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What I Do

The Ins And Outs Of Being An Indie Video Game Composer

A look at how an indie game's music and sound design comes together

Welcome to the latest instalment of our feature series 'What I Do', where individuals in and around the video game industry tell us what, exactly, they do for a living.

The purpose of this feature is two-fold. First, as we saw with an RPG's economy lead, individuals have interesting stories to tell! And secondly, it's my hope that by showing this business is made up of specific people with specific (and often wildly different) jobs, it can help dispel the idea that everyone is just a "dev". Video games are more complicated (and interesting) than that!

Today's feature is an interview with Neha Patel, a composer, sound designer and indie advocate who has worked on games like Venba.

Luke Plunkett: Hi Neha! Please, tell our readers a little bit about yourself.

Neha Patel: I’m a composer at heart and learnt sound design on the fly by doing a crap ton of game jams. But before that, I actually did my studies in classical piano. Fun fact: I begged my parents for piano lessons because I heard the soundtrack to Final Fantasy VII and absolutely wanted to play the piano version of “One Winged Angel.” They said no, you see we were poor and there wasn’t an understanding that music is beneficial to a child. Two years later I got hit by a car and the doctor commented on how long my fingers were, and asked if I played the piano. I got lessons immediately after, it was a sign!

Back to game audio, in 2018 I was finishing up my undergrad and on a whim applied for a scholarship to go to this thing called ‘GDC’. I knew I wanted to get into game audio but had no idea how. School wasn’t a place where I could openly discuss it (video game music is frowned upon in a music conservatory) so I spent countless hours online googling ‘how to be a video game composer’. That’s how I saw that scholarship opportunity, so I just went for it. It was completely life changing. The talks and people that I met changed my perspective on freelancing and what I could do with my life. The game audio community taught me to move forward with kindness, curiosity and respect. Game audio shouldn’t be a competition, it should be an inclusive space where we help and celebrate each other.

Somehow I was in an odd situation where, even though I was from Montréal, I did not know a single dev from the city (I was too busy practicing piano). I started my career abroad and it forced me to have this worldview and helped me see what other possibilities there were. I felt more prepared to enter the industry as a fresh grad. For example, I knew that unpaid internships were bullshit. If you truly want to help a junior, it should be a mentorship, not unpaid work. My point is, meeting all these different people and keeping up with them online truly helped me grow.

LP: Wait, video game music is frowned upon at school?

NP: Oh in most classical music schools, film and video game music is disregarded. Now look, I can only talk about my personal experience and things might have changed, but when I was there, it definitely was the vibe. My friend's composition teacher told him "Monkeys can compose film music".

LP: If you had to put a job title on a business card, what would it be?

NP: Depends on the gig! I call myself a composer/sound designer. I currently exclusively work in indie games (but I’m winking at you, Yoko Taro), so it depends on the contract.

A while back, a couple friends of mine were telling me how much they were underpaid by an established indie studio, whose entire imagery online was about wholesomeness and treating their workers well. And I’m sure that studio did treat their full-time employees well. But not their contractors. That pissed me off.

LP: So depending on the gig, then, what's an average day look like?

NP: If it’s writing music, I usually get a couple sentences describing the scene or character and poof! I whip out something. I never write a complete piece immediately. I start with a small excerpt and send it to the devs just to make sure I’m on the right track. Sometimes I'll hit the nail on the head immediately and other times there’s back and forth. Rarely, when the budget permits, I get to hire musicians to play the main melodies.

With sound design, I often end up doing audio direction with it too. I’ll look at the build, scope out what’s needed, start a mediocre excel sheet and make a priority list. Sometimes I end up having to take a whole ton of videos to time the sounds to, so it helps a lot when the devs do that for me, haha! Depending on the software we’re using, I also do integration. Sometimes that means directly in Unity but ideally in a middleware (yay Wwise!). The programmers and I usually end up becoming very good friends by the end of the project, they help me out so much!

Whether I’m doing music or sound design, I think the most crucial aspect is giving us audio people time for pre-production. I need to take the time to look at other games that we can use as an inspiration, often playing them or at very least watching a playthrough. I’ll research the examples and see if the composers or sound designers wrote a blog or gave a talk about their work. With music, I listen to the reference pieces a LOT. I’ll put the music on when I’m doing chores or going on a walk, it’s a constant thing. 

One more thing, if I’m writing the whole OST (Original Sound Track) I need to have a clear timeline of when the game is releasing and be given enough time to get the album ready. This is because I am in charge of releasing the album on all streaming services and timing is key to hitting a higher audience. Also, the music that you hear in-game isn’t the same as the one in the album. We do a completely different mix/master and it’s a lot of work! I have an entire GDC talk about releasing an OST and what you can do right before release to achieve peak revenue.

As for scheduling, I try to make my days align to the usual ‘9-5’ schedule and work from home. But that’s just a framework, I change it around depending on needs and deadlines. I don’t crunch but there are days I overwork, it happens. In exchange, I get so much flexibility and I value that a lot. Some weeks are heavier than others. On lighter weeks, it gives me time to actually play more games and take care of myself better. It’s hard giving an exact answer because it really depends on what’s happening. For me it’s less about ‘clocking in the hours’ and more about achieving tasks and milestones.

LP: In addition to your music and sound work, you've also become something of an advocate for indie development, especially when it comes to fair pay and conditions. What moved you to take up that role, doing stuff like giving GDC talks, and what do you think you're bringing to these conversations?

NP: Huh, I swear I never thought of myself as an advocate until I read your question. So I think it’s important to understand my personality. I am an empath. I feel everything, I’m a sponge that absorbs the emotions of others very intensely. It’s not fun at all but it leads me to the following: I feel very strongly about other people’s injustices, more than my own.

A while back, a couple friends of mine were telling me how much they were underpaid by an established indie studio, who’s entire imagery online was about wholesomeness and treating their workers well. And I’m sure that studio did treat their full time employees well. But not their contractors. That pissed me off. I couldn’t do anything and my friends were too scared to say anything. I also saw the effects of an unpaid internship and forced crunch a friend of mine had to endure at a local studio. These were people that were known in our community and it hurt so bad. My friend was so harshly exploited, they got sick. Again, I couldn’t do anything.

The only reason I wasn’t exploited at the start of my career was because I had met a wider game audio community that taught me about sustainable freelancing. I knew about the red flags before I started professionally. I knew when to say no, when to pass on ‘opportunities’ that in the long term might have burnt me out. Those friends that were exploited did not. They just took the first thing that was given to them, usually out of fear of missing out. So initially, I just started telling them everything I knew. Then I realized ‘oh crap, there’s a lot of people I need to tell this too’. So I started the easiest thing one could do: Write tweets.

I also knew that I wanted to keep going to these game conferences but good lord are they way too expensive. So…I applied with talks. I knew I had information about how Steam OST sales work and how to launch an album, so I kept talking about that! Sustainability in game audio freelancing is such an important topic to me. People were transparent and kind to me, so I’m just giving it forward. I don’t intend on being an advocate, it feels like a lot of pressure. I’m not inventing anything, I’m just sharing the numbers I have.

LP: What do you think are the biggest challenges you're facing in your job in the games industry today? And how would you like to see them overcome?

NP: Yikes. Uh, late stage capitalism? What stage are we even at?? Greed-fuelled layoffs, housing crisis, global warming??

Ok I’m going to try and scope smaller here. I don’t have that much experience, I only started my career around four years ago. Getting consistent gigs is difficult, I had one fall through just now, ha! I guess that brings me to how unstable the industry is. You never know what could happen. I don’t have a clean cut solution. 

I do have to say, though: Be really good with your finances. Especially if you’re a freelancer. And even more so if you’re a freelance audio person that works in indie games!! The industry isn’t secure, but you can try and mitigate risks by looking at your personal finances. You should know your expense rate and be financially literate. It’s never too late to learn! Also don’t be swooned by the latest gear and software. If they are not going to be paying themselves off in the next 3 months, you probably don’t need it. You should have seen my old desk and how tiny my screen was. I am cheap with my gear, but not the humans I work with, if that makes sense.  

LP: Thanks so much for chatting with us! If anyone would like to check out some of Neha's work, there's a selection of tracks at her Bandcamp page.

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