Last month, Twitch’s main gaming channel was taken over a long weekend with dire news: the Space Weather Prediction Center projected that a massive solar flare threatened the planet with an extinction-level event on December 12th, 2021. The only way to stop the solar flare from wiping out life on Earth as we know it? Take control of production at a lights out factory in order to manufacture a series of multi-stage rockets capable of deploying a protective shield over the planet. Over 50K Twitch viewers were tasked with farming resources to manufacture ship parts, while 66 Twitch streamers banded together to assemble those parts into a fleet of rockets under the project codename Helios: Rampart Initiative.
If the thought of controlling remote factories over Twitch to save the planet sounds implausible, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that Helios: Rampart Initiative was an experimental alternate reality game by Alice & Smith, the team behind ARGs for everything from No Man’s Sky and Bloodlines 2 to their single player ARG experience, The Black Watchmen. Helios played out on Twitch as an idle game, controlled through a combination of dedicated Twitch channels and the game’s custom Twitch extension.
Living up to the game’s incremental gaming roots, the primary method of engaging with the Helios game involved tuning into participating streamers’ broadcasts, collecting resources in the background. But players engaging with the ARG layer had to delve into the Twitch extension’s command prompt to activate the lights out factory and remotely resolve the occasional bottleneck stopping the factory operating at peak efficiency.
Helios‘ balance of low effort participation with higher intensity puzzle-solving did an exemplary job of providing broad swaths of the player base with concrete ways to engage on a meaningful level. The game’s greatest strength, however, and what might make this Alice & Smith’s greatest game to date, is how it played around with viewer and streamer dynamics on the platform. But to explain that, it’s first necessary to explain how the game unfolded.
Lights On at the Lights Out Factory: Prelude to Rocket Assembly
Prior to the official launch of Helios, a series of prominent Twitch Gaming streams including an episode of OTK’s Loot Goblins and Twitch Rivals’ Doritos Bowl were interrupted with a “hacked” broadcast of a mechanical voice, reading out a series of numbers. Around the same time, a vague tweet from Alice & Smith directed players to the Twitch channel for a declassified Department of Defense satellite, DSCS III-A3.
It was on the DSCS III-A3 Twitch stream that players were first asked to download the game’s Twitch extension, featuring a command terminal granting partial access to the satellite. A series of puzzles delivered through the terminal gradually unlocked access to the lights out factory. Many of these tasks required collective action: after solving a series of puzzles, players learned that in order to open the main door leading into the factory, 200 players needed to enter a specific command into the terminal. A subsequent series of puzzles led to a code that would turn on the lights in the facility…after 100 players input the new code.
Finally, as the most challenging coordinated ask of the game, players needed to work in concert to collectively power up the station by identifying the three power grids to the appropriate levels, without exceeding the thresholds. Commands entered into the Twitch extension’s terminal would have direct impacts on the DSCS Twitch stream, effectively replicating the gameplay mechanics (and, in the case of this puzzle, the organizational headaches) of Twitch Plays Pokémon.
Unlocking the Casual Game: Farmville For Extinction Level Events
Once players gained full access to the facilities, a broadcast on the main Twitch Gaming channel explained why they spent the past week hacking into a remote production factory: a solar flare 20 times bigger than the Carrington Event of 1859 would take place on December 12th. An organization known as the Helios Task Force was re-activated to organize citizens in remotely operating the lights out facility to build rockets, through the RAMPART Initiative.
At this point, the casual game that served as the centerpoint of the Helios ARG unlocked, allowing players to choose whether they wanted to participate as “Viewer Agents” or “Streamer Agents”. By watching the streams of participating “Streamer Agents”, players could earn raw materials like Zinc, Copper, and the fancifully named “Gamium” and “Twitchitrium” within the game’s extension. These raw materials could be combined to make refined materials like turbine pumps and batteries.
Meanwhile, “Streamer Agents” were asked to select a rocket module to construct: building each module required a list of component parts, that Streamer Agents could construct within their own extensions. But while viewers traded time for resources, streamers relied on viewers to transfer refined materials in order to manufacture the necessary components. This established a three-tiered resource management gaming structure: at the highest level, the community needed to ensure that each of the five rocket modules were being produced. This was managed by streamers playing a resource management game to manufacture the appropriate rocket components to create the modules, while viewers played a separate resource management game to ensure streamers were provided with the appropriate refined materials to make the components that make the modules that make the multi-stage rockets to save the world.
Players soon learned that a number of external factors could influence the game: for instance, Twitch hype trains, raids, and bit donations might temporarily increase the production of rarer materials for viewers. And anecdotally, viewers noticed that different streams were more likely to generate certain raw materials than others. In a post-game chat, Alice & Smith’s Andrea Doyon noted that the extension was designed to allow drop rates to be impacted by everything from player experience points, time of day, and weather conditions.
Another Round of Puzzling: Bypassing the Twitchitrium Bottleneck
During the first 24 hours of Helios‘ casual game, viewers and streamers collaborated to manufacture an impressive number of modules for four of the five designs. However, one raw material necessary for the production of the final module escaped players’ grasps: Twitchitrium.
Digging into the game’s command terminal, players soon learned that the data relay function controlling Twitchitrium was corrupted. Repairing the corrupted function triggered the game’s final puzzle requiring collective action. Players could look up the status codes of other raw materials, but those results would be different based on their country of origin. For instance, Norweigan players could look up 00M4 as the code for Titanium, while players in Turkey could look up Z1FE for Gold. Identifying the results from enough countries provided the command prompt to unlock Twitchitrium, allowing more casual players to complete production of the Barrier Emitter component that stopped an Extinction Level Event.
An ARG Built for Twitch: Gameplay That Rewards Both Viewer and Streamer
Helios was made for Twitch – and not just because it was designed to run off the streaming site as its platform. For streamers, successfully completing modules got their username and profile picture featured on the main Twitch Gaming channel alongside footage of their completed module as reward. But more importantly, it provided a way to more actively and directly engage with their channel’s viewers without disrupting from their core content.
While some Streamer Agents following the ARG like DeejayKnight and Geeky Pastimes dedicated the whole channel to Helios for the weekend, many streamers switched between Helios and other games, relying on overlays and screenshared Notepad docs to let active players know what resources they needed. Nightmareo mixed things up by playing the rhythm game osu!, while ONE_shot_GURL ran Pokemon pack opening giveaways and Lana_Lux ran a live game dev stream. Supercatkei cross-played the game in parallel with an annual holiday party with some of her streamer friends.
Within an individual streamer’s video, the game did nothing to tempt viewers away from content they were enjoying. However, on the game’s main “hub” streams, the Twitch extension unlocked a feature that provided a directory of active streamers along with which mission they’re playing, along with which tasks they’re trying to complete in a way that went beyond Twitch’s built-in streaming categories.
From the viewer perspective, Helios provided an additional avenue of providing non-monetary support to streamers you already support, and a discovery tool to find new and interesting streamers that wouldn’t necessarily pop up on the Twitch main page or through post-stream Twitch raids. Over the course of the long weekend, I personally ended up checking out 33 different streamers I wouldn’t have come across otherwise, and followed or subscribed to more than a few of those. The game also allowed both viewers and streamers to unlock achievements to reward that behavior.
Many of the core gameplay mechanics of Helios are native to the Twitch experience, but have been subverted to provide fresh alternatives. Twitch affiliates and partners can enable channel points to reward active view time…but Helios provides a narrative purpose to spend those points. Twitch raids and Twitch categories invite viewers to discover new channels, but don’t provide shared context. And while Jackbox Games has inspired an entire ecosystem of games designed to allow streamers to play with Twitch viewers at scale, those games frequently serve as a replacement for streamers’ traditional content rather than as a complement to it.
At a strategic level, Helios asks “what do viewers and streamers already do on Twitch, and how can a game be designed to enable them to do it better.” And on so many levels, the game succeeds at that goal.
Countdown to Launch with Streamer Ambassadors
As part of the content strategy for Helios, Alice & Smith partnered with a number of prominent Twitch streamers including DeeJayKnight, ONE_shot_GURL, DataDave, and Lana_Lux to serve as ambassadors for the game, actively playing along as high profile “Streamer Agents”. This role culminated in the four hosting a final launch countdown watch party on the Twitch Gaming channel to see the results of player efforts. During the stream, DeeJayKnight shared an impressive array of stats from the ARG. According to the stream, Helios reached over 225K viewers, with 55K players adding the extension and becoming active players. Players gathered over 3.6M raw materials that got refined into 169K refined materials, leading streamers to craft 2,341 components to needed to craft the necessary rocket parts. And yes, that was enough to save the world from a hyper-accelerated case of global warming.
Importantly for a casual stream-based game likely to have new players dropping in at all hours, the narrative was designed to be simple and succinct: when new viewers asked what was going on, streamers or their chats could say “it’s a game where the world is coming to an end, and we’re building rockets to stop it.” Even the game’s more intensive summary of the ARG’s events could be condensed into a 2-minute video, leading much of the final launch countdown stream to be a discussion of the real story for Helios: viewers’ and streamers’ personal experiences and accomplishments.
If you’re looking for more details on the puzzle elements, the Game Detectives’ Helios wiki is an essential resource. The DSCS Twitch channel also has a number of “how to play” documents that provides detailed screenshots and documentation for both viewers and streamers alike, for a more visual representation of how the game was structured.