At some point, we all face an AI opponent so perfectly merciless that it seems utterly unstoppable. You repeat the battle again and again, studying the patterns, quickening your reactions, and honing your abilities to a razor's edge. But, what if your enemy is yourself?
In ECHO, your enemies are reflections of you. Created by the Palace - a mysterious structure of a civilization eons past - the Echoes look and act like you. More importantly, they learn from you, adopting your behaviors and using them against you. The more you run, the faster they become. The more you shoot, the better they return fire.
How you surpass your opponent is just as important as reaching your goal. Every encounter with the Echoes brings you face-to-face with your earlier choices, while also challenging you to balance future consequences.
ECHO is Ultra Ultra's debut game as a studio. CEO and Game Director Martin Emborg spoke with us about the inspiration behind ECHO, the challenges of creating a game around such a unique AI, and why they chose Unreal Engine 4 for the task.
Q: ECHO is Ultra Ultra's first game as a studio. Did you have prior experience with Unreal Engine 4, and why did you choose it for this project?
ME: Most of us hail from IO-Interactive, who use their own proprietary engine, Glacier 2, so we needed to find new tools. Actually, the timing was incredible, because the idea of the studio and ECHO was well under way. We were looking at other engines and how we could push them to the level of visual fidelity we wanted, when out of the blue Unreal Engine 4 was announced and released. It seemed like fate. Here was an engine perfectly suited to do the things we wanted to do, and affordable to boot. Being able to leave a AAA-studio and set up shop as an indie with tools at that same level felt great.
Q: What’s the story behind the name, Ultra Ultra?
ME: It's a mission statement!
Q: With so much of your team coming from a AAA background, what was the transition to an independent studio like, and were there any lessons learned you wish you had known at the start?
ME: I've gained a tremendous amount of respect for anyone starting and running a business of any kind, so I definitely see the leadership that I worked under at IO-Interactive in a new light. That said, there are many different ways to run a studio, and a big part of wanting to start one for ourselves was to run it the way we think that it should be done. Being free is incredibly motivating, and it feels like a very different way to make games; a better way. In that regard, it delivers on our daydreams, though the logistics sometimes take more focus from the creative aspect than I'd prefer.
Q: Who is the lead character, En, and what can you tell us about her reasons for going into the Palace?
ME: Very often in games the main character is either a non-entity or an 'average Joe' who faces something mysterious. In ECHO, we want the main character to be one of the mysteries of the game. As you progress, we slowly peel the layers of the backstory, enabling the player to piece En's identity together and the circumstances that led her to the Palace. Without spoiling anything, I can say that she's there to bring someone back from the dead. But, why this person died, what their relationship is, and why it's so important to her is something you'll have to discover for yourself.
Q: ECHO is quite visually striking, in part because it's so different from what we’ve come to expect from the sci-fi genre. How did this visual style originate?
ME: Tracing it back, the original spark for the Palace was probably "The Library of Babel" by J. L. Borges, which is a very beautiful and haunting short story that looks at meaning in infinity. It really stuck with me. It's very evocative, even though the descriptions of the Library itself are very sparse, not to mention paradoxical. From there it's hard to say – what does eternity look like? Certainly, movies like 2001 and Memories had an influence as well. I've also had a lot of instances in which people have asked me whether something specific has been an influence, and to my surprise the answer has been "yes," even though I wasn't consciously aware of it before.
Q: With Echoes able to learn from the player, it seems you truly are your own worst enemy. What was the inspiration behind this concept, and what kind of actions do the Echoes adopt?
ME: When you take a step back and look at the strengths of the video game medium, the player is the most interesting and complex component of any game, so we wanted to utilize that in our core gameplay. Everything you can do in the game, every move, every interaction, is something the Echoes will be able to learn and somehow use for your benefit or their own.
The level we've shown thus far is a very straight-forward map from early in the game, but later levels will even need you to 'cooperate' with the Echoes. It's a very interesting dynamic, making your enemy help you, especially because the process of “teaching” the necessary abilities often means putting yourself in harm's way.
Beyond that, there are many ways of getting an edge by teaching them actions like how to distract each other. Even something simple, like stopping to eat a piece of fruit, will have them focusing on the fruit as well, allowing you to slip by unnoticed.
Q: Do players need to worry about the Echoes becoming too powerful?
ME: Yes, definitely! You will want to try and achieve your goals in any given level without making them too dangerous. Choosing your actions wisely is the best way to play, but that is easier said than done as you'll most likely slip up somehow and need to react in order to survive. That's when the game is at its best in my opinion, when you're adapting to situations on the fly.
Q: How did this constant variation in player-action, AI-behavior, and lighting affect your approach to level design?
ME: ECHO is all about choice. Whenever the player does something it should be a conscious decision, because soon the enemies will be able to do the same thing as well, and the repercussions often change the way you'll need to go about completing the level. So, the level design needs to be especially player-facing, allowing people to be conscious of the different ways a level can be approached and the possible outcomes of those approaches.
Very often this will change several times over the course of playing a level, as abilities will often be used to survive against the Echoes, needing you to form a new strategy based on the sum of your choices. For instance giving them simple abilities, like using doors or crossing water, will change their patrols, drastically changing the dynamics of the map: What was a safe route before might be crawling with opposition now, and vice versa. Essentially, our level-design makes the way you use the echoing mechanic into a kind of dynamic puzzle element.
Q: It seems like you’re venturing into uncharted territory with the Echoes mechanic. How did you go about creating this in Unreal Engine 4?
ME: The AI was a huge challenge. In the beginning, we experimented with some very complex systems that emulated the player's behavior over a long time span and took into account many more invisible factors, and while that was certainly very interesting, it also felt a bit random from the player's perspective and didn't make for a very good gameplay experience.
The player has to be aware of what they've taught the Echoes, and be able to do something about it proactively, so we needed to create a very dynamic AI capable of learning and unlearning abilities within a much shorter time span.
Most of it is C++, but Unreal’s navmesh system is such a fast and powerful tool, it allowed us to make the AI as dynamic as it ended up being. That has definitely been one of the key features making the Echo-mechanic possible, and it's also been very helpful during the start of the project when we needed to make a lot of fast iterations and prototype different ideas.
Q: Were there any features of Unreal Engine 4 that proved to be more useful to ECHO’s creation than you had anticipated?
ME: Blueprint is a great tool that speeds up the creative process. It enables most everyone on the team to try out things, or tweak stuff without the hassle of a C++ recompile/reload. Also, it has allowed the programmers to do some quick over-the-shoulder Blueprint debugging on other team members' computers.
Also, we were very surprised by UE4's optimization. We kept expecting performance to drop as we added a lot of heavy graphics, and we were running enormous, unoptimized levels - and I do mean enormous – but to our delight, the engine just took it in stride.
And, much of this would have taken a lot longer without the help of the Unreal community. We've found a great many answers in there.
Q: You recently brought ECHO to PAX West. What was it like bringing your debut game as a studio into the public eye for the first time?
ME: We were quite nervous about how people would react to the experience, but fortunately I can say that the reactions have been overwhelmingly positive! It was nerve-wracking watching those first people play the demo though. It turned out that almost everyone died pretty quickly when they tried it for the first time. Watching those initial deaths, we were so worried that people would quit and feel like they had a bad experience, but then they 'got it' and proceeded to have a great time with it.
On a more general level, it’s been really great for the team to get the game out there. To feel that this thing we're working on is something a lot of people are already looking forward to playing, definitely gives us an extra push to make ECHO the best game we can!
Q: Where can people go to follow development and learn more about ECHO?