The hardest part of finding good work composing and doing sound design as a freelancer for video games is understanding the path to getting that work. The path is also different for everyone. The advice I’ll list here could absolutely apply to anyone but is aimed more towards recent graduates, or even current students. But again, time permitting, this advice applies to anyone. I’ll also be accounting for time spent honing your skillset.
This is also specifically geared towards people looking to work as a contractor. The path to getting in-house at a studio is a bit different and without going into too much detail on it, I’d say to gain access to the tools you need like a pc, a DAW, pair of headphones, and an internet connection. From there, build a concrete portfolio in the form of a demo reel and website that showcases work from interactive content, pick a specific company you’d like to work at, and move there. From there, find emails for employees that work in that department and buy them lunch or at the very least make a connection with them. A great resource to check out for this would be Powerup Audio’s “Reel Talk” Thursdays on Twitch.
However, if you are looking to work as a freelancer, hopefully, this helps. TL;DR at the bottom.
War of Attrition
For me, the benefit of finding my love for composing and sound design was that I had an abundance of motivation early on. But in reality, the honeymoon phase will eventually end and you will have to rely on discipline and dedication to get your work done at least to some degree. That’s not to say you should feel like you hate doing what you’re doing, but there is a point where work will become work at times like when it’s 90° in summer and you’d rather be outside. For me, there was a strong temptation early on to use as much of that motivation and time as I could and just dedicate my life fully to finding as much work as possible in the game audio realm. I would generally say to avoid doing that. There are times when you’ll be expected to work long hours, but this should mostly be a 40 hour work week job and sometimes less than that. The key is consistency, and to avoid burning out especially if you are working alone. Isolating yourself and only working will frankly only work against you eventually.
Even with very little knowledge of game audio starting out, you can have your first paid gig in roughly 3-6 months or possibly less, but you likely won’t be at the point where you have consistent work that pays your bills. So to avoid burnout, maintain a normal lifestyle, keep your bills paid, and have the resources to make it to networking events, I strongly suggest having at least a part-time job starting out even if you don’t necessarily need to. Preferably, this is a job with flexible hours.
After you’ve got a steady income stream from a day job, you’ll need to have the tools to do the job and luckily they’re becoming more and more accessible all the time. First, you’ll need a solid computer and an internet connection. If your budget is tight, find something refurbished. A backup drive or cloud service is also strongly recommended. A solid midi controller, pair of studio quality headphones and an audio interface will make life way easier. For me, I started with an Axiom 49 mk2 controller, Sennheiser HD 280 Pro headphones and an alesis io2 interface since I wasn’t recording much audio from microphones. If you do need a microphone or are looking to undertake sound design as well, a used Zoom H4N from eBay will work great.
You’ll also need a DAW and instrument vsts to write music with. Mixing vsts can help a ton, but if you’re looking to save money you should be fine skipping them. I personally started writing music with Ableton, but Cubase, Logic, and Reaper are all great options. Depending on your budget for instruments, I’d suggest picking the Komplete Ultimate package from Native Instruments that you can afford. Companies tend to do summer and black Friday sales so if you can wait for that time period, it’s worth it. Do some research and see what their sales periods usually are. If the budget is tight, the $25/month Composer Cloud subscription from EastWest is worth it. On the mixing side, I’d strongly suggest the $25 Slate Digital subscription starting out. I would mostly reserve this for more important projects though. Most native tools that come with your DAW should work fine starting out. Aside from that, browse YouTube to find decent free VSTs because they’re becoming more and more available. Free does not necessarily mean good though so find common denominators and be prepared to come across a lot of unusable things. Here is a list of free VSTs I’ve personally come across over the years.
If your budget truly is tight, don’t be discouraged. Again, the amount of free resources starting out is honestly amazing. I personally started with practically nothing except a computer, internet, and Ableton. There’s no reason you can’t make amazing things with very little.
Client Building and “Networking”
There are tons of routes to building up a client base. These are just a few and I won’t go too in depth on any of them. I strongly suggest looking into all of these ideas further.
But before diving in too deep, you should absolutely have a concrete demo reel and website to showcase yourself. Again, Powerup Audio’s “Reel Talk” is a great way to see how to do that.
By far, the best way to get clients is networking in person. This can be at industry events like conferences and expos, meetups through meetup.com, or simply anywhere where game devs physically meet up. Google is your friend. GDC specifically is your best bet in my opinion, but your mileage will vary depending on how much you pre-plan before going. You should show up to GDC with a concrete plan. There are lots of videos on YouTube about how to approach that. When you’re networking in person, I strongly suggest approaching it as making friends rather than networking. People want to work with their friends and people they like. Even if you aren’t overly confident in your skillset yet, people will still hire people they want to work with. Avoid outright asking anyone for work mostly and just try to be personable. Ask them about them. People can generally tell if someone is desperate for work, so just try to avoid coming off that way even if you actually are desperate which is completely understandable. Business cards can be a good thing but I truly don’t really use them anymore.
Another awesome way to find clients is networking online. This can be forums, cold calls, Discord servers, or social media, and endless other routes. YouTube specifically can be very beneficial because it’s the best way to show both your personality and skillsets simultaneously. The options are endless, but frankly not all created equally. Think of it no differently than in-person networking – be where game developers are. An amazing resource for this type of thing is Akash Thakkar’s email list found at the bottom of his website’s landing page here. He also has a very informative YouTube channel I strongly suggest as well as experience to back up what he says. As for cold calls, check out places like #screenshotsaturday, GameDevMap, IndieDB, and popular game dev forums. Do your best to find common ground with them. For instance, if you are both from the same part of Ohio or have a deep love for horror games, you should mention it. Be complimentary, but again do your best to not come off as desperate. Think of it as just starting a conversation.
Referrals will also eventually be a great way to get new gigs. They’re how I get the majority of my work at this point. But that likely won’t be how you get your first gig. If you have a great experience with someone who hired you for work, it’s not a bad idea to just gently let them know if they know anyone needing work that you’d love to help.
Selling assets through stores is also an option I personally have not tried, but am interested in and have heard that it works. A huge selling point to this is people tend to use these assets that are sold on various marketplaces for prototyping games. So when they’re looking to replace those assets, they very often ask the person who made the originals. It could be a way to get some passive income, but I truthfully would look at it more as a great way to market.
This is somewhat extra credit but is truthfully becoming more important. The routes for doing this are somewhat similar to networking online with developers, but you should change your mindset in that you’re marketing towards consumers rather than business to business. Again, YouTube is great for this. Social media can also be very helpful. If you work on a game creating a soundtrack for it, do your absolute best to get traction with that soundtrack with places like Spotify or YouTube. Playlisting on Spotify is a great way to do that. I’ve heard of some people wanting to be signed to record labels purely to get the contact of people who can add you to Spotify playlists. I personally think that’s a lopsided business exchange, but I do see the benefit. I strongly suggest looking more into detail on how to approach this because it’s worth your time to have a following. It can also help give you leverage during negotiating a contract with a developer depending on the size of your following and the size of the game. If you end up retaining the rights to a soundtrack you made for a game, having an audience to sell it to is absolutely going to be crucial. But again, clients should be your main objective before all of this. Think creatively. Where are the people that would listen to your music? Then, go there.
But that’s basically it. Again, the process is continuously changing, and this list is in no way meant to be a cure-all list. I would keep researching and see what other people say as well, figure out what the common denominators are, and go off of those. As long as you follow these ideas, you should be in good shape:
- Commit to the process because it is a war of attrition. Maintain consistency
- Get access to the resources you’ll need like computer, VSTs, etc.
- Have a great demo reel and website to build clients in person and online
- Establish a following of people interested in your work that aren’t developers
The last resource I’ll provide is Mark Kilborn’s “Film and Game Audio Resource” guide.
Best of luck and if you have any questions, feel free to email me at [email protected]
Let me know if this works okay or if you have any issues with the linked urls here. My photo is attached as well. Thanks again and sorry for the wait!
Composer | Sound Designer
Also read: How I became a Freelance Artist