Blizzard's Overwatch ARG Overexcites - Hacking Ensues

Business Wire
The Blue Recluse
Blizzard has a funny way of doing things. They're known for their improvements in-game (patches galore), and yet players have jokingly trademarked the phrase "coming soon" for Blizzard as such developments take longer than fans would like. With such a large revenue bracket and massive player base, quality is Blizzard's thing.

Although it is most noticeable in their games, their particular level of craftsmanship extends to game releases, sponsored events, and company involvement in the gaming community. This goes doubly for their hottest game: Overwatch. For the WoW-heads among you screaming in protest, the last recorded subscriber number for World of Warcraft was 5.5 million in September 2015. During launch week Overwatch had more than 7 million people playing. As Blizzard has said it will no longer release player numbers in 2016, our best guess will have to do. My money is on Overwatch.

Back to the matter at hand, the next confirmed Overwatch hero to hit the game is Sombra, translating to shadow in Spanish. For Blizzard, this is another opportunity to set the internet abuzz with anticipation. The search for Sombra has been made into an ARG, an alternate reality game.  For the noobs among you, an ARG is a real-life game where fans interpret clues about Sombra by detecting hints within Blizzard announcements/content. These clues can be anything from text within a trailer to a hidden QR code. To date, discoveries pertaining to Sombra are few: she is an associate of Reaper, has hacking abilities, speaks Spanish, and is able to stump fans with little effort.

Game Detectives, a Reddit community driven by the sole purpose of solving ARG's, can be thanked for their dedication to the search. While they certainly aren't the only group pursuing Sombra, they are an organised force, conducting operations over the voice chat program Discord.

Posted by Redditor Blinry
The game was teased into existence in June when a hex cypher in the hero Ana's origin video was found to read, Sombra. On 19 July, in a developer update video for Ana, those with too much free time on their hands detected a small static bit and beep at the end of the video. These sounds were not included at the end of previous update videos which propelled ARG-seekers into action. Funneling the noise through seven decryption steps translated it into a QR code reading "Was that easy? Now that I have your attention, let's make things more difficult." The clue took four hours to solve.

Exactly two weeks later, on 2 Aug, a more complex clue was discovered in the PC trailer for the Summer Games event. A line of text in Tracer's glowing trail was deciphered using Base64 cipher yielding the first word: Salted, followed by an underscore. To the Game Detectives, this indicated that the remainder of the text was encoded using an OpenSSL cipher, requiring a key and known cipher to be solved. The text has yet to be decoded, even to this day. Adding to the confusion, coordinates were discovered in the background of video frames within the trailer. Accompanying nine heroes were cardinal directions and arrows, as documented in this Reddit post.

 Text in Tracer's Trail ( img src:
On 4 Aug, during a livestream, Game Director Jeff Kaplan was asked about "the compass" (in reference to the coordinates in the trailer) leading to another cryptic clue: "That sounds like deep CIA level stuff. Way above our heads." In this, a Sky Code was found on the Dorado map, appearing between the north star and moon. However, this was a dead end. One might even hazard a guess that the desperate fans read into Kaplan's words.

The bizarre information overload put a stop to the chase for two solid weeks. Fans, unable to solve the past couple clues or detect any new information about Sombra, were losing hope in solving the ARG. Blizzard took pity on the poor, stumped fools and moved them past it all.

A photo of the Dorado spawn point was posted to the US media page. It was a datamoshed image, meaning that code was artificially added, making it look quite different from the original. By comparing the datamoshed image (right below) to an original (left), a code surfaced, warning ARG-enthusiasts that they've gone astray: "Why are you looking at the sky? The answer isn't over your heads, it's behind you. Sometimes you need to analyse your previous achievements."

Dorado Comparison (img src:
Taking the clue literally led searchers to the Achievements page where, within the source code, they found, "Damn, not bad." Perhaps Blizzard has a barometer within its fanbase. Somehow, it knew that those in pursuit of the ARG needed a morale boost, an easy find. Following this was an encrypted cypher requiring a compass to decode. Huzzah! The time spent on the coordinates from the Summer Games event was not wasted after all. Inserting character names in order of direction (tracertorbjornwinston etc.) yielded a URL linking to another datamoshed image.

Volskaya Comparison (img src:
Somehow, Game Detectives deduced that the datamoshed image (right above) was a manipulated image of the Volskaya map (left). After further scrutiny, they broke through the shadows and discovered a skull rendered in ASCII code with the headline, "It seems you like these little games ... Why don't we play a real one?" The Game Detectives believe this skull to be a Mexican sugar skull rather than a real one because of the dots next to its eyes. With the Day of the Dead, fast-approaching, this clue could hint to her release at that time, 1 Nov. Unfortunately, this skull turned out to be yet another, frustratingly useless dead end.

img src:
The trail went cold ... until the Sombra website surfaced On the Overwatch official forum through a buggy post seeming to originate from Sombra herself. It appears to be a countdown to the hero's reveal quantified with a percentage. Since the site went public, several Twitter accounts appeared to be hacked by Sombra. The percentage increased to 5% after that, though reasoning that the percentage increase was due to the hacks is speculation. It is now frozen inciting the fury of the Game Detectives community. Quite a chunk of time has passed since the percentage has changed, and fans aren't any closer to budging the number higher. Supposedly, the number is manually adjustable and not driven by other factors. This latest development comes on the back of pent-up frustration towards the complicated, convoluted ARG. Fans simply want Sombra.

Last week, an image of Sombra was leaked to Reddit. In the image, a URL was visible which lead to a Blizzard Employee Network login. As has been proven (see below), ARG-enthusiasts are likely to hack into anything in the pursuit of information. So, Game Detectives removed the URL to protect the website. As of now, the search is stalled yet again. Sombra's release date has not yet been released though fans are hoping that she will be introduced at BlizzCon 2016 on 4 Nov.

Harmless Fun, Not So Much

Since the release of Overwatch, a multiplayer team-based first-person shooter, the game has been wildly successful. Released for both PC and on console, the game is not cross platform, but enjoys a large collective player base. Blizzard has not released the exact player numbers, but saw 7 million players during launch week. There are bound to be a few bad nuts in that massive bunch.

In August, a small group of ARG-enthusiasts followed the misguided belief that hacking into Overwatch accounts would reward them with hints about Sombra. This is because multiple accounts bear a resemblance, in part or whole, to the Spanish word sombra. A sect of people within the Game Detectives group gained access to sombra-related accounts by pretending to be locked out (trickery!) or through guesswork. When no clues could be found in the accounts, the guilty parties posted the usernames and corresponding passwords of said accounts to the Reddit group's Discord chat. Unbelievable ... what a violation. Once Game Detectives admins learned of the aggressive invasion of Battle.Net accounts, they banned those responsible and deleted the posts.

Apparently, this isn't the first time unpleasant hacking has happened within Game Detectives. In July, an email was spotted in the background of an Overwatch comic. Enlarging the PDF version of the comic showed some visual static. When analysed further, an old picture posted by a customer cropped up in which he asked Blizzard for technical support.

A World of Warcraft login screen with a visible email address was shown in the picture. From here, people delved into the person associated with the email, emailed the account, and attempted to access it. Kaplan positively confirmed that the picture was not associated with the ARG on a Battle.Net message board: "We had nothing to do with that. Please do not email that address or try to log into that account. It's not related to the Sombra hints."

Clearly, the ARG has driven some people to the edges of sanity. What began as a happy mission, inspiring in its difficulty and uniqueness, has led to extreme resentment and unwarranted failings. Blizzard, drop the update already!

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