Here's what it's like to be a freelance video game sound designer - Technical.ly DC

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Aug. 24, 2016 10:40 am

Here’s what it’s like to be a freelance video game sound designer

Meet Chris Kukla, a D.C.-based sound designer and musician.
The music you hear in video games? Chris Kukla makes it.

The music you hear in video games? Chris Kukla makes it.

(Photo by Flickr user Shunichi kouroki, used under a Creative Commons license)

Chris Kukla will tell you that he fell into video game sound design through something like dumb luck. As one does.

The career path certainly didn’t emerge from any particular interest in the video game music space — more accurately it arose via the musing and scheming of a broke college student. Kukla says he was studying music composition in Chicago when, looking to make a little money, he googled something along the lines of “sound engineer jobs.” He doesn’t remember the exact phrase anymore.

In any case, this search led him to a job listing soliciting a freelance sound designer for an indie video game. He wrote and recorded a demo, sent it over and booked the job. He’d only find out later how lucky he’d been.

Chris Kukla. (Photo via Twitter)

Chris Kukla. (Photo via Twitter)

As it turned out, this kind of work really suited him. “I was like, ‘Whoa, this is so cool,’ to get $300 to play guitar in my dorm room,” Kukla said. He was hooked.

To date, Kukla has contributed audio to around 25 indie games, including one local game. He moved to D.C. two years ago, initially because one of his sisters was living in the area. These days he lives in Brookland in a house with a bunch of other musicians and they play host to a nearly constant stream of bands looking to give small, intimate house concerts.

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“I’m kinda surprised I’m still here,” Kukla muses, of his two years in the District. But to listen to him speak, the music community is one key┬áreason why.

Since his first gig, Kukla has learned that the game design space is really competitive. “There are a lot of people who want to do this,” he says. “You really have to hustle.” That said, the community itself is super supportive. He cites a 1,500-person strong Slack channel, where people who do audio for video games gather to talk about their craft and support each other.

Kukla says he works about 70 hours a week, but being freelance he’s got a lot of freedom in deciding how to schedule those hours. Most game dev cycles are long, though there’s a range of variability in terms of when the team chooses to bring in the music component. In Kukla’s view, earlier is generally better — not least because writing music for a game is a highly iterative process.

One of the biggest challenges of writing music for this space, Kukla says, is figuring out exactly what the devs want. Generally, this means recording 30 seconds of a piece that fits with what the team thinks they want, then refining it, and adding to it, with further feedback. In this work, as in many aspects of life, communication is key.

But on the upside, and this is one of the reasons Kukla loves his job, “the genre and style of the music is constantly going to change” in video games in a way that’s not usually seen in movies or TV shows, for example. “This forces me to go out and learn,” Kukla says, excitedly, before launching into a story about how he learned slide guitar just to book a gig. Turns out, he’s pretty good at it.

Like many creatives, Kukla doesn’t really know what he’d do if dumb luck hadn’t led him here. Maybe, he says, he’d be a carpenter or an electrical engineer — he does like building guitar pedals in his free time. For now, he’ll hustle.

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