Budget Implications in Game Audio Production
While perhaps on the surface not the most exciting aspects of designing audio for games (indeed perhaps even the most reviled), solid project management, organization and budgeting are critical to achieving the goals of any video game audio production, whether large or small. It is the bedrock that allows the production to push forward, it can actually alleviate stress and, yes it can be exciting and gratifying to plan and see the project take shape on paper before a single sound effect has been created.
There are a variety of ways in which developers may handle the project management and budgeting requirements of audio. Many audio designers and directors prefer to have their tasks and scheduling handled solely by project managers, and this is often a very healthy decision, as it hooks the audio directly into the other areas of the schedule via someone whose job it is to plan and consider the entire project as a whole and who can raise red-flags early on. It also makes sense that a project manager will be responsible for managing all the production ‘sub-tasks’ that are required of the team, for example, audio coder(s) or sound implementer(s). On the other hand, some audio designers and directors may plan, oversee and manage the entire audio production themselves. This may be a necessity due to smaller team sizes, or it may be a personal choice. It is likely that either one of these methods, or some hybrid of these two, are used to schedule the audio production dates from individual tasks to high level deliverables of content and services. But before we discuss scheduling the work, we need to understand who establishes what that work will be in the first place.
In this, the first of a two-part feature, I hope to open up some discussions that will enable a more thorough understanding of how crucial the dollar budget is to actually achieving the quality goals of the project, and later, in the second part, how planning and dependencies similarly evoke these higher-level quality goals on a project. The audio director, or audio designer responsible for the soundtrack in the game, should be, as intimately involved as they can be, with both of these processes from start to finish of a production. Ultimately, I believe these two, often underestimated, elements of audio design: budgeting and scheduling, can be highly creative, collaborative, strategic and agile endeavours, just like any other aspect of audio production, and it is often a matter of choosing to approach them in this way that makes the difference between success and failure.
Planning a Budget
Planning a game audio budget on a title can be daunting, but it need not be. There are a few guiding elements that will help to establish the level to which budget can be set on a project, mainly by ascertaining exactly where the money is needed the most on a particular project. There were recently some fascinating discussion points in Develop magazine in the UK ( here: http://bit.ly/cJmHBN) around how much of the overall percentage of the game’s budget goes to audio, and that it can be anywhere between 10% down to 2%, and that because of the enormous ‘value’ and influence that audio brings to the video game experience (somewhere in the back of your mind is probably that old phrase about audio being 50% of a movie experience), there were hints that the budget should in some cases be set much higher. One area that is worth strongly underlining is the notion that the types, styles and requirements of games being created today are so incredibly varied. From what can be described as AAA blockbuster titles with ‘movie-level’ sound production, to iPhone, independent down-loadable titles and everything in between. Given these broad variables in production styles and game genre, assigning a simple overall percentage of budget to audio really isn’t telling the whole story of what the game needs from audio. It also struck me that the percentage of a game’s budget given to audio could also be very misleading for many, given that perhaps only a few well-versed project managers and audio directors would fully understand what actually goes in to the line-by-line dollar amount spent on audio as a whole. I felt, in reading the Develop piece, that the topic warranted some deeper discussion in order to tease out some more of the issues. I am mainly hoping to highlight some of the less ‘visible’ budget items and indeed reasoning behind the ‘audio budget’. In addition, I have observed some common practices which could be passed on to help make this process easier for others, either just entering into budget planning on a project for the first time with a new team, or whether revising and rebooting old budgets due to cost evaluation incentives. I’ll begin, as all projects begin, by looking at some basic questions that will help to guide the extent to which the needs of audio on a project can be determined.
Understanding the Physical Scope of the Project
This is perhaps the most important determining factor in establishing the range of the audio budget for your project. Is the project a multi-platform console and PC project with a simultaneous ship date on all SKUs? Is the game only on a single platform? Is this a hand-held or mobile title or a current or next gen project. Is this a new IP? What is the install base of the supported platforms? Understanding the product’s sales and business goals is a hugely important factor in determining not only the needs for and quality of music, VO and sound effects, but also the amount of team members, both full-time and contract, that will be required to ship the product. If the title is expected to hit a large install base and is an already established franchise or genre that is proven to sell well, there could be either a temptation to cut back on production quality in order to maximize profit, or a contrary strategy to outdo every previous iteration of games in that genre or IP. These are examples of ‘product goals’ and are essential for understanding the goals of the audio production component of the game. These will go a long way in establishing the audio budget as a whole and, not only that, but they will send a message about how ‘elastic’ the budget is going to be. It will be essential to line-up the audio direction to support the product’s business goals and the game’s overall ‘objective’.
Understanding the Quality Goals of the Project
What are the project’s metacritic goals? These are usually established fairly early on by the business unit, marketing teams and/or producers. Is the project aiming to be a 70 – 75% – or is it looking to break 89% into the 90’s. This metacritic range carries enormous implications for the kinds of composer and score that will be required, for the caliber of voice actors, and for the level of integration of the audio assets and design with the script and game-play features. One of the early assessments that an audio director will do is in researching all other games that have scored within the meta critic range that is the target of their current project and breakdown and assess the calibre of music, fx and dialogue that has contributed to the success of these titles. Of course, this meta critic number is always a reasonably subjective goal, as the higher it is, the more the team is expected to focus on presentational quality and polish, in which audio plays a huge contributing factor. However, in terms of budgeting, the meta critic quality number is a very useful ‘tune-able’ in determining some of the outsourced asset spend and also the amount of internal in-house resources needed for the project.
Man-Months vs Outsourcing
There are two very different kinds of budget, yet both need to be factored into the overall audio budget. ‘Man-months’ are dollar amounts on the developer’s budget that apply to in-house head-count, either permanent full-time employees, such as an audio director or technical sound designer that work within the game team on a day to day basis or contracted temporary implementers or editors.
The size of these internal teams will be determined greatly by the kind of game being created, particularly if it is a console title for multiple SKUs that requires deep understanding of creative and implementation processes throughout pre-production, production and post-production across multiple platforms. The size of the team and delineation of job titles varies considerably. At a minimum, there would be an audio lead (or audio director, audio supervisor) on board from early production, as well as an audio coder. The requirements could reach anything up to a team of several technical sound designers who create and implement certain areas of content, to music editors, specialized audio coders (dialogue, vehicle engine etc) and more focused and specialized implementers and editors. Perhaps for smaller-scale titles, a lead coder would actually take on all of the audio implementation duties as there would probably only be a handful of effects and music tracks compared with the larger scope titles.
The scope of the man-month budget can be determined based on expected scope of the title and is usually based off previously shipped titles of similar scope and quality. This is something that needs to be discussed at the very earliest stages of development. The audio outsourcing budget involves all the audio services that are not relied on at an in-house level. There are a few main elements that feature here such as a composer, voice director, acting talent; these represent work for hire professionals who are contracted to supply content and services for a particular time period. I will break down what some of the various work for hire contracts may be shortly, but again, the hours of game play, amount of missions, amount of spoken dialogue and of course quality goals in the game will prove to be the determining factors in the amount of budget required for these services.
Breaking it Down
There are a great many variables in game audio production, and many of these items either may or may not be required on a given project.
Here is a high-level checklist based on a fictitious AAA console title… Infrastructure: Hardware / Software / Implementation Tools / Music and Effects library requirements / Audio Rooms & Studio Facilities / Calibration Headcount – In-house staff required to run the production, direct, design and implement the audio into the game. Outsourced – Out-of-house content creation or services that are not present in-house.
Figure 1 – an example of line-item breakdowns for ‘total audio budget’ including in-house headcount and outsourced content and services
This hopefully gives a more in-depth snapshot of how a ‘total audio budget’ for a project can begin to break down and add-up, this is by no means a definitive list of costs, each area could have several other sub categories based on the demands of the production, or even several items that are completely unique to that particular project. The point is to give some idea that the percentage cost of audio on a game doesn’t just need to account for a ‘composer’ or ‘sound effects’ but that there are a great many line items and sub-items beneath each broad category, and that there is often both an outsourced and headcount aspect to each item. Here one can begin to see that the percentage of a game budget that goes towards audio may indeed be significantly more than 10% in some cases, and significantly less in others. This kind of breakdown also allows one to establish, on paper, where the biggest bang for the buck is going to be for a particular project, and also highlight which areas may require compromise in order to allow more critical areas to be fully realized.
Having established and broken down an audio budget into its line-items, it is necessary to begin getting quotes and establishing some rough numbers for each item. This can be done from the outset by either including numbers from an actual spend on a prior project of similar requirements, or can be just filled in with ‘best guess’ numbers to give you the total audio budget. Often the in-house and outsource budgets will be handled under two entirely different budgets, so will need to be broken down into these two areas and given to two different finance departments (sometimes developer and publisher respectively) for approval. It is likely that there will be some ‘back and forth’ negotiation of the numbers with any number of finance departments or producers, this is where skills as a negotiator, and an understanding of the project’s quality goals will be very important. It can often feel like a fight to keep the numbers reasonable, and I have found that being able to convince a producer or senior producer
Beyond Dollar Amounts: Establishing Motivation & Creative Relationships
Choosing an outsourcer, or from the outsourcer’s perspective, a potential client, is not solely about the dollar budget. Defining working relationships outside of dollar budgets can either cost your project money, or save money, but it is a quality factor that must be considered. Where possible, having your production team meeting face to face and having a direct conversation with an outsourcer will really help to get a feel for professionalism and the passion that they may have for a particular project. Any work for hire contract is a collaborative working relationship and the client-vendor relationship is often critical to the working process, whether that is music composition, voice direction or sound effects design. For creative and established freelancers, there is perhaps nothing worse than working on a project for which they have little passion but just want to collect the cheque (and is probably high among the reasons they became a freelancer in the first place, in order to choose their own projects). Likewise for the client, there is little point in relying on an outsourcer for high quality work when they are less creatively invested in the license or the people and/or process they are working with.
Keeping the Budget Agile: Mapping Look-Ahead Dates
It is of course likely that, as production moves forward, the goals of the product will change, the scope of the project will alter, and the amounts of money assigned in the preliminary budget will also need to be adjusted. These may be subtle changes, or they may be more significant, such as having an entirely new IP over-layed onto a product currently in development. Whatever the situation, it is important to understand that the audio budget for the title must retain a degree of elasticity and agility, as in any other area of video game development and planning, and must be able to react to the ever-changing needs of the production and the game. In this sense, it is sensible to buffer the budget line-item numbers, as an example by around 10% in each case. This provides flexibility upwards, which is the direction the budgets will be heading in 90% of the cases.
Revising upwards is a common sense strategy, if the budget comes out to be accurate or lower, then you have a 10% figure that can be put back into the bonus / profit pool at the end of production. In other instances, having an extra amount of money in each pot allows you to move money that is not used in one or two other areas, or even where something has come in well under budget, and use this to bolster another area of production that has gone much higher than expected.
A good example of this ‘agile’ budgeting is in the case of composed music, let’s say for example the perceived quality of the game’s score needs to be higher because you are reaching for a higher metacritic score, more money will need to be put into music editing, mastering and a live orchestra instead of a sample-based orchestra – this increases the budgetary requirements for the music score and the costs increase by, say, 20% – even if you budgeted an extra 10% you still need some extra money, so taking some from an area within the audio budget that has come in under budget, for example: location sound effects recording, enables you to stay ‘in budget’ in terms of the overall audio outsource budget.
A key element to being able to manage and navigate the agility of the budget is to plan in some ‘look-ahead’ devices in your budget (The ‘when will it be billed?’ column in figure 1) which will allow you to predict in which financial quarter you expect each item to be billed. In this sense it is essential to understand the production timeline of the project in terms of how it relates to the deployment of outsource services and, similarly, internal head-count on a production time-line. It is, of course, at this point that careful integration of the budget will need to be made into an audio production schedule, which will be covered in part II of this feature…
Being involved in, and aware of, dollar budgets on a project is often a key component of fulfilling the creative demands of a project. The creative and strategic approach to production on the soundtrack will depend entirely on which is set first, the budget or the creative goals. If the project’s goals come first then the budget will be designed to suit those goals. If the dollar budget is defined and handed down prior to the creative goals being established, then the creative approach to the soundtrack will need to be designed around the budget. The latter scenario is potentially more problematic, but can actually influence creative thinking and allow for innovation, at least in some areas, in order to improve quality. For instance, not having enough budget to arrange and record a bespoke weapon shooting session for a weapon-heavy title, will force more time to be invested in off-line sound design and implementation from pre-existing libraries and necessitate experiments with easier and cheaper to record sources. Now, this adds risk, and may not turn out to be entirely appropriate, no matter how much experimentation occurs, but it could yield great and innovative results. The most sensible, and less risky approach however, is to have some input and influence in setting the budgets, even if just the expectations of ball-park audio costs, early on, so that everyone on the planning team understands the requirements and their related costs. Within a certain range, there is a frisson between creativity and dollar budget that can be beneficial, however if the budgets are simply too low, or non-existent, to be able to achieve work of a competitive level, or so high that creativity and motivation suffers, then these are areas that need to be addressed as risks on the project. The ability to demonstrate that changing a budget number will affect the audio team’s ability to deliver on bottom-line ship-dates or metacritic numbers is also a very potent message to send out when assessing the impact of these kinds of decisions on a project.