Game Jam - Play Dendrites

Every team had to begin their game jam design with paper prototyping: start with as simple an idea as possible, one mechanic, write down some rules on sticky notes (as few as possible), start playing. When it sucks, breaks, or stalls, then add, change or remove a rule. Repeat. Use dice, tokens, pawns, poker chips, playing cards, index cards, post its, markers, or whatever else could be foraged to design the game without code or art. Once the idea is locked in, then proceed to art and code production. Gameplay development really is that simple to begin with. An idea, rules, and paper.

Thus, we decided to share some of our fun gameplay experiments with you (and introduce you to the teams behind them). Full disclosure - each gameplay experiment will require a unique amount of effort to play, and we promise without a shadow of a doubt, you will hit some bugs! 

We kicked off our Game Jam spotlight with an unexpected dodgeball farm game in Bumpkins (play here), and now transition to the other end of the spectrum with a unique print and play boardgame - Dendrites! Also checkout: M'Urda House

Why wait for the next Einstein to be born?
Assemble your team of neuroscientists and work together to build a super brain!
Increase the complexity of the brain tissue to score big on the IQ test,
but be sure to support your growing neural network with a structural membrane.
You don’t want the brain to leak!

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD & PRINT DENDRITES BOARDGAME (PDF)

HOW TO PLAY DENDRITES:

  1. Download the PDF file from the link above
  2. Print the 3 tile pages on any 8.5" x 11" paper of your choice
  3. Cut the tiles out along the black border. All tiles are 2-color blocks in either pink, blue, yellow, or green
  4. Follow the setup and rules instructions included in the download link
  5. Grab 3-4 of your friends or family (including you!)
  6. Set aside one solid pink tile from the rest of the set, this is the start of your embryonic brain
  7. Shuffle the rest of the tiles all face-down, then divide evenly among all players 
  8. Place the first solid pink tile in the center of the play area.
  9. Play! Follow our basic instructions, work together, and have fun!

From left to right, Dendrites was created by Santa Monica Studio "Team Paperwerks" Sr. Animator Erica Pinto, Combat Designer Kate Salsman, Sr. Designer Loren Bordas, Producer Dustin Dobson, and Concept Artist Joe Kennedy. We challenged the IQ of Erica, Kate, and Loren on what inspired their creation of Dendrites.

TELL US A BRIEF HISTORY ON YOUR GAMING INDUSTRY EXPERIENCE AND ROLE AT SANTA MONICA STUDIO?

Erica: I've been working as an animator in the video game industry since 2003.  I started as an intern at Electronic Arts on Medal of Honor: Rising Sun, and contributed to 4 other MOH projects as a full-time animator before moving to Santa Monica Studio to work on God of War: Ascension.  I'm currently the lead cinematics animator on a new PlayStation 4 project.

Loren: I moved to Los Angeles after completing a Masters program in game development at the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy in Orlando, Fla. My first shipped title was God of War: Ascension where I acted as an audio implementer. My experience working with the GoW team allowed me to transition into a combat design role on the current project. I am a small part of the team that designs and builds our game’s characters.

Kate: I started in the industry in 2007 as a QA Tester, and I’ve filled roles in testing, operations, production, and design on various games over the years. Now I’m a Combat Designer at Sony Santa Monica, working with the team to design and implement creatures and creature AI for an upcoming PS4 system project. 

WHAT INSPIRATION LED TO THE IDEA FOR DENDRITES? WHY A BOARDGAME?

Erica: I joined the board/card game group because I enjoy the social aspect of those types of games. It was nice to focus purely on game design without getting bogged down in lines of code. Plus there's just something really cool about using tangible pieces.

We had all sorts of materials at our disposal and we played with almost all of them; dice, pawns, tiles, even Play-Doh! Dendrites was a prototype that emerged from the idea of creating a play space on the table using cards from players' hands. We weren't sure at first whether the space would be a dungeon, or a city, or something more abstract.

There was something that felt elegant about the branching nature of the pink tiles, almost like a fractal. We wanted to encourage players to make more of those, rather than just a big pink blob in the center, so we designated the branches as special scoring nodes. Eventually we worked in the Game Jam theme of "Support" in two ways: the cooperative gameplay of players supporting each other, as well as the membrane of outer tiles supporting the inner pink tiles.

Kate: We aimed to create a game that was quick to play, easy to understand and pick up, and cooperative with an adjustable number of required players. We brainstormed, prototyped, and play-tested A LOT of various ideas before we found what mechanics we stuck with.

 

HOW DID THE DESIGN PROCESS IN CREATING BOARD GAME, RELATE TO THE DESIGN PROCESS WHEN PROTOTYPING AN ACTUAL FEATURE IN A GAME?

Kate: Prototyping, iteration, and scoping are incredibly important in both cases. If a board game or video game mechanic prototype isn’t working out, it’s good to recognize when to iterate and push it forward versus when to throw it out and try something new. In other words, “fail fast!” Either way, you learn from prototypes that don’t work out and it will only help you improve. As for scoping, don’t bite off more than you can chew! Whether or not you’re a producer, you always need to consider your available time and resources, and you need to budget properly so that you can design, build, and finish your work on time.

Erica: One of the first things our group did when brainstorming was list a whole bunch of games that we each liked to play, both board games as well as video games.  We tried boiling down a few favorites to their core design aspects, to pick elements we wanted to incorporate into our own game.  Co-op or competitive?  Fast-paced or contemplative?  Stealth, or dungeon-crawler, or puzzle?

We had a fast-paced card collecting game that had elements of a treasure-hunting game where you were locked in a big house and needed to find keys to escape, a fantasy dungeon crawler with a big boss fight at the center of the board, and the tile building game that eventually became Dendrites.

I typed up the rules and made diagrams for our instruction pamphlet, and designed a tile template that looked a little like brain matter to fit our "Dendrites" skin. A few of us printed out the templates and glued them to foam core to make thicker tiles. Overall, I was pretty happy with the presentation of the game! I think the bright colors and simple pieces were enticing to passersby during the Game Jam walkabout.

Prototyping, iteration, and scoping are incredibly important in both cases. If a board game or video game mechanic prototype isn’t working out, it’s good to recognize when to iterate and push it forward versus when to throw it out and try something new. In other words, “fail fast!” Either way, you learn from prototypes that don’t work out and it will only help you improve.

CAN DENDRITES COMPETE FOR AN OFFICIAL SPACE IN OUR WEEKEND BOARD GAME NIGHTS?

Kate: Yes! I think it would be the perfect game to open with while waiting for all of the players to show up for board game night, or the perfect game to close with when people need to start heading home. It’s fast to play and can be played with 1+ players, so it fits different group sizes and doesn’t require a time commitment.

Erica: I think Dendrites has a lot of potential, but definitely needs more refining. The scoring system is clunky and replayability is limited with the current rule set.  With some more iterations it could fit well into a board game night as a starter, since it doesn't take too long to play.

 

WHY DO YOU BELIEVE GAMEJAMS ARE IMPORTANT TO OUR STUDIO CULTURE AT SANTA MONICA STUDIO?

Loren: There is a lot of good in having a game jam. Firstly, game jams allow developers to take a break from their current work which can be a big help in clearing your mind when you’ve spent weeks looking at the same thing. It’s a great creative exercise to continue to develop your design skills and sensibilities. It also allows developers to wear different hats and explore ideas they’ve had stewing in their heads.

Erica: Game Jams give us a chance to work with people we don't normally work with in our day-to-day activities. I think that's important since we can have the tendency to stay within our little department "bubbles." It's fun to get to know your coworkers and see what creative ideas you can come up with together. Working on a big PS4 system title can also feel daunting at times. Many tasks are large and take months to complete. A Game Jam shakes up your routine and gets you to achieve a bunch of small things in a single weekend. It's like instant gratification game development!

WHAT DO GAME JAMES SAY TO THOSE ASPIRING TO BE GAME DEVELOPERS?

Erica: I would say game jams are a great place for inspiration.  You go through a lot of ideas rapidly, and getting your creative juices flowing is definitely important for game development!  But making a really polished game does take time and iteration, something that jams don't really provide.  They are fun starting points, but you'll need to have the drive and dedication to take those ideas to completion afterwards.  Now, if you join a jam as a fun team-building exercise and don't care too much about the end product, that's fine too!

Loren: You don’t need to know how to program to make a game. With just some simple office supplies, you can prototype and playtest your ideas or even make a full-fledged board game. I’d even argue that designing a board or card game can be more difficult than designing a proper video game because you cannot rely on the computer to track things like turn or score, etc. Also remember that its OK to try an idea and have it fail or not be fun. You learn from these failures in order to hone in on what the core of your game is.

Kate: I think that Game Jams illustrate that anyone can make games as long as they’re passionate, hard-working, and motivated! There are plenty of free tools and software available, and games can even be prototyped and built on paper. Being able to work and communicate well with others is also a must, and people need to be accountable. You need to be able to count on your team, and your team needs to know they can count on you.

 

FOR OUR NEXT GAMEJAM, WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO CREATE?

Erica: I joined a board/card game group for the past two Game Jams, and I would totally do a third because it’s awesome.  But I think it could also be fun to animate something quirky for a little video game.  Perhaps a platformer or top-down action game?  We’ll see!

Kate: I would enjoy making another board game, but I also very much enjoyed another team’s text-based adventure game since it brought back memories of some of the first games I played as a kid. I think it would be really cool to make a text-based or point-and-click adventure game with art, sound, and animation!

Loren: Both game jams I’ve participated in, I was part of the team working on a “physical” game: card, board game, etc. Part of me thinks I should try something new but more likely, I’ll do the same. We make computer games all day, every day. Its nice to do something different.

 

If you're interested in participating in our next GameJam at Santa Monica Studio, then please check out our Careers section to see if we have a role that fits you. We're hiring right now for our next PlayStation 4 project in development. If jammin together is the type of game development culture that gets you out of bed, we'd love to meet you.

VIEW OPEN POSITIONS and FOLLOW US @SonySantaMonica

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