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Operation Game Audio: In-house, Outsource, or Both?

As the tools for game development become more widely available, practically anyone with a dream, ample time, and a heap of determination can bring their new game idea to life. Today’s game studios range from well-staffed and well-equipped enterprises to tenacious indie ventures fueled by sheer will and grassroots community support. 

In any case, all that unfurls after the initial story and art depends on a veritable village of programmers, audio engineers, QA testers and much more to bring a creator’s interactive experience to life. All game developers have the option of pouring time and energy into hosting these many crucial roles in-house, but resources also exist in the form of independent partners, such as Unlock Audio, for those who would rather lean on readily available and scalable plug-and-play collaborators to propel their production forward. 

Here are some important reasons a game creator might prefer an outside audio partner for achieving their ultimate vision over relying solely on in-house talent.

People Power

With so many hats to be worn in any studio environment, developers need to delegate responsibilities in a smart and timely manner. A purely internal approach may allow collaboration and creative discovery without the friction of renegotiating supplier contracts. With an in-house audio team, developers can closely manage how many projects each expert is attached to, allowing for strong project familiarity and quick sound design iteration and implementation by extension.

But for ventures where hat-count is high and headcount is lower, it may not make sense to keep everything in-house. There are huge advantages to partnering with third-party specialists to fulfill all or some of the roles of a creative department, as we do with full sound and implementation at Unlock Audio. 

Some talent management and development professionals estimate the true cost of just one hire to be three times a role’s salary or more. This accounts for time taken away from team members’ primary line of productivity to screen, interview and negotiate among pools of candidates before reaching an ultimate decision. By this estimation, with audio pro salaries averaging around $88,000 (as reported in GameSoundCon’s 2021 Industry Survey), the cost of one hire could well exceed $260,000. Now carry that out across an entire sound department, and you’ve spent a lot of valuable game budget just on filling desks that could have better gone toward audio production in the hands of a well-staffed audio partner.

Access to masters of all audio trades at once is one of the key advantages of the partnership we at Unlock provide, and we tie our involvement directly and transparently to a portion of the game’s budget upfront. Our experts run the gamut of sound design, voice direction, composition, recording, and audio implementation, all with dedicated audio project management resources to keep your sound suite delivery on an uncompromising track. Additionally, the diversity of our roster and their experiences means we can offer talent that is tailor-made for practically any gaming ask—from atmospherics by proven ethereal worldbuilders to intense scores by hard-rocking metal musicians and more. 

Resources at the Ready

Even with the best people in your pocket, audio development cannot commence without the proper tools of the trade at the ready. Sound and vocal design requires a massive array of hardware, software, instruments and gadgetry that can often be a prohibitive expense for kickstarting an audio department from scratch.

This is where outside studios play a major role in helping developers cut straight to the audio chase. As dedicated disciplinarians, we come well-equipped with synths, mics, mods and recording rigs to masterfully bring any game’s signature soundscape to life. Our direct investment has already been made to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars so our partners can rest easy knowing the quality of our recording comes without compromise. No internal arguing over the serviceability of a $30 versus a $500 microphone expense. Audio partnerships allow developers to get the best of both worlds in getting the job done efficiently and in the highest fidelity to achieving the ultimate player experience.

Money aside, it takes A LOT of time to curate and develop massive asset libraries, time-saving templates, workflows and techniques. But all are necessary to make creative audio collaboration easy and efficient. And while the time and effort invested into building out these resources internally are sure to be well spent in the long run, not all development timelines can accommodate constant noodling to discover what’s right. When time is of the essence, it’s preferable to rely on a consolidated resource that has all the necessary building blocks on hand.

And for every resource an audio partner has on hand, they have as many (if not more) available on deck. One of the key advantages of working on a wide variety of projects involves an ever-growing network of mercenary-like talent, each with their own stylistic or technical strengths. An audio partner offers the reach to swiftly deliver optimally matched talent to meet emerging creative needs and break through the creative constraints of insular audio departments.

Creative inventories and talent bases like those provided by specialized external teams are the kind that can only be collected and wielded with ample time, experience, and unabridged curiosity about the creative capabilities of sound for the next generation of gaming experiences.

Broader Adaptability

Beyond the advantages of proficient people and resources, studios may consider an audio partnership for less tangible benefits like speed and adaptability. As career collaborators know, every successful partnership is built around clear goals and expectations. A good partner is keen on quickly understanding project needs to deliver on (if not exceed) those expectations no matter how large or small they may be. 

For some developers, an ask may be as simple as a fixed asset count to fill an urgent creative gap before issuing a new game patch. Others may need supplemental talent they can depend on for a fixed development window. On a broader scale, studios may also find value in having a collaborative relationship that provides an even greater opportunity for a partner’s intuitive input to steer the creative course of the game for the better, such as a voice director working with writers to improve a character’s script.  These time-saving moments can be significant in and of themselves, but can become crucial once they’re added up. Though, it can be a challenge to quantify these types of needs from the start. 

For some, the uncertainty is worth the time and investment to create and train an in-house team that is continually available to address new needs as they arise. But it’s also this very uncertainty that outside partners can immediately address, providing the opportunity for studios to unleash their full audio potential as either the sole audio resource or in hearty support of an in-house audio department.

A co-dev or outsourcing partner needs to be the developer’s best and most supportive creative partner at all stages of development; they need to know that creative roadmaps are never as straight and narrow as stakeholder presentations make them out to be. They need to identify problems before they happen and immediately provide solutions. 

From early creative consultation to mid-stream workforce augmentation, audio partnerships are a liberating option for studios looking to plus-up their internal capabilities on a right talent, right project basis. These agile arrangements allow game studios to prioritize broader collaboration, deeper creativity and quicker adaptability in making the best possible end product for today’s discerning gamers. 

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