Image courtesy of Merge Conflict Studio.

Creative Underdogs in the Business Landscape: How Six UT Students Started an Award Winning Indie Game Studio


Written by Monica Garza

Comprised of six visionaries, Merge Conflict Studio is transforming the way marginalized perspectives and eco-conscious messaging are being amplified through inclusive, educational video games. Centered around such themes, Merge Conflict is devising meaningful gameplay and narratives as an independent video game development studio. Having never met each other before college, the team of creatives individually went into their academic careers without any notion to become founders, but their passion for higher-purpose game development soon led them down an unexpected yet congenial path of entrepreneurship. Let’s meet the minds behind Merge Conflict Studio:

Image courtesy of Merge Conflict Studio.

Melody Geiger

Melody Geiger, a 4th year student at The University of Texas at Austin studying Arts and Entertainment Technologies (AET) and Spanish, is the CEO and Lead Producer of Merge Conflict. After taking a programming class at her El Paso, TX based high school, Melody went on to cofound her school’s programming and game design club. “I always really enjoyed playing games, but I didn’t really know that you could actually make them until high school,” Melody recounts. This experience sparked a passion for Melody, leading her to pursue an education in game development during her academic career at UT.

Will Sords

Working alongside Geiger, Will Sords is the Merge Conflict COO and Audio Director. Sords graduated from UT Austin in December 2023 with a degree in Arts and Entertainment Technologies. Originally from Fairfax, Virginia, a suburb of Washington D.C., he was involved in theater audio technology all throughout middle and high school. Upon graduating high school, his interest in making video games surpassed his interest in theater productions, which instigated his AET educational journey at UT Austin.

Joseph Horak

Joseph Horak, also an El Paso native and senior AET student at UT, serves as the studio’s Chief Creative Officer and Narrative Director. While writing for their school newspaper sparked their interest in narrative design, Joseph discovered their passion for game development after one of their original games won an award in a local high school level competition. In addition to pursuing a degree in Arts and Entertainment Technologies, Joseph will also graduate with certificates in Computer Science and Creative Writing.

Karina Teruya

Serving as the Art Director of Merge Conflict, Karina Teruya hails from Coppell, Texas and is a fifth year UT Austin student triple majoring in Arts and Entertainment Technologies, Studio Art, and Plan II Honors. Similar to some of their team members, Karina also did not initially expect to find a deep interest in game development. Making games was not something that had previously crossed their mind until the summer after her senior year, however, her recently piqued interest in the exploration of game development led her to join UT’s Electronic Game Developer Society. Upon making their first game through the organization, she realized her love for the field and decided to add Arts and Entertainment Technologies to their list of majors.

Ethan Godwin

Originally from Raleigh, North Carolina, the studio’s Design Director, Ethan Godwin, recently finished his time on the Forty Acres and completed his degree in Arts and Entertainment Technologies. He recounts that high school was the time that he discovered his interest in game development. “I went to a [game development] summer camp that was hosted at UT, … and after doing that I was like ‘this is it this is what I want to do’.”

Connor Blankenship

Completing the Merge Conflict team is Connor Blankenship, a Seguin, Texas native who fills the roles of CTO and Lead Gameplay Designer for the studio. Connor graduated from UT last spring with a degree in Arts and Entertainment Technologies.

So, how does a group of six strangers end up creating traction at the intersection of art, tech, and business together? It all started in the summer of 2022, when Blankenship brought the team together for the first time to work on a budding project that would eventually turn into the studio’s first release, Re:Fresh. With a plan to divide and conquer the work, each creative took ownership of different elements of the development and production process.

Image courtesy of Merge Conflict Studio.

“Re:Fresh is an open-ended 3D platformer game in a solarpunk setting where you are tasked with repairing your town that has been damaged after a storm. It emphasizes cozy, relaxing gameplay that players can get lost in, as well as a wholesome and endearing narrative with lovable characters,” Godwin illustrated.

When we asked the team about their favorite part of game production, Godwin describes playtest as a pivotal part of the production process. “I think for me as a designer…my favorite part is honestly getting to watch people play [the games.] It’s really fun to see people react to the experience that you design for them.”

The solar punk game-style aesthetic of Re:Fresh also led to the unique and memorable design of the Merge Conflict mascot, Sprout. “I was just playing around with ideas, and I liked the idea of a character that bridges technology and nature together… I think that was super important for this game,” Teruya explains. Launched in April 2023, Re:Fresh is currently available on PC through the Steam Store.

Image courtesy of Merge Conflict Studio.

After seeing some initial success with Re:Fresh and the ongoing floating idea for Merge Conflict in the back of their minds, the six creatives were soon faced with an opportunity that would officially jumpstart their entrepreneurship journey: a UK based studio approached the group with an interest in working with them. While they had no initial intention of establishing a studio to house their games, creating a company would be a vital step in that collaboration process.

Geiger explains, “From there, it was just like, ‘well I don’t know what I’m doing and [the team] doesn’t know what they’re doing, so we’re just going to go ask a bunch of questions to people anywhere and everywhere.” As an inflection point, the team felt validated by the realization that people were willing to spend money on their games. “Seeing that there was at least some interest from other people, that was really cool to see,” Godwin conveys.

Photo of Merge Conflict team at the Games Developers Conference. Image courtesy of Merge Conflict Studio.

Originating from the creative side of game production plus now working on the business side has opened up new viewpoints for the team: “I always kind of wondered how these things actually work and how video games actually get made. You start to peek behind the curtain and you’re like ‘oh, so THAT’S how that works.’ There is a lot of cool discovery in seeing the process,” remarks Horak. While working on a startup demands initiative and responsibility, the team celebrates the level of independence it’s offered them as creatives: “It’s really exciting as a creative to be able to have full control over your output,” says Horak.

Engaging with the gaming industry as producers rather than consumers has been an exciting time of new horizons for the group. Sords describes The Games Developers Conference (GDC) as an incredible opportunity for growth and development: “It’s one of the biggest conferences every year where game developers from all over the world come to San Francisco and they give talks on their expertise in the industry, show off upcoming projects, deals are made to fund games there, it’s just a massive thing.” Last year, Merge Conflict had the opportunity to present their game on the Expo Floor, which paved the way for game developers from all over the world to play and provide feedback. The team returned to GDC this year, now with the goal of securing support and funding for their upcoming projects.

Image courtesy of Merge Conflict Studio.

With the goal of capitalizing on UT’s entrepreneurship resources before graduation, Geiger is currently one of twenty students making up the 5th Forty Acres Founders Program cohort, a pre-accelerator offered by the Herb Kelleher Entrepreneurship Center. Walking her through market validation and customer discovery, the program has introduced her to the fundamentals of entrepreneurship. “It’s been a really cool program to go through, especially seeing the variety of everyone in the class. Everyone’s working on a different venture, operating in a different space. [The program] has been super helpful thus far.”

Merge Conflict also competed in their first pitch competition, the Freed Family Pitch Competition, in Fall 2023, taking home the 3rd place prize of $5,000. Geiger described the experience of pitching a startup as an excellent learning opportunity and “very much a different world.” She adds, “I think the experience was incredibly positive and we were so fortunate to be supported by UT’s resources, whether that was the Herb Kelleher Entrepreneurship Center, Harkey Institute, the Kendra Scott Institute or the LaunchPad. We’ve met so many great mentors from each [organization], and without their help I feel like we would not have made it.”

Merge Conflict didn’t slow down after their first pitch and have since gone on to place 1st and secure the Best Pitch Award in the Global Sustainability Leadership Institute’s 2024 SEED Challenge, as well as serve as an alternate in the SXSW Pitch student startup category. In addition to their competitive wins, the studio’s first game, Re:Fresh, has received recognition from the Independent Game Festival, Unity Awards, and the Student Game Developer Association.

From left: Karina Teruya, Joseph Horak, Melody Geiger, Connor Blankenship, Will Sords, and Ethan Godwin. Image courtesy of the Herb Kelleher Entrepreneurship Center and Merge Conflict Studio.

The team eagerly encourages any students interested in entrepreneurship to take their first steps into the startup ecosystem. Geiger asserts the significance of being open to networking and collaboration, as well as utilizing entrepreneurship resources:

“You can choose to take advantage of those opportunities and resources and leverage them to kick start something. Kickstart opportunity is a good way of thinking about it.”

She also conveys the larger benefit of asking questions, which she credits as having helped them get to where they are now:

“Without us asking a bunch of questions, we wouldn’t really be where we are…Just being okay with failing and moving forward and just keeping on…just keep going.”

In terms of what’s next, the team could tell us that they are currently in production on a top-secret project they have been cooking behind the scenes but they couldn’t share much information on yet. Horak also hinted “we’re working with a studio in the UK…and we have a few little things that are building up now that are really exciting.” We do know one thing for sure: operating as a team with clarity and unity, the future prospects for Merge Conflict Studio are looking bright.

If you want to continue following the team’s journey, check out their website and connect with them on socials: X, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

This article is from the FOUNDER STORIES series, a feature article series published by the Herb Kelleher Entrepreneurship Center (HKEC) that highlights UT Austin student founder success stories and how the HKEC has played a role in their entrepreneurship journey. The HKEC offers a variety of dynamic resources to UT Austin students, including competitive funding opportunities, networking events, informative article series, mentorship and more.

To learn more about the entrepreneurship resources that the HKEC has to offer, visit our website and subscribe to our newsletter to get involved with future opportunities!



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