I was led down a hallway to a dimly-lit room that exemplified the stereotypical 'cave' dwelling of gamers everywhere. After being greeted by (and paying tribute to) an ominous poster of Jimi Hendrix, I peered into a side room that had equally low-lighting. The angled walls were flanked by couches and sound absorbers, directly opposite of which were huge speakers, a wall of guitars, and a couple of big monitors and computers. I decided immediately upon entrance that this room was by far the most 'chill' room I had ever set foot in. Mike Franke swiveled around in his chair, almost like an evil overlord might do to welcome trespassers, but he had the relaxed personality to match the room. Time to see what these audio guys are all about!
Gamers Nexus: First off, is it preferable to call it 'audio' or 'sound?'
Mike Franke: [Laughs] There's a big debate about that. Across the pond, some in the UK they like to call it audio, but you can pretty much use them interchangeably.
GN: What's the overall focus of your job? The elevator pitch?
Mike: My job is to ensure sounds are in place that fit the environment—sound helps set the mood and support the visuals. If you don’t notice the sound effects and music and can focus on playing the game, then I have done my job.
GN: Judging by all the equipment, I'm guessing you play a lot of instruments?
Mike: Absolutely. I started playing music when I was... seven, I love it.
GN: Do you contribute both music and sound to Fallen Earth?
Mike: Yes. All the guitar you hear in the game is me. Most of the orchestral stuff was done by composer Enrique Varela.
GN: For you, what was the funniest or most interesting moment at this studio?
Mike: When we had a “fruit and veggie day,” for the gore sound effects. You make as many splatter and squishy sounds as you can with fruit, like taking hammers to cantaloupes. It smelled really nice in here after that—like a fruit salad!
GN: What is your favorite sound effect that you've made for Fallen Earth?
Mike: Oooh, that's a tough question. I'd have to say our new sound for when you hit someone with a two-by-four. It was just such a crunchy sound. I really amped up the bone cracking and gore; I love big sounds like that.
GN: How do you do research for sounds like that? I mean, you can't just hit someone in the head with a 2x4.
Mike: We do a lot of playing around to see what happens. I can combine sounds in [our software] to make things like gunshots, for example. [Mike demonstrated a clip of shattered glass, planks, and nails all overlapped to create a gunshot].
GN: For prospective industry people - let's start with colleges: do you need a college degree? Where did you go?
Mike: I went to NC State. I have a lot of respect for people who have earned a degree, because it shows you can complete a really difficult task. A person’s portfolio and demo reel can go a long way, though.
GN: A lot of these game companies require years of experience. Where do you recommend people get some of their starting experience?
Mike: Mods are great for that, so are indie films.
GN: What might you warn people interested in working as a professional in your field against?
Mike: Don't stop learning. Never stop learning, reading, practicing, or new trying things. There will always someone who knows more than you, and you have to be ready to meet that person. Always. You have got be be passionate about what you're doing, otherwise - and I hate to say this - you shouldn't be doing it as a career.
GN: Do you feel like those of us with poor quality speakers are diminishing your work?
Mike: [Laughs] That's why I've got these! [Mike pointed to a pair of small speakers, which were invisible against the wall of speakers towering behind them]. These are my POS speakers. We audition everything through them. If it sounds good on them, it should sound good on anything. Everything goes through the crappy speakers.
GN: What development lifecycle do you follow?
Mike: I'm a huge proponent of iterative design, that way you can keep testing things as they go along to gauge changes. It's great because I can go to the next room and sit down with a programmer, then get a planned-out design the next day.
GN: Is the industry pretty laid back?
Mike: I think with any creative profession you have to be laid back to a certain degree.
GN: How much work goes into a sound studio like yours? How's the entry cost?
Mike: I actually had the opportunity to help design the sound studio. If you look carefully, the walls are slightly angled to avoid unwanted reflections. The studio is built as a room within a room for sound proofing. Aside from our den, this is one of the most comfortable rooms in here!
GN: What's crunch like for the audio guys? Is it as bad as people say it is?
Mike: Usually, no department can avoid crunch-time, including audio! I’ve spent many nights here, but there’s an up-side to crunch—there’s a camaraderie that forms between you and your team because you’re all in it together. The big pay-off is when you’re finally finished and can all look back at the accomplishment. It feels great!
GN: Any closing thoughts?
Mike: I would encourage aspiring sound designers to never stop learning. There are tons of resources out there—books, presentations, forums, interviews etc. I would highly recommend websites like www.designingsound.org for any person interested in the audio profession.
Sound designers and directors have some of the coolest jobs in the industry, or at least from what Mike has demonstrated. Sound designers plan out the creation, implementation, and execution of anything that makes noise in games; there has to be someone to ensure game designers and programmers aren't neglecting one of the (presently) two senses involved in gaming. Don't believe me? Mute the sound in any scary game and see if you still feel jittery: there's a certain level of immersion that is included with sound, and turning that effect off is cutting the experience in half. Shooters require careful sound co-ordination to comprehend 3D positioning of enemies, and the fact that our brains can interpret sound in a video game to pinpoint its origin is phenomenal in its own right.
Our research indicates that sound and audio designers in the gaming field have an average salary of $82,000; newcomers to the field averaged around $37,500 starting salary. Audio and sound directors with six or more years of experience can look forward to an average of $87,500. (source of statistics: Game Career Guide, 2009 - the full guide is available for $4 here, we highly recommend it.)
Someone has to make the footsteps, the 'kerrang!' ricochet sounds, the squeaky doors, the sword-on-shield clashes, and all those other immersing effects. Hopefully this guide has given you the answers to set forth and become one of those people!
Check out future guides and features in our "gg, no re" column!
Big thanks to Fallen Earth for the tour and interview. Check out their Post-Apocalyptic MMO here, complete with new clothing customization!
~Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke