Written by Josh Davidson.
For the past six years, I’ve been lucky enough to say my career is home in the video game industry. While I’m certainly not the oldest or youngest in my class of game developers, I still believe there are some powerful things I’ve learned in this short amount of time so far.
What I’ll leave underneath here is a collection of general “Truths” and nuggets of wisdom I’ve picked up in the the time I’ve spent in this loco world of game development. Not all of these are audio-specific, actually. This advice is more cultural and also based on efficiency, so they can be applied to any discipline, even outside of games.
Anyway, If you’re anything like me when it comes to list articles you probably aren’t even reading this part, anyway, so here is the good stuff:
Relationships With Industry Peers Matter More Than I Used to Think
I was fortunate enough to jump into the industry at a relatively young age. At 21, I thought I had made it; my career dues finally paid. No longer would I have to clamor for the respect of my peers or spend countless hours locked away in my bedroom studio, shunning my social life while eating frozen pizzas and ramen on a tight weekly budget. The new career opportunity represented a giant feather in my cap. Part of me wasn’t wrong to think that I had put in my time, but little did my shamelessly expanding ego realize, I had barely begun to prove my worth.
For the first two to maybe even three years I spent in the industry my social and working interaction with developers outside of my own department was kept to a minimum. In most ways, this didn’t exactly hurt my work or me since I was considered a junior sound designer and therefore the leads above me would track and manage most of my tasks. I was there to go in, create & implement as much quality content as I could and go home. So why did relationships with any developers actually matter?
Unfortunately, back then I mostly wanted to meet people outside of my work, preferably other early-20-somethings that were sharing the same stage in life as me. I had struggled over the past few years to really connect with people my age in order to get the career I wanted, and at the time, I really felt like I was missing something because of it. I ended up focusing more on what was occurring outside of my life at the studio than I spent on the inside.
So why does this matter? Because I came to find this was an easy way to reach complacency. Subscribing to this false narrative that I had already somehow proved myself squandered some of my ability to grow not only as an artist but as a true contributor to the development process. I wasn’t directly collaborating with people outside of my department enough to seal a more cohesive vision for the end product. Instead, my process involved me sizing up visual effects, animations, designs and user interface sounds on my own, without the outside perspective of the originator of my work. It was an assembly line of sorts, albeit an effective one sometimes, but nevertheless, an assembly line as opposed to an involved collaboration.
When I arrived at Gearbox after two years at my first gig at Volition, I was “thrown to the wolves,” so to speak. I was expected to not only create the content, but it was quickly expected of me to facilitate information more on my own by meeting the who’s who in every department for the various levels, creatures and missions. Almost instantly connections began forming, and trust and higher levels of camaraderie were established.
By the time we finished up Borderlands 2, I felt more at one with my fellow teammates than I did in my Volition years and there was a reduction of communication blunders that could have created inefficiencies in the project pipeline. Together, we put our blood, sweat and tears into something and we could feel it working out with great inner reward.
This sort of relationship development even makes an event such as a release party feel infinitely more like a real celebration because I could approach so many people I worked with, reminisce on that one bug or task we accomplished together, and laugh off the challenges we accomplished together.
Finding the work myself and having a personal thirst to form the right relationships really worked out and brought out a better result in the end product.
Don’t be the foolish, naive, self-centered person I was in the beginning. Think about it, if some people have spent a few years working alongside one another closely, chances are they can count on the other one to do good work or move things along the production pipeline to the right people. It may take two years to really embed those close personal working relationships with your comrades, but it starts with you, the person on the individual level, taking that step on day one in order to make that happen. Trust me, it makes doing what you do infinitely more satisfying.
Relax, We’re Making Games
I’ve seen this a million times before. Some guy has been crunching for three months and already he’s gained ten pounds from too much munching on savory late night dinners. The guy’s had it. He’s curt to people in emails, taking longer than normal in the bathroom, and is visibly stressed everywhere he goes.
Many of us haven’t been the easiest to work with. I’m not going to pretend like I’ve always been. Let’s face it, game development isn’t quite as simple as those famous old Westwood or Collin’s College commercials made them out to be. Sometimes all voice lines stop working right before certification or someone accidentally removed the sound from the hundreds of animation files you’ve spent weeks on.
Besides the obvious, “Don’t be that guy,” rant I could go on about this I’ll ask you to reflect upon the infamous line from one of those college commercials: “Can you believe we get paid to do this?” Yes, the adverts are hysterical in their inaccuracy to the point that they’ve spawned enough memes to last us generations, but the line I just quoted is actually a mantra I’m still not afraid to live by.
No, I still can’t believe I get paid to do this. Yes, there are companies that are bad companies to work for. Yes, it does get stressful, but you’re trying to create the fun and give someone the happiness that you received when you played your favorite video game and enjoyed someone else’s passionate dedication. You’re not digging a ditch, you’re not serving waffle fries to grumpy, bigoted customers, you’re doing your best to expand upon an artform that’s still arguably in its infancy; an artform that’s changing the way people interact, hear stories, solve puzzles, learn, play together and enjoy one another’s company.
In the grand scheme of human history and our relationship with art as a species, it actually matters… and for most people, it is fulfilling, especially if they can channel the right energy into their passion with balance and stay on the quest to better themselves. No, that doesn’t mean I think you need to be happy about crunching all month or anything, it’s just a pattern of mindful thinking that you can choose to subscribe to. It may not work for you, but it has been a powerful ally during the harder times that has kept me focused, kind to my colleagues, and eager to finish the job.
Working Hard and Crunching Are Not the Same Thing
Oh God, you’re probably thinking to yourself. This guy’s going to write literally the millionth article on crunching in the business. I know…and I could go on about how awful it is for a person’s health and how there’s a point of diminishing returns with work efficiency, and I will touch on those things, but still, here’s my take.
I’ve always avoided crunch as much as possible myself. Not to say that I haven’t been up at the studio until 2am sometimes, but for the most part, I try to take the most efficient path to victory, and it has taken me a long time to get better. My obsession with the quality of my work in the earlier years caused me to often get stuck in long iteration cycles. While I had good intentions to make the game sound as awesome as possible, it would often take me far too long to do a sound design pass on even a simple scripted moment.
When work began ramping up more on Borderlands 2, my task load grew to the point where my long iteration cycles began to become more noticeably unsustainable. I began to set firmer, tighter goals as well as establishing clearer priorities on what to get done first during the week. By doing so, I would find myself actually improving my sound design by facing that added challenge of a self-imposed looming deadline. That mini-pressure became a creativity brain-hack in some ways, allowing myself to get better results faster. Now, that doesn’t mean everything I created couldn’t have been done better with more time, of course not, but this is game development and there really isn’t ever enough time.
With my new practices I just mentioned coming into play, I would find myself working smarter and crunching less. I can no longer justify starting out the beginning of my day by setting the expectation that I’ll be at the studio until midnight. Adopting that mentality just made me spend more time on the same amount of work and exhausting myself further as that practice began to repeat on a daily basis. At that point, the quality of the sound would begin to suffer, my efficiency would begin to fade and most importantly, my health would get worse by taking on the extra stress and time spent being sedentary throughout the day. Avoid it at all costs, even if your studio’s culture puts pressure on you to do so. Of course, sometimes it’s unavoidable because deadlines loom and a game needs to ship. Be mindful of your health and your work.
Like I said, this wasn’t 100% a sound article, and I think it could help just about anyone in any field possibly, not just sound or game development. Who knows, maybe you read it and didn’t learn a thing! In that case, you are way ahead of me and Godspeed to you! Thank you for taking your time to read my few nuggets of wisdom. I myself have a long way to go before I’ve figured any of these things out!!!