Six days. Four teams. One prize. Develop speaks to this year's entrants

MSUL 2013: The story of the final four

It’s been a long day. But no amount of tiredness can stop Gaurav Pant as he tells Develop why his team has the stuff to win this year’s Make Something Unreal Live competition.

“If I wasn’t doing this, I would be doing drama,” he says calmly. It’s easy to see why. The Team Summit programmer is a natural showman, just the kind of person every studio needs to get the world at large to sit up and take notice. He fancies their chances as he keenly explains how his producer spent four days straight coding his team’s presentation in UDK for their initial run-through.

“If we don’t win, we’ll be very close,” he says. Then again, his rivals are just as confident as he is.

Start your engines

The premise is simple: Four teams have a little under six months to create a game from scratch, with the final six days taking place in front of the public at the Gadget Show Live (April 2nd). For the victor, a coveted Unreal Engine 4 licence awaits.

Every game must incorporate science in some form based on the subject of mendelian inheritance: genetics and genomics, which spans concepts such as variation and mutation.

A panel of judges, which included UKIE CEO Jo Twist, members of the biomedical research charity Wellcome Trust and senior staff of Epic Games, selected four favourites from a shortlist of 12: Dead Shark Triplepunch, Blekinge Institute of Technology, Sweden – Loch Ness (working title); Kairos Games, Staffordshire University – Polymorph; Static Games, Bournemouth University – Mendel’s Farm; and Team Summit, University of Abertay Dundee – Beings.

Develop caught up with all four finalists at a get-together at Staffordshire University.

The most exciting thing about MSUL is the enthusiasm of its student entrants.

These young 20-somethings have ploughed extra hours into their team projects outside of university work. They’ve seen off eight other teams to make it this far. Some of them have travelled thousands of miles to be here.

All of them are treating it with a level of seriousness that’s refreshing to behold.

“They’ve got to balance this opportunity against their school work,” says Mike Gamble, Epic Games’ European territory manager, who is overseeing the competition. “But the reality is they’ll get something great on their portfolios and on their CVs, which will be of great value and will set them apart from other students.”

This is only the second year that the competition has had the ‘live’ element to it.

“They’ve got to show a real game live in front of real people – it just adds a nice bit of jeopardy,” says Gamble.

Fortunately, help is at hand in the form of mentors who have been assigned from four respected game studios – Climax Studios, Lucid Games, Ninja Theory and Splash Damage – all of whom were on hand to offer feedback.

“I’ve enjoyed it so far,” Climax executive producer Jim Walker tells Develop. Each of the mentors has a lot of industry experience. It is a great feeling when you are able, in an open forum, to share all the knowledge and the experiences you’ve built up with people who want to learn. It is also refreshing to watch people take the advice you are giving them and run with it.”

As important as forming an engaging gameplay experience was the inclusion of the science. Much to the delight of the mentors and the organisers, the finalists have managed to shape their games around the concept of genetics in unexpected ways.

Dead Shark Triplepunch – Loch Ness (working title)

To get a sense of just how elastic it’s possible to be with genetics and games, look no further than the Dead Shark team from Sweden. Affectionately named after the pub the team frequents, Loch Ness is part multiplayer FPS, part arena sport.

The team used epigenetics, which is the temporary mutation of genetic organisms, as a springboard for their gameplay. Two teams of players will leap around a constantly shifting field of platforms, while they attempt to retrieve a ball and score in the opposing team’s goal. As players race passed various plants on the playing field, the plants will eventually mutate, granting one team certain tackle advantages, such as more direct scoring opportunities.

Upon explaining its concept, Final Fantasy X’s Blitzball was on the mind of some audience members. But Dead Shark insists it was actually inspired by Speedball from Epic’s own Unreal Tournament series. Gamble says Dead Shark and its mentor studio, Splash Damage, are the perfect match.

“Dominant and recessive genes was the first idea we pitched,” says level designer and PR, Tobias Johansson. “But we got feedback from the first part of the competition that a lot of the team had the same idea. Our scientist from Wellcome Trust helped us out a lot [with focus of epigenetics]. What if the environment is actually affected by you as the player? So we said, we’ll take this sports game and we’ll make it extremely fast-paced, but the environment is the focus of it.”

Kairos Games – Polymorph

Polymorph is the most visually arresting game of the final four. It’s a 3D puzzle platformer that tasks you with fertilising eggs to gain new abilities that will enable you to traverse each of its lush, alien landscapes.

You play a bipedal lizard-like creature, one of two tribes whom you will also negotiate will along the way. Kairos say they will use narrative to hold players’ attention. The chance to get rare eggs that contain heightened abilities is another draw.

Its hand painted art style is reminiscent of Spore or Kameo. And it looks beautiful. Credit to the team’s concept artists, including Alexandra Shapland, who was also among the 2012 Dare to be Digital winners for her team’s game Project Thanatos.

“A lot of people that I approached were sceptical, but, obviously with deadlines quickly approaching and everyone being in their third year,” says producer and aspiring entrepreneur Kurtis Richards, on the subject of building a team for the competition. “There were some concerns. I ended up going to perhaps the best 25 games designers I knew in order to ask them if they were interested, and ended up hand-picking a team of fantastic designers.”

Static Games – Mendel’s Farm

Pitched as a cross between Viva Piñata, Theme Hospital and FarmVille, Mendel’s Farm has a lot going for it in terms of pick-up-and-play value. This is a resource management game.

Bushy bearded farmer Mendel needs assistance on his chicken farm. It needs regenerating, and the best way to make cash is to breed chickens that can be sold at the market.

Natural selection and variation are at play here in a game that’s about breeding farm animals. You can breed chickens with positive genes or negatives ones that affect their appearance, how much they are worth and ultimately how sustainable your farm will be. For instance, you can breed a chicken with a large head, a speckled body, which also manages to lay those of eggs.

“If we weren’t told we have to do something based on mendelian inheritance, we probably would have made different game,” admits team lead Brett Whitehead. “We just thought this fits together best. Selective breeding, specific traits; it’s something that’s done in the real world. It’s something that can be transferred into a game and then changed to make it more fun and unpredictable.”

Team Summit – Beings

The cute factor is the first thing you notice about this charming puzzle platformer. In the game, you control a rabbit-like critter, which carries its genetic material in a sack of jelly, that’s in search of an attractive female to mate with. Passing on genetic material is core to the gameplay here.

You take control of your creature’s offspring after successfully finding a mate. These littluns have traits that allow them to outcome certain environmental objects, such as large gaps or fire, which you must pass to progress.

“This is the kind of game even hardcore gamers will play, but not in front of everyone,” says Gaurav Pant, programmer for Team Summit.

“They would go away and they would take a look at. Oh, this looks quite cool. Look at the particle effects. Look at the grass. Guys [purport] to be really masculine, like they don’t really watch the chick flicks. Then, when they’re alone in the house, they’re watching Bridget Jones’s Diary. It’s stuff like that. The gameplay is really simple, you get knowledge and it’s a treat for your eyes.”

Live in…

The teams are now speeding toward the final showdown at the Gadget Show Live in Birmingham.

There’s no room to hide here. For many of the entrants, the competition has already brought forth hidden talents.

And Climax’s Walker says the studios themselves get plenty from being involved: “The core thing for us is that we are able to see what is going on outside of the industry bubble – all of the entrants have a different view point on the game industry, their younger eyes see things in a variety of different ways and we as a studio can learn a lot from their perspective.

“We also have an opportunity to see trends, a good example would be the focus on emergent gameplay in a lot of the entrants proposals – I personally find that very interesting.”

This year’s MSUL competition has a ways to go yet. But Gamble is assured that it will be continuing, if not expanding, it in future.

“We’ve had all kinds of thoughts about it at Epic HQ. We want to explore how we can make this a worldwide event, rather than just a European event,” he says.

"That means a final somewhere, like one of the big shows in America, who knows. Again, entirely based on how successful we are this year, we’ll try and work on how to step it up next year another level. But, certainly, this is something we want to continue doing.”

Look out for more coverage of MSUL 2013 on Develop. You can also follow the progress of all four finalists on the MSUL Facebook page

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