Crowdsourcing Game Audio: Lessons Learnt
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
To create the audio for an iPhone game we are currently developing we decided to try a new approach. This was, for all intents and purposes, a form of crowdsourcing. For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, (arguably one if its finest proponents) Wikipedia defines it as “the act of taking a task traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people or community in the form of an open call”.
To put this in context, the site ‘Minimum Noise’ (minimumnoise.com) allows people to describe a composition or single track they need and anyone is allowed to submit an entry from which one is chosen in exchange for a fee.
We ran a competition in cooperation with the site for $250 that asked for a piece of background music for the first level. Though initially not expecting a large response due to the relatively obscure request for Aztec themed computer game background music, we were pleasantly surprised by the number and quality.
The general standard was respectable and some tracks were exceptional. Though the competition is closed, here are the entries:
From the position of an indie developer with a limited budget (on the audio side of the things in particular) Minimum Noise and the crowdsourcing opportunity they present does one important thing- it raised questions for us in terms of the range of sounds we could create. The results we were presented with were similar to 34 prototypes that, to differing degrees, shaped the final overall sound.
Thus the real value we gained from the process, rather than the winning track, was the dynamic range of approaches that would never have been possible with our small audio development team. It was the equivalent of having many interested and talented composers, under the guidance of a relatively open ended brief, generate a diverse range of options for us.
Detractors of the crowdsourcing process assert that assimilating these influences is effectively ‘freeloading’ other peoples’ ideas. There is inevitably an element of this every time you put your work on public display.
Granted, for this form of competition you are investing time and working to a specific brief, though I would argue that some find the process of having a focus rewarding even if there is no financial compensation; the open-source world is a testament to this. In the interest of rewarding those that uploaded a track, thereby influencing the overall sound, we have decided to acknowledge everyone who submitted an entry in the game credits.
It was interesting to be involved firsthand after reading the arguments surrounding crowdsourcing; the biggest of these, put in the circumstance of the competition, was that of the 34 entries, 33 did not get paid for their efforts. Considering this in purely black and white financial terms does, in my opinion, not take into account the motivations behind those who submitted entries and what they expected to get out of it.
For audio developers without a great deal of experience in the industry there are many challenges to finding a position that offers regular work. Equally finding opportunities to focus your efforts in a productive way that could result in getting some good exposure are not plentiful.
Having an incentive to create something with a purpose and being part of a community that offers feedback on what is submitted acts as a constructive way to hone your talent. Moreover, when it comes to judging the entries, it allows those who have little experience to be placed on a level playing field to be evaluated purely on the quality of the work they present.
For the more seasoned professional who relies on audio development for their income, perhaps the financial benefit is the biggest draw, though there’s also the opportunity to apply existing skills to new areas with no pressure.
Regarding limitations of the process, there were issues with communication. Having not had much experience creating design briefs of this kind, it seemed quite difficult to convey in words exactly what we meant by ‘computer game background music’. The limited description we provided ended up having a fairly positive effect, leading to styles we hadn’t previously considered. We now have the opportunity to contact some of the other developers who submitted pieces that may be more suitable for game trailers, cut scene music etc.
In the end we received a track that ideally suited what the competition was intended for- background music. The real reward for us was receiving a lot of submissions we didn’t mean to ask for, though ended up liking a lot.