Home » Blog » Interview with Battleborn Composer Raison Varner

Interview with Battleborn Composer Raison Varner

Battleborn Music Interview
Battleborn Music Interview

Video games are a very immersive form of entertainment and one of the key elements that add to the experience is music and sound design. A great track can pull you into the battle or set the tone of a dramatic scene. These unique moments can make music memorable. Battleborn’s opening cinematic not only stands out because of the anime style but also features a custom track by  Deltron 3030. This tune got positive feedback during the launch of Battleborn, but recently there is another tune that got a lot of praise from the community, this was the background music in Toby’s Friendship Raid. This soundtrack inspired me to contact Gearbox Software’s very own composer, Raison Varner, for an interview about composing and the music in Battleborn.

Interview with Raison Varner

  • MentalMars: When making video games I’m more familiar with the terms gameplay concepts & art direction. But is there also something like that for the audio design /composing the soundtrack of a game?
  • Raison: Yep! Battleborn had a looser set of rules than did Borderlands. For Battleborn, the main high-level direction was to create a score that had a mix between song-like structures and more typical game/film score. Composers were encouraged to take risks if they felt like it was resulting in an interesting piece. I was generally hands-off in regards to setting specific rules as I was more interested in our composer’s interpretations of the environments than enforcing a rigid structure for them to write within. For the main game, I was responsible for the PvP music and early demos while our external composers provided content for the campaign. PvP was an area where I leaned a little harder in the direction of making “song-like” tracks that still had elements of a normal score (strings, brass, large orchestral percussion, etc…).
  • MentalMars: Is there a big difference to composing a track for Borderlands and Battleborn? I used a track from BL2: Pirate DLC for the Ernest Ability Trailer that I made, but it didn’t feel out of place for me.
  • Raison: Ahhh, yes, I recognize that. It was one of the pieces I wrote for the Captain Scarlett DLC. We had a more defined set of rules for Borderlands (Although each DLC was kind of on its own trajectory). These are not exactly what I sent to composers on Borderlands, but are representative of some of the style guide rules:
    • Tracks should be a hybrid between live instrument recordings and synth production with a heavy emphasis on ethnic instrumentation.
    • String arrangements are encouraged, but thematic melodies should be reserved for synth or other ethnic instruments.
    • Brass sections should be used for effects and texture only and should never be used as a leading melodic line. Doing so would bring us too far into a classical or traditional movie sound. So no big French horn sections featuring a melody.
    • A mix of electronic and ethnic percussion is encouraged. In general, marrying an electronic production aesthetic against ethnic instrumentation cannot go wrong.
  • MentalMars: How does composing for a game differ from scoring, for example, a movie?
  • Raison: This varies depending on the game. Some games are better served with a modern movie score and others are better served with more of their style steeped in video game culture/history. Budgets for music on games are almost always smaller and composers have to cover many more hours of experience while usually working “in the box.”(The term “in the box” means that they have to produce as much music inside the computer as possible.)In my mind, one of the bigger differences between movie and game scores is that music has a lot more space in video games to take the lead and catch a player’s notice and can also take itself less seriously without compromising the player’s experience. I also believe that game soundtracks have a much more direct role in communicating story or narrative to the player than in many films where the music’s purpose is often to elicit an emotional response, but not necessarily to become a direct statement of narrative. As with any medium, no single generalization like that really covers the breadth of artistic expression within film and there are of course many many films where the music is a principle element of telling the story.
  • MentalMars: Talking about less serious tunes there is this catchy tune in Montana’s lore. It’s way different than anything else in the game. Is this the Gearbox goofiness?
  • Raison: We weren’t responsible for that one! That was a tune that Steam Powered Giraffe wrote for us.  Aaron Linde, the lead writer, and Randy Varnell, the Creative Director, had dreamed of a Montana song since the very early days of the project, even singing their own little versions of it. When Steam Powered Giraffe became available, they gave them the initial direction on the song. Randy told them “Make it sound like an old Western TV show, like Rawhide or Bonanza, or as the old song ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’. You know. And add whip cracks and stuff.” We gave them a few paragraphs about Montana and Oscar Mike. The rest is history. 🙂  We wanted to do a whole slew of those themes, but development caught up with us and squeezed them out of production in lieu of bigger problems.

10 Minute Montana Song by Steam Powered Giraffe

  • MentalMars: Music in video games can be dynamic based on the status of the game. We can notice that the music gets more energetic once the player is in combat. How does this complicate the process of composing the soundtrack?
  • Raison: Depending on what level of detail you have to break your parts down to, writing a dynamic score can pose a few additional factors of complexity. The more granular the music system, the greater the cognitive difficulty of the task. Another way of saying that is that the more granular the “chunks” of music have to be, the harder it is to conceptualize the entirety of the piece and the less able you are to audition your music inside a linear timeline (ie… a composer’s DAW) That means that your feedback loop has to happen inside the game instead of happening inside the software you’re using to write the music. So it creates an additional layer of abstraction you have to account for while you’re writing. You can overcome this somewhat by developing better instincts, but it will always be less straightforward and require more revision and tinkering to achieve the desired end result.
  • MentalMars: Are there any particular movies or people you draw inspiration from?
  • Raison: It really depends on the subject matter that I’m focused on, but I’m a big fan of Philip Glass, Bonobo, Hans Zimmer, John Williams, Tool, Bach, Zero 7, Amon Tobin, Royksopp, H.U.V.A Network… There are lots.
  • MentalMars: I only know John Williams because he scored like every awesome movie in the 80’s/90’s and if it wasn’t him it was Hans Zimmer. John did some iconic themes, I really like his work on the Star Wars franchise – Duel of Fates. I love the ‘he’s a pirate’ theme from Pirates of the Caribbean by Hans Zimmer. Amon Tobin did a great job on Splinter Cell Chaos Theory, each track was broken down into four distinct but similar parts based on their level of intensity.
  • Raison: I still think that Crimson Tide is some of Zimmer’s best work. That was the score that really brought Zimmer’s work to my attention. I’d love to see more scores like Tobin’s Splinter Cell work in games. It was so refreshingly unconventional for that kind of title.
  • MentalMars: I hear a lot of positive feedback about the music in the new Story Operation, Toby’s friendship raid, can you tell a bit about this project. What was the inspiration, I kinda has that 80’s space adventure movie vibe, but it’s done more up2date to the present style with a bit more wubwub?
  • Raison: You pretty much just repeated back my exact style goals, which is awesome! I’ve seen others communicate similar descriptions and that’s great because it seems the intent is coming across well. I wanted to hit a tone that opened the level up with some ’80s themed sounds (Vangelis Pads + Roland styled Arps). I also layered in some larger orchestration to keep a sense of modern epicness. During the combat sections, I wanted to reflect a more modern electronic sensibility as I felt that played well with the action and current popularity of electronic music. During the main part of the ship, I wanted the music to sit a little more relaxed but also communicate a bit of a late 80’s “man on a mission” style narrative. It obviously isn’t a direct reference to that era, but I hoped to put a little bit of that kind of story in the music. The full combat mix then included some big melodies at the end of that loop with the intent being that those themes would cut through combat while still retaining a decent level of emotion. The rest of the music in the level was basically a riff on those ideas.
  • MentalMars: I contacted you earlier about a track that was in the Battleborn CTT but not in the final game. Personally, I really liked that track and therefore used a loop in some of my videos. Also getting a lot of questions about this track. Why was this track not included in the retail game?
  • Raison: I think you may be referring to an old title screen theme that was in the game when it was at a much earlier state (And had more serious themes in the story). I’ve seen a lot of people comment positively about that piece so perhaps it was a mistake to replace it? The game’s tone changed after that piece was initially written by Kevin Riepl, one of our external composers. Over time it felt like the energy was too high for the main menu. When the command menu was added and it was expected that players would spend a lot of time there, I felt that the high-energy music would become fatiguing to the listener if it played persistently while browsing the marketplace or their character builds. While it would have felt great the first couple of times you heard it, if it repeated too long at that level of energy, it could become detrimental to user experience. I felt the title theme we shipped with was a bit closer to the final tone of the game and also became less obtrusive while browsing the command menu. We got a lot of positive feedback from the team with the new music as well, so that’s how we ended up with the theme that shipped.
  • MentalMars: Yeah I know what you mean, that is actually how I felt about it in the CTT, so you made the right choice for the main menu. A little while ago you guys added some music to the Hero select screen. This ‘lost’ track could have been added here as everyone is prepping for battle.
  • Raison: Yeah, we have a slew of faction themes we ended up removing from character select for similar reasons. As the game developed, the character introduction sequence changed and an intro sequence was added as a bumper before gameplay. The faction theme music styles started to feel out of place against all these other quick music changes. So we opted for silence before ship and I then wrote a generic character select music cue that I believe went live in an earlier patch already. I have prepared some concept pieces and other unreleased music from Battleborn on my soundcloud. There are some pieces there I think people will enjoy or find curious. This is some music I did near the end of 2014 for our first public unveiling of Battleborn.
  • MentalMars: Awesome I remember that music. I like “Catapult Into The Hoard” that screaming bleep sound (not sure how to name it, synth) that makes up the melody sounds very interesting. I’m kinda reminded of Ocarina of Time, the forest temple. It’s somewhat mysterious.
  • Raison: Yeah, that “screaming bleep thingy” is actually a synth in the stock Komplete library called a Mellotron. It almost sounded like a voice and felt alien to me so I was like “Perfectly weird for this game.”
  • MentalMars: Do you have a favorite track from Battleborn.
  • Raison: I really like Cris Velasco’s work on the Rendain boss battle music.
  • MentalMars: The music in the Multiplayer/PvP exists out of a short ‘Intro’ and then it stops. The music only returns when the match reaches its final stage. Why isn’t there a track throughout the whole match?
  • Raison: This was primarily a question of resources and time. In order to have sustained music the whole match and do it right, it would have required a level of interactive music we just didn’t have the bandwidth to produce. On the production side of that consideration, during main game development, I was also responsible for designing sound for 4 playable characters, all of the minion robotics variants in the game, the golems, a few bosses and some UI work here and there. So I have to balance my sound design duties with my music efforts. I also coordinate our external composers and do the in-house mixes of their deliveries. Since we weren’t sure how many PvP levels we would be creating in the future, we also have to be careful about creating a level of mandatory support that could cause production problems post-release. On the systemic side, in order for persistent music to succeed in a Battleborn PvP environment, that music would have to be able to calm down and get sparse when there isn’t a lot of significant action happening. If it stayed high energy the entire match, players would quickly become numb to it and it would likely become a detrimental element of the game (not to mention more competitive players would likely disable the music in favor of clearer SFX). If we decided to pursue a PvP music system, it begs the question of how you monitor and parse gameplay data to successfully predict a user’s experience and then match music changes to our guess at what those emotional states might be at any given moment. To do that requires a lot of code time, so supporting music in PvP actually becomes a question that requires several people’s time and additional QA testing. Given all that, adding persistent music to Battleborn PvP is an exponential increase in work, so we opted to instead kick off the match with a short cue and then give the players a nice piece to “play out to.”
  • MentalMars: We gamers know of the little easter eggs developers put into their game. Is this also something that’s done with audio design?
  • Raison: Yep! We often bounce ideas off level design or have our own easter eggs that we will implement. But implementing easter eggs isn’t a carte blanche effort and for legal and QA testing reasons, they all have to be documented so that accidental content doesn’t get out that the publisher or developer was unaware of.
  • MentalMars: Is there one in Battleborn the only thing that comes to my mind now is the ‘Tanis on a Fish’ from Borderlands that had a unique track. Also with the holidays coming up, there is the Snowman Fight music from the BL2 Mercenary Day DLC that had an actual Xmas song in it.
  • Raison: There is one I know of in the DLCs for sure. It’s not music, but there is a puzzle attached to it.
  • MentalMars: This might be a bit off track of what I originally intended for this interview, but I just finished Tales from the Borderlands last night and I noticed your name in the credits. It seems like you did the voice of loaderbot.
  • Raison: I did do the loaderbot voice! It was such a surprise to me to see that he became one of the most beloved characters in telltale’s work. I did his voice in BL2 because they had a simple dialog grid. I actually didn’t design the processing to allow for much emotional range and there’s a very specific way you have to talk to get the processing to sound correct. So when the loader became a character in TellTale’s games, I continued to do his voice for continuity and efficiency reasons. I also write the psycho bandit and perform their main voice. In BL1 I wrote the dialog and designed the personality for Brick, the psychos and did some minor writing for the marauders. I also initially wrote claptrap and designed his voice (sorry!) but I was only filling a temporary hole and handed that off to real writers halfway through BL1.
  • MentalMars: Awesome! I can totally see this as; ow we need some damage impact effects for these robots, well I’ll add in my own voice saying “au” and “that hurt” never thinking these robots would ever become a true character and then one day being like ow crap.
  • Raison: Oh I didn’t write his lines, that was all Anthony. It’s dumb.. but I still love the “Executing Execution.exe” one. haha Of all the characters I wouldn’t expect to be a big deal, loaderbot would have been at the top of the list before Telltale made him such an awesome character.
  • MentalMars: If someone out there who reads this interview and wants to get a job like yours, what advice would you give them?
  • Raison: For those kinds of questions, I would actually direct them to the GameAudio subreddit. The sidebar on that site has a lot of really useful articles. The one major note I would make is that it’s a lot harder to get a job as an internal composer these days and if you really want to target being inside a development team, you’re going to need to develop really strong sound design skills. Similar to taking a double major in college, your workload will expand, the time it takes to develop yourself increases and you also have to be competitive with all the talented contractors out there. The normal path for composers is to become a contractor and live a freelance lifestyle which guys like Cris Velasco and Jesper Kyd would be much better suited to give advice to that end.
  • MentalMars: Raison thank you for this interview
Written by
I'm a Content Creator by day and a BattleBread Baker at night. I'll provide you with your recommended slice of entertainment! I'm a Gearbox Community Badass and a proud member of the official Borderlands & Tiny Tina's Wonderlands Creator Team (2K Games / NextMakers).

Let Me Know What You Think

0 0

1 Comment

  1. Battleborn has some absolutely great music and overall great audio. Awesome work.


Leave a Reply

Lost Password

Please enter your username or email address. You will receive a link to create a new password via email.

Thank You Badass !
Follow me on social media so we can talk
Send this to a friend