Interview by Jennifer Walden, photos courtesy of Li & Ortega
In this interview, we catch up with the award-winning team at newly-formed, full-service game audio company Li & Ortega — Business Director Xiao’an Li, Audio Director Mark Kilborn, Sr. Sound Designer Stephan Schutze, Music Director Dr. David Ortega, and Voice Director Alex Brandon.
Their collective work history includes a wide variety of games like Call of Duty WWII, Just Dance Disney Party 2, Deus Ex, Skyrim, Pop Slots, Borderlands, DC Universe Online, and more.
Here, the Li & Ortega team shares insights on what they can offer their clients, how they draw on each other’s talents and collaborate remotely, what they’d like to see for the future of their company, and how the game sound industry is changing.
Please introduce yourselves and highlight some of the key projects you’ve worked on individually. How did you come together to form this team?
Mark Kilborn (MK): I’ve worked in-house most of my life, although I got my start as a freelancer working with Matt Piersall in the pre-GL33k days. I’ve worked for Bizarre Creations, Gearbox, and Activision. Some of my favorite titles over the years were Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway, Project Gotham Racing 4, Forza Motorsport 3, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered.
I’ve known Stephan [Schutze]and Alex [Brandon] for a number of years, and when I told them I was going freelance they asked if I was interested in joining up with the crew, so here I am.
Alex Brandon (AB): I started as a freelancer in 1994, working on Unreal, Unreal Tournament and Deus Ex among other projects. Then I went in-house working at Ion Storm, then Midway, then Obsidian, then Heatwave Interactive, until I went freelance again in 2010 as Funky Rustic.
I’ve collaborated with several groups but never had much success with the group alliance effort. But Xiao’an [Li] and David [Ortega] have a different approach that was a lot more organized and structured. So on invitation, it was easy to accept!
I knew all of these amazingly talented individuals and it occurred to me that we could do some really cool things if we worked together.
Stephan Schutze (SS): I have worked both in-house and as a freelancer. Over the years, I’ve worked in most areas of audio production. I composed the first live orchestral score for a video game produced in Australia (Jurassic Park Operation Genesis); I have produced sound libraries that are used by all the biggest production studios globally, and I wrote the first book on Audio Production for VR and AR.
I knew all of these amazingly talented individuals and it occurred to me that we could do some really cool things if we worked together. So at GDC, we started to talk about the possibilities.
David Ortega (DO): Beginning around 1999, I scored several Nickelodeon-based console games for THQ, and then connected with Disney Mobile just as smartphones began to appear on the scene. The Where’s My Water? suite of mobile games were a blast to write music for. I was also working for Ubisoft, writing original and cover songs for their Just Dance franchise between 2009-2016. Dreamworks also asked me to provide music, VO, and sound effects for 25 animated shorts, in collaboration with IKEA. That was super fun.
Xiao’an Li (XL): I’ve worked on a number of mobile projects as a composer, including games by King and Playstudios, and games based on IPs from NBCUniversal and FOX (Futurama, King Kong, etc).
David and I teamed up some time back as our musical styles complemented each other and allowed us to take on a wide range of genres. Stephan, Alex, and I have been friends for a while, and we spoke after GDC this year to talk about teaming up to offer our services collectively as a full-service outsourced audio solution.
Why should game studios choose to do their sound work at a specialized game audio company like Li & Ortega as opposed to working in-house? What are the benefits for them?
XL: This is by no means a comprehensive list of the advantages, but a few that have come to mind:
• Working with an outsourced team spares studios the capital outlay of setting up audio workspaces and purchasing expensive gear, since contractors like ourselves come equipped with everything they need. This means studios need not worry about insurance, and tech obsolescence. More to the point, they can greatly reduce their hiring needs, which takes care of concerns such as employee training, turnover, and HR issues.
• We are all familiar with the fact that audio teams typically ramp up their hours toward the end of the game development cycle. Working with contractors that offer scalable and flexibly structured arrangements allows companies to scale their operations only when they need to.
• It is also very useful to bring in an external perspective since working on the same game day-in and day-out can affect objective judgement. Someone that has not been working on the game for the last 2 years (for example) can bring a much-needed infusion of fresh perspective.
SS: It means a studio can engage us for the things we do best. Within our group we have skills and experience across a wide range of areas within audio production. So it makes sense to utilize our skills in an area that the in-house team may not be familiar or confident working in.
Also, when game companies need to cover the “hump” periods at the end of development or in preparation for events such as E3, instead of hiring more staff that they may not always need, they can engage an external team to pick up the extra workload that needs to be covered.
Being able to set one’s own hours and work from home has wonderful benefits for mental health, and working on a variety of projects keeps us sharp and current.
What are the benefits for your team to be independent and not tied to one game studio? Creatively? Financially?
XL: Everyone on the team is married, and more than half of us have young children. In the last two years, more than a few game studios have been known to have poor work/life balance, in and out of “crunch.” Being able to set one’s own hours and work from home has wonderful benefits for mental health, and working on a variety of projects keeps us sharp and current. It might not be quite as lucrative as working as an audio director in some of the biggest game companies, but it’s a tradeoff.
It’s a bit scary to go out on your own, but I’m thankful to have joined up with this group.
MK: Everything Xiao’an said above. Work/life balance and mental health were huge influencers for me in particular. I spent almost a decade in a cycle of crunching every Fall and shipping every November. It was taking a serious toll on my well-being and my family. I was burnt out and definitely not doing my best work for a while there. But my wife and I planned this leap for about three years — we saved up enough cash for a runway; we built out a home studio for me to work in, and acquired enough gear to essentially have a small audio department in our house. It’s a bit scary to go out on your own, but I’m thankful to have joined up with this group. And from a financial perspective, the business has taken off pretty quickly. I’ve been working steadily since April on a project that’s a couple years out; the clients are some old industry friends of mine, and it’s been a wonderful change of pace.
AB: When working with a single company, typically, the projects are all very similar. And creatively that gets stifling. I can remember once Deus Ex: Invisible War was released I had worked on first-person games straight for at least 8 years. I was ready for something else. Working on multiple genres greatly helps problem solving skills as well, as Xiao’an indicates.
SS: Much of this has already been said, but variety is a huge aspect of this. Right now, I am writing articles for an audio magazine, recording content for Rode Microphones, working on a VR linear film, building my own sound libraries and working with Alex. This is certainly nice from a variety point of view, but the most important benefit is that it refines and polishes a huge range of skill sets. One of the biggest disadvantages of working long term in a studio is that you fall into a routine, you can lose your edge or even become bored working on the same content. That never happens to us.
DO: I also happen to be a practicing clinical Psychologist, so as my colleagues have mentioned, mental and physical health is tantamount to feeling fulfilled in any endeavor.
We also flexibly pass off work to each other as bandwidth permits — the goal eventually is for everyone to keep everyone else busy.
With Li & Ortega team members not being in the same physical location, what are some of the tools and approaches you’re using to collaborate? And why did you choose the remote collaboration approach rather than getting an office together somewhere?
XL: We are in constant contact on Slack, not just for work, but to build camaraderie. David is a trained and practicing clinical psychologist, so he has excellent insight into building and maintaining productive relationships. We don’t use very many fancy collaborative tools, just Slack and Monday for the moment. What matters is consistency and honesty.
Alex lives in Texas, Mark lives in Wisconsin, Stephan lives in Australia, David lives in Boston, and I will be located in Singapore quite soon. For us to all move to a single office location would be impractical and also erase our unique advantage of covering multiple locations and time zones.
We can be more competitive with our pricing and still deliver the same level of quality as a team with a central facility because we don’t have the overhead of maintaining a space that we frankly don’t really need.
MK: We also avoid the overhead of having a studio facility, which is a big deal for a business like this. It makes no sense for us to take on that overhead when we have well-treated spaces in our own homes to work in. I did some Foley recording on Call of Duty: WWII out of my room here, so my space is very capable for just about anything I need. The rest of the team is set up similarly. If we need access to larger facilities for things, we have existing relationships we can tap — a dub stage, Foley stages, larger VO facilities for ensemble recordings, etc. We can be more competitive with our pricing and still deliver the same level of quality as a team with a central facility because we don’t have the overhead of maintaining a space that we frankly don’t really need.
AB: Aside from the reasons already given, remote contracted work makes the most sense financially and efficiency-wise, whatever anyone tells you. The tools to develop and internet speeds are sufficient to convince a co-worker you might as well be in the next room. And you work when the work is needed. Quite a few successful developers I know take this approach also.
SS: Because I am in a different timezone (Australia) I can essentially function as a night shift. If we have a super demanding schedule, then between the three time zones our team covers, we can essentially work 24 hours straight with no one individual having to work extreme hours. So we work reasonable shifts, but the client gets the huge benefit of continuous workflow over an entire 24 hour period.
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How do you scale on demand? Do you have additional talent you can bring in as needed?
XL: The team has been in the industry for quite some time and we have a wide network of very talented friends that we can call on for many tasks, if we need to.
DO: Our approach is a bit different; we are not about securing and keeping every scrap of work we can. We would rather sub work out to someone who’s amazingly fit for the job, if it feels right. It puts our best foot forward, keeps the client happy, and sows seeds for good karma in the audio industry.
What current trends do you see in the game audio industry? And where do you think it’s headed five and 10 years down the road? Do you see a growing trend for working at independent game sound studios?
XL: If the prices for game audio services follow the same trend as the last 10 years, things in the industry may get tight financially, as more global players with lower costs of living enter the marketplace and gain competitive experience.
The growth of the game sound industry is largely dependent on the growth of the game industry, and the parallel growth of technological tools that make our work easier to do.
The growth of the game sound industry is largely dependent on the growth of the game industry, and the parallel growth of technological tools that make our work easier to do. Library music, for example, has disrupted the custom music marketplace for a while now, and has greatly lowered costs while increasing freedom of choice. We are now seeing the emergence of audio tools that help sound designers create variation of sound effects effortlessly. It’s hard to say what this means for game audio in general, but it behooves us to watch carefully.
MK: I expect the major studios will always maintain in-house staff, but I see those teams getting smaller and relying more on senior talent, and outsourcing more of the work. I see some studios already moving to this model. A lot of publishers want to get more done with less money, as Xiao’an said, and they want to reduce the number of full-time heads they’ve got on their books. So that creates an opportunity for folks who can help fill in the gaps with lower overhead. And with wider access to tools like UE4, Unity, Wwise and FMOD, it’s easier to ramp up external content providers. Teams stuck with archaic, proprietary pipelines will have a harder time with this.
I’ve felt for years that game sound is a very crowded market, and I still do. But I’m hoping that the move to subscription based models (like Xbox Game Pass, Apple Arcade, etc.) will lead to a resurgence in mid-tier projects with reasonable budgets, and that those will create more opportunities.
A Sound Effect has been talking about surviving a layoff in game audio. Do you think game sound studios like Li & Ortega will be less affected by the wild employment swings of the game industry?
XL: This really depends on the business strategy of individual studios. If studios put all their eggs in one basket, having that one big client undergo a layoff or closure will necessarily lead to these independent game sound studios having to lay off their employees or shut their doors unless they have a source of financing.
There is no stability in the game industry. It simply doesn’t exist.
MK: I think we’ll be less impacted as long as we diversify our income streams, and that’s something we’re doing. The general best practices of being a freelancer apply to us — have an emergency fund, save during the feast times so you can survive during the famine times, etc. Although I believe that’s sound advice for anyone working in the game industry, freelance or in-house. There is no stability in the game industry. It simply doesn’t exist.
AB: It is precisely the hires and layoffs that take place all the time that reinforces remote contracting as an option. The longest in-house position I had was 4 years. Since I went freelance I have been able to maintain for nearly 10 years.
DO: As Mark said, it’s about diversification of income streams, and also diversity of the audio gigs themselves. We have no intention of confining ourselves to the game industry. Everywhere you look there’s sound — opportunities abound.
… it’s about diversification of income streams, and also diversity of the audio gigs themselves. We have no intention of confining ourselves to the game industry. Everywhere you look there’s sound — opportunities abound.
Any advice for other game audio pros considering their next move in game audio? Do you think it’ll be feasible for individual game audio pros to continue working on their own, or is teaming up a necessity?
XL: Personal brand and brand visibility are probably the most important things to focus on once you have a respectable reel. Teaming up may not be a necessity, but it depends on the jobs one wants to take on. If a game company wants a single solution for music, sound effects, and voice, then yes, teaming up to get the gig is probably prudent. However, many composers are doing just fine on their own.
MK: Always be working to improve your skills. Network by making friends and being an authentic human being. Focus on ways you can give to the community rather than what you can get from it. Help others whenever you are able to. Treat your competitors as your friends. Game audio is a community of mostly wonderful people, and if you invest yourself in the community, the community will help you succeed.
… forming a group means you can have a lot more to offer than any one individual ever likely can.
SS: We all have to find or build something that differentiates us from all the other options out there. What can our group offer that others cannot? So forming a group means you can have a lot more to offer than any one individual ever likely can.
What would you like to see for Li & Ortega in the near future? How would you like to see your studio grow?
XL: Ideally, we’d love to work with folks from everywhere, and on a variety of project sizes. We’d prefer to only grow where absolutely necessary, and keep our fixed costs consistent.
MK: I mentioned diversifying income streams above. That’s an area where I’d like to see us grow our offerings, and we’re currently working diligently behind the scenes to do just that.
SS: I have a range of different income streams I have developed through Sound Librarian. I am working to make those opportunities available to other members of this team. Other than that, I have a small bucket list of projects and IP I would one day love to work on; maybe this group will be the key to achieving some of those wish list goals.
I can imagine a slightly larger team, but I also imagine there’s an upper limit to the size when you’re a distributed collaboration.
DO: I can imagine a slightly larger team, but I also imagine there’s an upper limit to the size when you’re a distributed collaboration. As Mark said, I would love to see us expand laterally into other audio spaces beyond games. We’ve done some of that, but there’s room to do more.
Do you have any projects in the works you can share some details about?
XL: We recently worked on Pagan Online, which was released August 27 at Gamescom. Stephan and Alex have been working on System Shock 3, and David and I are continuing to write music for our client of 3 years, Playstudios, on 2-3 mobile and web releases each quarter. Mark? That’s a secret ;)
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