How To Get Work Composing for Games

Last month, I received four emails from job-seeking game composers–a big jump from my usual one per month. Their pitch letters remind me so much of my own, from back when was hunting for my first gig, 15 years ago. Just like I did, they go about it entirely wrong.  To curb this disturbing trend, I am offering guidance, so that you, the aspiring VGM artist, will have better luck getting that first contract.

First, some background on me. Those of you who know me as an indie developer may not know that I worked as a contract game composer for 8 years, and have over 40 published titles. (Here are some.) If you owned the Nintendo handhelds in the mid-2000’s, you probably played one of the games I scored. I’ve lived all three roles now: aspiring composer, professional, Decider of Audio.

But enough about me. Let’s start with…

What Not To Do

You’ve exhausted your industry contacts, so you scour Google to find leads, and harvest a list of Entities That Make Games. The next step is where most people go wrong: Crafting a long-winded, five paragraph cover letter describing their education, qualifications, and passion, capped off with a portfolio link. This will get you nowhere, because it does not:

  1. Get their attention
  2. Address their concerns

The sobering reality is that there are 10 composers for every 1 gig available. To be part of the 10%, you must handle both of the above. Warning: it’s going to take some effort.

How to Grab The Reader

Let’s first overcome the reader’s impulse to reach for the Archive button.

  1. Be brief. Your reader has 20 other emails to deal with. Get right to the point.
  2. Offer something they can’t ignore. Maybe a song you wrote just for them? It could be remix from their last game, or even better, re-scoring footage from that game with your own composition. (I warned you about the work involved.)

By offering something of value, that you put time and energy into, you’ve increased your chances of a response by 1000%. Now you’ve got to prepare for phase 2:

Selling Yourself

Put yourself in the shoes of a sleep-deprived producer barely recovering from her last milestone. You have her attention, and now must address her basic concern: “Will this person solve problems, or create problems?” Answer this by addressing its three basic components:

1. Can I deliver on schedule?

Mention the timelines for your projects. (If you don’t have any games in your portfolio, find an indie game to score before going any further. The “songs only” reel won’t cut it.)

2. Can I take feedback?

Are you a game designer first, and a composer second? Has your ego already gone through the pain of having to scrap a perfectly good song because it’s not what the game needed? Give an example.

3. Do I have the skills?

So your tracks sound amazing. But we must go the extra mile. What more do you bring to the table? Dren McDonald mentioned the importance of learning some tech (e.g.Unity) to show you can do integration. Producers like to buy audio as a package. The more you can do beyond raw composing, (e.g. sound design or audio direction) the better.

Guidelines for a killer portfolio:

  • Include pull quotes from past clients.
  • Only include your best work. Do you need more than 3 tracks?
  • Show versatility.
  • Talk about specific challenges and how you overcame them. Learning to compose in a new genre, handling a ludicrous schedule…
  • Include video. This is 10 times more valuable than an audio track.
  • Look professional. Have your own domain. If you don’t know a visual designer, buy a theme online. (Just please don’t go overboard with CSS animations and slideshows.)

You’ve done it right when the reader is left thinking, “This person can solve my problems.”

Not every dialogue will result in an immediate gig. Be patient. Offer to do a guest track. Get a foot in the door.

Good Luck!

Did you find this helpful? What else would you like to read about? Reach out to me on Twitter or comment here.

Special thanks to @SalmonToro, @drenmc, and ‏@keinzantezuken for feedback on the first draft.

8 thoughts on “How To Get Work Composing for Games”

  1. Very nice article.
    One thing I might add is to get yourself visible in the industry, both in person and on-line. There are some great online communities such as gamedev.net and gamasutra of course. Conferences are a great way to get to know the movers and shakers in person: gdc of course (www.gdconf.com), GameSoundCon (www.gamesoundcon.com) and AES (www.aes.org) are all great places to connect and get yourself known. Particularly if you speak at events and write articles, you can up your own “street cred.”

  2. Agreed–I haven’t been to GameSoundCon or AES, but GDC is quite a good place to meet developers and publishers.

  3. Love this article. Spot on. Your choice of words here are especially awesome!

    “Will this person solve problems, or create problems?”

    That’s the biggest question for me when wondering whether to work with someone, and why I might not recommend someone to others, because they’re a troublesome person to work with, or they don’t “get” the process enough to integrate smoothly and positively in all creative and decision making processes.

  4. The biggest part of this for me was putting aside my musician persona and focusing on being a game developer. This means not always doing the music you are inspired to make at the time. And to do good work in that situation, you need good techniques to get inspired, no matter the project. This is one of the many skills required of the job that goes beyond the ability to make a great sounding song. I think George Sanger put it in words to the effect of “The process of learning to compose for games is the process of getting over yourself.”

  5. Ha, I just sent you a request about a potential collaboration, only to read on in your blog and find this article. It’s crazy how competitive it is out there. I feel I have dealt with most of the concerns you address here, apart from showcasing a score that I have worked on. The next best thing, in my mind, is to sync some tracks to existing games as a showreel video. This is the approach I have gone for on my homepage anyway.

    All the best Ian,

    Cheers,
    Ron

  6. Where’s a good place to find indie games that need freelancers? Is it bad to work for free in the early stages (assuming the project seems worthwhile)?

  7. I’ve always fantastized about a website that could connect aspiring indies with aspiring composers. I even contributed some ideas to a like-minded web developer’s project along these lines, but alas, it never happened. One of the issues is based on what you bring up: working for free versus charging when you are just starting. Should the site be for paid gigs as well as free offers? Would this lead to a price war? We never resolved this stuff so, to my knowledge, no such site exists yet.

    I would recommend finding game developer hangouts like gamedev.net. It’s also common for indies to post works in progress on Twitter, so you could check there as well.

    As for working for free, I would say that working for something besides the typical “up front cash for buyout of rights” is a great way to get started. Without a portfolio of completed projects, you’re going to have a tough time getting on board a commercial product for something like that. Most indie projects are bootstrapped, so you will have to work out an alternate deal, such as retaining soundtrack rights, bonus structure for sales milestones, revenue sharing, etc. If it’s a commercial product that is only offering “exposure” as compensation, be very careful. On a small scale, this could be a great opportunity–contributing one or two tracks to an established product might be worth it. But there’s also a chance they are just looking for free labor and do not value your contribution. With some judgment and persistence you will do well. Good luck!

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