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The madness of Valve marketing: An explanation for non-gamers

The madness of Valve marketing: An explanation for non-gamers

Portal 2 ARG

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.

The Portal 2 ARG

The reveal

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.


  1. Thrax
    Thrax Thank you for this. I can't be assed to follow a rabbit hole that goes as deep as the ARG thread on the Steam forums.
  2. primesuspect
    primesuspect Thanks. I had to find a balance between simplicity and thoroughness. I mean, I had to leave out quite a bit, obviously, but if people are interested, the thread on Steamforums is as thorough as it gets, and stays current.
  3. Jingalls
    Jingalls Great writeup! It's unbelievable how amazing at marketing Valve is.
  4. Cyclonite
    Cyclonite I am entertained by your avatar pic, Jingalls.

    Also, thanks for the writeup, Brian. :)
  5. pseudonym
    pseudonym Excellent writeup! I missed out on all this while I was out of town so thanks for the synopsis.

    For the background section, I'd perhaps say that Valve's support of the mod community was also a huge help with their growth and background. After all, that's where Counterstrike originally came from, they just bought it and put some polish on it. Not the point of the article obviously, I'm just being picky.
  6. Kevin I really enjoyed the depth of this write up Brian! I caught just the tail end of the campaign so it was interesting to hear about the whole initiative. I haven't seen very much of this type of marketing in other industry's I'm curious how it would translate.
  7. Thrax
    Thrax I have a feeling that this type of marketing would only work for a mass-market content like a TV show, game or album release. I don't see it working well for a physical product.
  8. Butters
    Butters Its the Valve marketing life-cycle.

    Game X basically markets itself -> a community builds around Game X -> Valve provides more fuel to over-sensationalize the community -> Valve markets Games WYZ to help push Game X.

    Not too different from a supermarket selling $2.00 12 pack of Soda which located waayyy in the back. But while you are there, might as well get some Doritos, some Ice Cream, and a pack of gum on your way to the soda. Only difference is the mass scale of Valve, instead of the individual at a time.
  9. Canti
    Canti Lady Gaga is serving tacos at the drive through?! brb, burritos :D
  10. xino "Half-Life 2 is a tremendously powerful narrative, at times even tear-jerking. "

    sure it was.... *rolls eyes*

    Are you even experienced in the sales and marketing field or you think you are from view point experience? But many of your words are nothing but opinions:/

    Entire paragraphs consist of you talking about Valve's history, games, and potato sack marketing. Only the last few paragraph consist of you explaining marketing strategy.

    I wouldn't say Valve's marketing was for their product, it was more of a promotion. How would an avid gamer find clues about ASCII code in the Portal 2 promo videos? Only pc nerds (pc gamers) would obviously find it.

    And wtf does Taco bell promotion have to do with comparison of Valve's potato ASCII promo? The main difference is that it takes time to solve the Taco bell while you have to be a geek to solve the ASCII code.

    As for the Moral of the story about what the user can learn from Valve.
    1. How can story help with the marketing? creating drama doesn't help marketing the game man.

    2. Let the customer do the talking...that is called viral marketing.

    3. disagree

    I just think you are getting Promotion and Marketing mixed up, they are different and not the same.

    I guess you are not really a sales person or someone who works in the marketing field. You just observe what is going on and claim you know marketing:/
  11. Thrax
    Thrax Internet tough guy alert.
  12. BuddyJ
    BuddyJ I don't know about you but I find Valve's marketing and promotions to be absolutely DREADFUL. It's so passe. So cliche. And frankly it pales in comparison to the work Sierra did in the mid to late 90s. I don't suppose you know Sierra... They're pretty obscure.

  13. Cliff_Forster
    Cliff_Forster I think the most interesting point of the article is in how when Valve released Steam, PC gamers were almost 100% unified against it. Despite this, Valve stuck with it, listened to their customers, and on the strength of great core product they have built an empire, not simply by brute force, but by gaining acceptance from gamers, and just as importantly other developers as well.

    PC gaming is a market that is different in the sense that the competition really seems to want everyone that is making product that pushes the hobby forward to do well. You hear developers mention their competitors products as influential, or something that they may be actively playing. The PC development community though competitive, is tight knit, really, this is what fuels Steam as a platform, its what makes it work, its the only way you can have a promotion of this scale with so many players.

    Personally speaking, a potato hat, and a slightly early release of a game that I want do not motivate me as much as some other folks, but I will say this... Valve has done more to get PC gamers excited about the worlds finest gaming platform than any other developer. Valve has done it again.

    Steam has given me so much as a gamer, its impossible for me to step backwards into the shallow depths of the same ole, same ole, console gaming.
  14. Canti
    xino wrote:
    How would an avid gamer find clues about ASCII code in the Portal 2 promo videos? Only pc nerds (pc gamers) would obviously find it because everyone else needs things to be dumbed down and spoon fed to them.

    xino wrote:
    And wtf does Taco bell promotion have to do with comparison of Valve's potato ASCII promo?

    Everything is better with tacos, duh.
  15. UPSLynx
    UPSLynx Xino, you are so wrong. Everything about this is marketing.

    This is obviously marketing. I can tell from some of the words and from seeing quite a few marketing in my time.

    Brian, thank you SO MUCH for the Taco Bell analogies.

    I've been paying attention to this whole ARG thing passively for a long time, but I haven't really gotten involved. I love when companies do extravagant things like this in secret, but I've never been good at solving them. I let other play it out and I watch from the sidelines.

    Plus, I'm buying Portal 2 retail, so speeding up the release doesn't actually help me. Get off my lawn.
  16. cola
    cola Yea...xino...no

    Half of your comment was opinion, the other half was you criticizing something and someone you obviously know nothing about. Sorry, but you've earned the daily fail award.
  17. primesuspect
    UPSLynx wrote:
    This is obviously marketing. I can tell from some of the words and from seeing quite a few marketing in my time.

    ;D I freaking love you guys
  18. Tushon
    Tushon lulz @ seeing quite a few marketing. The fail troll has failed
  19. DogSoldier
    DogSoldier I've only been vaguely aware of the potato sack ARG uh, thingy.. Once again, Brian explained it in terms even I could understand, and he left plenty of links to go even deeper, which I did. What became obvious very quickly was Valve's genius, their attention to detail and the cleverness with which they went about making these easter eggs, graphics, poems ect. I've known for some time that Valve was head and shoulders above the competition, this marketing campaign proves it.

    xino adds NOTHING to the conversation - And considering the condescension and insulting attitude he displays toward the gaming community - that is to be expected. xino, if you want to comment in this forum, go right ahead.. It's a free country. Just make sure you know what and who you are talking about. Because you’ll get called on your BS. Everytime.. Just sayin’
  20. RyanFodder
    RyanFodder I love how you can tell who the trolls are by their grammar/ spelling/ etc.

    Nice Article Brian!
  21. Canti
    Canti If bad spelling and grammar are the signs of trolls then I may be the only person in my classes who isn't trolling the teachers.
  22. CyrixInstead
    CyrixInstead Hmmm, I remember Thrax had a sig bemoaning Steam for a long time when it was first launched.

    As for the Episode 3 references, I'm glad to finally see somebody, somewhere, make a mention of this game. I've been waiting for it's release for years! Hopefully you're right Brian.

  23. Thrax
    Thrax I am nothing, if not a pragmatist. Steam sucked bad when it launched, and now it doesn't. :)
  24. CB
    CB I was once like Bobby, thinking I had to have everything in a physical box or it somehow 'didn't count' or something. I've since turned a complete 180.

    I find physical media annoying. I no longer have a place in my life for boxes and discs, they're just clutter. I've even started feeling that way about books. The only books I still like to have physically are writing reference manuals.
  25. UPSLynx
    Thrax wrote:
    I am nothing, if not a pragmatist. Steam sucked bad when it launched, and now it doesn't. :)

    Lord, I cringe whenever I think about Steam's official launch in 2004. It was SO bad.

    I know I've posted this somewhere else on the forums before, but it's worth another look. I was a hater back then, too:

    Attachment not found.
    >2003, signed as Bob Miller
    I love the oldschool ATI logo in the system tray.

    I don't feel like I have to have games physically or else they don't count, I just like adding to my binder that's chock full of games. I can take it to LAN parties no problem and have my entire library with me, people can browse it and actually see what I own, borrow, and such. Unfortunately, borrowing PC games doesn't really work out anymore, but whatever.

    I'm not against buying games digitally, but I'll ONLY do it on Steam. I know there are a few other services out there, but I want all of my games centralized. I'm too paranoid to have this game with Steam, that game with Direct2Drive, that that other game with impulse, or whatever else those services are. I don't even know.

    I know I trust Valve and Steam. I know I won't lose those games I bought, and I will always know where to find them.

    Plus, with the Half-Life series specifically, I love it to death. I want to have the entire series on display.
  26. ardichoke
    ardichoke Ugh... Direct2Drive... I bought a couple games from them when they were having some massive sale (read Assassin's Creed, NWN2 an it's expansions for 5 bucks each). It was such a PITA. No automatic download, no auto registration, you have to download the installer files, then install from them and log into the website to get your product key which you have to plug into the game itself. Don't get me started on updates. May as well just buy it on media at that point.

    Steam is clearly king of the digital distribution roost, and for good reason.
  27. Tushon
    Tushon I agree and had the exact same situation with D2D.
  28. Thrax
    Thrax I have had no issues with any of the purchases I have made from Direct2Drive. I bought NWN2 and the first xpac (Mask of the Betrayer) from them, and the downloads/installation/registration were totally painless. They've been happily patched and running for years.
  29. ardichoke
    ardichoke I didn't have any problems, per se, it was just a way bigger PITA than with Steam where everything is managed automagically.
  30. Koreish
    CB wrote:
    II find physical media annoying. I no longer have a place in my life for boxes and discs, they're just clutter. I've even started feeling that way about books. The only books I still like to have physically are writing reference manuals.

    I don't mind having games and music in a digital format. But nothing will ever replace the feeling of having a good book in your hands. I could never imagine reading a newspaper or a book from a screen. And I will probably feel that way until long after print media stops being published.
  31. Tushon
    Koreish wrote:
    I don't mind having games and music in a digital format. But nothing will ever replace the feeling of having a good book in your hands. I could never imagine reading a newspaper or a book from a screen. And I will probably feel that way until long after print media stops being published.
    To echo this sentiment, I love having my Nook Color and have read technical manuals and the Millennium series / Ender's Game etc. on there ... but I like my growing bookshelf of actual books. It just feels right to loan one out.
  32. ardichoke
    Koreish wrote:
    I don't mind having games and music in a digital format. But nothing will ever replace the feeling of having a good book in your hands. I could never imagine reading a newspaper or a book from a screen. And I will probably feel that way until long after print media stops being published.

    I used to say the same thing, until I got my nook. Now, while I still buy certain books (because I like to get a nice hardcover edition) in physical media, a lot of my reading is done on nook.
  33. Ryder
    Ryder OMG, what is this steam thing? I haven't logged on in months.
  34. drasnor

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