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Valve’s Portal 2 Early Release Promotion: Innovative or Crass?

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UPDATED. In an apparent attempt to capitalize on interest in the upcoming release of Portal 2, game maker Valve kicked off a promotion Friday that allows fans to force an early release of the game if they buy a bundle of 13 independent games through its online store. It’s an innovative idea, though the execution leaves something to be desired, making the whole effort feel a little crass.

Update: As pointed out by commenters, gamers who already own the games don’t have to buy the bundle or individual games to help prompt an early release of the game. Those who already have the titles can just play the games, and their progress will help speed up the release. People who don’t have any of the titles are encouraged to buy all or some of the bundle.

The promotion, which has the potential to bring in significant revenue for the game bundle, is being met with tough reactions from many gamers, who feel like it was a bad surprise and was pushing them to buy unwanted games. That’s in part because the promotion was the extension of an ongoing alternate reality game marketing campaign by Valve, meant to stoke interest in Portal 2’s April 19 release. The game included a series of clues that suggested the game might be released early: Friday.

Instead, fans found a timer counting down to the April 19 release of Portal 2. The site said it’s recruiting CPUs to initiate a faster reboot of GLaDOS, the evil computer in the original Portal. In order to do that, users are encouraged to buy the Potato Sack bundle of 13 independent games, collectively discounted to $40. So far, none of the games have been bought more than 5,000 times, well short of the apparent threshold for early release. At this point, it’s unclear if enough gamers will jump in to force an early release of the game.

Though the Portal 2 promotion feels like it could use some more thought, it’s another example of how companies and brands are using creative ideas to distribute content. In 2007, Radiohead tried a pay-what-you-want model for its album In Rainbows, which it released directly to fans. Last year, a group of independent game developers banded together to offer the Humble Bundle, allowing gamers to pay what they want for the $80 value, with the money going to developers and a couple of non-profits. With Kickstarter, the crowd funding start-up in New York, there’s also a new way for projects to distribute their work and get paid. In fact, game developer Muse Games used Kickstarter to sell limited editions of its CreaVures title as part of the game’s launch.

Those efforts, though, highlight why the Portal 2 promotion has limited appeal. The fans are open to getting content in different ways if they see value in it. That’s a key part of Kickstarter’s proposition: that projects need to offer supporters some kind of reward for their pledge. With the Portal 2 promotion, it takes up to $40 to do your part to get the title released early — (you can also buy games individually) which is a fair amount to spend on games — so you can have the privilege of spending more money on the game you really want. And there’s no tipping point like in Kickstarter to ensure an investment will pay off in the desired action. People just have to buy up and hope that others join in too. It may be a nice gesture to support indie game developers, but for people who are really just interested in Portal 2, it can be a little too much selling. Finally, the pay off is pretty minimal. It would be nice to get a game early, but with the April 19 release date fast approaching and the threshold for release a ways off, it’s not that much of a benefit to get the game a few days early. A week or more, and that might be cool.

I still like that Valve was trying something new here, but the execution seems off. But done right, we could see similar campaigns work well in generating buzz, driving extra revenue and increasing consumer loyalty to. Right now, Portal 2’s promotion seems to only hitting two out of the three.

30 Responses to “Valve’s Portal 2 Early Release Promotion: Innovative or Crass?”

  1. I think the big problem here is people are apparently getting upset with “having” to buy these games to release Portal. But that’s not it at all. If this had never happened, then the game would have released normally. This is just a program to help these indie developers get their names out there, and has the added bonus of potentially releasing a big name game early.

  2. Zombified

    Yes, you do not HAVE to buy games. But they are strongly suggesting that you do, knowing that many people WILL buy the potato sack solely for the hopes of getting Portal 2 released early, and Valve doesn’t actually have to deliver (no, I don’t count a few hours earlier release as being worth an extra $40 spent). That is an extremely crass thing to do.

  3. additionally if you have owned steam for 2+ years (and thus are in the habit of buying lots of those $5-$10 games, you will find that you already own 3-4 of the games in the pack!

    people that are whining are just overacting, not once have i thought “omg we gotta buy 13 games”, how about thinking “thats a neat idea, i dont want those 13 games. but im gonna play the shit out of the 3 i already own to support this cool and neat idea”

    its all a matter of perspective and mine is, hell yeah valve cool beans! (you also didnt mention that all of those 13 games got sweet portal themed levels and such)

  4. the facts are that it isnt like if you want portal 2 you have to buy some other games first, its an option that you have the choice to take or not, if people are annoyed about this then they must have problems + i own super meat boy and after reading about it i put a few hours in on it to try and help a little bit, whether it makes a difference or not is not really a big deal. just my two cents :)

  5. Despite the corrections made on this article with the help of some nudging from the commenters, this article is still wrong.

    Insisting that Valve’s marketing scheme is crass is out of line. They are offering an earlier release to everyone if enough people play into GlaDOS’ game. And that is to play the select games that exist in the bundle. If you don’t own those games, you are encouraged to buy some or all of them.

    Nobody is forcing you to buy Portal 2. It only applies to those that pre-ordered or have decided to buy it.

    If you don’t take part in the experiment, you still get to play Portal 2 on the day that was promised.

    Retail copies of Portal 2 like those of boxed PC and console versions cannot possibly work with the advanced release date due to physical limitations.

    This experiment is for those who are interested in taking part in the ARG. They are given added value that lasts during that small amount of time before the original release. That’s like a few hours. A victory for those who is into the Valve ARG.

    Why the in the world are you comparing this experiment to music albums and Kickstarter? Why can’t you see this in the context of gaming where overpriced, day one, low value DLC, network gaming subscription fees, draconian DRM, and yearly release game franchises are the norm?

    Crass is such a strange thing to call Valve coming from a website that has a dedicated Apple tab in its features.

  6. Prototype

    Valve is promoting the sale indie games.
    If you buy the bundle, you get 75% off, or 50% off individual games.
    Playing any of the listed games brings portal 2 release date forward by up to 13 hours.

    How is any of this a bad thing?

    Indie games developers get more sales.
    Gamers get cheaper games and will play them, some of which are awesome (super meat boy, anmesia, audiosurf).

    Everyone is happy. Well everyone except you aparently.

  7. The games covered in the ‘promotion’ aren’t bad, or miscellaneous fluff. I bought several over the course of the past few months, long before the promotion was announced, because they’re actually pretty good. So rather than framing it as “Valve is trying to force people to buy $40 bucks of crap to get Portal 2 early”, it’s possible to frame it as “Valve’s got a really great deal on some good games, and if you buy them, you can help get Portal 2 released early.”

  8. Tyler David Sherman

    I feel like this post has two problems: 1) It glosses over that Valve is using one of the biggest game releases in a while to give small indie games exposure that they might not otherwise get. I recognize that this isn’t completely altruistic, but it’s worth noting. 2) It obfuscates the facts, which are that one needn’t purchase the whole bundle. Most of these games are under five dollars; hardly an ammount to start throwing crass around about. Fortunately everyone that’s posted already knows this, so I feel like it’s not spreading too much disinformation.

  9. As other commenters have mentioned, this Portal 2 countdown is tied to play time, not sales numbers. It is also tied in with an elaborate Alternate Reality style Game (ARG) that includes clues and extra content added to all of these Indie games. New levels, new music, and new gameplay.

    Any anger generated from this promotion is pointless, really. It’s an opt-in bit of entertainment that offers it’s own rewards for those who enjoy this sort of thing. A treasure hunt for gamers.

    I see it as a vote of support from Valve for Indie games. They’re taking one of their biggest game launches ever and spreading the PR wealth.

  10. You completely miss all the clever and cool Portal theme content generated for the Potato Bundle games. I was completely amazed when I opened up Audiosurf (already owned it) and GLaDOS insulted my music selection and made her own, entering me into Portal themed level complete with companion cubes. The amount of cooperation and collaboration here is amazing and it’s awesome that Valve is helping out indie gamemakers and themselves. If only you had put half the thought into the writing of your article, or supporting a claim. Tsk.

  11. You don’t need to buy the entire game bundle, you just need to accumulate playtime of any one of the games that is on sale within the bundle. I only own two of the games and I’ve been contributing.

  12. 100% wrong. Many people already own at least one game in the Potato Sack (Audiosurf, for example, has been out for years) and they can contribute simply by playing that one game. If someone happens to own none of those games, they don’t need the whole pack. They can buy one game individually (at most it will cost $5) or have it gifted to them from another user. No or very little money is required to participate in the early release, except for the pre-order cost of Portal 2, but you were already going to pay for that.

  13. I agree with some of the recent comments. This article is full of errors and needs to be edited. You do not need to buy the potato sack or any of its games. If you already own any of these indy games (and most people who would be buying portal 2 on steam do) you just have to play them. I’ve been playing audiosurf to help out.

    What disappointed fans is this author referencing anyway?

  14. YourIdiots

    Valve is letting gamers play successful indie games to help get an early release for Portal 2, there is no need to buy anything. Valve is basically raising awareness for indie developers and letting people play their games for a fun goal. Bad research for more interest to your readers is pathetic.

  15. RobertS

    People can simply play the games, unless they don’t own them, then they obviously have to buy them in order to accomplish anything for an early release. Either way it’s a pretty ridiculous and unquantified way to get a game a day early (or exactly on time, as the timer predicts).

    Frankly the ARG was great – it encouraged people to buy the games, it prompted a lot of interest in the game and you felt like you got something in return for participating in a pre-lauch publicity stunt. And that’s fine, because I want more people to play this game because I think there should be more games like it out there… and supporting smaller indy games is great too, it’s a nice way to encourage players to branch out, while still getting their monolith production.

    The final “surprise” of the ARG however reduced a highly involved, innovative and truly fun experience into a slap in the face that said: buy and play these other games and in some random amount of time you’ll get Portal 2, most likely a couple hours early or exactly on time on the announced release date – as per the continued timer print out. Thanks for turning one of the best releases and a fun marketing ploy into an outright boring cash cow Valve. I and so many more will remember this.

  16. I’m going to echo what the others have said — the information above is false. The meters on GLaDOS’s reboot correspond to the number of users currently (and actively) playing the various indie games on steam. They are not related to the number of times the pack, or a specific game has been purchased.

    The idea here is to get people to play the above games in order to reboot GLaDOS. If you already own the games (and most steam users own at least 1 of the games in the pack, most likely) you can contribute to the cause by simply playing that game. That’s all.

    The idea is to collaborate and work together to play games and get the meters to rise and release portal 2 early. And it’s also awesome to see Indie developers showcased at the front of Portal 2’s launch instead of mainstream games.

  17. pasmith

    You should know better than to copy disinformation off of VentureBeat… as others have said, you just have to play the games that are included in that bundle, many of which have been available for years. (I own several from past mega-sales at Steam.)

    Worst case situation here is, the game launches on its advertised release date.

    No harm, no foul.

  18. You completely missed the crassness of only the PC buyers getting the benefit of early release. I ordered my PS3 copy through Amazon. Do you think it will show up early at my doorstep if I play more Steam games?

    • Considering how many times I have bought a game on steam, only to have the box copies of the game(either PC or console) in people’s hands before the release date, only for me to have to wait until the middle of the day to even start -downloading- the game, and then not being able to play it until the day after the official launch day…

      Suffice to say, I feel very little sympathy. Kudos to Valve for throwing a bone to people who use their service. Valve made Portal 2, they made Steam, they have the power to distribute the game in any way they see fit, and in this case instead of pushing their own agenda and their own games, they are drumming up sales for indie developers. If that’s crass, we should all be so crass.

  19. Way to criticize something without getting it. You aren’t required to buy the games to get the release, just play. I contributed by playing 2 of the games because I already owned them.

  20. And if you know the original portal game, the whole thing is hilarious and inspired. The first game encourages the players to keep going on the promise of cake. This fits right in, the game eggs you on to play other games for an early launch?!? Folks, isn’t the cake a lie? :D

    Pure genius!

    • Paula, can you please shut the hell up about the cake is a lie now that Portal has been out for almost five years? Thank you very much. Have a great weekend and try not to run every single joke you hear into the ground

      • Thank you, Jimmy.

        Clearly the author of this story didn’t have all the facts straight when he wrote this. He was asking for opinions of the marketing campaign behind the launch of Portal 2. Believe it or not, I’m a gamer and in marketing, so I responded.

        There were also a lot of “outsiders” that were directed to this post. “Social moms” tweeted about it, so a lot of people, even the original poster, weren’t clear on the game, it’s jokes, or even what the intent of Valve was when they began the promo for Portal 2.

        Don’t assume that everyone reading this post has been playing Portal for the last five years. The marketing campaign around the launch is drawing new attention to an old game. Which is good for gamers, for Valve, for anyone who wants to get angry about someone beating a dead horse, I guess.

  21. Reece H

    I think your explanation is somewhat off. The release is not based on how many purchases of the game pack, but of how much playtime the various games have. I already have several of the games, and am contributing by playing. I did not have to purchase the bundle.

    • Ryan Kim

      Thanks for the information. I’ve updated the story. It wasn’t clear at first to me that playing existing games helped speed up the release.