My name is Kole Hicks and by profession I’m a Freelance Composer and Sound Designer with a focus in Games (Kole Audio Solutions). My goal with writing this article is to share information gained from years of personal experience on how to best approach the subject of hiring an Audio Contractor. I hope to help both those who are working on their first game and are new to the process, along with those developers who have a bit more experience, but are looking to make the process a little easier.
So... you’re at that point in developing your game where an impact sound could really help that melee hit feel satisfying and some triumphant orchestral music would really help the player feel like a hero. Great! Now What?
Well, you could always go to a library and pick up said Sounds and Music at a semi-decent quality level on the cheap. The quality varies greatly from library to library and often the highest quality Audio assets will cost a pretty penny more than it’s lower quality competitors. However, you understand that great custom Audio has a large role in immersion and the player’s enjoyment of your game, so it deserves the same investment that you’ve put into the other areas of development.
With checkbook in hand now you’re ready to go hire someone to create fantastic Audio for your game! ... Or are you?
I. What to Have Prepared Before you Contact the Audio Contractor
Before you even start looking for someone who is capable of bringing your audio world to life, there are a few things to prepare that will help potential Audio Contractors create a more accurate quote for the work to be done.
First and foremost, play through the entirety of your game and create an Audio Asset list. Depending on your needs this could include Music, Sound Effects, Dialogue, etc. It’s also imperative to know if you’ll only be needing the Audio Contractor’s creative services, or if you’d prefer him/her to implement the audio as well (not all Audio Contractors do both).
Next, it’s not absolutely essential (as it depends on where you’re at in development when hiring), but a playable build of the game in some form is infinitely helpful to the potential Audio Contractor. After signing an NDA, some Audio Contractors may prefer playing through the game to not only get a feel for the mood/style, but to potentially augment the Audio Asset List with essential items that may have been missed.
It sounds like common sense, but the next thing to have prepared before you contact an Audio Contractor, is an idea of what your game world should sound like. You don’t have to go into very specific detail (in fact too much direction will limit the creativity of the Audio Contractor), but you should have a general idea of what your characters sound like, how the world should sound when the player is walking around in it, and what emotions the music should evoke. At some point it’s necessary to complete a "Style Guide" for the entirety of your game. While it’s not essential for the Audio Contractor to have this during the bidding process, it most certainly will help them get a clearer image of what you’re envisioning.
Last but certainly not least, formulate an accurate idea of your Audio budget. Understandably you’ll most likely keep this hidden from potential Audio Contractors during the bidding process for negotiating reasons, but it’s essential that you have an amount allotted for every section of Audio in your game. Furthermore, determine the amount of time you’d need the Audio completed in and how much space it can take up (essential for mobile games).
**I realize it may be useful to see some numbers on how much recording dialogue costs, a finished minute of music, etc. However, there are tons of variables to consider and these numbers can vary greatly from not only contractor to contractor, but region to region. Instead, perhaps in the future I’ll create an article detailing of all the elements involved in bringing a single sound effect, line of dialogue, or minute of music to life. That way you’ll be in a position of understanding how complicated (or simple) you’d prefer the process to be and thus control how much it would cost.
II. How to Find a Professional Audio Contractor
Now that you have a solid idea of what your game world will sound like, a shiny new Audio Asset List, an accurate idea of your Audio budget, and perhaps even a playable build of your game, it’s time to find your Audio Contractor!
So your buddy happens to play drums in this one punk rock band and you think to yourself "Wow, he’d be perfect to score my Game!" Well (assuming this drummer is also a competent Composer and familiar with recording) if your game requires one-shot drum heavy Punk-Rock… you could be right! If however your game requires dark Irish influenced orchestral music that’s very interactive, I’d recommend finding a professional. Where though?
Well, the first option is to ask your other Game dev. friends and colleagues, as they may have worked with someone who could fit the bill. Make sure to check out their website for the quality of their work and potentially their Linked In Profile for recommendations (seems to still be used frequently in the Game Industry).
Second, you could always try contacting an Audio Contractor that worked on one of your favorite games. Love the "Amazing Spider Man" or "God of War" music? If you’ve got the budget, then contact Gerard Marino directly and see if he’s interested. However, Audio Contractors of all sizes and shapes are usually credited somewhere in the game, so those with tighter "indie" budget restraints need not woe.
Next, you could always post a listing on a site like Gamasutra or perhaps on a forum that correlates with the engine you’re using (Unreal, Unity, etc.). However, I must warn you ahead of time though that you’ll receive quite a few submissions and the quality will vary greatly in the submissions you receive. So be ready to filter through a ton of e-mails to find the right Audio Contractor if you choose this option.
Last but not least, keep your eyes out for Articles like this one on various sites/blogs! There are a handful of us who really enjoy writing as well as creating Audio for Games, so feel free to add those people to your "list." =D
III. How to Contact an Audio Contractor for a Quote/Bid
Now that you have a list of potential Audio Contractors and all the necessary materials prepped, it’s time to contact them for a Bid on your Game. What information should go into these e-mails though?
First, I would recommend e-mailing your potential contractors with a short summary of your game and it’s audio needs. Ask them if they may be interested in taking on the project and if they would have the time do so.
You’ll most likely hear back from these potential contractors with a "Yes/Yes," so the next step should be a proper meeting discussing the direction of the game and it’s specific Audio needs. Most developers prefer these contractors sign an NDA before discussing anything in depth and most professional Audio Contractors are very used to this. Sending over a build of your game at this time is recommended (if you have one in a playable state).
After this meeting the process can go in a few different directions. If you feel confident enough in the Audio Contractor’s abilities to accurately create Audio for your game, then you’d supply him/her with the Asset List/Build/etc. and ask for a Quote on how much it would cost for the work to be completed. If however you’re not completely sold on their abilities, it’s not uncommon to ask for a short spec. demo from the Audio Contractor. Some contractors will be opposed to this (as they may have a lot on their plate and very little time), so offering a little compensation as a sign of respect for their time should solve that issue.
**An appropriate spec. demo varies based on many factors, but between 2 – 5 Sound Effects, 30s – 60s of Music, or a few lines of dialogue are usually acceptable.
IV. How to Choose Your Audio Contractor and Seal the Deal
You’re almost to the finish line! Let’s say three of your meetings went quite well and you’ve received each Quote from the potential contractors. Which one should you choose?
There are many reasons for choosing one contractor over another, but I recommend NOT having money be the deciding factor. Sure it’s a very important part of making your game, but there are often reasons to why one contractor would quote higher than another. Perhaps they have higher quality equipment/more schooling, include multiple revisions per asset in the price (useful for iterative teams), or are just very timely and professional. Over the years I’ve lost initial bids for projects purely because I quoted higher than some of my competitors only to have the developer come back at a later date (when deadlines are looming) asking if I’m still interested. In some instances the quality of the work they initially received from the other contractor was terrible, or perhaps it was just the lack of communication. Either way, professionalism goes a long way and justifies that old saying "You get what you pay for."
So, maybe one of the contractors is really appealing to work with (especially if you loved their spec. demo), but his/her quote is higher than you budgeted for. Find out what elements are contributing to that Quote and even make a counter offer, but don’t just say "No" and choose the cheaper option if you really want to work with this contractor. The majority of us are open to negotiating terms and compensation.
Last but not least, you sign the Agreement and begin your journey working together… may it be a fantastic and memorable one (with perhaps many more to come in the future)!
**I could write forever on the specific conditions that make up a standard Music/Sound WFH or Licensing Agreement, but will save that for another article in the future. Until then, take comfort in the fact that most professional Audio Contractors have templates they work from. Or, if you have the money, attorneys will be involved at that point and they can worry about all of that stuff.
Thanks for reading and I hope you’ve found this article helpful. Best of luck with your game and your Audio Contractor hiring endeavors!