We caught up with developer Fishing Cactus following their Shift Quantum release back in 2018 to discuss the difficulties and benefits of working with existing IP, as well as taking the opportunity to discuss the studio and its future plans.
Can you tell me a little bit of history about the development team behind Shift Quantum?
Shift Quantum is our first all-modern-platform title and our first commercial Unreal Engine game.
Our studio is called Fishing Cactus; we are based in Mons Belgium. We have a team of twenty-five and are a multi-project company. Shift Quantum’s core team was composed on average by five amazing talents and went up to about ten people for the last five months of the project to tackle the console fun, QA and game polish.
Fishing Cactus started its activities back in 2008, quickly growing from four people to about thirty within four years of activity, mainly driven by work-for-hire contracts. We started strong creating mostly mobile games thanks to our custom multi-platform engine called Mojito. We had the chance to create the mobile port of the Xbox 360 version of After Burner Climax with Sega, worked on games for TV IPs like Survivor and also created the mobile version of the great Learn2Fly (originally a Flash game, too), still available on iOS and Android.
Back in 2015 we took a major decision in the studio to go back to a more rooted position business-wise and started focusing again on our own games, on PC and later consoles. It all started with Epistory – Typing Chronicles, our first OIP game on Steam, 100% Fishing Cactus original idea. We are now trying to focus the entire company on OIP and IP collaborations with other studios like it’s the case on Shift Quantum, and still in-development title, Ary and the Secret of Seasons (collaboration with Exiin Studio in Brussels).
A team acquiring an existing IP to take on seems something that doesn’t happen very often. Can you tell me a little bit about the decision to work with the IP?
Back when Fishing Cactus started its activities in 2008, Shift was actually the first project we worked on. The team simply contacted Armor Games and a long-term partnership was started. We created the first non-Flash Shift game on iOS, just when the app store had started being successful with the launch of the iPhone. The iPhone version was a straight port of the Flash game for mobile. In the later years, we also ported Shift 2 to iOS and Android, and even did a Windows-phone version of the game! We also created a cool version for PSP and a 3D version for Nintendo 3DS called Shifting World. Our connection with the IP is really strong and working on Shift games has actually been quite a love story when you look at the track record.
How did you find working with an existing IP versus, say, your previous games where you were working with a whole new setting; like Epistory and Algobot?
Working on Shift Quantum was very open, of course, we kept the core mechanic intact, but Armor Games has been trusting us with the game since 2008, therefore they gave us total freedom on this next-gen version of Shift. We wanted to make a great puzzle game, amongst the ones to remember, and we wanted to give the game some soul, some background, and an embedded level editor.
We treated Shift Quantum as our own IP, we first had incubation meetings for about three to four months to discuss the game pillars, mechanics, blocks and story, but also talked about strategy and marketing. Then we started working on the editor and after that on the game itself. We did not have to send reports of progression or game progress status to anyone as Shift Quantum was 100% self-funded. We teamed up with Red Panda Interactive on consoles as there was just too much to do on the administrative and marketing front dealing with all these platforms together, but for the rest, Shift Quantum followed a process almost 100% similar to our own IP titles.
The decision to tell the story without words and dialogue seems perfectly suited to the game. Was this decision made early on, or was it always the intention?
It was always the intention to leave most of the story open to interpretation. The theme behind Shift Quantum is strong, it’s personal and it’s dark, it’s actually far from its cyber-techno facade. We just want people to take a moment once they have finished the game and make a small effort to tell themselves the Shift Quantum story — their Shift Quantum story. We know that people like to be taken by the hand, we know that, nowadays, we have become quite lazy in regards to understanding what we are seeing. With this game, we put our faith in the few who will push themselves a little and listen to the soul of the game.
Shift Quantum, as an IP, is obviously very precious to yourselves to have gone through the acquisition — and then development — process. Are you hoping to continue working with the game in sequel or extra-content form?
The great thing with Shift Quantum is its community-driven level editor, meaning that theoretically, this game will have endless content. We are already working and bringing more content to the game, like new blocks and levels. We might also bring some extra features to the games in the form of a DLC, at a later stage of the game’s lifecycle.
Over the years, I’ve spoken to a fair few level designers about their planning techniques. Can the team share any of their thoughts on the processes behind the puzzle layout?
The first thing we do while experimenting with newly designed blocks (even before they are implemented), is to identify all the ways they can be used to create a problem. Each one of them creates a micro-problem, which has a micro-resolution that I call a ‘solving pattern’.
The puzzles are designed to increase in difficulty while players develop their understanding of the different mechanics. Identifying the ‘solving patterns’ required to solve each puzzle allows us to make sure they are taught in order, and that there is only one new thing per puzzle.
In Shift Quantum, each branch focuses on a few ‘solving patterns’ that are taught and combined with increasing difficulty. Pushing a movable block to jump on it is one pattern, shifting inside it is another, moving two blocks at the right place to create a path when shifting through is a more complex pattern that builds upon the previous ones, and so on.
The tutorial level has only one key move and lets players figure it out by themselves. Harder levels combine the previously learned ‘solving patterns’ with a macro layer of resolution. Players also have to solve the macro problem: in which order each part needs to be done and how they interact with each other.
Besides that, the presentation of the puzzle is our last way to regulate difficulty. We can put the emphasis on the solution with a clear shape, or hide it behind misleading visual patterns.
I first saw the game whilst at PC Gamer Weekender, and then again at EGX Rezzed. Games with puzzle elements are sometimes hard to communicate at gaming expos — how did you find the public reaction to Shift Quantum at events?
Watching people play Shift Quantum is an amazing experience; it’s like the world has stopped around the player. We truly enjoyed showing the game to the public and seeing their brains literally try to run away from their skull. The players who tried Shift Quantum at shows were amazing, most came back with friends to show them the game, and pretty much did our job, explaining how the game worked and the philosophy behind it. It’s always really satisfying to see that Shift Quantum is actually a multiplayer game: while one was playing, two or three bystanders were pointing the player what he/she should do to solve the puzzle, like a hive brain in the process, Axon Vertigo would have been proud 🙂
When I played through the event build earlier in the year, you mentioned that the levels were not taken directly from the full game, but instead made with the level editor. Can you tell me a little bit more about the level editor?
Well, all the levels in the game were made with the level editor, actually, the level editor was what we started developing in the first place. It was designed to be simple to use, usable with a game controller and to work on all platforms. We are actually super proud that all the levels made with the editor, regardless of the platform, end up being playable on any platform that runs the game. This means levels made with the Switch version of the game will also be playable on Xbox, PS4 and PC.
For the launch of Shift Quantum, you ran a guerrilla marketing campaign revolving around a kind-of in-universe company called Axon Vertigo. Have you had any major takeaways from trying non-traditional marketing which you would be willing to share?
Axon Vertigo is the company that invented Shift Quantum. It’s a mega-corporation kind of a Tesla meets IBM meets Google. They are the world leaders in cerebral contentedness, meaning they can heal your soul in exchange for your brain power. It’s totally free.
Axon Vertigo has a website, acting as its nowadays-version of what Axon Vertigo is in the game, but in an earlier phase of its development, when it was beta testing its solution. Shift Quantum is the latest cerebral-contentedness application created by Axon Vertigo. On Axon Vertigo’s website, you’ll see that we invite people to beta test the solution. We have received multiple applications from people who are willing to become beta testers and lend us their brain.
This part of the marketing was quite unique and novel but not really easy to exploit as a presales argument, as we were trying to hide the obvious link between the game and the company prior to releasing the game trailer. It works more as a reality incrustation and a transmedia narrative for the players who are intrigued by the story world and decide to dig deeper inside Axon Vertigo’s secrets.
With Shift Quantum now released, what’s the next project for Fishing Cactus?
We are working on Ary and the Secret of Seasons with Exiin but also on the sequel to Epistory which is still unnamed and finally, we are also working on a game based on the Wormworld Saga from Daniel Lieske (www.wormworldsaga.com)
Disclaimer: Jupiter Hadley, one of the website owners, is an Adept Game Wizard for Armor Games. You can read more information on our disclaimers here.