Did Valve Just Take Everyone For A Ride?

Over the past few weeks, Portal developer Valve and its more devoted fans have been engaged in an alternate reality game, which was believed to have resulted in people getting to play Portal 2 early. Just hours from its conclusion, it hasn't really worked out that way.

Were it just a game, that would fine. Disappointing, but fine. And yet it wasn't just a game, as the lure of playing one major title early had some people spending hours playing (or idling) in games, while others were buying a ton of games they'd otherwise have had little intention to purchase.

So it wasn't an alternate reality game at all. It was a marketing stunt. And a poor one at that.

For hardcore consumers, the type that will engage in this kind of business, the modern video game landscape is one they rightfully approach with jaded eyes. It's an industry that often seems built to scam and exploit customers each and every step of the way, so gamers have become increasingly wary of the PR machine and its marketing stunts, especially when it comes to big publishers like EA and Activision.

A precious few companies remain outside of this fear and loathing, able to count on large, dedicated and loyal fanbases. Blizzard is one. And Valve is another. People feel that, because of those developer's track records of great games and forthright communication with fans, they can be trusted.

I think Valve blew some of that trust this week.

For the past week or so, the company has been all but directly announcing that, if people went and played a whole bunch of indie games, Portal 2 would be released early. It seemed a neat stunt given Valve, who also developed Half-Life and Team Fortress, is notorious for releasing titles months and even years behind schedule. And hey, who doesn't like supporting indie games?

So many people bought a bundle of games they most likely did not previously own, all just to indulge in a little Portal 2 cross-promotion, and in the belief that in doing so they'd really get to play one of the biggest games of the year a day or two early.

At time of posting, that doesn't seem to be the case. While calculations vary (and the events of this ARG ebb and flow every hour), it seems the game will be released approximately ten hours early.

After all the clue-hunting, purchasing and playing of games thousands (maybe tens of thousands) of people engaged in, that's all they're going to get. The chance to play something a few hours earlier. In the middle of the night.

This, I feel, creates a slight problem for Valve. As the company's Steam digital delivery service has grown to be the single-most important shopfront for the PC gaming market, it has faced increasing, if muffled, criticism from both rival stores and outspoken developers. How can it be kosher, critics say, for the PC market's biggest online store to be run by a company that itself makes and sells games?

That hasn't been much of a problem to date because, Left 4 Dead aside, most of Valve's own games have not been released during Steam's period of "dominance" over its competitors. So Valve has been able to remain mostly neutral in its use of the store and its promotional power.

This "game", though, violates that neutrality. A selection of games have sold through the roof this week (Portal 2 was #1 on Steam's charts, followed by the "The Potato Sack", the collection of indie games containing Portal 2 promotions, at #2), and sold purely because people wanted to play a Valve game early. While the indie developers involved are getting a nice bonus, proceeds from each sale are still going to, yes, Valve. To promote a game Valve developed. At the expense of other third-party games.

So people were sold games believing that purchasing them would let them get at Portal 2 early. And for all their trouble got the game...a few hours early. Making matters worse is the fact the console versions of the game, shipping on physical discs, are already finding their ways into people's homes one way or another (I've already got a copy on 360, for example, while my PC version sits at "pre-load"), and those people didn't have to spend an extra cent.

There's also the matter of a disgruntled playerbase, made up of some of Valve's biggest fans, which feels exploited at having "wasted" either time or money engaged in this game, with now little to nothing to show for it.

There is, of course, the chance that this is all part of the Portal universe. An elaborate, canonical gag. GLaDOS, the malevolent computer and star/villain of the series, spent the first game promising to give you something she/it never gave you. As this ARG has been mostly "run" by Valve staffers posting as GLaDOS, that's certainly a possibility.

Yes, this is far from a heinous crime. Nobody forced people to buy those games, many probably had fun with titles they'd never played and some indie developers got paid. I'm not saying the incident has been some kind of disaster, nor that everyone involved had a wretched time, or is burning their Valve merchandise in the streets.

And hey, there's the chance that, as the night drags on, those persevering with the game will be rewarded for their efforts with something. Art, in-game items, a tease of a future project, something.

Yet I can't help but feel that, through their manipulative actions over the course of the past few weeks, Valve has lost a little of its shine as a can't-fault-them company (beyond the obvious Half-Life delay jokes), and finally given critics of its online store's growing power a tangible hook to hang their complaints on.


Comments

    Uh hey, this had a very tangible benefit in Australia (GMT+10), meaning that we get to play portal 2 at 2:30pm rather than after midnight (which for most of us means tomorrow). I am personally very happy with valve right now :\

      Its sooo taunting sitting @ work knowing i could be playing Portal :(

      Can't wait to finish work and play Portal 2 :D

      It's true. With a promotion like this, you can't please the entire world unless you're okay with your game releasing a full two days early. Nobody should expect that.

    blizzard now being part of activision your point about blizzard is invalid

      Your point, in a properly structured sentence?

      I don't think Blizzard has fallen as far as some like to finger point at even though Activision has its evil paws on them.

        We sure -can- say they've fallen.

        Horrific DRM, a less versatile UI on Battle.net, no LAN play, arguably crippled singleplayer for custom maps, account restrictions, proposed marketplace for custom maps (previously free), excessive delays, even by their standards, and cookie-cutter games with high levels of polish and virtually no innovation in terms of gameplay.

        As far as some people say? Maybe not. Still making awesome games? Yup. But I don't have any unquestioning loyalty to those guys anymore. I expect quality. I expect Activision's baggage, too.

    You might complain that it's getting here at a time you can't play it, but for us in Australia, it's here in the middle of the day.

    We win.

    While I haven't pre-ordered Portal 2, I still followed along with the ARG simply because Valve is one of my favorite developers. I thought I would help out by playing some of my more neglected games (Defence Grid, Killing Floor) to try and help out the community get some early Portal.

    I have to say though, I'm disappointed with this result. I honestly expected more from Valve. That being said, there still is some time left for something unexpected to happen, but if this anti-climatic end to the game is it, I cant see myself respecting Valve anymore.

      You can't blame valve by lack of involvement by the public. They came up with a marketing campaign than not only had the chance to release Portal 2 early, but open up a whole new lot of people to the wonders of indie games or re-visit them and remember how great they can be.

      Just because not enough people joined in and the release is hours early instead of days is not Valves fault, it is ours the public.

      So man up and shut up.

      Keep up the great work Valve.

        Haha, I not complaining about anything. It was a great idea. It showed just how dedicated the community really is. But having an 'early' release on a few hours, and effectively being void when the game is release earlier still for 360 and ps3 is a bit of a let down. And this is not a lack of involvement issue as you put it. Thousands of people joined in a played the games. Valve simply put a huge requirement on the game time required.

    I don't think it shed a bad light on Valve at all, this is the first time I've seen an early release stunt before and it may not have worked out perfectly, alot of people worked pretty hard and it should have resulted in a more early release.

    I thought it was clever and a good first try, if the worst thing that happened is some people supported some indie devs then I can certainly live with that.

    I really have no problem with it, I enjoyed playing all the Potato Sack games, probably wouldn't have necessarily played them all if it wasn't for the bundle but am glad I did. So I'm thankful for the idea.

    I know to some people this is serious business and they will shout that Valve 'suxorz' for making us buy some and play some quite awesome games (I'm looking at you RUSH) but lighten up.

    No, I'm cool with it.

    Doesn't worry me at all, don't mind supporting the indie guys, I actually have already purchased most of the games in the Potato Sack anyway, so it didn't cost me anything more (than the pre-order did) and those who did purchase the potato sack and couldn't afford it really need to take a step back and learn how to budget/spend money wisely, instead of blaming Valves marketing machine.

    It was just a marketing ploy, quite a good one, but you can't blame Valve for people not having self control not to purchase a 30 odd $ pack of games.

    Was is necessary to plug it as much as they did?
    No,
    Did anyone really suffer because of it?
    No,
    Did people have fun deciphering the codes? Playing games and supporting Indie devs?
    Yes,

    Sure they made money, but Valve is still a business, a business that is there to make money.

    Regardless of your thoughts on Valves motives behind the ARG, you cannot deny that the cross over into the other games were awesome and well done, not often that a single game will crossover into 13 other games at the same time.

    On a side note, Portal is now unlocked on Steam, I live in Australia and finish work in 1 - 2 hrs so by the time I get home I my copy of Portal 2 would be unlocked and available for me to play!

    I've been following the countdown and the ARG wiki and from what I can tell, Portal 2 has been launched. Not only that, but ahead of the original time. Unless the wiki is lying, or I have misread the point of this artical, I don't see anything wrong with what Valve has done. They've done exactly what they said they would do.

    I bought the pack before I realised it was for a Portal 2 early release coz I love indie games. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and don't resent Valve at all.
    And in the end, they did live up to the promise of Portal 2 being released earlier didn't they?

    (plus I had great fun getting all the potatoes xD)

    It seems like Luke is upset that this marketing gimmick was a marketing gimmick. If Valve worked out theycould make X number of extra dollars by doing this then why not. Judge them on the quality of the game I say. See if the earned the money.

    A fool and their money are soon parted.

    The old world of trustworthy game developers and publishers died off several years ago. Welcome to the new world of money first, fan base second

      I'd second this, but to say that the fools are the people who bought the Potato sack just for an earlier Portal 2 release, not to enjoy the games therein, or the ARG itself.

      How on earth was this fan base 2nd!? The ARG didn't play itself!

    I agree with you whole-heartedly, Luke.

    These are all of the things that came to mind when the different stages were put in place. I was all excited and eager to find this elaborate puzzle system and the story behind it, but a couple hours? Really?

    Again, its not that big of a deal, but I think those that worked hard to decrypt and encourage deserved more. Then again, who knows what they're "reward" is. I don't know. It has certainly put a bit of crud on the previously shiny Valve in my mind, to find that this was all essentially a marketing ploy with a very small reward.

    I am conflicted, slightly, though it is just a game. Now I just wish that the fact that I pre-ordered the game would allow me to actually play it on release, regardless of the hordes attacking the server for its juicy portal-based goodness.

    I've seen similar sentiment over on RPS as well, and I just can't understand it.

    Yes it was a marketing stunt, whether for Portal 2, or Half-Life 3, what one earth else was it going to be!?

    I'll take a highly involving and ambitious marketing stunt, that left me following it closely, even taking part in the case of Defence Grid (no I didn't buy the potato pack), over posters on bus shelters any day.
    And yet here you are saying they've lost a little of their shine?
    For involving their fans, blogs, indies etc in a great experiment/activity, but nooo you're saying they'd be a much better company if they just stuck to putting posters everywhere...

    My feeling is that Valve were perhaps overly ambitious with their maths for the release time.
    You know what, it was still a great ARG.

    Has everyone already forgotten that less than a fortnight ago, we didn't even know there was a chance of it being released early?

    It makes no difference to me if Portal 2 was released yesterday or in a weeks time, it's still going to be the same game regardless...

    This is like people putting $40 into the pokies, and then complaining to the club owner than it never paid out. Portal 2 was never guaranteed to be released early, just that there was a large chance it would. Buying the Potato pack for that reason alone, was nothing other than a gamble.

    Seriously, Valve is a game developer. They've done a fantastic piece of marketing here, that was meant to be fun. And suddenly people are holding their marketing to the same standards that they've come to expect of their games.

    I understand that waiting for something great is an inconvenience, but people are acting as if they've mortgaged the house for a early release. And keep in mind that it's STILL an early release (very out of the norm for the creators of Valve Time) and the official release date was very clearly stated, but people are treating it as if it's been delayed another month.

    I realise I'm coming over as a massive Valve fanboy. I'm not, but this whole complaint makes me incredibly disappointed in the community if this is what comes of such great, and incredibly indepth ARG, that was not just good fun, but did great things for a number of Non-Valve indie developers.

    I could rant all day, but I'd still just be repeating myself, so I'll stop here. BOLLOCKS.

      It was a very clever and ambitious marketing stunt - one I very much enjoyed, followed avidly and participated in when I could. However - and I'll preface this by saying that I'm a big fan of Valve and their games - that does not mean every element of the promotion is immune from criticism.

      Luke makes a very interesting point regarding the conflicts of interest when it comes to promoting your material whilst holding an effective monopoly on the distribution platform. I mean, how much would it suck to be an indie game developer and *not* be invited to have one of your offerings in the potato pack? Did the participating indie devs cut some sort of deal? Was it because the devs of those games are buddies with valve devs? What's going on?

      I also think that, for Valve, the ARG should also be treated, at least in part, as a lesson in properly managing expectations, maintaining campaign momentum and ensuring that the reward is worth the work. All three of those elements got to be out of whack towards the end. The early stages of the ARG worked so well that they built expectations up too much, and nothing was done to ground them back down before the final stage. The final stage of the campaign was a complete momentum killer, leaving people with nothing productive to do but idle and hope they'd made the right decisions about how to do so. And the reward - a slightly early launch that most people will receive no benefit from - seems small in comparison to the work put in.

      And because of that, future ARG efforts Valve makes may find it hard to garner a similar or greater level of interest - it'll be a case, for some members of the community, of 'well, I did all this work last time and got jack squat, why the hell should I bother again?' Sure, if you were one of the Nine you got flown out to Valve HQ, or if you were one of the handful that had the time, money and skill to get all the potatos, you might have got some free games, but for the majority of the participants, the reward is zilch, save any satisfaction they got from the initial phases of the ARG.

      I do wonder if Valve didn't just misread the level of interest from the broader population there was in the ARG. A few thousand more 'players' in the final stage would have changed things substantially..

    I'm suprised nobodies mentioned this yet.

    If you earned every potato you were rewarded with a golden potato, which at the end of the countdown gave you a Valve complete pack, including Portal 2, for free.

      valve complete pack doesn't have portal 2 in it

        Valve complete pack may not, but Joystiq are reporting it IS included in the unlock, which is what I meant to say.

        Nitpicking aside, if you put in the "work" of playing the 13 indie games and getting all the spuds, you got some tangible benefit.

        Maybe not yet, but it was part of the Golden Potato reward, I was one of the lucky ones :D

    As others have said, Valve delivered everything on their part. The rest was up to the gaming community. Not enough people participated...that's the only reason that the game wasn't released even earlier.

    Valve did no wrong, they created a unique experience for people whilst promoting a heap of wonderful indie titles.

    Nope, I don't see it that way. Not at ALL. You brought up some damn good points. How CAN Valve be the sole arbitrator of it's own platform? How can Valve be trusted with this?

    I will stand by this following statement until the day I die:
    Valve has made one of the BOLDEST steps out, and has pushed the boundaries of what we though was possible with digital distribution with their latest Portal 2 marketing campaign. Not only did they INITIATE this project with these independent developers, they gave these indie guys free reign with Valve intellectual property WEEKS before they even hinted that there might be some kind of "early release" deal going on. What we got was HOURS of free DLC with a portal theme for these 13 games included in "the potato sack." At the time, we didn't know why they all got this content, but we were happy, because: portal, fuck yeah. And then just a few days before the official release, they tell us that we might get it early if we just play the games we probably already have? Hells yeah! Yes, I bought "the potato sack" and I already had five of the games in the sack, but it was cheaper for me to get the pack than it was to get JUST the games I didn't have, so of course I bought the whole pack and gave the extra copies to friends. So who lost here? Me? Because I got games I wanted to get for cheaper than I expected PLUS extra portal-themed content? The inde devs? Did they lose out? Becasue suddenly THOUSANDS more people got their hands on their games (for less than they expected, I might add!) and understand that they actually have some talent?

    NOBODY lost here! Valve took advantage of their position and EVERYBODY won! Valve got more money because people were buying "the potato sack," those indie devs got credit BECAUSE they were included in "the potato sack," AND people got to play portal content in anticipation of the release.

    In closing, all I can say is that Valve has this day won my trust as a developer, as a publisher, and as a distributor. I hope they don't do something in the coming years to lose that trust, but for now, they have shown themselves to be the ROCK SOLID foundation of the PC gaming world.

      "NOBODY lost here! Valve took advantage of their position and EVERYBODY won! Valve got more money because people were buying “the potato sack,” those indie devs got credit BECAUSE they were included in “the potato sack,” AND people got to play portal content in anticipation of the release."

      Its been suggested in a couple of place Valve didn't take a cut of the potato sack sales.

      And as a reward to anyone who got all 36 potatos in the ARG they got a complete Valve pack

        As much as I love Valve, even I can't give those sort of rumors any sort of credence.

        Valve stands too much to gain for this to be any sort of altruistic venture, but the fact that they're willing to play ball in this manner speaks volumes.

        If it turns out to be true, well, awesome, Valve can certainly afford it. If not, however, I will not be surprised, nor will I be disappointed. This was a damn good move, all 'round.

    Enough other people have pointed out that complaining about getting a game early (after it was promised to be released early) is childish at best, so I'm not going to bother delivering my own version of that rant.

    I was really excited in being able to participate in a large portion of the ARG - since living in Australia only restricted me from the relatively small real world portions. I got to replay a bunch of indie games I bought ages ago, and I got to play a bunch of games I probably would have otherwise ignored. I got to immerse myself in the growing mash-up lore of the half-life/portal universe.

    and I got another hat for TF2, which is the really important thing to remember.

    All in all, this has been the most exciting launch event for a video game for me yet (and I've been a part of pretty much every video game/console launch in Australia for the last 7 years). In a way it made me "care" about the launch - because, in my own way, *I* launched Portal 2.

    I don't resent Valve for doing this - in fact it gave me an excuse to play Amnesia, and to get a few other games that I'd been thinking about at a really low price. Not their fault that I had a report to write that was due 9am Monday morning, and therefore had less time to devote to it. Plus, I had fun deciphering the puzzles and following the clues (and the hype, with them), and I think that Valve does some of the best viral marketing campaigns around. Yes, they got some gullible people to buy games they didn't want, but hey, that's what marketing's for.

    Pfft Valve done nothing wrong. They said early and it was early if people paid more to play the game early thats their own fault.

    Was 10 hours earlier worth it to them, maybe maybe not but guess what. It never said how much earlier the game would be released as a result of the [email protected] scheme.

    People merely assumed things.

    Anyone who got 36potato's was given a valve complete pack to there account. Sure for the most part i think you'll find that most people who participated in the event will already have most of these games.

    Valve done nothing wrong here the only thing that has caused any issue with this event is the consumers belief that they would get it in mere hours of [email protected] popping up.

    People who are complaining they paid for the potato pack, the pack is worth the buy in price alone. And they only had to play 1 of the games on the list to participate.

    Most other companies wouldn't even bother trying to pull this kinda stuff off, but because it had a rather grind based portion people are gonna cry for months to come.

    I also don't think this will be the last of the ARG i expect it to simmer down before it starts teasing EP3 in the future

    What a douche bag article.

    Valve has done an amazing thing with this marketing campaign. Everybody has won.

    Im still trying to work out what they did wrong? Offered a fun involving ARG. Offered Cheap Indie games with extra incentive to play them. Released Portal 2 early. I guess they made money but im pretty sure last time I checked there not a non-profit organisation. So everyone wins. Or am I missing something?

    The joys of Pre-order; I pre-order the game, have a full nights sleep, make my way into my gameshop in a relaxed manner, then they hand me my copy of that game you cant find on the shelf (its sold out you see), and happily make my way home for a full and fulfilling game session not feeling sleepy at all (you see I slept) - which is the only way to play. A tired gamer is an angry gamer...

    I thought portal 2's release date was originaly slated for Thursday? Thats not 10 hours, thats a whole 2 days!

      That's EXACTLY what I was thinking.

      Why bitch about not getting an early release when it's been released TWO DAYS early? I didn't buy those crappy games and have no interest in them, but good on the people who did enjoy them. They get a shiny Portal 2, two days before release.

      I'll get my copy at the shops in 2 days, just the way I want it. I don't lose in any way.

      Valve cross-marketed this game quite cleverly. I see no problem here.

    Plunkett seems to be actively focusing on his own silly expectations that playing a bunch of these games would bring out Portal a week early or something like that. I never saw it that way, and I'm pretty sure most people didn't. I think there was another motive.

    For one, other developers are having their games reach a wider audience thanks to cross promotion. I've read multiple interviews with indie devs who speak of the huge sales they get when they slash the price of their titles on Steam.

    But more importantly, with so many bargains on Steam, how many of us have actually played every game we've bought? I buy plenty of games cheap, and of the 180 or so I've acquired from the service, I've only played about 30. This promotion prompted me to play Defense Grid: The Awakening, which I find to be a damn fun game, and I'm sure to keep playing it. I'm sure plenty of people are in a similar boat, with this ARG serving as incentive to finally get brave Amnesia or try get those extra bandages on Super Meat Boy.

    Plunkett, however, seems to think that 1) the ARG is now over (which it may be, and if it is I'll swallow my words, but I think there's more to it), that 2) this is a cheap marketing ploy that benefits Valve at the expense of indie developers, which is absolute bullshit, and 3) that people were grinding on these indie games just to get Portal 2 released early, each of which seem preposterous. To be honest, it feels like a pretty disappointing approach given most of his work is usually worth reading.

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