Jan 2017. Endless Space 2 is four months away from both its official release and its exit from Steam’s Early Access program. Amplitude’s marketing team is restless, wanting to give the community something special to thank them for their support during the months of Early Access.
The E.N.F.E.R. Alternate Reality Game was designed to give Endless Space 2 players a compelling interactive experience, but also be a way to have fun with our community while expanding the story around a peculiar character from the Endless Universe.
Since the very beginning of the narrative work on Endless Space 2, we loved the personality of E.N.F.E.R., the Artificial Intelligence created by the Sophons (one of the game’s civilizations). They developed that entity to take care of all the boring administrative tasks, freeing them to focus on what they like the most: irresponsibly audacious scientific experiments.
E.N.F.E.R. is central to the Sophons’ in-game quest, taking pragmatic (and often very disruptive) decisions that the player needs to handle with care--like declaring war on every other civilization. We wanted to bring that character to life and make the community interact with this “fun and unpredictable personality”. Check it out on Twitter here @I_AM_ENFER.
The Sophon in-game prologue starring E.N.F.E.R.
Since the release of our first game, we we have always wanted to make interesting out-game activities for our community. The community’s response was fantastic to the very short ARG we made to reveal Endless Space 2, and we knew we wanted to make a bigger one for the game’s full release. We decided very early on that we’d like to make E.N.F.E.R. come alive, and initially we thought about putting ourselves in the role of the A.I. via our forums and social media. That way we could give players hints to discover hidden commands to unlock rewards, but it was nothing as precise and as ambitious as what it became in the end. While we were mulling this over, we played Event…
Event is a sci-fi narrative exploration game created by the indie studio Ocelot Society, where you build a relationship with a lonely spaceship Artificial Intelligence. The Amplitude team knew the game designer, as he had worked at Amplitude on Endless Legend before departing to found Ocelot Society.
A crazy idea came up: ask Ocelot Society for help to create an E.N.F.E.R. chatbot, based on their previous work, so players would be able to really talk with it, create a relationship, and earn its trust…
The Event A.I. tool was used to create the E.N.F.E.R. chatbot.
A little chat with some friends.
Can you introduce Ocelot Society?
[Ocelot Society Team] We are a small team of friends based in Paris. The studio was born when we had the opportunity to turn an old prototype from our student years, Event, into a commercial game. Event lets you play as an astronaut in a lost spaceship with a distrustful computer as the last crew member. You can say anything you want to your mechanical friend, so it's up to you to convince it to bring you back to Earth... alive.
How did Amplitude approach you about the idea of doing the ARG and reusing your game’s technology?
[Ocelot Society Team] Emmanuel from Ocelot Society was once part of Amplitude (he does still like their Dust-infused beers) before he formed his own studio. At some point when he was visiting, two ‘Amplidudes’ grabbed him and put him in their secret room of cool ideas. They showed him the unrevealed trailer, told him all about the E.N.F.E.R. rebellion, and once the hype was at its climax, asked him to make it real by using the artificial intelligence from Event. Two phone calls and three Dust beers later, and Ocelot Society was prodding the beast...
Were you also involved in the creative process?
[Ocelot Society Team] Yes! Amplitude has a very indie way of making things, i.e. letting every developer involved come up with fresh ideas, constantly striving to improve the project. Throughout the production, Emmanuel was directly in contact with the writers (Note: Amplitude used our own writing staff but primarily two excellent British freelancers, who found the perfect tone of disdainful snark needed for a genius AI), sharing with them his experience of chatbots, and exchanging ideas for Machiavellian features.
Were there any technical challenges?
[Ocelot Society Team] The biggest challenge for Fabien, who was the lead programmer on Event, was to turn a classical Steam game into a website able to handle thousands of connections at the same time. Fortunately, he was helped by the GAMES2GETHER web team and experts from SEGA. Of course, there are always unexpected technical issues and last-minute bugs, especially with chatbots, who tend to rebel very fast...
The AI Update enabled players to access the AI tool, but also spread E.N.F.E.R. into the game.
Once the Ocelot team was onboard, we had to bring all our ideas together and turn it into a real adventure for the players. That’s when we had our crazed brainstorm with Amplitude game designers and writers. We imagined how the A.I. might spread from the game into our reality, and that’s when we came up with the idea of mixing the game’s A.I. with E.N.F.E.R. The game’s A.I. would become self-learning, managing to spread itself across the studio’s servers, accessing all our data including the game, and consequently preventing Endless Space 2 from being released on Steam…
E.N.F.E.R. thinks the Endless universe exists, that the game’s story is reality, and that it is stuck on a planet called Earth (in the middle of an underdeveloped Type 1 civilization that hasn’t even colonized a single additional planet). It has to start by establishing first contact to understand the humans' civilization; it will most certainly need human help to reach the stars, access Dust, and rediscover the knowledge of the Endless.
We then imagined it would use the game, the GAMES2GETHER forums, and social media with its own Twitter account and even a custom-made website to communicate with players, asking them questions in order to build its own knowledge database. It’s that specific interaction that Ocelot Society was working on, a chat with E.N.F.E.R., where the player had to build a relationship and earn its trust to get hidden admin access. From there they would be able to enter hidden commands to trigger different effects, finally locking down the AI once and for all.
With Amplitude staff under surveillance by E.N.F.E.R., we had to find an underground communication channel with players to ask them for help to contain the A.I. so that the game could be released. But that’s another story…
A wall in the office filled with the results of a Machiavellian brainstorm.
Connecting the dots
We wanted the players to experience a virtual treasure hunt, digging up commands that they would be able to enter in the E.N.F.E.R. chatbot. Everything started with the commands we had already placed a while back in previously released assets, the Vodyani’s Vision Early Access Trailer and the Horatio Prologue. At the time we did not yet have the details of the ARG, but we thought the codes would give a nice ‘wow’ effect as the players would have had them right in front of their eyes for months without realizing what they were--long before the ARG started.
We then planted additional commands in different places such as the game’s main menu, in-game unique planet illustrations (names were hidden in the Sophon’s Vision Early Access trailer), our websites (including a keyboard input to type on the GAMES2GETHER website), and even one in Endless Space 1. In the end, we had a list of ten hidden commands the players had to find. I think the craziest idea was to plant commands in an online banner E.N.F.E.R. had created to promote its own website. Players had to answer a riddle on the banner to access the correct command.
Each of those commands was entered in the E.N.F.E.R. admin, and each unlocked a downloadable package of data. They included cool rewards, but also ten steganographically encoded files for the players t̺̺o͜ ̥̖̞̱͙͖̕d̩͠ę̳c̝̝̪̤̫̤͕͠r̠̬̯̭̰y̜p̤̪̙t̞̥͎ that would give them the final commands to ultimately lock down E.N.F.E.R. on its Twitter account. The ten first players to enter the lockdown codes became our community heroes.
A keyboard input found in the GAMES2GETHER source code made the command appear.
We knew it would go wrong
When stuffing such a complex interaction with the community into a limited timeframe, you know that things will go wrong. The first proof of this came from the players; they are always better than you expect! We learned from the first, smaller ARG we created, that they would be around four times faster than what we planned… Give them a riddle… solved… give them an encrypted file… decoded. We tried to keep control by choosing a reddit feed as the secured communication channel, but the most active players were on Discord, and it took us some time before we found the channel to track their progress. It was really exciting; they were hunting for clues while we were hunting their progress!
We also had a lot of fun when we asked players to define different images on the E.N.F.E.R. website in order to build its knowledge database, and players gave some completely absurd definitions. A pug became our savior, Star Trek became Star Wars, and we discovered the existence of little cakes called fruglecubes… We had to play along, adding those definitions to the chatbot, resulting in some pretty hilarious conversations.
We also realized that it is difficult for players to cover a large spectrum of subjects in front of a chatbot if they are not pointed in the right direction. We had hundreds of very funny answers and conversations that players never triggered during the chats, simply because it’s hard for them to think about what they don’t see. Maybe we’ll have an opportunity to showcase those in the future...
Just a few of the crazy answers E.N.F.E.R. could give to some specific questions.
The most unexpected thing that happened was at the very end, while the players were hunting for the final command. We had completely hacked the Endless Space 2 Steam page with Zalgo text and had hidden the last command in the images’ names. We were talking in real time, as E.N.F.E.R., via the Steam page short description, with the Discord community. Each new message meant an update on the Steam page which is clearly *not* how that page is supposed to be used…
At one point, we crashed the page and Endless Space 2 was released from Early Access! Fortunately, it was two in the morning in Paris; we managed to contact Valve and they fixed the issue within a few minutes… They were aware of the ARG and were very reactive; luckily the stars were aligned in our favor and it didn't have any consequences. We were hoping the community would release the game earlier than expected, but didn’t want it to go like that!
E.N.F.E.R. used the short description of the Steam page to chat with the Discord community.
The final countdown
We hoped that the players would lock down E.N.F.E.R. just before the official release date, as we had planned a final reward for them. If they managed to solve the ARG, they would trigger the release of Endless Space 2 a day earlier than planned. We contacted the ten community heroes that locked E.N.F.E.R. and asked them to record a little sentence. We used those recordings in the Twitch final countdown stream during which we unveiled the Launch Trailer along with the announcement of the release. It was pretty insane to pull that stunt while preparing the release of the game, but the love, passion and feedback we got from our community were definitely worth the effort. We’ll be back!
Oh and E.N.F.E.R. has been contained and is now harmless. We’ve just reactivated him so you should be able to say hello to it on its Twitter account. It should be totally docile...