There is a lot more than indie game fame hinging on Santipab “Ruben” Tipparach’s game, Fleet Hackers. If the game turns into a full-time job, he will be able to apply for an entrepreneur’s VISA. If not, he will have to return to his home country of Thailand.

It’s a logistical maze any international student knows well. Many of them, after finishing their studies, find jobs and work under the Optional Practical Training (OPT) visa. But when that expires after 12 months, it’s a scramble to stay in the country.

For Tipparach, that moment came after he finished his Bachelor’s in computer science from Bemidji State and was working as a software developer in Minneapolis.

“I had a good set up,” he said. He rented a nice house, made good money, and had a solid group of friends. But when his OPT was up, it was time to look for other options. He was drawn to NDSU’s graduate program, and so he packed up and came to Fargo.

Here, he found a community he wasn’t expecting: the game-makers. He joined NDSU’s Special Interest Group (SIG) Game Developers group, or SIGGDev for short, and instantly found his people. This lead him to attend the Fargo Game-Maker’s meet-up organized by Kyle Weik, where he tapped into the off campus indie game dev scene.

As someone who has had a long-time passion for game-making, finding this group was a huge relief, he said. It was something that was lacking in Minneapolis

“I attended some meet-ups,” he said. “But there were never any actual game developers.”

At NDSU, he and the SIGGDev team host events like the Game Jam and weekly meet-ups. He has also found support in faculty like architecture professor Ben Bernard, who lends his virtual reality equipment out for game-making purposes.

All of this lead Tipparach to begin pursuing a dorm room dream, one he concocted with a graphic designer colleague as sophomores in college. The idea was Fleet Hackers, a real-time strategy game set in space, centered around the lives of a team of space pirates.

Fleet Hackers: Real-time strategy + Virtual Realityfleethackers

What he’s built over the course of a few months, squeezing in game-making time between his studies and his on campus job, is a strategy game complete with graphic art and custom music. A quick demo of this game involves flying a spaceship over a map, and using controls to attack barges and fighter jets.

“I’ve always had an idea for a spaceship game where you can move around,” Tipparach said.

Recently, Tipparach began exploring what Fleet Hackers could look like in the realm of virtual reality. He has an early stage demo of the game which I was able to try out. Here’s my experience:

I start out sitting in Captain’s chair. The scene from the cockpit is a galaxy glowing red, a huge planet not too far away nestled in an asteroid belt, and another ship in the distance. I look all around, gathering my bearings.

Tipparach takes the keyboard. “This is the main feature,” he said.

Suddenly, I’m ejected from the spaceship and into the stars. It’s a sensation made even more real by the interior physics engine, Tipparach explains. It was jarring to him at first, too.

“Your brain has to get used to moving at high velocity,” he said. “When you Press J, you get ejected out of the ship at 80 miles per hour instantly.”

After shooting into space, I realize I’m in a little space chair and can move around at will. We putter over to the other ship and jump in, to explore a different interior.


A glimpse into the RTS version of the game

Home is where the game-makers are

Tipparach has only been building the virtual reality aspect for around three weeks, and hopes to continue building the Fleet Hackers universe. As the primary 3D modeler, progress is limited to his free time. But he doesn’t let that stop him. In fact, he’s hoping to bridge his research as a graduate student with the work he is doing in game design.

“I’m trying to make NDSU the place where I learn to make video games,” he said. “It’s where I found my voice as a game developer.”

Bernard, the NDSU professor who’s aided Tipparach in his game-making journey, said this is exactly what they hope to see happen as faculty.

“My job is to provide tools and share that information with students, faculty and the community. But I’m not making use of tools the way this guy [Tipparach] is,” Bernard said. “He’s making stuff happen.”


Growing up in Thailand, Tipparach said he was drawn to study in the United States because, “this is where technology is.” His personal connection to this region comes from his childhood, when he lived in Grand Forks for 5 years as his dad earned a Ph.D at University of North Dakota. After that he moved around to a variety of cities. He never really stayed in one place, he said.

Here, however, it’s different.

“Out of all the places I’ve been,” he said, “Fargo feels like the place I should be.”

The Fleet Hackers team includes Tipparach, Irina Levin, Ivan Rastrigin, Matthew Nuerurer, John Bell-Clement, and Matthew Schneider. They are launching their game on August 31, at 7 PM at NDUS’s Quentin Burdick Building, room 104. They invited everyone to come check it out (this includes virtual reality demos!)

Because he is a non-immigrant, Tipparach cannot legally make money on the game until after he has graduated in December 2017. He plans to launch a Kickstarter next summer, and will launch the final product in December on Steam.

In the meantime, you can follow along with the progress of Fleet Hackers, here.


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Marisa Jackels