Shift Preview: Staring At The Sun

I stared down the Sun and saved an entire African village in this clever and addictive puzzle game from Belgium.

Shift is one of the games I saw, played and judged at Microsoft’s Imagine Cup in Poland. Like all the games at the Imagine Cup, Belgium’s NomNom Productions is made up of early 20s university students who are working on the game part-time while completing their studies. They designed it along the theme “Tackling the world’s toughest problems”, developed it using Microsoft’s XNA suite and plan to eventually release it on Xbox Live Arcade.

Nom Nom Productions took out the second place prize in the Game Design category at the Imagine Cup. So, now that my judging duties are over, I thought I’d tell you more about their game.

What Is It?
A puzzle game, essentially. Each puzzle begins with a grid of “neutral” tiles. You move around the perimeter of the grid so that you’re always facing down one line. Select that line and you shift the tiles in your favour, ie. a “saved” tile. Then your opponent has its turn, doing the same thing and shifting tiles in its favour, ie. a “ruined” tile. Your aim is to save a majority of tiles by the end of the match.

Sounds simple? It is. However, there are some complications. For one, not every tile is neutral at the outset; some are actually “blockades”, meaning you can’t shift them, nor any neutral tile that follows after them. Similarly, if your opponent has ruined a tile along the line you want to shift, you will only save tiles preceding the ruined tile – the tiles following it will remain untouched.

Sounds more complex? Yep, it is. However, a couple of exceptions to the above rules switch things up even further. You can’t shift past a ruined tile except when there are neutral tiles on the line, but there are no tiles at all in front of the ruined tile. That is, when the ruined tile is at the edge of the grid.

And, you can’t shift past a ruined tile except when there is one of your saved tiles following it. So even if your opponent has ruined every tile in a line, excep the last one which you’ve saved, you can shift the entire line and save every tile.

The idea is that you are saving an African village from all manner of economic and environmental problems. The village can have from one to four puzzles, each representing a specific problem. The screenshots here, from top to bottom, represent the issues of trade, water pollution and agriculture.

As you complete each puzzle, the village in the centre is upgraded and a new, more advanced version of the puzzle appears. When you have multiple puzzles to tackle, you can switch between at will, in between turns. The meters on the left indicate how much time you have left to solve each problem, and they’re constantly ticking down as you ignore them or fill up as you save more tiles in their respective puzzles.

I really hope that all makes sense!

What We Saw?
The Imagine Cup build contained a single level set in Africa. We played through the tutorial which easily taught all the basics of play as outlined above. Then we tackled the African village with four puzzles on the boil at once. I was able to complete several of the puzzles and unlock more advanced versions of each. I also had a brief play of the competitive multiplayer mode where, as you’d expect, two players take turns to save/ruin tiles. I beat the NomNom designer on my first go, but I suspect he was going easy on me.


How Far Along Is It?
I reckon you’d call it alpha. NomNom know their puzzle design is done – they’ve got all the rules where they want them. Now it’s just a matter of adding polish, in terms of audio, in particular, and then creating more content and levels. All of which is very much part of the plan, I know from discussing it with the team.

What Needs Improvement?
We actually witnessed improvements over the week-long competition. When the judging panel first saw Shift, for example, a couple of us mentioned having difficulty telling apart saved and ruined tiles. The next day, NomNom had added a simple green or red outline around the tiles to indicate whether they belonged to you or your opponent. You can’t even see it in these screenshots, that’s how quickly game development can move!

Another confusion I mentioned to NomNom was that I wasn’t really sure who my opponent was. I knew they’d told me it was the Sun destroying my crops, but once that had gone in one ear and out the other it wasn’t necessarily clear who or what I was playing against. Again, NomNom was on the case. The following day, in addition to your little UN-sponsored flying machine (which you can see circling the grid of tiles in each screenshot), they had added to the board an avatar for your opponent, in this case a little sun.

I’d still like to see this taken further. In the same way that Mboko (bottom right of each screen) represents the health of the village, as he not only offers you advice but his face grows happier or sadder based on your performance, it’d be good to see the Sun looming over the village, growing angrier or weaker again based on your performance. Or show it in a cut-scene at the start of the level, perhaps?

In a similar vein, I’d like to see the village upgraded in more dramatic visual fashion when you complete a puzzle. Showing various buildings expanding is nice, but why do the puzzle islands merely become whited out when complete? I want to see them be transformed into island paradises!


What Should Stay The Same?
NomNom has delivered a clever and original puzzle game. They’ve taken the simple concept of “shifting” and embellished it in a number of smart ways without detracting from or confusing that core concept. Those rule complications I outlined above are what tease out the depth of the strategy on offer, demonstrating NomNom’s design acumen.

What’s really impressive is that there’s no luck involved. What’s on the board is what you have to deal with, so there are no unexpected surprises. The AI might make an unpredictable move, but that’s all part of the challenge. It’s fun and fast-paced, too, without sacrificing any strategic depth. The timer on each issue adds a real sense of urgency while the ability to switch between puzzles makes you feel like you’re looking after the whole village, not just ticking off a series of discreet challenges.

Having said that, if I could pinpoint one aspect I’d tweak it’d be to do with when you’re playing multiple puzzles. I’d love to see the choices you make in terms of which problems to tackle go on to provide some sort of gameplay advantage. Right now, you switch between puzzles to ensure time doesn’t run out. But what if focusing on, say, the water pollution puzzle conferred a specific powerup related to the theme? You would then be able to choose what powerups you attain by adjusting your playing style.

Everything else, though, can stay the same. The visual style works, its cartoon design takes the edge of any seriousness you might be fearing given the worthy themes at stake. Indeed, it simply means the cute village becomes a place you want to take care of and save from economic and environmental disaster.

Final Thoughts
Shift is a smart puzzle game. What’s impressive is that NomNom has designed a core puzzle mechanic that is entertaining and challenging on its own. That they’ve then imbued it with a political message aimed at raising awareness of the world’s problem, all without beating you over the head, is a fine achievement. And to do so in a way that further strengthens that core puzzle mechanic is even more remarkable.

Shift would stand on its own as a puzzle, regardless of its themes. Let’s hope we get the chance to see it on Xbox Live soon.