EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Epigenesis Project/Game Design Lead Michael Levall

In recent years, playing video games has become a sport for many people. And yet, most of the games being played as sports, and in sports arenas, aren’t actually sports games. But that could change with Epigenesis, a first-person futuristic sports game for PCs that creators Dead Shark Triplepunch call a “non-lethal ballgame of the future.” But with shooting and platforms high above the ground is it really non-lethal? Project/game design lead Michael Levall explains the finer points of this game.

Epigenesis 01

For people who didn’t play it via Steam Early Access, or saw it when it was in Epic Game’s 2013 Make Something Unreal competition, what is Epigenesis and how do you play it?

Epigenesis is an epic ball-sport of the future, kind of like basketball on steroids. Two teams face off in an arena suspended high above ground, and the players’ objective is to grab the ball, which spawns in the middle, and score with it by putting in the enemy team’s goal. Once a score is made, the scoring player gets a bioengineered super-seed, which they can use to capture the larger platforms in the arena. A team wins either by having the highest score when the time runs out, or by capturing along a node system all the way over to the opponent’s base.

So was the idea always to turn Unreal Tournament from a bloodsport to a more conventional one?

It actually wasn’t. We originally only had the push mechanic thought out [your guns in Epigenesis don’t shoot projectiles, they push people instead], and the game was going to be a single player, story-driven stealth game. At one point during our discussions, one of our members exclaimed: “Hey guys! This sounds like a…sports game!” And so the initial idea behind Epigenesis was born with pretty much the entire game and setting being changed. The inspiration from Unreal Tournament and Quake III Arena came a few weeks later once we started implementing features in-engine.

And what does any of this have to do with, “the unfolding development in an organism, and in particular the development of a plant, fungus or animal from a seed, spore, or egg through a sequence of steps in which cells differentiate and organs form” [i.e., the definition on Wikipedia of the biological term “epigenesis”]?

Well, remember the super-seeds I mentioned? Players are able to shoot their plants with an intense ray of light, called a methylation beam, or Meth-Beam. The beam activates abilities in friendly plants, and deactivates them in enemy plants. In Epigenesis, the games actually started to settle disputes between two warring nations, Omani and Argos. After decades of bloody wars, they decided to do it a little more “civil” in order to avoid more deaths. Both races live in a strong symbiosis with their plant life, which they’ve achieved from bio-engineering plants to fit their needs. Which is why players can customize their plants with passive buffs.

Epigenesis plants

You say the game is a “non-lethal ballgame of the future.” But if I push someone off a ledge, don’t they die? Or are they just out for the rest of the round or something?

While the games are non-lethal, this does not stop the matches from being extremely dangerous. If a player falls down, he is simply teleported into a holding area, where he waits to be sent back into the match. As long as the teleports work, that is.

As you mentioned, Epigenesis features two teams, one of which seem to be big fans of the Clone Troopers in the cartoon Star Wars: The Clone Wars, while the others are obviously way into Roman gladiators. Was this intentional, or did you just now realize that your art department doesn’t understand copyright laws?

Argos are clearly inspired by the Roman gladiators. But I think the copyright of the Roman Empire probably has gone sour at this point. As for Omani and the Clones, I’ll have you know that an Omani player has trained for their entire lives with the sole purpose of hitting their targets, and their aesthetics and gear have been tailored to that end. The same can hardly be said for the average Clone Trooper, as they seldom even hit a roaring rancor. Also, Omani’s armor glow in the dark. Just sayin’.

You can also customize your loadouts. What kinds of things do you get to change?

You can change which plants to carry with you into the matches, and which passive buffs to use with your plants. Each loadout can carry three seeds, with each seed containing a plant with a buff. There are currently six plants and five buffs for a total of 30 combinations. You can also choose whether you want the railgun, an instant-hit sniper weapon, to either pull or push your target. You can also set your jump thrusters to Instant or Charged, with the Instant mode being easier to use while the Charged will let you reach higher altitudes.

So aside from Unreal Tournament, what other games do you feel have influenced Epigenesis, and in what ways?

We played lots of Unreal Tournament and Quake while we were younger, so Epigenesis is mainly inspired by those two. Our designers tried to achieve Quake’s fast paced movement and spent a lot of time early on in development to get the right feel. And we specifically looked at the mode “Bombing Run” in Unreal Tournament for inspiration for the ball game.

For the art style, specifically the color schemes, we looked at the larger e-sport titles to get inspiration on how to make it clear to players and viewers what is going on in the game. I personally like how League Of Legends use highly saturated colors to differentiate between characters, environments, and so on. If you look at the coloring in Epigenesis, you will probably see that we also use saturated colors to differentiate between, for instance, plants, teams, and neutral environments.

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I alluded to this earlier, Epigenesis was originally made as part of Epic Games’ Make Something Unreal Competition. How is the version now available on Steam different from the one you submitted to that contest?

There have been tons of changes and additions to Epigenesis since it saw MSUL13. Since then we’ve added five more maps, three new plants, reworked the HUD twice, and added a single player mode with bots. We also implemented the customization options, and not only for the plants, but for the railgun and jump thruster as well. This gives players more strategic options, with every plant having its own unique ability.

Every map also has its own node system, which means that players can experiment with what tactics they prefer on each map.

As for the HUD, this has probably been one of the hardest parts of developing Epigenesis. We felt the need to both streamline its graphics and add additional indicators on what is going on in the game. Initially, players had a hard time following the ball’s location in the map. To fix this, we added an indicator on the HUD that follows the ball and tells you its position.

Epigenesis is currently only available for PCs. Are there any plans to bring it to consoles?

We do not have any plans to bring it to consoles at this point. We feel that the kind of game Epigenesis is, with its fast pace and focus on aiming, it suits itself better for a keyboard and mouse.

Does that mean it won’t support controllers?

Being a game made with Unreal Engine 3, Epigenesis innately supports controllers. We have not added any default binds for controllers, but if you want to try it out, you can go to Controls under Options and rebind the keys to your controller. Let me know if you hit anything.

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Your company’s name is Dead Shark Triplepunch. Does that mean the game will have dead sharks punching you three times? Because I would think getting punched once by a dead shark would be enough.

Silly Mr. Semel. We don’t get punched by sharks, we punch them. Hard. In the face. Three times. This has nothing to do with the game, but is more of a genuine hatred we have towards sharks. The Dead Shark Triplepunch is actually the death blow we developed while starting up our studio, and is secretly passed on to our members. We have discussed adding sharks to the tornado which enters some of the arenas in Epigenesis, but this might have dire legal consequences.

Oh, so now you care about copyright laws… Anyway, we spoke earlier about the similarities between your game and Unreal Tournament. The thing is, there’s not only a new Unreal Tournament due out this year, but one of the architects of that series, Cliff Bleszinski, recently announced that he was also working on a new sci-fi arena shooter code named Blue Streak. Does this have you worried, or make you feel better than there’s a hunger for this kind of game?

It makes me feel better, and I do believe that there is a huge empty void in the market waiting to be filled with this kind of adrenaline-filled, fast-paced shooter. Even though it’s reminiscent of Unreal Tournament, Epigenesis has its own niche with its focus on team-based sports. I look forward to playing both of those games, and I think there are enough players to fill all three games at the same time without any worries.

 

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