Confessions of a Small Working Studio—Cracking the Code: Breaking Into Game Sound

Mar 2, 2010 7:12 PM, By Kevin Hill and Lisa Horan

Paul Ruskay, the owner of Studio X Labs

Paul Ruskay, the owner of Studio X Labs

So you’ve been thinking about trying your hand at the gaming industry, but is it a realistic goal for a studio like yours? The optimistic answer is, anything is possible. However, we’re not going to mislead you into thinking it’s going to be easy or that it’s going to happen overnight. In fact, “If you’re trying to transition into the gaming industry, you should not give up your day job,” cautions Paul Ruskay, the owner of Studio X Labs, a small full-service audio facility in Vancouver, B.C., that has been responsible for sound design, music, speech production and surround mixing of such games as Turok, Homeworld, Def Jam Vendetta and Flight Sim. “If you pin too much hope on quickly obtaining a substantial income from sound design for games, you will probably regret it,” adds Ruskay, who is a 15-year veteran of the industry. 

The good news is—if you’re willing to work hard at it, be patient and consider doing some pro bono work—the timing for breaking into this lucrative industry may be right. “One of the best times to seize opportunities is when things aren’t going well economically,” says Dave Fraser, owner of New York City’s Heavy Melody Music. And he has the experience to back up his claims. His studio had scored Superbowl commercials for companies like Gilette, GE, Pepsi and Campbells when the commercial work started to evaporate. Heeding the early warning signs of diminishing returns in the commercial world, the studio diversified its portfolio to include videogame work, and continued to thrive, in spite of a more challenging climate in the advertising world. The studio, which produces brand-defining music, sound design and voice acting, has since completed work on games such as BioShock 2, Mafia 2, World of Zoo, Alone in the Dark and Neverwinter Nights 2.

The team at Heavy Melody

The team at Heavy Melody

But Heavy Melody wasn’t able to do what it did without having the right connections. In fact, no matter who you are or how good you may be, chances are you won’t get very far without them. “Even though the gaming industry is a big business, it’s small in terms of who works in it and who makes the decisions,” according to Julian Kwasneski, the audio director of San Francisco’s Bay Area Sound, an audio production company that specializes in custom sound design, original music and voice-overs for games and has credits on such names as Saboteur, Sam and Max episodic series, Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic (1 and 2), Monkey Island episodic series and the recently released Dante’s Inferno. “You’ve got to get yourself out there in front of these people and put in as much face time as possible.” He says venues like GDC are a great place to start, but he admits there’s a little luck involved in getting that necessary “in.”

And Ruskay agrees. “Cold calling may work, but you’ll have a much better shot at breaking in if you’re invited to the party rather than if you’re trying to crash it; at least you know you’ll have a seat.” Even if you do make connections, he confesses that studios that don’t have an established past in the videogame industry will face the classic Catch 22: You can’t get any work until you have the experience, but you can’t get the experience without the work. His advice: “Start by making a list of what you have going for you and what you can provide that would be useful to a developer.” For instance, maybe you have a Foley stage. One way to get a foot in the door is by describing what specific benefits that part of your studio could offer to a developer’s projects. “You really have to be sure to focus on the one thing that you do really well and for which you are able to produce a good result,” says Ruskay. “You have to give a developer a solid reason to believe you’re a good fit for their project and illustrate how much your contribution will be beneficial,” adds Fraser. Kwasneski suggests that the key to breaking in is “finding someone who wants to take a chance on you.”

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