Does Portal's Success Presage Game Industry Shift?

portal.jpgThe developers of Portal, the bestselling multiplatform game released last year, have confirmed they will be adding to it — though no details were provided because the details are still being worked out. A tremendously popular title with hardcore gamers, such an announcement would typically come as no surprise, except that Portal is basically a non-violent, low-budget puzzle game that takes about 5 to 8 hours to play, and features a folk rock song. In other words, a crossover-casual game, the kind of thing you could easily get your girlfriend or even your mom to enjoy (if they can stomach the vertigo of getting past obstacles by teleporting around them, that is).

In other words, forget Halo 3 or Call of Duty 4: Despite a dearth of guns to shoot or galaxies to save, and its unavailability on the casual game platform of the Wii, Portal is easily the most beloved 2007 title for gamers. Especially judging by the vast ecology of tribute machinima and YouTube covers of “Still Alive,” the game’s surprisingly sweet theme song from geek troubadour Jonathan Coulton.

Given that it was widely downloaded on Steam, the proprietary game delivery service of Portal developer Valve, it’s hard to get exact unit sales. From a business point of view, however, its profit margin is easily better than AAA hardcore titles that require tens of millions to develop — by contrast, Valve developed Portal’s gameplay from a freeware indie title made by some college kids the company subsequently hired, adding a quirky storyline and a series of puzzles with gradually increasing difficulty. “I think part of the reason we are doing episodic releases and smaller content releases is to allow us to take some of the risk out of the schedule and instead put it into the gameplay,” Valve’s Gabe Newell once explained in an interview.

It’s a smart, economical business model, and with Portal’s success, you have to think other developers are taking notice. Down the road, expect to see more low-budget crossover games sneaking onto shelves in a hardcore gamer package — hopefully with more singing from Jonathan Coulton.

Image Credit: ValveSoftware.com.

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