Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Delicious Cake. Portal 2, and Valve's recent ARG on Steam

So the geek news of the weekend, right up through today was the release of Portal 2, and the Alternate Reality Game that allowed for a (very slightly) early release after all was said and done. ARGs, when done right, can incorporate fake websites, chat clients with lots of players and game elements pretending to be players, social media accounts, YouTube Channels, and the like. The idea that the “game” is played by a large fan community as a whole, and the line between where the game ends and the real world picks up blurs a bit. This makes these games great for marketing or building hype for a product.

There's Science to be done.

The ARG is a really interesting concept. It isn't an electronic game, though computers, cell phones and other gadgets are frequently used. It isn't a roleplaying game, usually, as the participants interact with our world as themselves. The best ARGs have a puzzle or mystery designed for a large communtiy of players, and clues or pieces of an ongoing narrative can be anywhere, depending on the geographical scope of the game. The movie “The Game” with Michael Douglas is a thriller involving a rich businessman that gets into an incredibly elaborate ARG, though it wasn't referred to as such specifically, and differs from the normal structure by the game being put on for a “playerbase” of one. I've personally been involved in several bachelor parties that were organized as an ARG for a single player, and they've been a lot of fun.

A screenshot of the early stages of "i love bees", the Halo 2 ARG from 2004. A boring website about bees is taken over by... something else.

The show LOST added detail to its complicated story and gave fans something to do between seasons with several ARGs, Halo had the “I love bees” ARG, Trent Reznor created one called “Year Zero” to promote a Nine Inch Nails album, and these last few weeks, Valve launched their ARG for the release of Portal 2. GladOS, the insane AI running the Portal show, appeared to compromise Steam accounts, hints were dropped and a countdown started ticking. Once the timer reached zero on Friday, the weekend's planned activity for ARG participants was announced. GladOS was rebooting her systems to restart the Portal Test Environment, but she needed extra processing power to do so. She selected a group of games made by indie game studios, sold on Steam (of course) that players needed to work on to give her the power she needed. The Prize: an early release of Portal 2.

Fans initially loved the game, and were drawn in. The theme of Portal lends itself very well to this sort of activity, as the actual video game is framed as a series of scientific “tests” run by a computer program in the first place. A collection of indie games collectively known as “The Potato Sack” was released on Steam as a special offer on April 1. Strange symbols began appearing in all of these games, new streaming content was added to each and parallels could be drawn between the unusual symbols and similar glyphs on other websites and in real world locations. Cryptic messages found on blog posts and hidden in audio files were deciphered, Potato Sack games began to subtly change, adding Portal-themed elements. All the clues pointed to one thing: GladOS was waking up, trying to reboot.

Cryptic clues led players deeper into the mystery.

A countdown started, and when the clock ran out, a website called GladOS@Home was launched, a mock distributed computing network that told players that by playing the games in the Potato Sack, GladOS would come online, and if it was done by enough people, the reward was an early release. Players bought the sack in droves, and coordinated efforts to play them, filling up a progress bar on GladOS@Home and earning “potatoes” on their Steam profile. The speed at which the progress bars filled was slow. Quickly, fans realized that the ARG was not going to unlock Portal 2 over the weekend, and the backlash started.

By the time all progress was complete, Portal 2 launched about 10 hours ahead of schedule, and some Valve fans felt that their loyalty was abused to sell more games on Steam. Hardcore players, who collected every single potato from all of the games did report receiving the Valve Complete Pack, a collection of every game the company ever released on Steam. Skeptics had warned early on that any early release of Portal 2 might expose Valve to legal action from Sony, Microsoft, or brick and mortar retailers, and cynics accused the company of “rigging” the numbers behind the completion timers to prevent any significantly early release from occurring.

GladOS@Home in action.

Now that everyone who owns a copy can play Portal 2, the dust is settling. Fans are starting the debate over whether this experience was successful or not. The people seem to fall neatly into two camps. One side claims that Valve used its fans to sell a lot of extra games on Steam, and the whole thing was a marketing stunt in poor taste, damaging the company's image to its fans. The other perspective in the discussion says that Valve created an optional exercise for Portal fans to participate in together, play some games they might not have otherwise, and support independent game designers to boot... it isn't the company's fault that players assumed that “early Portal 2 release” meant “over the weekend”.

I'm not playing Portal 2, as I rarely pick up titles until they go on sale now, but I've followed this saga pretty closely, and I tend to agree with the second, “pro-Valve” group. If anything, a large social experiment where the results and rewards weren't exactly what the participants thought they would be is in keeping with the Portal theme. Most of us learned from the first game, after all... that The Cake Is A Lie. What do you think?

Delicious and Moist.

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The Angry Lurker said...

Really good point of view, well done but no cake?

DerpFiles said...

NO CAKE FOR YOU! I love how /v/ is so silly about this game. They mad.

G said...

I suppose it made it a bit of an event for those who wanted to participate....but i can understand the frustration

Jay said...

hahaha... the potatoes were the cake, and it was indeed a lie!

=dgrphx= said...

the cake is a lie

Alpha said...

It was optional, they participated, their loss.

ed said...

portal gives me a headache

Justin said...

Agreed, it was optional.

Porky said...

Another great post. There was a lot there I didn't know.

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