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Art and tech come full-circle in Sentris Exclusive

Art and tech come full-circle in  Sentris
January 8, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander

Samantha Kalman is kind of an unconventional developer. She's made indie games and contributed to the Unity engine, but she also performs music, and thinks of herself as an "artistic technologist". Her upcoming music game, Sentris, highlights this cross-disiplinary focus.

The distinctive, wheel-shaped music visualization puzzler reached its funding goal on Kickstarter late in 2013, and now Kalman is back to work prototyping the game. Notables Danny Baranowsky (Super Meat Boy, Binding of Isaac), Rich "Disasterpeace" Vreeland (Fez, Shoot Many Robots) and Kasson Crooker (former Harmonix project director, now of Symbion Project) will be contributing music to Sentris.

"It took me a long time before I was comfortable including the word 'art' in my title," Kalman admits. "I've grown up with games, and they are absolutely art to me... I didn't try for a long time because I thought it was going to be too hard, and it is hard. But it's not impossibly hard. Like anything else, it just takes a lot of practice."

At the age of 23, Kalman was starting to learn programming alongside her work as a software tester when she discovered an early, Mac-only Unity engine. "I just started making a bunch of bad games," she recalls. "I volunteered to write some documentation for Unity which required testing out features, asking questions, and writing down the answers. Eventually Unity hired me as QA Director, and I moved to Copenhagen."

Not only did Kalman play a lot of Rock Band with her colleagues at the office, but one of them was in an actual band, noticed her drumming skills, and invited her to play with them. "Video games opened the door for me to become a musician," she says. In just a couple months she'd be playing Korg DS-10 synth and drums for the band "Moskauer Bluthund," and after releasing an album, Kalman became inspired to combine her love of games and music by creating a game that lets players create their own music.

A foray into full-time game development in 2011 didn't sustain her, and Kalman worked in testing and experience design at Amazon until she'd saved enough to give it another go. Thanks to Kickstarter, her prototypes for Sentris attracted enough visibility, support and interest to make deveopment possible.

"I'm definitely learning a lot as I go," she says. "I want to make a great game, a high-quality experience. I want Sentris to be musically rich and mechanically engaging. I want people to receive some kind of real-world value from their time with it."

Throughout her career accumulating experience in web and software testing, platforms and tools, making a game has always been a goal. "I learned a lot about thinking critically as a tester," she says. "I've done a lot of thinking about design-level testing; what makes a high-quality experience? As a designer, I've learned more explicitly about crafting the conversation between software and the person using it."

"In many ways, I think designing and testing are not so dissimilar," she adds. "An aside: I wish testers were valued as much as designers."

Kalman has also spent a lot of time prototyping, a process "great for revealing details of a design that the imagination can't predict," in her words. "Great prototypes answer some questions and reveal new ones. This cycle of questioning-exploring-learning is necessary for any creative work, but it's really important when exploring new ideas."

The Sentris concept has been incubating for several years, starting when one of her early forays into Unity led her to work on a "Rez-inspired music game", Project Subdivision, with two colleagues from the forums. "I kept having visions of a circular UI, but didn't know exactly how it fit into the other game mechanics. After about six months of thrashing, we put it aside. It became a project that I'd boot up every six months and jam on for a weekend, then put it aside again."

The game's core became "crystal clear" during a Moskauer Bluthund rehearsal in Denmark, after the band had been together for about a year, and was still learning one another's styles. "One jam session started sounding really good, like we were a real band. Listening to the music coming out of us right then & there, I felt a high," Kalman says. "I could feel our music in a way I never had before. I realized I was experiencing the sensation of musical creation."

That moment inspired her to further develop the Project Subdivision concept into something that could translate that feeling to everyone, even those who had never made music before. "It was also suddenly obvious that the circular UI was a representation of the song, and the game was about building a song by matching some loose musical structure as a puzzle."

In 2011, Kalman delivered a prototype called Sen to, still available to play today. Sentris builds on many of its concepts, though she says those are less visible or discoverable in the Sen prototype. In Summer 2013, she was finally able to develop it full-time, beginning with a new code base and lots of playtesting. A demo at the Seattle Indies Expo went better than expected, leading to the Kickstarter launch.

The talented musicians with whom she's now collaborated were attracted to the project through the campaign. "Expanding the team was just one amazing outcome of taking Sentris to Kickstarter," she says.

Even though Kalman had heard from colleagues and friends about the anxiety and work of running a Kickstarter, she found it so challenging as to be impossible to fully prepare for. Amid the stress, having a good video significantly helped, attracting attention and curiosity from fans and the media, and bringing in interest from and connections with industry people like Harmonix co-founder and CEO Alex Rigopulos.

sentris 1.jpg"I was really clear that this project is highly experimental and is going to shape-shift before its release," she says. "Backers came onboard to support that creative process. I think it's really impressive that 1,500 people backed the game even though I don't have a hugely-established reputation as a game designer. This is my work as an emerging artist, and I'm incredibly grateful that the campaign succeeded."

Like many developers confronting the crowdfunding age, Kalman found the shift into marketing work challenging. "It was a struggle forcing myself to put development aside and look for new people to tell about the game," she says "After the campaign it was equally difficult to stop talking about the game and get back into a groove of developing. I was also a little overwhelmed with all the new fulfillment tasks to work through."

"If I ever do another Kickstarter campaign, I'll have two other full-time people helping out. I'll also be more systematic about tasks and announcements for each day of the campaign, while leaving room to be agile and responsive to questions and tasks that come up," she says. "Probably a lot of what I learned can only be learned by trying it."

Her collaboration with Baranowsky, Vreeland and Crooker has begun ramping up, and Kalman hopes the collaboration will be similarly unconventional. "The game is all about empowering players to make their own music, right? So how do you compose a song that's supposed to be dynamically composed during gameplay? We'll be working through that problem," she says.

"I'm making tools for them to upload samples and create musical structures in the game," Kalman continues. "The systems are going to allow for multiple arrangements of each song, so I'm looking forward to the unexpected side-effects of this workflow. Happy accidents are my favorite part of the creative process."

Going forward, Kalman and her team will continue developing the prototype to find the best implementation of the vision, and fulfilling the Kickstarter rewards. She's currently aiming for a late 2014 release, following alpha and beta testing, where she hopes to share her process transparently.

"I hope 2014 is the year of Sentris," she says. "I hope the internet blows up with each new prototype, and that people enjoy watching it change and evolve.. I hope the game performs well enough for me to stay independent, grow my team, and make another game."

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