Pax Prime 2014: Sentris Interview
Sentris is one of those games that is truly difficult to convey it’s overall amazingness to those that didn’t play it. Simply put, Sentris is an abstract puzzle game that combines the key element of Tetris’s brick laying game mechanic with music creation. You solve puzzles by either laying down pieces of a similar color to fill a pitch based target or laying down an instrumental target which simply fills a puzzle area. As you are laying down these puzzle pieces and solving puzzles, you are actually creating music. Sentris is an innovative game that combine my two personal gaming loves of puzzle solving and music.
During Pax Prime, I got the chance to chat with Samantha Kalman, creator and Project Lead for Sentris and got the chance to delve a little deeper into the game and the overall inspiration behind it.
RFMAG_Dani: Could you gives us a brief overview of what the Sentris is all about?
Samantha: Sure, Sentris is an abstract puzzle game about creating your own music. I like to call it a music game but I consider it a new kind of music game that’s about the joy of musical creation. It has a lot of puzzles that are based on musical structure so that as you play the Sentris you are making your own song that conforms to some very loose rules about musical structure.
RFMAG_Dani: So pretty much each puzzle is constructed with these musical notes that serve as puzzle pieces?
Samantha: Right, there are several different levels in the game and they each have varying suggested melodies or harmonies and you can reorder and remix them in different ways. You can play them in different orders and make something that’s truly original and your own creation. Different levels have different kinds of puzzles and goals and through that you are able to make different kinds of songs.
RFMAG_Dani: So, let’s talk about the game mechanics. When I was playing Sentris, I was kind of fumbling around since I just jumped right in. Could you briefly go over those game mechanics and possibly what I might be missing.
Samantha: Sentris is a little hard to describe because it is so abstract. Essentially, there are two main elements to the interface. There’s the routing grid which contains all the sounds in the song. On the outer parameter of that routing grid is a collection of blocks that are also like curved arcs of a circle. They are all different colors and you can drop these blocks from the outside into the routing grid and when you do that it makes a sound. The sound corresponds to an instrument which is indicated as a symbol on the block whereas the color of the block represents the puzzle piece’s pitch. So by dropping in different blocks of different instruments and different pitches you’re creating some different kind of musical structure. You’re essentially creating a different musical experience. It’s something that you created.
RFMAG_Dani: So, you’re sort of guiding the player as they are playing along with these bricks, or rather puzzle pieces.
Samantha: Yea! Sentris shares some elements with Tetris in that you have four different instruments that are kind of like sound sequences so imagine them as a suggested melody or harmony but you can only play the next block in line. So, similar to Tetris, you have your next piece, you have that element here with Sentris where you have to drop the one that’s available to you. In Sentris, you have these targets and the targets can be a pitch based target so they might be a certain color. Or they might be a rhythmic target which is an area that you have to fill completely with any instrument of any color. Let’s say you have a yellow target coming up but you don’t have any yellow blocks available to you next, you have to play through the blocks in between the one have now and the one that you want. As you do that, where you put those blocks changes the shape of the song and makes the song emerge dynamically.
RFMAG_Dani: Do you have a rough idea about how many puzzles Sentris would include?
Samantha: Yea, so right now this an alpha build and it has six puzzles: three easy, two medium and then one hard. I really want to create some kind of random mode. So that every time you play, you get a different puzzle. So I’m trying to make Sentris into a kind of infinite game where it never ends and you can just play it at any time you want to create music.
RFMAG_Dani: Whenever you just want to lay down and just create something on your own.
Samantha: Exactly! In addition to that sort of endless mode, or the random mode, I do want to hand-build some levels as well. I’m kind of trying to figure out if there is an analogy with albums and tracks within and an album. For instance, what if there was an album that has each song as it’s own level and then as you played through each song you’re creating the album. That’s a little bit more hand-built and I wouldn’t know exactly how many of those levels would be in there but I would say at least a dozen.
RFMAG_Dani: I think it would be pretty awesome if every group of puzzles was an album and you can play through an album in a sitting.
Samantha: Yea! These are kind of the goals I’m working towards but however far it gets, we will see. I’m going to do as much as I can.
Oh, and I’m also working on a level editor so that anyone can hand-build their own challenges. so you can make you own suggested harmonies and rhythms. You can build your own puzzle target structure and you can share that with your friends. So, you can be like “Hey, can you beat my song?”
RFMAG_Dani: Totally was what I was hoping for and going to ask next, Samantha! But know I want to know what was the inspiration behind Sentris? I know you mentioned Tetris earlier but could it be a little bit of Rock Band as well?
Samantha: Yea, I mean, I love music games. I’ve always loved music games and I would say that the biggest inspiration from a game has been Rez. I loved Rez and when I played it, I never been able to have that much musical influence in a game before and I want it even more than that. So, I spent a long time iterating and experimenting and throwing away different projects in order to figure out how I can make a game that has a really intense amount of musical control. Rez was a big inspiration but the other side of it was life experience. I have always wanted to be a musician and for most of my life I thought I couldn’t be a musician, like I was not good enough. So, I had friends that helped me learn how to practice with them. I ended up being with this band when I was living in Denmark when I was working for Unity. We played together for about two years and we did a 40 minute set before I left Denmark. We performed as a band and I had this experience where I learned how to be a musician and it was that experience of like “Oh, there’s certain things to do to get over this kind of like creative block.” It internalized the feeling of I can’t do this. The truth is anyone can do it, you just have to try and there’s certain things that can help. I tried to put a lot of the lessons that I learned from that experience, from playing in that band, into Sentris. It’s kind of like I was lucky that I had friends help me but not everyone has friends to make music–Sentris is that friend.
RFMAG_Dani: That’s a pretty good lesson. With practice, anything is possible.
Samantha: If you get frustrated, just know we all get frustrated creatively so just give yourself a moment and come back to it a couple of days later. I didn’t know that at first and I couldn’t figure it out on my own. I’m trying to make Sentris fun enough that after a couple days, people will be like “I want to play more of that” and then they are making more music.
RFMAG_Dani: So now let’s talk about that journey from Kickstarter to full-time Game Development. Was it easy to make the transition?
Samantha: I started focusing on Sentris full-time in August of 2013. I was working at Amazon on the Fire Phone and I left that job so that I could make this game, spending all last Summer building a prototype. When I went to Kickstarter I had a playable build and I felt like it was something. I felt like it was good enough to take to Kickstarter. The hard part was figuring out how to change my way of thinking from development and design and code and visual problems and visual communication and game design.
I had to stop thinking about all that stuff and start thinking about how would I talk about this. How do I get people excited. How do I communicate what it is. How do I convey, without having people play it, that it’s special. How do I do that? That was really difficult. That was really exhausting. During the Kickstarter I got very little sleep. I just wanted to be emailing people, writing and campaigning and trying to improve on it all the time. It was really hard to stop working on the game itself and just tell people about it. Then when I was done with the Kickstarter, I was glad it was successful. That changed my life, that successful Kickstarter.
I wouldn’t be here if that hadn’t succeeded. Then it was back into development mode. Shifting gears mentally is incredibly difficult. It’s just hard. I’m glad that I don’t have to do another Kickstarter right now but I know more for the future. I’ll possibly do more when Sentris is done and I’m working on my next game. I will do another Kickstarter for my next game but I just know a lot more, like what to expect and how to prepare than I did before. It’s just mentally taxing.
RFMAG_Dani: So, my last question is what I always every indie developer at the end of our first interview: What tips do you have for aspiring Game Developers out there looking to get through game out there and be at Pax like yourself?
Samantha: I would say two things.
One, and this is actually advice given to me by Jonathan Blow, he said–and I believe it–that there are two kinds of projects. There are learning projects and there are shipping projects. You do learning projects to challenge yourself and grow and become better and expand your capabilities. And then you do shipping projects as projects that you know you can do when you start. So, there’s a lot of unknowns in learning projects and very few unknowns in shipping projects.
I’m kind of in this weird thing where Sentris is both a learning project and a shipping project so that’s why it’s taking me so long but I would say try to be aware. Be sure to ask yourself “Are you working on a learning project or a shipping project?”
Second thing is don’t comprise on your vision. There’s always a gap between what we think as designers and where the game is. There is so much work required to get a game from where it starts to what your vision is. It’s like always two steps behind so don’t comprise on your vision. Make the game embody the vision. Have a strong vision. Don’t copycat. Have a strong, awesome, amazing vision and then make the game as awesome as your vision.
RFMAG_Dani: Thank you Samantha for taking the time to chat with us today!
Brief description about Sentris
Sentris is a new kind of music game that puts you at the epicenter of musical creation. It transforms the act of making music into a puzzle of colorful concentric circles. It’s a rhythmical challenge that enables personal musical expression. The music you make with Sentris is your own authentic creation to enjoy and share.
Create your own song as you drop Sound Blocks of different instruments, pitches, and lengths into a looping grid. To solve the puzzles, fill highlighted areas of the grid with specific colors or rhythms. Its simplicity is deceptive–fitting all of the right Sound Blocks into the right place at the same time can be extremely difficult.
To learn more about Sentris as well as to keep up with the game development, please check out the Timbre Interactive’s blog here.