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How to Make Something Unreal

Dead Shark Triplepunch's Henrik Giang on winning the UDK design contest

You're 21, in your second year of university and you've just landed a well established industry prize which includes a costly commercial SDK licence and an internship with a AAA console developer. You're part of a company with a flat hierarchy formed of you and nine of your friends and you've also just secured a 50,000 Swedish Krona cash prize in a separate local development contest.

Time to kick back, soak it up and open a beer? Not if you're Henrik Giang, one tenth of the Make Something Unreal winning team Dead Shark Triplepunch. He might be "living the dream," but this is one young developer who wants to knuckle down, make the most of the rest of his education and get some work done.

"We've just been at a local event at an incubator," he tells me over Skype. "We were talking about our game but we also competed in an event." I have to ask him to repeat the last bit of his sentence. "We won," Giang repeats, bashfulness struggling with a smattering of pride. "We won 50,000 Swedish Krone, which will be for the development our game."

That game, the game which won the grand prize in the Epic-sponsored Make Something Unreal final in April, is Epigenesis: an online multiplayer arena sports game with a touch of Quake Arena and garnish of Speedball to it. As well as scoring points by getting a ball to the right place, whilst avoiding the gravity-gun employing opposition, players will plant seeds on the 'rooftops' of the game's arena when they score. These plants will affect gameplay in various ways, with the team embracing the contest's theme (Mendelian inheritance: genetics and genomics.) with a neat mechanic which allows them to manipulate the plants' DNA in order to control their effects.

It's slick and professional, especially coming from a team of undergraduates with an average age of 21, but Giang says it's not what they had planned from the start.

"A couple of us had an Android project before we'd heard of the competition and thought maybe we could transfer it, but that soon got scrapped. We kept the apocalyptic theme, but that's about it. When we started working on Epigenesis for Make Something Unreal... at first it wasn't even multiplayer - we were quite split on what we wanted to do in the very beginning. We were more focused on the environmental changes; a slow-paced, story-driven single player. But then suddenly someone just decided that we were going to make it into a sport instead. So yeah, then we had Epigenesis."

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The team is from Blekinge Institute of Technology, Sweden and consists entirely of second year students specialising in various disciplines. "We knew each other a little before, some of us more than others, but now we're real tight," says Giang, who is primarily a 2D artist. I ask him if the long hours involved have been a good bonding experience.

"Yeah, but we've had a lot of unintentional hours too. We sit down to work on something and suddenly it's 9pm." He seems cheerful about this, and I worry that it might be a touch youthfully naïve, but Giang quickly reaffirms his tremendous work ethic in his answer to my next question.

"Yeah, we have an unofficial target," he says when I ask him about release dates. "We want to get Epigenesis done by Christmas and release it in Q1 next year. Because we're still in school there are things we still want to learn - we want to spend our last year learning and doing other things we want to do. People also really want to see Epigenisis get released so we really want to get it out there as soon as possible."

"we want to spend our last year learning and doing other things we want to do"

The process has been a steep learning curve, both in practical skills and as an indicator of what to expect from working in the industry proper. Having signed contracts before even getting to the pitching stage (a gap which Giang describes as "incredibly nervy months"), Dead Shark Triplepunch eventually learned that they'd be working with Splash Damage, with their internship being held for them until they graduate.

"They were quite busy during the first couple of months, so we didn't have too much contact, but every mail we've had has been full of really useful information. We've always been very careful about what we've put out for the game, we always ask 'is this good enough to be posted on Facebook?' We trod very carefully. Splash Damage were amazing."

It's uncertain what format the internship will take, but Giang tells me that the "best possible scenario" is that all ten team members will come to the UK for the duration, working with Splash Damage at its head office. For now, however, the team's work will be contributing towards their university work.

"We've been working on it for the last ten weeks for a course," he tells me. "We're going to use it for the next half-year too, which is a production course."

I ask Giang what sort of assistance the incubator which the team is part of has been providing, and whether there are plans to staff up on the business development side of the team. I'm half assuming that they'll fall into the all too common trap which plagues many indies: too many creatives and not enough money makers. He proves me wrong instantly.

"We've started a stock company already, actually. We have an office space at our incubator"

"We've started a stock company already, actually. We have an office space at our incubator, but none of us have that marketing or economics knowledge. We try and go to as many economics classes as possible to get a grip on it. Most of us don't really want to touch those areas, but we really have to because the company needs them to keep going.

"The incubators here have great deals. They have this royalty deal where we can pay at any time across ten years, or we can pay a little share of any profits we make. They offer office space, economic help, juridical help.

"The schools here are great, too, but the taxes are really high, so we're not sure how much money we'll actually make in the end! But all the the help we get from the government is great - plus we have a lot of EU projects running at the school so we have access to things like 3D printers and even help with transport."

He admits that making some of the more pressing economic decisions has been difficult, especially given the company's democratic decision making process. There have been shaky moments, he tells me, but he's fully aware of the head start which the team's hard work has won them

"For me I'm sort of living the dream right now. We have a company and we get to work in the games industry. We don't have any wishes beyond that - I just hope that I can make enough money to survive and work in the games industry, I haven't given much thought to whether I want to work for a publisher."

Some of you may well be rolling your eyes slightly at that, having seen the wrong end of too many nights of crunch, but it's tremendously refreshing to hear Giang's genuine enthusiasm - enthusiasm worth spreading. I ask him what advice he'd pass on to other young developers.

"Be open minded and try new things," he replies without a pause. "Take feedback. You don't have to wait for your next assignment to do something. Make a game at home - don't just wait for school to tell you to make a game. It might be a dream of yours - but you have to ask yourself, would you keep doing this if you weren't going to get paid? You have to have the will to keep yourself going."

Epigenesis is coming to Steam, with a planned release window of Q1 2014.

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Dan Pearson