As a marketing professional and a dedicated gamer, I’ve found myself delighted with Valve’s latest efforts at marketing their upcoming game Portal 2.
First, a brief explanation for non-gamers of who Valve Software is, what Portal is, and why this is such a big deal.
Who is Valve Software?
Valve started off in the late 90s, founded by two former Microsoft employees. In 1998 they released their first game, which was called Half-Life. It was a mega hit. Half-Life introduced players to a near-future scenario in which scientific experiments into commercial teleportation technology went horribly, horribly wrong. Portals were opened to an alien world and, well let’s just say things would never be the same again.
Two years later they released a spin-off using the same technology that Half-Life used. It was called Counter-Strike, and to this day, 11 years later, it remains one of the most popular competitive FPS games of all time.
Needless to say, Valve suddenly found themselves with very fat pockets.
The next few years, Valve was very quiet. They withdrew into their fortress in Bellvue, Washington and barely released anything. People speculated and wondered about what they could possibly be doing year after year without releasing any games (well, nothing of note anyway.) Then, in 2004, they unleashed Half-Life 2 upon us. It was an absolutely spectacular game, but I’ll get to that in a minute. This is the important bit:
Along with Half-Life 2, they announced a new gaming “platform” called Steam. Steam was going to be the method by which they distributed their new game. Gamers everywhere scratched their heads. Nobody in 2004 understood digital distribution. Downloading a game? Why would you do that? It’s slow. It’s not safe. What about hackers? Buying a disk at the store was way easier.
By all accounts, the launch of Steam was kind of a flub. There were many problems at launch. Bugs, horribly slow downloads, games failing to unlock, computer crashes, and more problems than you could shake a stick at. Why would Valve do this?
None of it mattered. Gamers were absolutely enthralled with Half-Life 2. It took computer gaming to an entirely new level. Valve not only raised the bar for storytelling in a video game setting—they completely shattered it. Half-Life 2 is a tremendously powerful narrative, at times even tear-jerking. What if Earth really was taken over by a tyrannical alien race? What if a few rag-tag rebels really did stage a basically futile resistance? What if those you loved were captured and killed by horrible slug-like creatures? Half-Life 2 told these fantastic stories in a gritty and realistic fashion, and put you in the middle of it. Half-Life 2 remains one of my all-time favorite games, and I know many others agree. After the initial released, they released Half-Life 2 Episode 1 and Half-Life 2 Episode 2. Episode 3 is, to put it lightly, hotly anticipated and remains unannounced.
Valve spent the next few years refining their Steam platform. Today, Valve owns the de facto standard in PC game distribution. Steam is the preferred way to buy and play PC and Mac games. Steam was a tremendously successful product and has launched Valve into the world of being installed on basically every single PC and Mac gamers’ machines. This gives them amazing reach.
Steam has opened up an entirely new distribution channel for small and independent publishers as well as large publishing companies. Delivering games digitally is far cheaper than traditional retail channels, and it has made it realistic to sell games for $5 and still make a profit. They have enabled two very strong and unique sales points as well: Old games that may have gotten missed the first time around, and are now heavily discounted (It was $50 at launch last year, but it’s on sale for $5 now), and indie games that never would have made it to retail—some of which have become extremely successful. Steam made Valve the darlings of the computer gaming industry and many have credited Valve with saving PC gaming in the face of massive console (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii) adoption. They’ve also made “impulse purchases” in video gaming a reality. It’s hard to pass up a game that costs $4.
Back to Valve as a game company, though: In 2007, they announced another new title, this one called Portal. Portal was interesting and a really great game in its own right, and it also was a great commercial success, but where it got really strange was that it tied into the Half-Life 2 world in very subtle ways. Ways that got players talking about the back story and ways that got people intrigued with filling in the gaps.
The pieces of the puzzle
So now we have a very successful video game company, with two very successful franchises: Half-Life and Portal. The games’ stories are subtly intertwined, and everybody who plays the games knows it. They also have an exceptionally powerful distribution platform and have excellent relationships on the publisher side with many game companies. They’ve helped a lot of companies make a lot of money.
Last year, they announced Portal 2, the sequel to Portal. The hype slowly started to build with the fanbase of the interwoven story universe they’ve built, as they dropped all kinds of hints to tie-ins with Half-Life 2. Of course, Portal was already a best-seller so the sequel was going to do well regardless, but Valve has pulled out all the stops in marketing this new title.
They’ve created a monster.
The timeline goes something like this: On April Fools’ Day, Valve used Steam to announce the “Potato Sack” which was a bundle of small games made by various indie developers—games that many people wouldn’t normally buy. The way they hooked people into buying the Potato Sack was by offering a free “Potato Hat” in another very popular title called Team Fortress 2 for those who bought the Potato Sack. This is where the power of Steam really shows through: Buy this item, and we can give you some special perk for something else you already own. Many wrote it off as a joke due to the day, but regardless of the silliness, the deal was valid, and it was a good price for a bunch of games.
Let me give you a non-gaming analogy: Buy your groceries here, get a free gas fill-up at Station X. While that kind of affiliate marketing has been going on for a long time, it’s a new thing in the video game world. The data and the publisher relations weren’t there for this kind of tie-in, but Steam has made it possible.
At any rate, people bought the Potato Sack because they wanted the free potato hat. It’s silly, but it works.
This is where things started getting weird, though. One of the games in the Potato Sack bundle is called “Amnesia: Dark Descent”. It’s a dark horror survival game, famous for how frightening it is to play. Suddenly, on April 1st, people were finding the ground in the game littered with… potatoes.
Because of Steam, Valve was able to silently slip an update into the game that people already owned and add potatoes on the ground. It was totally nonsensical, without precedent or explanation, and it started a hell of a buzz amongst their customers.
Why? They asked. What’s the big picture? What’s the end game?
It was so bizarre and goofy that customers went out and created their own social networks to collaborate and discuss the potatoes in the game. Imagine having customers so intrigued with something a company is doing that they go out of their way to create wikis, entire websites, and other discussion channels to talk about it. As more people discussed it, they discovered more bizarre new additions to the game, including a wall with cryptic hieroglyphs written on it, and several lines of random text that added up to a poem, linking the game to the other games in the Potato Sack Bundle.
By April 5th, the gaming community was going nuts. Conspiracy theories were being formed. This, of course, got thousands of people to go out and purchase the Potato Sack so they could get in on the game. Aggregator sites such as Reddit became rallying points for people to discuss the theories, which created a cascade effect of even more people being intrigued enough to want to participate.
Think about what this means for a minute: Old and/or non-premium stock is now massively popular, and $39 bundles of mediocre stock are now flying off the virtual shelves, because of this unexplained weirdness. Valve has done very little to create this buzz: They added a few cryptic messages into an old game that wasn’t really a big seller.
Throughout the next week, things got way, way deeper. Potato Sack updates were found throughout all of the games in the bundle; and more than just within the games themselves, but within game files. Intrepid detectives dissected some of the files that make the games run and found even more hints that something big was going on. The rabbit hole goes very, very deep. If you’re so inclined and want to be as mystified as I was while investigating this story, take a look at this compilation of what is known so far.
This entire experience has been labelled as an ARG—an alternative reality game. It’s a meta-game that is taking place outside of the game universes themselves—it’s taking place in our reality. Consider it a high-tech scavenger hunt.
To make it even more tantalizing and intriguing to customers and fans: There are hints that this entire Portal 2 ARG might actually be somehow related to announcing the most hotly anticipated Valve game of all time, and one they remain extremely quiet and secretive about: Half-Life 2 Episode 3. Just imagine…
The end game
Besides selling extra copies of old games, what is the point? Here’s where it gets truly astounding.
On April 5th, Valve released another video promoting the upcoming Portal 2. However, extremely observational superfans noticed that two particular frames of the video stood out: Frame 944 and 945. These videos contained ASCII code that revealed a tie-in with the Potato Sack ARG. Suddenly, like a dam breaking, it all became clear:
This entire escapade was all designed to promote Portal 2—a game which ostensibly had nothing at all to do with the Potato Sack Bundle.
Another fictional real-world analogy: Taco Bell has been including secret codes on their burrito wrappers. People have to collect them and solve a puzzle. Someone finally solves the puzzle and it is an announcement of a new album by Lady Gaga, and the puzzle points to a download code for a new, secret, unannounced track by her. It’s basically that bizarre.
The main antagonist in the original Portal was a rogue computer system gone haywire. Her name was GlaDOS. In Portal, your goal was to shut down GlaDOS and destroy her. Suddenly, it all became clear: Valve is making it seem like GlaDOS is coming back online and taking over all of these other systems through her nefarious and powerful networking capabilities, and leading people all to one single conclusion: Buy Portal 2 to see the end result.
To gamers in the know, it’s as shocking as if you went to a Taco Bell and Lady Gaga herself was serving the food through the drive-through window. It’s that mindblowing.
The latest development in the ARG is that GlaDOS has announced that Portal 2’s release date will be accelerated if enough people play the Potato Sack games. At the time of this writing, people are feverishly buying and playing the Potato Sack games in order to hasten the release of Portal 2.
Valve has absolutely knocked this one out of the park. They’re getting people to spend money on unrelated games just so they can more quickly spend money on a new game.
Lessons to be learned
So, if you’re a digital marketer, how can you use some of the techniques Valve has mastered here?
1: Create drama
Valve has created a story. The reveal took weeks, but the end result is that they’ve created a narrative with characters that are important to their customers. Finding out that GlaDOS was behind this entire thing was absolutely riveting and delightful to Valve’s customers.
2: Let your customers create the conversation
Throughout all of this, all Valve has done is facilitate the conversation. They are subtly controlling the message, but not directly. They are letting their customers create social networks, IRC channels, blogs, and wikis. They’re not stepping in and demanding up-front control of the situation. There is no Valve social media or community manager telling people what they can and can’t talk about. In fact, the president of Valve (Gabe Newell) has played along by responding to random customer emails (people have been begging for clues and explanations, going so far as to email the president of the company.)
3: Tease and hint
Valve has been dropping clues and Easter eggs. Nothing direct. If customers want to get more info and want more of the story, they have to buy other, seemingly unrelated Valve products. Those whose psychology runs to needing all of the information have gone out and bought products that normally wouldn’t interest them.
4: Tie it all together
The customers who participate in the ARG are going to be rewarded (by accelerating the release date of a game they do want.) This is a real and substantial end-game. This is a two-fold victory; the customers will feel like they accomplished something, and have become highly engaged brand champions. Valve will also sell a bajillion copies of Portal 2.
As always, creativity wins the day.