“…We’re pretty dedicated as far as making the experience, this hobby of ours, as immersive as possible”
– Alex Jarzebinski, Audio Director for BattleBards
BattleBards Team: Alex Jarzebinski, Audio Director; Kyn Chaturvedi, Development Producer/Community Manager; Mike Adams, Creative; Arya Pandey, Technology Head
Here at Roll and Groove, I am always looking for ways to improve my gaming and recreational experiences. I am a sucker for painting miniatures, tweaking games with “deluxe” pieces, and building elaborate dungeons for any potential gaming experience. If you’ve read this site (which I know you have), you are familiar with The Soundtrack of Our Dice series of blog posts, where I create a themed playlist for some of the Gwarkonian’s favorite games. My desire to surround myself with music and games is what intrigued me about BattleBards when they reached out in early April regarding their Kickstarter offering. BattleBards is a premium audio suite for use with table top gaming, focused on the RPG community. Their offering not only includes a soundboard and mixer, but when the service goes live, will offer 500+ audio files available for use with the application.
I have played RPG’s off and on for 30+ years (let that sink in) and Dungeons & Dragons still holds top spot in my all-time favorite games list. That said, I have gravitated heavily in the last few years to board games due to the high cost of entry, in terms of hours, that an RPG demands. My free time is limited and modern board games offer an impressive substitute experience that is compacted to 2-3 hours of commitment. Even though role-playing has been shelved for me as of late, I saw some potential with BattleBards being used to add depth and immersion in the board game world as well.
Kyn Chaturvedi, their Development Producer and Community Manager, reached out and we exchanged several emails. After a lot of discussion and review, I was impressed with what they had to offer, but wasn’t completely sure it would translate well to board games. I agreed to pass it on to a friend who posted a great article about them (Kickstart that GEEK! BattleBards) on his blog, Melvin Smif’s Geekery.
Then something happened interesting happened. Kyn emailed me to thank me for the connection to Kevin and mentioned a big announcement coming. They did something gutsy. They canceled their original Kickstarter, which was already two-thirds of the way funded with ample time left, went back to the drawing board, tweaked a few things, revamped the business model, and relaunched. Less than 12 hours later, the new Kickstarter was funded. The changes they made also rekindled my interest in how this could work for board games and I set out to chat them up.
The team at BattleBards undoubtedly has a lot of experience with gaming, as well as gaming audio. Alex Jarzebinski, the audio director, has been using audio in his RPG sessions for quite a while. It was during one of these sessions with the Orange County Gaming Group, a group of gamers with decades of combined gaming experience across platforms and genres, that the idea for the first Kickstarter project, Realmsound, began. “When I was running one of my games it just kind of occurred to me that we have all the ingredients necessary to do something really special in this industry, which is to bring, for the first time, professionally crafted audio.” Alex went on to explain how the group came together to launch Realmsound, their first Kickstarter offering. Realmsound 2.0 funded successfully, but the wheels were already in motion on how to improve on the product. “The Realmsound project was a way for us to earn our chops, canvas the artist community for talent to make sure that they could produce at a level of quality that we were looking for and to establish ourselves in the artist community and also give our tech team a shot at the soundboard and mixer. Throw it out on the market and get some feedback; kind of our pilot run.”
Soon after, he had the group back together and discussions began about taking it to the next level. Alex continued, “I reached out to some of the core members of the gaming group, Kyn and Mike, and said, “Hey guys, I think we are on to something. I think we have a chance here to truly evolve this space through professional audio and tools to use it. Why don’t we move forward and create an engine that will constantly bring new professionally made audio? Instead of these Kickstarter’s, which are going to be one-shots, where we raise money, make some audio, then finish, why don’t we create a business that will serve as an engine to constantly bring high-caliber, quality audio to tabletop gaming? That’s were BattleBards came in.”
The team let me demo the original mixer for the Realmsound project, which is the precursor to the new BattleBards Soundboard and mixer. The mixer allows you to take audio files, drag them over to a mixer, then layer other audio samples on top of the first one. It doesn’t stop there. You can crop a sound clip to get just the piece you want, as well as loop audio tracks to keep a continuous effect going. From an RPG perspective, this would allow a Dungeon Master (or Game Master) to create scenes that can be played as the character’s trigger events. The board game community doesn’t have to sit back and watch all the fun, though. The audio tools could easily be used to make fantasy board gaming just as immersive an experience. The first game that came to mind for me was Lords of Waterdeep. How cool would it be if you could take the ambient sounds of a castle or city (check this sound file out, Castle Soundscape – Storm), then layer in merchants and other voice-overs and effects to create an audio backdrop for your gaming experience? The new audio tools will do all that too, but the team has even more to offer.
When I asked the team about how BattleBards evolved from Realmsound, Alex talked through the difference between first Kickstarter, and the new project. “The main innovation will be its integration with the entire audio library. It will be a lot more seamless to pick the tracks in your playlist. Everything will be browser-based. The beauty of it is, you can be on your desktop making a mix, then pick up your tablet and take it to wherever you are going to game and have access to all that audio. There will also be an offline mode. You can set up your playlist however you like, then synch it so then you can go into the deepest darkest basement you can find and still have all the audio.”
So where Realmsounds was housed locally on your hard drive and you had to download tracks, Battlebards will be web-based. That doesn’t mean that you’re tied to the cloud though, what’s really cool about the new BattleBards project is that they’ve added the ability to synch the audio tracks locally so you don’t have to have wi-fi access. The ability to synch and play your audio offline is a key selling point, but for me that still didn’t solve for the fact that I usually don’t have a tablet or laptop handy when I am playing board games. Kyn jumped in with one of the coolest features of the new project. “…That’s the other major change for us with the mixer. Before, when we created a mix, it was purely on the cloud. Now what we are trying to do is offer it so that once you create a mix, combining multiple sounds together, you’ll actually be able to download it as an mp3 file and take it wherever you go. “
I am still boggled in the head about how nifty that is. You can create your mix, export it to mp3, then drop it to your phone or tablet where it could be streamed via Bluetooth to a portable speaker or even to a wireless music manager like Sonos, which is what I use in my game room. Thinking about the Lords of Waterdeep example, I could create a 60 minute audio background of City and Castle ambient sounds, export it to an .mp3, then synch it up with my Sonos to play through my game room stereo. That’s cooler than a cavern in Icewind Dale, and they probably will have a sound for that too.
The audio is absolutely amazing and a point of pride for the team. When I asked about the quality, Alex related to me what they feel differentiates BattleBards from other fantasy audio offerings. “One of the things that really sets BattleBards apart from a lot of the other folks that offer fantasy audio is the way that we source it. We don’t have a roster of talent that is guaranteed to work on anything. What we will do is make a call for audio. We actually have professional artists compete for a spot in our library.” The process starts way before they even secure the artist. “Each music track or sound effect pack has about 50 man hours of work into it. That goes from creative brief, research, auditioning, short listing the auditioning, refining the tracks, and final recording. So not only is there so much work, but each piece is heavily scrutinized to make sure that it’s gaming specific.”
“Gamers are very eclectic. They get their gaming context from movies and games; it’s very personalized. My goal is to have an average gamer listen to a couple seconds of a track and know what it’s supposed to be for. For example with the Dwarven tracks, I want gamers to know that they are dwarves, not elves, Halflings, or humans. It has to be iconic”
– Alex Jarzebinski
The team at BattleBards created this product with Table Top Role Playing Games in mind, but after demoing the Realmsound mixer and talking with the team about the enhancements to the new tools, I am convinced there is a ton of value to be had enhancing the board game experience. The Dungeons and Dragons Adventure Series of board games are no-brainers: Castle Ravenloft, Wrath of Ashardalon, The Legend of Drizzt, and most recently, The Temple of Elemental Evil.
I’ve already mentioned Lords of Waterdeep, but what about creating scenes that play along with one of the scenario’s in Descent 2nd Edition? How amazing would it be create an extended battle scene for BattleLore 2nd Edition that started with an Orc War March (go ahead, click it. You won’t regret the decision)?
I started to pry about other Genre’s, already think about the prospect of space and the ambient sounds of a space station command center, playing in the background during a game of Among the Stars. As it turns out, the team at BattleBards is contemplating other genre’s for sound effects. “We’re really excited about bringing our army of talent to bear on other genres. Sci-Fi, Modern, Cyberpunk, Victorian – kind of like Vampire Masquerade. One of the exciting things about the switch over that we did, is that it’s going to potentially allow us to go into another genre earlier than anticipated.” Alex enthusiastically answered, but as he related the teams enthusiasm about expanding, it became obvious that they don’t want to throw everything out there at once. “The reason that we are not doing it right now is one of the common things I’ve seen with other audio that is out there, they tend to skip genres too quick. If we want to position ourselves as serving the gaming community, it would behoove us to make sure that a certain genre is properly serviced before we go into another one.”
“…If we’re going to the fantasy community and saying, “hey everyone, we have the best audio out there, make sure you get your audio from us.” That’s going to come off as a little flat if there is not a whole lot to choose from or they feel like it’s a smattering of random monsters and sound effects.”
It’s that kind of dedication and willingness to listen to customers that has drawn me further into this project. Ensuring the best customer experience is important to the team and was the driving factor for them pulling out of an inevitably successful campaign to create what they believe would be a better offering to the customers. I asked about the reason behind the move from a subscription based model, part of the original BattleBards Kickstarter (and one of the features that originally gave me pause). Alex shed some light on the philosophy behind their decision. “Halfway through when we were doing the first launch, we were on our way to being funded, but we got so much feedback from the community saying, “guys, this sounds great but I wish you had adopted a different model other than subscription. One day I got the team together. I’m like, hey guys, we’re a company that wants to appeal to the gaming community at large, I know this might be a drastic move but what if we actually hit cancel. We’ll run around like crazy renegotiating with our talent and redoing the business model then re-launch. That was a scary time for us.…if this is what the gaming community is asking for and we are confident that this is the majority of them, the onus is on us to bite the bullet, make the change and re-launch. I think it panned out.” Kyn added, “we got funding within 8 or 9 hours. That speaks volumes as far as making the right decision. I think people really did like the new approach. It was appealing to a bigger audience.”
In a time where Kickstarter, at least for the board game segment, seems to be not much more than pre-funding established publishers games, it’s refreshing to see an offering that is willing to actively listen to what its backers want, determine where the feedback is valid, and make changes based on that feedback. All of this sold me. I backed the Kickstarter campaign the morning after our discussion. I can’t wait to put together some effects and soundscapes for my favorite board games. I have also decided to jump back into the realm of RPG’s this Fall/Winter and plan on kicking off a D&D 5th Edition campaign for my family (and new recurring segment for this blog); My oldest daughter has been dying to try out the new system. When BattleBards releases the audio tools (estimated delivery in November 2015), I will easily get my money’s worth, being able to create an auditory accompaniment to my miniatures, dungeon pieces, and dice.
The BattleBards Epic Fantasy and Audio Tools are a win either way, RPG or board game. You can go down a rabbit hole of super detailed, staged events with sound effects and layering’s, but it can work equally well being that ambient background to your gaming experience.
As of this writing, BattleBards is 194% funded with 13 days to go. It’s in your best interest to check out their Kickstarter page and get your pledge in.
Roll well and groove on. Preferably to the sounds of a dragon razing your entire village.