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Personal FX: The Benefits of Designing Sound for Indies

Nathaniel Ewert-Krocker | 9 Dec 2013 12:00
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For a couple days in the fall of 2009, Jordan Fehr brought home cuts of meat from the deli at which he was working part-time, climbed the stairs to the tiny apartment he and his wife shared in Columbus, Ohio, and spent a couple of hours slapping meat against the kitchen counter. Finding quickly that ready-to-sell cuts of meat were too dry for his purposes, he turned next to turkey fat and eventually things like yogurt and wet noodles in his search for the perfect squish.

Turkey Fat. Yogurt. Wet Noodles.

Fehr was doing contract work for Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, the two developers who make up Team Meat. He's a sound designer who belongs to a small but growing community of freelancers who cater to indie developers. He'd brought meat home from his day job in order to record sound effects for what would soon be one of the runaway hits of the burgeoning indie games movement: Super Meat Boy.

The rise of indie games has created a cornucopia of small development studios, many of which consist of only a handful of programmers and artists. The advent of digital distribution and the growing prominence of mobile gaming have allowed "small" games to become huge successes, and in the last five years, we've seen plenty of games that embody the creative vision of just one or two people. (You can probably list a handful off the top of your head: Braid. Fez. Minecraft. )

One of the effects of this cultural shift is the emergence of the group to which Jordan Fehr belongs: freelance sound designers and composers. While many indie developers are capable of compressing the roles of designer, artist, and programmer into just one or two individuals, most find it easier to outsource the sound and composition to specialists.

That's what Polytron Corporation did for Fez: they hired Rich Vreeland, more widely recognized by the moniker "Disasterpeace." Vreeland's score for Fez is gentle and ethereal, accenting the game's emphasis on thoughtful puzzle-solving. It possesses a very distinctive sound.

"I think there is generally more freedom on independent, lower budget projects," Vreeland told me when I asked him about why he preferred working with smaller studios. "A lot of the projects I've gotten involved with and am excited about just happen to be by small, independent teams."

Five or six years ago, people like Vreeland and Fehr might not have been able to make a career out of working primarily with independent developers. As the gaming landscape has changed, however, being a freelancer is increasingly feasible.

"I'm one of the lucky ones, at least for the moment," Vreeland explained. "I would say that the success I had with Fez has really opened the floodgates for me in terms of work opportunities. I still occasionally reach out to people if I'm really intrigued by a project, but most of the opportunities have shown up at my doorstep."

"There is generally more freedom on independent, lower budget projects."

In addition to being able to pick and choose the projects to which he contributes, working on multiple projects at once helps Vreeland to be nimble--at a time when layoffs in development houses are increasingly common, freelancers are affected significantly less by the cancellation of a single title. When Phil Fish suddenly and publicly declared that he was abandoning Fez 2, for example, Vreeland had several other projects to turn to. "It was definitely a surprise," he told me. "Luckily it was early on, so I didn't lose too much of a time investment."

"Right now I'm involved in about fifteen projects," he said, when I asked him what he was currently working on. "Some are very small ongoing things that don't require lots of time, while others are fully fledged games. Some projects involve writing music, others are scoring gigs, and some are small sound effects jobs for mobile apps." Freelancing means wearing many different hats.

Vreeland's working on four separate Kickstarter projects, including Hyper Light Drifter and River City Ransom Underground, both of which funded in October. He's also working on an upcoming Vita title called GunHouse and a Steam release called Cannon Brawl.

Isn't that a bit much to take on at one time, I asked him? "It may seem like a lot, and at times it does feel that way, but in reality, since all of the projects are being developed under different cycles, it gives me time to move from project to project when I am needed. Some of these games are almost done, while others won't be finished until late 2014 or 2015, so being involved in lots of projects secures my future work schedule."

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