Guide for Composers in the VIideo Games Industry.

Over the past few years, the computer games industry has entered its golden age and overtaken movies and TV as the largest entertainment sector, with a global value of $365.6 billion in 2023 and with an expected 3.04 billion users by 2027. 

As a composer, how do you break into this industry, get your foot in the door and land that first elusive gaming project and credit? 

In Part 1 of this Guide, PCAM Committee member Chris Green, Director of Music & Audio at Crytek (one of the world’s largest independent video game developers), provides some insider tips, tricks, and tactics to help you get a foothold in the industry.

In Part 2 of the Guide (below), Chris considers the pros and cons of different types of employment contracts in the industry, and addresses the tricky question of royalties.

Part 1.

How can I get into the games industry?

For me, the games industry is all about the community.  Even though the market has exploded in the last few years, the inner workings of the industry are still very niche and built around relationships forged from the mod’ding (hacking and creating modifications to existing games) and indie dev community.  The single most important piece of advice I can give is to become part of this community:

  • Join GameJams (http://gamejams.co.uk/) and Hack’a’tons (short day-long events where people hack and jam together around game ideas). This will allow you to learn all the steps that go into game development in a quick, condensed way over a few days, while also picking up the different skills and technologies needed for interactive music composition. 
  • Download Discord and join the indie and bedroom development community groups.

These are the best places on the net to ask questions, meet other people starting off in the game world and connect with professionals working in the industry (https://magnaludumcreatives.com/5-discord-servers-indie-game-developers-should-join/).

Once you have developed these contacts, put some time and care into maintaining the relationships.  Games development takes a long time and AAA titles can easily have three-to-four-year development cycles or longer.  This means that the chance of just making a contact and the next week getting work from them is very rare.  This is the long game, in which building up your network might only bear fruit after a year or more.

There are so many times I have been contacted by talented composers I would love to work with, but after I tell them that we are at the wrong time in the process I never hear from them again.  If an audio or creative director says, “We aren’t really thinking about the music and composers now, contact me again later in the year,” it’s probably true and not a knock-off.  Just set a reminder in the calendar and politely chase them up every six months or so, or give them a quick message when attending events to meet up.  Persistence pays dividends here!

Creating and integrating interactive audio and music into a video game takes a few areas of additional knowledge that you wouldn’t need for linear media.  The main ones listed below are the standard tools you will use to get your DAW-created assets into the game build.

  • Engine knowledge (Unreal, Unity, CryEngine)
  • Midware knowledge (Wwise, FMod)
  • Game knowledge (play games!)

Game Engine
A game engine is a specialised piece of software that allows a studio to combine all of their work into a finished product.  Each level that you play, when enjoying one of your favourite titles, was created in a game engine.  These programmes power the entire game world as presented to you.

When you use a game engine, you can modify anything and everything about the game world.  This includes the placement of objects, type of terrain, unique physics, lighting, sound, and everything else required to create modern games.

The main ones you hear about are Unreal, Unity and CryEngine, and the great news is you can download and try them out for free, while taking advantage of all the amazing tutorials on YouTube.

Audio Midware
Audio middleware is a third-party tool set that sits between the game engine and the audio hardware.  It provides common functionality that is needed on each project, such as randomising pitch or volume, fading sounds in or out, and randomly picking a sound from a set of sounds.

I’ve always found the best way to think of this is as a high complex Sampler that is triggered by the game, rather than MIDI.

Again, there are only a couple of these that are widely used, both being free to download and with large knowledge resources available online:

Play Games
People who work in the industry have a great passion for games — both creating and playing them.  One of my standard questions when talking to new composers and sound designers is to ask them about their favourite games.  So a good knowledge of gaming is important here, and I would recommend taking some time to play the less mainstream games.  Steam is an incredible resource here, with thousands of amazing games from smaller indie studios.  Sometimes, the top games on Steam can be created by a small team of less than 10 people, so try reaching out to the indie studios that create games you connect with.  As I said before, the gaming industry has an amazing sense of community, and I constantly just get in touch with people to chat about how cool their Steam game was in person:

Studio contact points and NDAs
The last area I would like to talk about is the best people to contact when going to the larger AAA studios, as beyond the smaller indie game studios, things can get more difficult when studios have hundreds or even thousands of people working in them.

The best people to try and reach out to would mostly be the Audio/Music Director, Outsourcing Manager, or sometimes the Creative Director.  These will be the people who have some control over the composer and music for the game.  In the main studios (EA, Ubisoft, Sony, Riot) there can also be whole teams of people dealing with music, and the competition is fierce, so the best way is to try to reach out to these people through shared contacts or at events, as they probably receive a sea of emails from composers asking for work.

Finally, before talking about any aspect of their games or projects, nearly all game studios will ask you to sign an NDA.  This is a standard legal contract between at least two parties that outlines confidential material, knowledge, or information that the parties wish to share with one another for certain purposes, but wish to restrict access to.  It should only cover information shared between the company and you, and not any music ownership or licensing.

These should be agreed later in a Service of Work or Demo contract.

Part 2.

So, you followed Part 1 of the Guide and have secured that first elusive job in the video games industry!  What do you do next?  How do you negotiate working together with the game developer and how does music copyright and royalties work in the industry?

Employment v Freelance
There are three main ways to work with game developers: Full Time Employment, Contractor Employment, or Freelance Composer.  The biggest differences between these are around being paid for your time (as a service) or being paid for your music (as a product).

The safest route is always as a salaried employee, as you will receive a monthly salary, benefits, training and job protection.  The main negative is that you will be paid for your time, and everything that you create in that time will be owned by the games company via a full buy-out!  Also, as an employee, you will normally be expected to work 9am-5pm, five days a week.  I always feel that these in-house roles are perfect for people trying to break into the industry and build experience in a secure environment.

The Contractor route can give you some nice flexibility while remaining a secure working option.  This way, you contract out your services through your own company, but you will normally be contracted as providing the service of a role (eg, Audio Director).  As a contractor, you can normally agree working hours and holidays upfront, so you have more freedom than a traditional employee.  Also, you can sometimes have clauses written into the contract that allow you to retain copyright and royalties, which should be agreed when you initially negotiate the contract.  It’s important to note that as a contractor you won’t have the same protection as full-time employee, and you will normally have a shorter notice period.  However, contractors’ rates are normally 20-25% higher than salaried employees.

Lastly, there is the way of the Freelancer, which carries the most risk but also the biggest freedom in negotiations and the way you work.  The major difference is that you are now selling or licensing your music as a product to the games company.  The amount of music and budget will be agreed when you sign the contract, but at that point it’s down to you to decide how to hit the deadlines, how to use the budget, and also how to use your time.  The massive difference here, though, is that while the games company has no employer responsibilities to you, they will expect you to cover your own equipment, travel (unless agreed upfront), recordings, staff, research, and development.  The final important point to note is that because of the responsibilities the freelancer has to take upon themselves, the amount you get paid upfront will always be higher.  But the amount you will have to spend during the project is higher too, so always do the calculations!

When it comes to salaries, it’s hard to give an idea of average rates.  Like most industries, they will vary based on experience level and the number of games credits you have under your belt.

The best place to start for ballpark rates is the super helpful Game Audio Industry Survey 2023 put together by Brian Schmidt over at GamesSoundCon:

Music Copyright and Royalties in the Games Industry
The big question: How do I get royalties for music I compose on a video game?

I’m going to be honest with you: there isn’t much good news around royalties in games, and the basic answer is that you don’t normally get royalties.

To go into a little more detail, you will not normally receive performance or broadcast payments from PRS for any video game work from sales of the game itself (PRS has made a deal with Sony that results in payments from downloaded digital games but it’s still early days: https://imro.ie/featured-article/sony-playstation-game-music-royalties-2/).

That is not to say that you can’t gain promotion and a fanbase from a game you compose music for, which would allow you to gain streams on Spotify or possibly tour with a live concert version of the game soundtrack.  It is very important, though, that the music usage rights are discussed and agreed on in the initial contract.  It is very normal for the standard employment contract in the games industry to state that all music copyright and IP is owned by the studio, which means they would own all rights to streaming and public performance.  Sometimes, though, the studio has no plan to exploit these avenues, and will be fine with updates to the contract that allow you to own album and live rights.

By default, I try to start all negotiations from the standpoint of usage on the individual named game project release [all platforms worldwide] — (i.e., just the PacMan 5, not PacMan 6, 7, 8) and all marketing needs for that project.  This means that you keep the soundtrack rights, and also that the games company cannot use your music for additional games without paying you further fees.

Finally, the lack of a “back-end” for composing work in the games industry means that it is standard to negotiate a large upfront fee for the music composition.  In AAA games the common rates are between £1000 and £2000 per minute, although much higher rates (£3500) are also common for blockbuster titles.

The best resource for information on this, again, is Brian Schmidt’s studies through GamesSoundCon and I would highly recommend reading: