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.

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