That Badass Portal ARG

So, you’ve probably heard about the glut of crazy Valve news that’s popped up in the past week: Portal 2, Steam for Mac, all that jazz. When the alternatereality game announcing Portal 2 came up, I heard about it within half an hour or so and spent the whole night camping out on the Steam forums, watching people with actual tech skills solve it while I pretended to do homework. Fantastic times. Later, when I had the chance to describe the scope of the ARG to a few of my friends, I found time to reflect on what Valve actually did with that stuff. And it was still pretty astonishing to me, even after seeing it all come out.

Change the ending to a game you released three years ago to build hype on a sequel? If they’d done it badly, people would have been pissed, but since Valve are digital wizards whose fantastic PR and mastery of our fanboy/girl brains amounts to some kind of crazy blood magic, and because they’re effin brilliant, everyone was excited about it. It’s a new kind of game marketing. How often does that happen? Some people in the Valve forums were suggesting that Valve’s hiring of super-skilled MINERVA: Metastasis creator Adam Foster, who used to like to do his releases and updates in the style of ARGs, had something to do with this. Even if they hired him just for his crazy-good map design, they would have been justified; hiring a smart-as-hell mod designer for his self-promotion techniques is a bit more than that. It’s yet another example of how much Valve know what they’re doing.

Apparently some people hate ARGs. But I am not these people, and I have never met any of them. I actually prefer it. Television advertising for games is usually a bit condescending, when you think about it: all that prerendered video, all the absurdly-brief in-game footage, clipped down to just the finishing moves and the glitter, as if they’re trying to hide something. And the enormous quantity of advertising they do on game review sites, which are ostensibly there to provide consumers with unbiased opinions, can actually be unethical.

But stuff like the Portal ARG is special. It treats consumers with a certain amount of praise and consideration that traditional marketing techniques don’t: it’s an intelligence-stimulating, community-flattering kind of thing. If Valve thought we were all dumb as bricks, it would never have decided to do the release as an ARG. If Valve didn’t give a shit about its community, it wouldn’t have done an ARG. The other kinds of hilarious advertising they do, like the TF2 updates, are drenched with an exuberant irony that also grants intelligence to the consumer, but without being exclusive, or telling jokes meant to leave anyone confused. It doesn’t take much brainpower to appreciate the Saxton Hale comic, but it’s dumb in a current, conscious kind of way. AN APE WILL DIE ON EVERY PAGEThere are plenty of cultural references in there, such as the fake comic covers, for anyone who has the context to understand them. It speaks of extraordinary care on Valve’s part. But this is what we’ve come to expect from Valve, so even though we’re excited, surprised, and appreciative, we’re not as surprised as we would have been if, say, Ubisoft pulled this.

But if this kind of thing catches on elsewhere, what could happen? Will it become typical for game studios to produce, say, mid-season DLC designed to link games with their sequels? That would be cool, but it would be coolest if the DLC was free. Will more companies start putting the attention and care into their fanbases that Valve already has? I bet a lot are trying, but they don’t have Steam, so it’s harder for them. Or is this a sign that games as products could become more fluid, that auto-updates to official game plot could become a typical phenomenon? Maybe, but there’s a lot of danger in that: mishandling such a thing could be seen as an invasion of player experience, a breach of trust. Or will this inject more energy into PC gaming as a platform experience—the only platform where games and the internet lie so close together? PC games have always been particularly creative in comparison to console games, and today we’ve got an indie community with a lot of energy and innovation—a community Valve draws from. It would be nice to see more developers get excited about PC gaming again because of that innovation, but we’re always going to have to deal with the hobbling millstone of piracy, too, won’t we?

Ambiguous situations and troubling questions aside, I see the ARG as a good sign for PC gaming. People still care, guys. There are a million bajillion of us out there, and not everybody thinks we’re idiots. It’s awesome.

Leave a comment


  1. This feels like mediocre marketing to me. It’s *very cool*, and it shows just why I love Valve so much, but it’s still unlikely to be effective marketing. They haven’t reached many new people here — all they’ve done is reach people who were probably already likely to buy Portal 2. That said it probably cemented the deal for a large number of people, but if your goal is to get new people into the fold (that is what I assume the goal of marketing is) then you aren’t accomplishing that.

    • lauramichet

       /  March 11, 2010

      On top of what they have done with the ARG, they’ve got dudes talking at GDC, and Gabe Newell is winning some kid of Ultra Important Dude award there where of course he’s going to receive a lot of attention for his recent reveal. The ARG is fantastic, but it’s part of a larger thing. They did it first, as kind of a treat to their entire web community, before progressing to stuff like magazine covers and traditional news releases. But at least one of the news releases was ALSO a puzzle.
      I’m not saying that people should ONLY do ARGs. I’m just saying that it was particularly successful within the demographic it was aimed at, and that its creativity has earned it a lot of attention within a wider gaming community, and from developers. For something that probably cost only a couple salaries over the course of a few months to develop and pull off, it had a lot of coverage and did untold lovely things for Valve’s reputation. It also managed to avoid several ethical snaggles I usually associate with games advertising.
      Valve’s had a history of being particularly successful with nontraditional advertising. Then again, they also have steam, so they’ve got less of a burden in that department.

      • You are correct, and my original comment was a bit…harsh. I didn’t consider how really little the idea cost (I imagine the biggest cost was finding those old modems, heh) — and the benefit was certainly worth the cost. And in the end, isn’t that what it comes down to? A cost/benefit analysis.

        I wouldn’t go as far as to put it next to the rest of Valve’s advertising genius, though. The Team Fortress 2 advertisements were demonstrably successful in bringing in new buyers, while the Portal ARG has not yet proven its capability to do that.

      • lauramichet

         /  March 11, 2010

        You’re totally right in questioning the value of the ARG as a customer-base expanding thing, though. I don’t think it does expand the customer base in any way. But I’m not sure it was intended to do that.

        But actually going into the games of every single person who ever bought your game for the PC and making them download a small update is a great way of alerting an existing customer base that something’s going on.

      • I just have to come back to this, and kind of refute my last comment — I just saw Gabe Newell’s talk at the GDC, and it makes a lot more sense now as it’s really not marketing in the traditional meaning of the word.

      • Did you see Gabe Newell pretending to be Ringo?

  2. I don’t actually agree with you there, Morgan. Marketing has all sorts of uses. Yeah, it’s often about reaching new people, but it can also be about building customer loyalty and interacting with fans. The Portal ARG cost Valve very little, but the whole gaming community was abuzz with talk of Portal 2 for a solid week. The consensus is essentially that Valve is f-ing awesome, which sounds like some effective advertising to me. I also liked their Steam for Mac campaign, by the way.

    I was a bit disappointed with how they made their official announcement, though–on the cover of Gameinformer. I’ve got nothing against Gameinformer, but the scans came out before internet heroes were done decoding their secret messages. It took away some of the exciting mystery.


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