I am super stoked to be attending the Seattle VR Hackathon this coming weekend! In preparation for this event, I wanted to write this post as a guide to help any of you game audio professionals out there (though many of these tips apply to other fields too!) who might be going to your first hackathon, or those of you who want some suggestions for how you can best prepare. Here we go!
If you’re brand new to this concept of a hackathon – don’t worry! Basically a hackathon is like a game jam in that you spend some amount of time (typically over a weekend) at some location (in the past I’ve jammed at Universities and co-working spaces, but some are held in trains or online!) making a game or interactive experience. Usually at the start of the event you will form teams and generate ideas, so don’t feel pressured thinking you need to come with a team or already have a prototype of something to show. Sometimes there are themes for the event (the theme for the Global Game Jam a few years ago was the ouroboros, which was RAD), and sometimes there are prizes awarded for different categories (Best Audio, Audience Choice Award, etc.).
In my previous game jam experience, I’ve found that there is a really wide range of skills and backgrounds among the attendees. In other words, whether you’re just starting out learning how to create audio or you’re a seasoned veteran, you are welcome to attend! To further emphasize the point that all people are welcome to participate in a hackathon regardless of experience or skill level, I highly recommend reading this article by my friend Eva Hoerth: You don’t have to be a “hacker” to attend a hackathon.
Hackathon Prep Checklist
Here’s a list of things (in no particular order) to bring/do to help you get started when you’re heading to your first hackathon:
- Computer: It’s rare for a game jam/hackathon to provide equipment for everybody, so generally speaking you’re going to want to bring your own computer. For longer/overnight events, locked storage space might be provided in case you want to bring your fancy desktop PC and tuck it away when you go home to sleep (if you go home to sleep, that is 😉 ).
- External Hard Drives: You’re going to be doing a lot of file transfer back and forth with your teammates, so I’d recommend bringing an external hard drive or flash drive to make the transfer process much faster. The location of the event might not always have the most stable internet connection, so using hard drives instead of relying on Google Drive or Dropbox to do transfer will save you a lot of time and headache.
- Comfy clothes: You’re going to be in one space for an extended period of time, sitting and coding/audio-ing/art-ing/etc-ing for the majority of it. Make sure to bring clothes that you feel comfortable wearing during this time! Some hackathons allow you to stay at the venue overnight. If so, make sure to bring a change of clothes, your comfy SpongeBob PJs and Power Rangers sleeping bag, and your toothbrush.
- Hand Sanitizer: It’s common practice at game conferences to bring hand santizer with you since you’re meeting so many people. I’d say it’s a good practice to do for events like hackathons as well. You’re going to be shaking lots of hands and touching lots of equipment. Keep those germs away! Also, if you’re at an event with a VR focus, for everyone’s hygiene, I’d recommend bringing a face washcloth or some face wipes just to use before putting on a VR HMD.
- Snacks: Usually a hackathon will provide some snacks, but it’s always a good idea to bring your own in case the food supply is low. I like to bring things like protein bars, trail mix, and dried fruit snacks to keep me going. In the past, I’ve been to an event where a few of us were able to gather ahead of time and made a trip to Costco to get muffins, pizza, etc. so you might consider coordinating with your fellow game jammers to team up in making sure you’re all being properly fed.
- Self-Care: At risk of sounding like an over-protective parent, make sure to stay properly hydrated throughout the event! Also, take at least a 5 min break every hour or so to get up and stretch. If your brain is feeling fried, what helps me is taking a few moments to step away/go find a quiet place outside (without my phone or other tech) where I can refresh, sort of like a mini-meditation. By doing these few simple steps to take care of yourself, you will in turn be able to produce better content and have a more enjoyable hackathon/game jam experience!
- Audio & Tech
- DAW: As audio professionals, we use what’s called a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) to create our lovely bleeps and bloops. If you are just starting out for the first time with sound design, I recommend downloading a program called Reaper, since you can download and use it for free for 60 days. For composition, FL Studio also has a free demo as does Studio One, and even using something like Audacity for basic sound editing/manipulation can work well. Personally, I use Logic Pro X for all my music/sound design purposes.
- Field Recorder: If you have a field recorder – bring it!! You’ll definitely want to go around during the event recording anything and everything. Since you probably can’t bring your whole studio setup and use your fancy microphones, a field recorder can be a great tool for recording audio to use for sound design, recording dialog/VO, and recording instruments for your music. Finding a quiet hallway in your building or going into a car are some options to consider for recording – not ideal recording conditions of course, but getting creative and resourceful is part of the fun of a hackathon!
- Headphones: Bring your headphones, and if you have multiple pairs, bring those too! You probably won’t have the chance to test your audio in a properly treated room with studio monitors, so having multiple pairs of headphones (e.g. nice reference headphones, crappy earbuds, etc.) can help you out when mixing, or helping out your teammate who forgot their pair.
- MIDI Keyboard: Bringing a MIDI Keyboard will help you significantly if you’re a composer, and some companies make some really nice portable keys. I have a full 88-key MIDI controller at home, but I use the Korg Microkey when I’m on the go and at game jams.
- Game Engines: Even if you don’t want to touch a single line of code and want to just focus on audio asset creation only, I would still highly recommend downloading the latest version of some common game engines, such as Unity or Unreal Engine. At the very least, it will be useful for testing the build of the game without needing to take over your teammate’s computer. To take it a step further though, I’d encourage you to take some time to go through some basic tutorials for your selected game engine. Even learning the very basics of any engine will significantly help you and your team at these kinds of events. It’s kind of like learning the basics of another language – it will make communicating ideas that much more fluid by being able to talk with the programmers/developers on your team at that level of understanding.
- 3D Spatialization Plugins: For those attending a VR event, you are going to want to install some 3D audio spatialization software. These tools allow you to implement audio in your game that mimics what it would sound like in the real world (e.g. you can hear sounds coming from over your head, far off in the distance, behind you, etc.). Using binaural audio in your VR experience is mandatory If you are wanting to truly immerse the player in your game/experience. There are a few plugins out there that are free and have easy integration packages into game engines like Unity. The two most common 3D spatialization tools I’ve seen and used are 3DCeption and the Oculus Audio SDK.
- Plan Z, not Plan A: A game jam is a great opportunity to practice going with the flow. It’s amazing to start off the weekend with an idea you and your team is really fired up about. And, inevitably, one thing or another is not going to go according to plan. It’s cool – it’s normal and stuff happens. Just roll with the punches and do the best you can with the resources you have in the moment. And most importantly, focus on…
- Have fun!! You’re freaking going to an event where you get to team up with people and MAKE GAMES! That’s AWESOME! It’s totally awesome to want to walk out of an event like this with a polished piece ready to add to your portfolio. And at the same time, I’d encourage you to remember that you’re all at the event not to take things super seriously, but to gather as a community and push each other to do their best and have fun making cool stuff. 🙂
A Few Notes on 3D Audio for VR
For those of you creating a VR game, there are a few pointers I have when it comes to creating and implementing the 3D audio in your VR game so that the player can achieve the highest sense of presence and immersion possible. From my research and experience, here are a few tips:
- Mono files: In VR audio, practically EVERYTHING is now going to be in mono. In traditional games, you’d be able to make a stereo ambient loop and call it good. Now, you’re going to want a lot of mono file ambience loops placed around your scene.
- Sound placement: You can get creative with sound placement in your scene to create a deeper sense of presence. For example, if you have a monster roaring in your scene, rather than having a single .wav for the roar, you could split it up into a deep rumble coming from the belly, a gurgle place in the throat, and the beefy part of the roar coming from the mouth.
- Music: This is a big area of debate and experimentation right now. I’m in the party that feels that, generally speaking, all music and sound should come from some source in the scene. So rather than slapping a 2D sound on top of your game like you’d hear in traditional games, perhaps consider having your music stems emanating from some object in the scene, whether it’s a speaker or a guitar model.
- Be Intentional and Don’t Overdo: The player only has a certain amount of mental capacity to process information being thrown at them, and taking this into consideration is especially important when it comes to VR and VR audio. In any given area, figure out what is most important for the player to be hearing and prioritize your implementation accordingly. If you want the player to be focusing on the roar of a monster charging at you but you also have 100 bird ambience loops surrounding the player, that’s going to distract the player from what’s actually important in that scene (unless you’re making a VR Bird Ambience Simulator or something and the monster is just a red herring).
There’s my guide for you – I hope that it helps you out as you go to your first hackathon! Again, hackathons and game jams to me are about having fun. Go make new friends, put your minds together and get those creative ideas flowing, and knuckle down to create something awesome! Please comment below if you have any questions or additional tips you’d like to see here. And, with that…
Have fun hacking!!!