How I Made it Into Games…Plus a Few Things

I’m writing this blog post for anyone. Well…it’s more for anyone that has ever created anything, has shared their ideas with the world, inspired, been inspired or desired to do something they loved full time to support their own livelihood. If you’re a musician, audio engineer or composer of some sort, this will be a little more applicable to you. Specifically, if you are wanting to learn more about audio for video games or desire a similar career for yourself one day, this is more for you than any of the former. Even if there ends up being only one person who will read this article and applies it to themselves somehow, that would be all that truly matters to me; but for you, that one person who may be reading this article, (Hi Mom!) I’m going to try to make this as detailed and informative as possible. My goal will be to hopefully answer a lot of your questions, inform, maybe entertain, possibly inspire and guide you through a lot of the processes I went through to get where I am today. My way is not the only way and I would not be truthful in saying I never got at least a little lucky while on my journey; but nevertheless, the information I’m about to extend to you would have be extremely valuable when I was trying to break into the industry. Without knowledge, advice and the willingness to share information from other creative and generous minds, I would have never gotten where I am today. This write-up is one small way I want to give back. 
 
What will follow from here will be every single step I took. From how I was once unaware the career I currently have even existed, to interviewing and setting my foot in the door. But for those of you who aren’t THAT interested and would like the brief rundown on things (I don’t know why you have even read this far), I will give you the short version to spare anymore unwanted details. So here it is:
 
I am just a guy who loves what he does and years ago decided that making a living off of what I do was most likely the only way I would ever truly be happiest. As a result of this realization, I spent a lot of time and energy into my craft, networked & established contact with people in my industry prior to graduating from my studies, applied for an entry level dream job, made a demo and got a great gig. 
 
There you go! Now read on if you want the full story…

In 2006, I was beginning my studies in Recording Arts down in Orlando, Florida at Full Sail University. At the age of 20, I had been a hobbyist electronic musician and producer for a few years. The hobby really began taking speed around the age of fifteen, but I had discovered two track editing on my home PC when I was twelve. Remixing, recording bands and tweaking synthesizers were all things I was heavily interested in. While many of my musical peers in high school were spending much of their extracurricular efforts on traditional band instruments, I found individualism through exploring worlds I thought (back then) hardly any one had ventured into. By the time I moved to Orlando, I was ingrained with a bit of an introverted ‘lab rat’ approach to musical expression. Bedroom style producers like myself were popping up all over the world thanks to music creation software becoming more affordable and accessible through advancements in recording technology.

I was studying Recording Arts to become a recording studio engineer, a producer or something along those lines. My intent was to be the guy behind the board, engineering and tracking frequencies for bands or singers. I loved feeling like the person who could give a song polish or punch and could be responsible for something that sounded sonically professional. That was my utmost passion…at the time, anyway.

My first month at Full Sail I was hitting the books, meeting many of my peers for the next 12 months (Full Sail’s Recording Arts program is 1 year long) and I constantly contemplated what I was going to do when I got out and how I was exactly going to do it. Ambition was plentiful. I was loving life, feeling free from leaving my parent’s home and was heavily committed to meeting my ultimate goal of getting a career after graduation. Returning to the bird’s nest was never an option I ever left open for debate.

I got lucky with my classmates. They were mostly talented people with different backgrounds and ambitions. Most of them were on the exact same journey I was: to engineer at a recording studio. Though I felt confident that I had enough talent to do such a job well, I began to understand that the sheer number of students attending Full Sail annually for Recording Arts (2,000 graduates per year) were over saturating the music industry. It was evident to me through browsing the web and talking to instructors who were former engineers themselves that the whole process of trying to begin a career in engineering was a long shot. Even with a lot of dedication, it was still hard to make it as an engineer or music producer. One reason for this was because in 2006, things were rapidly changing. Studios were closing their doors. Producers were moving the typical brick and mortar studios into the virtual environment. Musicians’ homes were now becoming the studio. Technology was becoming so advanced that making a hit record didn’t always have to require the same expensive technology that was being used before. The computer centric studios of the times had become a double edged sword. It had made me able to have obtained a recording hobby before attending school but it had given many more people that same ability. It restricted many opportunities to become an in house engineer at a recording facility. Most of the work doing studio gigs had become freelance.

This was a somewhat crushing realization at the time. My dreams felt like they were further away than I had ever imagined. Only two months into my classes and the reality was settling in that this was going to be far more difficult than I ever imagined. That’s when I heard something that perked my ears. Something that picked me up and inspired me, changed my life for the better and helped me move into a pioneering new field that I would’ve never thought of before.

One of my instructors during my second month at Full Sail mentioned audio for videogames. Amongst the staff there, it wasn’t very well known about except that opportunities were becoming more available in that particular field. In 2006, the Xbox 360 was out and the next generation of titles were boasting higher fidelity audio systems that required more manpower to fulfill the needs of bigger and more elaborate titles. It seemed enticing and planted a seed of curiosity. I had to find out more about it.

The conventional wisdom amongst many people I knew was that if someone worked in the game industry, they probably had to know code of some sort, but I came to learn that this was far from the truth. One of my instructors mentioned sound designers and composers can make content and implement it into a game without coding anything, but through what are known as “middleware” audio programs like Wwise and FMOD. All of this information was completely new to me, and as someone who had loved video games my entire life, the opportunity sounded very appealing.

Whenever I had free time for the next several months, I went digging for information about people who worked on sound for video games. Myspace was still popular around that time and it had a fairly useful tool embedded into it that allowed users to search for people based on their career. I found sound designers, composers, audio producers and various video game audio professionals scattered throughout Myspace. It was amazing to me that I could access so many real professionals in the field I was curious about without having to do anything more than a simple web search.

I spent a lot of time firing off emails in many directions, asking people to answer questions I had. Most of them replied without hesitation.. I discovered so much about the industry through the people who worked in it and most of them seemed to have a great attitude about answering everything I had to ask.

I must have had 2–3 dozen contacts through Myspace alone that helped me find many answers about the craft of making audio for videogames and I had only barely begun to break the ice. I started my Recording Arts studies in June of 2006 and by the time December of the same year rolled around, I felt like my mind was already made up. I was going to do everything I could to get into making audio for games. By this time, on my own, I had discovered several noteworthy things about the industry.

Starting off, I learned that sound designers who worked on AAA titles could make above average, fairly decent salaries starting at a minimum of $35,000 to $45,000 per year. From there, salaries could get up to $80,000 to $100,000+ depending on experience, ranking and studio. Having a consistent paycheck was important to me. With freelance gigs, there can often be irregularities when it comes to pay. The stability was something I wanted to give me peace of mind.

In addition to favorable salaries, game developers were known to have other worthwhile benefits. Many developers offer health, dental, vision and 401k plans. Discounts or free memberships to gyms, or even on-site gyms were a common theme. Catered food, company parties & events, bonuses, access to game studio game libraries, free snacks & drinks — you get the point…

It was as if I had unlocked some sort of deep secret that no one knew about. I felt almost sinister about obtaining this knowledge that it seemed so many people, even audio professionals in other fields, were unaware of. Making it into games would allow me to enjoy the tweaking art of mixing, editing and using the tools I had come to love through producing music on my own. In addition to doing something I loved, it would enable me to connect my art to a potentially vast audience of millions of people. Content I created could be used to change people’s emotions, affect a story and immerse people into a form of art I collaborated on with a team of other individuals like myself. It was a new art, something that had barely been tapped into. Few really knew anything about it or understood it. In that, I saw an opportunity to possibly pioneer something that had never been done before. Interactive audio was and still is finding ways to break new ground every year. In this, I saw unlimited potential. Where do I sign up?

As helpful as my contacts in the industry had been at answering many of the questions, one crucial thing still remained unanswered: How do I get a job doing what you do? The answers were often vague and not fulfilling. Things like, “I was in the right place at the right time,” or “I just met the right people.” Answers like this to a student were not what I was looking for, but I was determined figure out the correct methodology that would get me noticed.

Six months into studying Recording Arts and only a handful of instructors around the campus at the time were able to give me many further details on what they knew about sound for video games. In fact, I was coming to realize that through my own personal research, I was more knowledgeable about the subject than most of the instructors. This isn’t to belittle knowledge of the faculty on campus, though. Most of them were very knowledgeable about the art of audio engineering, television & film post and the music industry, which was the school’s main focus. Game audio, however, wasn’t widely understood yet. These days, however, there is a game audio curriculum that has been added to the recording arts course there. Full Sail caught on the opportunities pretty quickly after I graduated.

In December of 2006, I joined an online hub for game professionals and students alike called GANG (Game Audio Network Guild). The only way I could really network at the time was still online, so GANG seemed like the next practical thing for me to do. The relationship I had with the GANG community was quite short lived, though. I only made one forum post after I joined that said , “Student seeking advice.”. In the post I mentioned my situation going to school at Full Sail and said I would like to talk to more professionals about breaking in. I received one reply from a man named Mark Kilborn, a sound designer then for Bizarre Creations (Midnight Club, Geometry Wars), who had worked on a few AAA titles. Mark was a former Full Sail graduate himself and he was happy to become my main mentor.

For the next few months I kept networking through Myspace and maintaining my contact with Mark. He was happy to help, citing that if I were to ever break into the industry myself, I should do the same. It wasn’t long after making contact with Mark online that he found another gig in house at Gearbox Software (Brothers in Arms, Borderlands) in Dallas, Texas. Still months away from finishing up my associates degree in Recording Arts, I began to fantasize about a life working at Gearbox myself. It seemed like such an interesting company to me. It was independent, employees received royalties based on company profit and Gearbox would give employees $1,000 towards a new computer every year. Above all else, it was a place I knew I could be happy at.

My head would often go into the clouds. I was pretty obsessive about where I would go after graduation and I felt like the clock was ticking. Soon enough, July of 2007 would roll around and I would be done with school. If I did not have a job ready, I would either be going back home to live with my parents or who-knows-what. It wasn’t hard to be nervous about the future.

Throughout the last few months of being a student, Mark would send me freelance job opportunities for games. These would be small gigs for shareware titles and so forth. I would send out my resume and apply but never heard anything back from anyone. It was disheartening without a doubt. Sometimes it felt like getting even the most simple of gigs seemed hopeless. But hope eventually came at the most unexpected time in one of the most unexpected places.

The last month of school brought a string of days I’ll never forget. I remember coming home from class one day, a bit frustrated at some of the questions on a test I had recently taken. It was a bleak, dark and rainy day. My spirits were quite low and I had only a month left of school. I felt like I might have been hitting a wall with getting a career going after graduation. That day I logged on and Mark sent me a message via an instant message with a link to a company called Volition Inc (Red Faction, Saints Row) located in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Volition had an opening for a full time sound designer position. Upon checking the job listing, there was something about it that seemed a bit unreal. The company did not list any experience required as a credential. Really? A AAA studio would be willing to risk that? It seemed too good to be true.

How could I land a gig at this place when these tiny companies weren’t even giving me a shot? Despite the odds, I applied and sent in my resume, which had Chick-fil-a as my previous job experience, mind you.

Mark gave me a pro tip: go to the Volition website and find out who the lead audio person is there and send them in an email mentioning that I had applied. I fired off emails at a few people in the audio department, stating I had sent in an application and linked them to my personal website (www.sunburnsound.com), which had only a few music samples up. I had no sound design reel, which made me feel like I wouldn’t be getting taken seriously.

Within 5 minutes of sending off a few emails, I saw my Gmail inbox notification window pop up. Dan Wentz, Volition’s audio supervisor at the time, had gotten back to me. My heart sort of skipped a beat at that moment. I quickly opened the email and read

“Hey Joshua,
Thanks for your interest. I should add that composition is a plus! And I like what I’m hearing so far. :)
Sending this around will be in touch as soon as next week.”

My immediate thought was, “Did I just read that?” I couldn’t believe how quickly someone had gotten back to me. Without hesitation, I fired back another email, thanking him for the consideration. Within minutes I had another reply from Dan. He asked if I had any audio synced up to video samples so the team could gauge my sound design abilities. I replied that I did not have anything, in fact, I was waiting until the end of my post production classes so I could have a better understanding of post workflow to make a proper demo, but in the email back to Dan I offered to complete a demo reel over the weekend and have it for them by Monday. I sent off the email and got one more reply from Dan. He simply thanked me and said he looked forward to seeing the reel on Monday.

It was unbelievable. Finally, someone had taken an interest in me and it was finally time to really prove myself. I had very little experience with sound design and only owned a handful of library sounds on my computer. Most advice given to me by professionals in order to make a demo was to take a gameplay video from a website like GameTrailers.com and rip out the audio then replace it with my own original sound design. So I did just that. I found some gameplay previews of BioShock and made sure the file was quicktime so I could drop it into ProTools and mute the sound. Once the Bioshock video files was in a ProTools session I began designing and layering my own sounds together, assembling ambient audio, melee impacts, voice (I recorded myself and layered it), synthesis and mixed it all together over the course of the weekend. In total, the entire duration of my Bioshock demo was about 45 seconds and covered two different scenes from the game. When Sunday rolled around, I decided to up the ante and make sure I had enough content for my demo package by grabbing another gameplay video of the Volition game, Saints Row in order to display that I was capable of working within the studio’s own genre.

By the time Sunday evening came to be, the demo was all mixed down and ready to show. I could feel my stomach was in knots, turning away. My destiny laid before me and I had no idea if I was going to miss this opportunity or not. The entire weekend had been feeling extra surreal and I was waiting to just wake up and it all turn out to really be a dream. On Monday morning, I emailed Dan a short message and a copy of the demo. After hitting send I sat and gawked at my inbox, refreshing the screen every few moments.

It was only thirty minutes or so later when Dan returned my email. The team liked my demos and were wanting to set up a phone interview. My heart gushed with excitement and joy. Immediately, I emailed back that I looked forward to talking to them on the phone. Within a few moments, HR scheduled an interview with me for Wednesday.

Before Wednesday, I decided to have a meeting with Full Sail’s Career Development Department. I had never met with them before, and it was highly recommended by Full Sail to visit the department and work on discussing post graduation career opportunities with the staff there. This would be my first time visiting the department. Right before my first phone interview with a reputable company.

I met with my assigned staff member from the department and told her about how I was interested in getting into game audio. As I sad before, Full Sail wasn’t very cued into the game audio world very well in those days, so the lady wasn’t quite so sure how to help me. I then described to her in detail what I had done to get noticed by Volition and my upcoming interview. We went over my resume and she suggested a few things I could do to modify it for future use and gave me a few words of advice and encouragement on the phone interview. She said she had never really heard of a Recording Arts student interviewing with a game company before and also that was really interested in having a follow-up meeting the next week when things had progressed further with Volition.

On Wednesday around noon, I was waiting by the phone anxiously when it rang. I picked it up and I could feel my voice quiver as I greeted, “Hello?” It was the Volition audio team, which at the time consisted of Dan Wentz, Kate Marlin, Raison Varner and Frank Petreikis. They continued to ask me all sorts of questions about my audio background, what things I learned in school, what I did to create my demo and if I would be comfortable periodically working long crunch time hours that so many game professions are somewhat notorious for.

My nervousness had died down steadily as I expressed myself to the team and even asked them a few questions about Champaign/Urbana, Illinois and what they loved most about their jobs. I really enjoyed the conversation and after hanging up, there was an immediate blend of satisfaction and nervousness I felt. Even though the interview felt like it went well, I had no idea what my competition was, or if I had any. I had no idea what exactly to expect after the short fifteen minutes of talking to the audio team at Volition. The only note we left on was a simple, “We’ll keep in touch,” from them. What would follow was up to them.

Over a week had gone by with no contact from Volition when I went back to Full Sail’s Career Development Department. I explained to the staff member, Debbie Franz, I had met with before what happened and that I still hadn’t heard from Volition after a week. The look on her face wasn’t hopeful. We went over a few more resume tweaks and possible ways to find new opportunities in game audio. Debbie said she would keep a look out for opportunities based on the stream of different careers that came out of Full Sail’s own Game Design course. I thanked her and left.

I was beginning to feel hopeless as time went on and I heard nothing. Most of my spare time was spent obsessively refreshing my inbox, waiting to see an email from Kevin Fanning, Volition’s head of Human Resources. Throughout the end of the week and through the weekend, nothing came.

My psychological immunity began kicking in as started to tell myself that this wasn’t the only chance I would ever have in my life. I began to believe it was coming time to move on from expecting any sort of reply from Volition. The job itself was a long shot, anyway, and it was a pleasure to even gotten as far as I did. I’d take extra long jogs to try to ease my worry over everything and I remember standing on the balcony of my apartment after running many miles one day, looking out at the palm trees of Orlando, promising myself I could have anything I wanted if I wanted it. As cliche as it is to say, I really believed that I was able to do anything if I put my mind to it, and in that moment of sheer uncertainty and tension, I felt very alive, moreso than I had probably ever felt before.

Although I felt my chances with proceeding to interview with Volition further seemed grim, I still kept my spirits up and alive…and on Thursday, June 14th, 2007, a one sentence email from Kevin Fanning popped up in my email inbox:

“Hi Josh– When are you available to come out for an onsite interview?

Thanks a lot,
Kevin “

To this day, I still consider June 14th of 2007 as the best day of my life.

I was alone in the apartment at the time and I remember just feeling the rush of intense, ecstatic joy rush through me as I screamed like a little girl at the top of my lungs. Wow! It was really happening. A company was going to fly me up to meet them! For once, the accumulation of all those times where I sacrificed myself for my art finally really stood for something and would become, at the very least, recognized. The job may have not officially been mine yet, but I felt like from that point on, I wasn’t going to fail. Failure was not an option and I was two weeks from graduating.

The interview was set up over the next couple of days. I received my plane tickets from Orlando to Illinois the day before my graduation ceremony and I would be interviewing on the day where I was supposed to be walking to get my diploma. There was so much excitement in that time. A few days after, I got an email from Debbie Franz, the staff member I was working with at Full Sail’s Career Development office. She asked if we could meet up, that she some possible opportunities had come to her office I may be interested in. I hadn’t told her the news of the interview yet.

When I got to the Career Development center the next day, Debbie handed me a sheet of paper when I entered her office for an audio coder position at a developer I was unfamiliar with. I remember as soon as she handed me the paper I blurting excitedly, “Volition’s flying me out to Illinois in a couple of weeks.”

Debbie’s eyes widened and her jaw dropped slightly. After a small pause she lit up with joy and began congratulating me. She was very excited and claimed she had never before seen a Recording Arts student have a company agree to fly them out for an on site interview. We went over some general etiquette for job interviews and I agreed to keep her up to date with my progress.

It’s really happening, I thought a few weeks later on the day before my interview as I gripped the handrail on the airport tram in Orlando. I could feel my whole body begin to relax by the time I got onto the airplane. Whether or not I got the job from that point on almost didn’t matter. This interview, I knew, would be the experience of a lifetime.

The next day, after enjoying breakfast and coffee at the Hilton, I arrived in the front woodfloored lobby at Volition where memorabilia and awards hung on the walls from their past projects. After a short wait, I finally met Dan Wentz in person. He toured me around the studio where I saw artists, coders, testers and other video game disciplines working away at the new Red Faction: Guerrilla (which wasn’t announced yet at the time) and the sequel to their highly successful open world crime franchise, Saints Row 2. I had never before witnessed in my life such a concentrated and diverse collaboration of different types of creative talent in one area. They were all working to a common goal and the word “inspiring” barely even began to describe it.

After meeting the audio team, we all sat down in one room and they showcased Red Faction: Guerrilla to me for the first time. The game had a highly advanced destruction technology system and the sound design played an enormous role in giving cues to the player. They asked me more questions about my demo, including my opinion on certain aspects to the sound design. I answered everything as best as I could and by the end of the day I felt like I had experienced an entirely new world for the first time.

The team was really friendly and willing to answer all of my questions as well. I even saw how a sound was implemented into the game via a middleware tool they were using at the time known as XACT (pray you never have to use it). After the interview, I drove back to the airport in my rental car and headed back to Orlando, where I rode first class on the way back home. I took that as a very good sign.

It was only a few days later that I got an email from Kevin Fanning asking if I would accept an offer from Volition, I was very happy with the pay and benefits they offered and within a month I went from living in Orlando, Florida to working at Volition Inc. in Champaign, Illinois.

During my career at Volition, I helped the team release Saints Row 2 and Red Faction: Guerrilla. On both games I did a large portion of the sound design and even helped contribute to the musical score of Red Faction. Volition at the time was fine with allowing composition to occur in house. Not very many studios do this.

In 2009, a former Volition audio colleague of mine named Raison Varner that had left during the course of my employment there for the studio Gearbox Software in Dallas, Texas, offered me a chance to interview at Gearbox, the same place that my online mentor from Full Sail, Mark Kilborn worked Since my time at Volition, Mark had moved on and went to become Audio Director at Raven Software. I moved to Dallas in 2009 where I landed in the same place I would daydream about for hours while I was still in school.

Since my time here at Gearbox I have helped release Borderlands and three of its DLCS. I’m currently working on Brothers in Arms: Furious Four and Borderlands 2.

The past four years have brought me a lot of joy and new experiences. Working with creative, hardworking individuals in all spectrums of art to share something with the world is surreal, consistently inspiring, fulfilling and something I wish for anyone with the love of their craft truly at the core of who they are to experience. If your heart is there, you deserve and I believe you will experience it, because you intuitively know that there really is hardly anything that can hold you back from achieving the same life, whether it be an artist, a coder or a musician.

If you have gotten little to nothing out of reading this, I apologize to you, but I will part with you on these bits of advice for my future co-workers, maybe they will resonate, even if only a little:

If you go to school for your art, have an idea for what you want to do as an ‘end goal’ to your studies. Be open to other career opportunities that you can take advantage of, but aim for your end goal more than anything else and chase it. If you want to end up making sounds for film, do whatever it takes to find the information you’re going to need about breaking in and absorb it all like a sponge. If you’re reading this right now, then you’ve already started doing that.

Have a great attitude about your life and what you do. I’ve met some talented people who were complete ego-maniacs or stubborn. I would rather take someone with a great attitude to work with than anything. If you’re rude and angry all the time, no one will want to work with you. Stay positive. We’re all in the business of being creative because we all love it, and what we put out is all bigger than any of us in the end.

If you have any questions or comments, I’ll be happy to answer them, and with your permission I’ll add them on to the bottom of this post. You can email me at sunburner@gmail.com or find me on twitter. My username is JoshuaDav. Thank you for reading this all the way through, I hope to have been a help to someone, and if not, it’ll make a good memoir. :)

Godspeed,

Joshua Davidson