Written by Colin Andrew Grant
This year marked both my second GDC and my second year working in the game industry. Quite a bit has changed since I first walked the halls of Moscone: I graduated from a postgraduate program, moved to L.A, and tentatively began my career as a freelancer. Though still nervous about attending such a massive convention meant for interacting with others after a year of mostly talking (yelling) at my DAW, I was excited to make new connections, meet up with old friends, and reflect upon what has changed and what has stayed the same for both myself and the industry at large.
Though the conference did not officially begin, Designing Sound hosted a meetup the night before. Meeting at the Broken Rack Bar, it was a low key hang to slide everyone into GDC mode. What was special about this meetup was that Designing Sound and UVI prepared tours of the Vintage Synth Museum. Being able to play around with a Wurlitzer 200A and Roland TR-808 among other synths, I can see why synthheads consider them addicting to collect. It was a fun time of making bleeps and bloops that ended fairly early. We all needed our rest for the lengthy week ahead.
Bright and early Monday morning at 7AM, Game Audio descended on Sightglass Coffee for the Game Audio Podcast led by Anton Woldhek and Damian Kastbauer. From Monday to Saturday we all (tried) to wake up and talk about what we learned the previous days, what we wanted to learn the day of, and any other topic that crossed our minds. I then attended a small round table led by Power Up Audio. There they shared tips for how to work with a partner, interact with potential clients, and how to pitch a reel for a bid. You’ll notice a common thread here of members of the game audio community sharing information and their time for free. I then relaxed on the second floor of Moscone Center West, playing games at The Mild Rumpus. One game that really stood out was Small Talk by Pale Room. With stunning art and gentle music, It’s the kind of intimate game that made me want to explore the characters and their thoughts forever. Later that night, we met up at the Terroir Wine Bar for an informal game audio meet up. The bar was a quiet reprieve from the noise of GDC, though it was filled to the brim with bodies and overflowed into the cool streets of San Francisco. It was a relaxing way to start off GDC since the conference floor was yet to be open and there were no audio talks that day. Tuesday would mark the beginning of rooms packed with conference attendees, raring to learn more about how sound works in games.
This year, I made the decision to expand the scope of the talks that I attended beyond just audio. Though last year it was great to get acquainted with the community, I was told by multiple GDC veterans that there’s more to life than just audio. Since we have to interact with other elements of the industry at work, it only makes sense to do the same with education. The first talk I attended on Tuesday was “Intensely Practical Tips for Growing an Indie Studio”. There were two main reasons for me attending this:
1. Understanding what it takes to run an indie house will help me understand what many of my clients are going through when we’re not talking about sound.
2. I would love to one day run my own audio service studio, so the lessons being taught were incredibly applicable to my long-term career plans.
Given by Alexis Kennedy of FailBetter Games and Weather Factory, he detailed the need for studios to write down mission statements and the core pillars that define them. Whether it’s making money, being heavily narrative, or relying on a core set of beliefs, knowing what you want to focus on and understanding that those pillars may shift as the company grows can give an aimless studio direction.
After that incredibly enlightening talk I strapped up my boots and attended Audio Bootcamp XVII. The first session that I attended was “Programming Composers and Composing Programmers” headed by Victoria Dorn of Sony Interactive Entertainment and “Adding Punch to Your Sounds” by Gina Zdanowicz of Serial Lab Studios. Like many of us, though I’ve dipped my toe into programming, the vast ocean of code that exists has the ability to fill me with existential dread. Dorn’s talk was incredibly informative and broke the basic building blocks into very digestible parts. The second half of her talk was geared towards programmers interested in working with music and sound. Though obvious in hindsight, it’s easy to forget that words such as transient and downbeat aren’t part of most people’s lexicon. It’s refreshing to see an effort made to have talks be interdisciplinary and bridge the gap in vocabulary.
Gina Zdanowicz’s talk was focused giving impact to our sounds, allowing them to cut through the mix. In this talk, Zdanowicz gave many tips and plugin suggestions such as making the transient sharper while lowering the rest of the sound in order to give impact while not raising the levels. Giving the sounds movement with tools such as Tremolator and UHBIK’s frequency shifting tool can give the sounds character and keep them interesting over time.
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Thanks to everyone who set up the GDC ’18 Game Audio Mentoring, I along with many others, had the ability to meet with a veteran in game audio who donated their time at GDC for newer members to ask them questions. During lunch, I was able to meet with Adam Gubman of MoonWalk Audio to discuss topics such as branding, balancing multiple interests as a freelancer, and the importance of knowing oneself outside of their career.
After that insightful talk I jumped right back into the Bootcamp with Reel Talk talking about…well, reels! Matthew Marteinsson of Klei Entertainment and Kevin Regamey of Power Up Audio gave a hilarious yet insightful look into how and how not to make an appealing reel and website. Some specific takeaways: Label what you’ve done, showing some implementation work is now the standard, and make sure you’re spelling implementation correctly. After this talk was “Talking about Talking: Recording and Producing Well Crafted Dialogue” by Amanda Rose Smith. I’ve been doing increasingly more dialogue editorial so I was interested in hearing someone who’s involved in the whole dialogue pipeline. From file labeling techniques to warning us about the dangers of relying too much on LUFS (loudness units relative to full scale) in dialogue mastering, Smith gave a very concise talk about the recording and editorial process. This was the last presentation I was able to attend on Tuesday, since I had to prepare to table for a few games I worked on at the IDGA mixer. A frequent collaborator of mine, River Liu, was an IDGA scholar. Since we first met two Global Game Jams ago, I’ve always answered her call for more music and sound in her games. It was a fun event that focused on interacting with others, rather than loud music in dark places. I then headed over to the Game Audio Denizen Facebook group California Pizza Kitchen dinner, coordinated by the fabulous DB Cooper. After ending the night with Denny’s, it was time to call it night.
One of my busiest days by far was Wednesday. I was able to attend part of the “What’s Next? A Game Audio MicroTalk Series”, a collection of ten short talks about varying experiences in the industry. Unfortunately, I had to leave for a meeting. I was actually able to attend GDC on a Conference and Summit pass thanks to XBox’s Jerry Lawson Grant for Career Development. Part of that grant included meeting other grant winners and members of the XBox team. I then went to the expo floor for a few minutes before it was time for the first day of CarouselCon! Organized by Matthew Marteinsson during lunch behind the Carousel, there are two mini-talks and then the floor is opened to anybody that wishes to talk. It’s a great time to learn about other points of view and maximize our learning during GDC.
The rest of the day was meetings until I attended the XBox Blacks in Gaming mixer. It’s important to build a community that fosters diversity in the game industry as well as spaces that allow those underrepresented to discuss successes and common problems. Following the BiG mixer, I went to the Unity Party. While incredibly impressive, it was also incredibly loud. I found that some of the most meaningful talks that I had there was outside the venue. With all of the parties and events happening, it can be difficult to remember that bigger and louder doesn’t always equal better.
Thursday was an especially action-packed day for the game audio community. On top of the G.A.N.G (Game Audio Network Guild) Awards, an award show in which members of the community vote for the music, sound, and articles in game audio, A Shell in the Pit coordinated the second annual Game Audio Karaoke! But I’m getting ahead of myself. Thursday was another day on the expo floor for me. One of the first booths that I attended was Wwise’s. With the announcement of the Wwise 251 certification and the Wwise Adventure Game, there was quite a bit to learn about.
This year I was given the opportunity to volunteer at the G.A.N.G Awards. I wanted to be able to somehow give back to the community that offers so much, so I jumped at the chance to make the officers jobs a little easier. If you saw two people running up to Becky Allen and Bonnie Bogovich before the winners were announced and then scurrying away, then you probably caught a peak of me and Emily Pitts, a student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (my alma mater). A highlight of the night was when Bonny and Becky lead the audience in arpeggiating on the word GANG, lead by a kazoo. The standout winner was Will Roget, the composer of Call of Duty, who won 5 awards.
I had already lost my voice twice in two weeks, so I decided to opt out of karaoke and just mingle with others who stayed after the show.
Friday was a bit more subdued compared to the last few days. Much of the same happened. Sightglass in the morning, CarouselCon in the afternoon. I chose to spend most of the day walking the expo floor, since it closed at 3PM. I spent quite a bit of time at the Day of the Devs showcase. Some games that really stood out to me were Harold Handibut: A Handmade Adventure Tale by Slow Games, Mosaic by Krillbite Studio, Knights and Bikes by Foam Sword, and Dead Static Drive by Team Fanclub. Friday night was the School of Video Game Audio meetup at the California Pizza Kitchen. With the convention fading away, it was a night of goodbyes.
While everyone else was sleeping in or catching flights, members of the audio community dutifully met up at Sightglass Coffee one more time to reflect upon the week and set goals for the year ahead. This was a bit different than the past few days though. We expanded the conversation to topics such as unionization, inclusivity, privilege, and how we as a community can always do better to respect each other. While it’s easy to talk about how everything is fantastic and ride the GDC high, it’s sobering to remember that there’s always room for improvement and acknowledge toxic elements that still persevere. To quote Damian Kastbauer himself from a must-read Twitter chain: “We need each other to foster an environment of continuous improvement in order to change the culture. It is bigger than #GameAudio but it’s where we live and can affect change.”
We have a habit of marking our development as human beings with large, annual events: Birthdays, Holidays, and for those fortunate enough to attend consecutive years, GDC. The ability to honestly reflect upon growth while surrounded by colleagues and friends is a special thing that I try not to take for granted. Though GDC may be over and I’m drowning in business cards, I think I can officially call my second GDC a success as I prepare to make my third one even better.
A big thanks to Colin Andrew Grant for sharing his insights and experiences from GDC! We hope to see you there next year!
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