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Game Audio Contracts

October 2, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4


Getting the audio into the game and defining how it works is just as important as any of the other steps we've discussed. Implementation affects the entire audio experience, no matter how good the source audio sounds on its own. This is not a place to cut corners because bad implementation is easy to hear and quick to be criticized.

The person responsible for audio implementation depends on the development team and the contractor. Sometimes in-house staff is a tasked with tying audio to code. Other times, the audio contractor will provide or even insist on providing this service. Regardless of who is assigned to this task, they need to have a grasp on audio theory in order to support the story being conveyed. The final overall audio mix should always be performed by an audio professional.

Audio contractors normally calculate charges for sound design and implementation together for a project. So when comparing rates, make sure that you are comparing the same services since implementation can be more transparent in an audio bid.

Audio Post Production

Audio post production is the process of syncing music, SFX and voice to picture (animation, live action or a combination of both), which are then mixed and mastered back into the picture. It may also entail creating new material and/or editing existing audio material in order to fit the picture. The picture is likely to change all the way up until the very end of production, so be prepared for many late nights and extraordinary hours (as is typical in the audio world). It can be a very complex process and requires experience, skills, talent, and sophisticated equipment to do well.

Rates, Negotiations, and Gotchas

Fees for audio services vary widely depending on the contractor, developer, publisher and the project itself. In fact, no one that was contacted for input on this story was willing to quote even a range of fees charged or paid. Every situation is different. Experience, talent, and professional equipment are likely to cost more initially, but ultimately the results will pay bigger dividends.

But just because a project doesn't have a huge budget, that doesn't mean a talented contractor won't be interested in taking it on. The ebb and flow of jobs for contractors provides developers opportunities to hire great talent at great rates, especially when the timing is right. Holes in the schedule also allow contractors to take on projects in order to prove their worth to the developer at lower rates, which will lead to more work for them down the road.

There are a few other factors to keep in mind however, when negotiating a contract.

  • Large numbers of short music files take longer to create than fewer but longer files. For instance, if one three-minute music cue can be produced in two days, but only four 30-second music cues can be produced in two days (totaling two minutes of music), there can be big differences in studio/creative time.
  • Time spent creating and/or editing SFX can vary widely. In general, custom SFX and long ambience files are going to take longer to produce than shorter sounds such as UI effects. But the experimental nature of sound design does take time to do well. Be sure to consider this in the schedule.
  • As the game design changes, so will the audio. Expect that reworks will be necessary and consider addressing this issue in the contract. Define how many reworks are allowed before extra fees are involved.
  • Union talent rates may not be negotiable, but the results of using these talented professionals are usually well worth the price paid. Researching all of the union vs. non-union talent options is the only way to make a good decision about which is best for the project.
  • As with most businesses, the more work that needs to be done, the lower the cost of production. Big projects ensure that the contractor has a steadier income for a longer period time, thus saving the time and money spent on seeking out other projects.
  • A special note to audio folks trying to "break into games." Your value to a developer is found in the ideas, skills, and talents you bring to the table to make a great game -- not how much cheaper you are willing to work than everybody else. If you try to get your foot in the door by working for free, that is the value the developer will place on your work in the future. Not only have you compromised your own value, but you have also lowered the value of audio for everyone else working in the industry.

Hiring Professionals

The nature of our visual senses makes it fairly easy to express what we like or dislike about the action we see on the screen. But unless you have studied music and audio at the college level, most people find it impossible to quantify why they like or dislike an audio experience. In fact, a lot of game reviews spend little or no time on the subject. Yet, this indescribable perception can make the difference between a hit game and a flop.

While it's tempting to cut corners and let your programmer, who has a garage band, create audio for the game, it is also a very high-risk proposition. There is a reason that audio professionals have studied music and audio, earned college degrees in the subject and have spent countless hours honing their craft. Audio professionals are absolutely passionate about delivering the highest quality audio. It will usually take less time for them to produce the end product and it will minimize the possibility of mistakes that will cost time and money to fix.

What's Fair

It's important for developers to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of audio development methods with regard to their projects. Publishers sometimes have in-house audio resources that can be made available to developers. Developers may have in-house staff that can handle some or all of the audio disciplines for a game. The balance of audio services comes from independent contractors. All of these options come with inherent costs.

The publisher's participation in audio will be negotiated in the publisher's contract with the developer. In-house, full time audio staff employees receive a steady salary and benefits packages and will also need to be furnished the equipment necessary to do their jobs properly. Contractors are licensed businesses and are responsible for purchasing all the equipment necessary to deliver high quality audio and pay for all of their operating expenses (location, salaries, taxes, marketing, etc.), just like any other business.

It's imperative for everyone involved to make sure that these relationships are a win-win situation and add value to the project. When publishers, developers and contractors are satisfied with the terms of the contract, as well as the compensation being paid or received, it removes any layers of doubt so that everyone can focus on the creative tasks ahead.

That's a Wrap

The contract is the full and complete definition of the agreement made between the developer and the audio contractor. Both parties know exactly what to expect from each other and there are no lingering questions. If changes need to be made before the end of the contract (which often happens in game development), an amendment can be added to the contract to address those changes. Just like the original contract, amendments must be put in writing and signed by both parties.

Now the real work (fun) can begin without worrying about the legal side of things. Make a great game!

Special Thanks

The following people have graciously contributed their time and expertise to this feature story:

Jacob London -- Attorney

Barry Dowsett -- Co-Founder, Soundrangers

Ken Boynton -- Creative Director,

Barry Caudill -- Executive Producer, Firaxis Games

Jerry Shroeder -- Audio Director, Sony Online Entertainment Seattle

Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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