's gun? What's the pitch relationship between them? What is their positioning in the mix? Do I need to hear the gunfire of an enemy that's targeting me more clearly than some enemies over there that aren't targeting me?’ These are things we were thinking about as we built the sound for these games. Sound in games, in my mind, really falls into three buckets: gameplay, immersion, emotion. The line sometimes gets blurry between the three, but we were always trying to balance them and make sure we prioritized whatever was necessary at any given moment.
From a gameplay perspective, if you're in a gunfight, does the grenade explosion that's closer to me sound different than it does further away? Can I also hear, when it gets really close to me, maybe I hear a little bit of debris spray? Maybe some of that hits my character's helmet, and I hear little bits of dirt ping off my helmet. There are lots of little sonic cues you can use to give the player gameplay information.
We had a sound called the ‘hit marker', it's an audible indicator that your bullet has hit another enemy when you're shooting. Sound sometimes is not just about immersion or emotion, or even about moment to moment gameplay. Sometimes it's part of the core loop, the DNA of the game. The hit marker was one of those sounds. We did experiments with play testers where we tried taking it away. If you fire and you shoot into a crowd of enemies, you'll hear this little sound that sounds almost like a bullet impacting flesh. That tells you whether you're hitting the targets or not. When testers couldn't hear that sound, it changed how they played the game. It changed the core game loop.
"Sound in games, in my mind, really falls into three buckets: gameplay, immersion, emotion. The line sometimes gets blurry between the three, but we were always trying to balance them and make sure we prioritized whatever was necessary at any given moment."
OK, now that we’ve talked about what takes -- talent wise -- to get in at the entry level, are there any actual jobs?
There are a lot of people who want to work in game sound. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of opportunities to grow under more experienced developers in game sound right now, which I view as a big problem. You can find projects to work on, but working under senior sound developers is harder. I've talked to other people who agree it's a big problem. What we've seen in recent years is, a lot of game studios are having to get more work done with fewer staff because, let's be real, games are made to please shareholders and make money, so the big publishers are trying to get bigger budget games done with less money. They want to squeeze more blood from the stone. So, a lot of studios have shifted towards hiring more senior talent rather than hiring junior talent, so they have fewer butts in seats. There are some opportunities, but there's not a ton of opportunities for young folks who are fresh out of school and want to work with more experienced developers, more experienced sound designers, and learn from them. There's a lot of people out there trying to do this job, but I think there's a very big experience gap.
If you had a bigger audio budget, would that make room for more junior staffers?
In a larger sense of running a team, having more resources to hire more junior folks and grow them in the department would always be a nice thing. Maybe it's me being philanthropic, but wanting to grow young talent and give people the opportunity to learn and work with more experienced developers would be nice.
Is the industry farming out a lot of audio design work to other countries?
Yeah, it's something that I think a lot of publishers are exploring, but there haven't been any huge success stories with that. I think what's happened is they've certainly tried to outsource a lot of this work, but they've found that the results haven't been as good as they wanted. I think distance plays a role. It's hard to collaborate remotely unless you really are immersed in communicating via video call every single day. You get people on the other side of the planet where your time is 12 or 13 hours out of sync, and it gets even harder. So, that may be the issue. I will say, having worked for a major game publisher, if there's a cheaper way to make the game and increase the profit margin, they WILL find a way.
Once someone makes it “inside” the industry, what can they expect? There’s been a lot of blowback about diversity and gender equality in the industry. How bad is it?
It's getting better, but it's not where it needs to be. It's better than it was when I started 14, 15 years ago. It's not where it needs to be, and it's a difficult problem. I don't know how to solve it, and I don't think there is this magical silver bullet to fix the issue of diversity in game sound. I think the best thing that we as the game sound community can do is encourage folks who are underrepresented who want to get into game sound, mentor them, give them help, defend them and rally around them when they face challenges. Do what we can to help them out.
I don't want to give the corny answer of, ‘Well, women don't apply for these jobs.’ But I will say that in all the years of hiring, I didn't see very many women applicants. I'm not putting that on women choosing not to apply, I'm saying this is a problem that's all the way up the chain. That, to me, says well, fewer women are going to school for this. Why is that? Are they being discouraged from going to school for a job like this? Are they being pushed out of the schools? I don't know. I'm not sure exactly where the problem lies. It's probably a bit of all of the above.
I try to be as helpful as I can be at the stages where I have control. That is, if a woman or a person of color comes and asks me for advice on sound design, I will do everything I can to help them out. I will give them whatever advice I can. I will help them make the connections. I'll do it for anybody, I just make sure that I try to be supportive and helpful. That's the best I know to do. And when my friends speak up and tell me how I can be a better ally, I always listen and do my best to help.
"I think the best thing that we as the game sound community can do is encourage folks who are underrepresented who want to get into game sound, mentor them, give them help, defend them and rally around them when they face challenges."
We've seen this with writers and directors in Hollywood. Basically, white Ivy League kids are the ones that are getting many of the writers' jobs, so you see lots of shows about white families living in California. But we need different perspectives to tell the stories that people actually want to hear. Is that the same in gaming?
Yes, absolutely. There are a lot of people who look like me making games, and you see it in the games that come out of those groups of people. I hate the argument some people make, that we shouldn't "be diverse for the sake of being PC" or whatever. It's not about that. Even if you don't value diversity (and I do), even from a purely selfish perspective, I'd rather have more voices involved in making these games. I'm a white dude with a five o'clock shadow, and I'm sick of playing games where I'm a white dude with a five o'clock shadow. I want to experience different characters, different stories, different perspectives. That's not going to happen when everyone making your games looks the same and has a similar life experience.
When folks from marginalized groups talk to me about the challenges they face, I listen to it, and I self-analyze and say, ‘Well, what can I do to make this better? Is there anything I can do?’ If there is, I'll do what I can to help. It's certainly gotten better. I feel like when I look around, I see a lot more game sound people that don't look like me, and that's great. I hope that it continues to improve, but we've still got a long way to go.
"I want to experience different characters, different stories, different perspectives. That's not going to happen when everyone making your games looks the same and has a similar life experience."
Thanks to Keith Creighton for conducting this interview, and to Mark Kilborn for participating!