Portal 2 ARG: A Little Disappointing

Let me preface this by saying I think the people at Valve are geniuses.  Their games are consistently awesome, with brilliant writing and fantastic voice acting, and the games themselves are unique and compulsively playable.  I beat Portal 2 within two days of it’s release (took me 12 hours… yeah, I know, I’m slow) and for the first time maybe ever I’ve gone back and replayed chapters just for the hell of it – to get more achievements, hunt down some Easter Eggs, or just to muck around with the developer console.

Even the ARG (alternate reality game) marketing campaign that sparked this article had a lot of interesting bits.  It just happened to also have some unfortunately very big bits that were not very awesome at all.

Hit the jump for my full analysis of the highs and lows of the Portal 2 ARG, and how they might do better next time.

The ARG kicked off with “Potato Fool’s Day” on April 1st with the release of the “Potato Sack” on Steam, a collection of 13 Indie games, including popular titles like Super Meat Boy and plenty of lesser known titles.  (The name of the ARG makes sense once you play the game)  What followed was two weeks of encrypted images, encoded audio messages, hidden messages discovered in real world locations, well known player accounts “infected” while their players were spirited away, Portal 2 references appearing in the Potato Sack games, and all sorts of other fun clues and mischief, all of which led to a countdown set to conclude the morning of April 15th, the Friday before Portal 2’s advertised Tuesday release.

“Oh my god!” the gaming community gasped. “Portal 2 is going to be released early! We’ll get to play all weekend! HOORAY!”

The countdown ended at 9:00 AM PST on the 15th. I’d like to say something fantastic happened, like fireworks, or a parade, but no, the end of the countdown was the epitome of anti-climatic. The countdown was counting down to a second countdown.

What the...? Oh, goddamnit!

Okay, so the second countdown was orchestrated by GLaDOS, who required lots and lots of power to reboot her system (i.e. to release Portal 2). That’s pretty awesome, right? Unfortunately, if there were a Steam achievement for this part of the ARG, it would probably be listed as “This is the part where we bore you to tears.” You see, to reboot GLaDOS, players who owned any of the Potato Sack games (or were willing to buy them) were going to have to pitch in by actually playing those games.

In theory, it was a great idea.  But I don’t know whether Valve overestimated the amount of players who would participate or whether they intentionally set the bar ridiculously high, but what resulted was a painful weekend of grinding.  Even with thousands of people playing, finding the “potatoes” hidden in the games, and idling, the progress bar would barely move.

The community set their imaginations ablaze to keep themselves going.

Day 1 (April 15th): “When the bar reaches 25%, something really cool will happen! GLaDOS herself will appear and shake our hands!” Nope. Sorry. Keep going.

Day 2 (April 16th): “We’re almost at 50% guys! This is it! Our potatoes will turn to cake and be served to us on golden platters by Cave Johnson himself!” Nuh uh.

Day 3 (April 17th): “Almost at 75%… come on everyone, THIS TIME something cool will happen. I can’t even think of how cool that something may be! It will definitely happen! Maybe!” Maybe is right.

Are you not entertained??


Ultimately, Portal 2 was released about 12 hours early, a couple hours before midnight on the West Coast.  Many on the forums suspected that Valve always intended the release to happen around midnight on Tuesday, and that the entire ARG was programmed in a way that would make it impossible to push the release much earlier, however much effort players put in.

Some cited the legal responsibility Valve has to retailers – an early, unpredictable release might hurt retail stores, which might in turn lead to some backlash for Valve.  Having worked in retail for major release events like the Harry Potter books, I have my doubts that this was a real consideration.  Retailers sign contracts with distributors promising not to release new items early, or else they risk losing the privilege of receiving early shipments of new materials. I don’t believe those contracts generally go both ways, though. I bet my ass that if Scholastic had decided a few hours before midnight to release the Harry Potter books, every store in the country would have jumped in gear to get their merchandise on the floor, whatever the hour.  Besides, a company with it’s own independent means of distribution like Steam doesn’t need to worry as much about pissing off the retailers. (All speculation on my part, of course.)

Others on the forums (mostly trolls, but some sincere fans as well) ranged from hurt to rabid and enraged at the perceived breech of trust between Valve and the consumer.  Valve launched the final bit of the ARG with the promise that the players would be able to influence the time of the release, yet that time happens to fall so close to the industry standard in major midnight releases?  To add insult to injury, the final stretch of the ARG provided no incentive to continue, no new clues or puzzles or messages. Nothing except the hope that, because the Valve team is so damn awesome, there must be something cool in store.

While I disagree wholeheartedly with the wildly emotional fans who now despise Valve, will never play a Valve game again, will take a sledgehammer to every computer they own that’s ever run a Valve game, will hire a fleet of voodoo witchdoctors to curse all Valve employees and their descendants and their descendants-descendants… I can’t help but agree with some of the rationale behind all of the whining and trolling.  The ARG, at its final phase, when the most players were involved, was a huge disappointment.

It's a shame I'd already finished my taxes. That would have passed the time.


The thing is, as grueling as the final stretch of the ARG was, it sort of did it’s job. It got plenty of people to buy and try indie games they probably never would have tried otherwise.  Some of them are pretty cool, too (I might have to try The Ball one of these days).  From a marketing standpoint, the ARG was  a huge success.  Thousands of players bought and played games they might not otherwise have touched.

The problem is, a tactic like this probably won’t work as well a second time. Next time Valve orchestrates an ARG to market a game, many gamers will likely be much more cautious about how they invest their time, and money.

The campaign was heavily front-loaded, a big mistake in my opinion.  Those who were in on the game from the start at least got to take part in a lot of cool mysteries and puzzles.  Those of us who discovered the ARG late jumped in hoping to participate in something exciting, but all we got was a grind.  That strategy seems totally backwards. The early participants will spread the word about the ARG. By the end, the number of participants will have risen exponentially, and that’s when you should bring out the big guns.  Leave the hordes rabid to participate in the marketing campaign for your next release, not with a bad taste in their mouth that makes them wary of investing their time again.

Big finale = happy fans.


Here are some of the things that might have kept the ARG from pissing off so many fans:

They could have started the final leg of the ARG earlier in the week, with a target “early” release of Friday. That way, all the gamers who had the time could have played the Potato Sack games to their heart’s content throughout the week, and the rest of us would have happily idled the games and played when we could.  Then, we could have all spent our weekend blissfully playing the game we’d actually been anticipating when we disconnected our phone lines and cancelled our Saturday night dates.

They could have skipped the “early release” gimmick altogether and gone on with the puzzles/encrypted messages that led up to the 15th. That might have been the best bet. These puzzles could have led to interesting content, like behind the scenes videos, soundtrack mp3s, or almost any little bits of media that would have kept us salivating for Tuesday.  The midnight release could have been official in that case, and while all of us Steam players would be waiting by our computers for the stroke of 12, all the console players could have been off awkwardly socializing at some fun in-store release parties.

I can even imagine what kind of dessert they might have served.


Most importantly, for any ARG to work, you have to keep the player interested.  I know we’re all entitled and impatient and ADD these days, but if I’m going to spend my weekend grinding away at something, I’ll choose something more important, like doing shit that will pay my bills.  I stick with an ARG because it holds promises of entertaining me.  Maybe if I wasn’t so stubborn or hopeful, I’d give up when it doesn’t, but as I’ve participated in some fun ARGs in the past, and since I hold the people at Valve in such high esteem, I kept hoping it would get better, and was disappointed when it didn’t.  I’ll still participate next time, because I hope they’ll learn from their mistakes with this one, but I know a lot of people won’t give them another chance.

To expand on that, there could have been some other way to contribute to the finale than by playing the Potato Sack games. Other puzzles, like the ones early in the ARG, and like the red herrings people found even during the final days.  This would have required someone to follow the forums and wiki and chat room to monitor the progress of the outside puzzles, but it would have at least provided an alternative, or a supplement, to the Potato Sack games.  Among the many complaints flying around the forums was that it was annoying to have to play games you might only be moderately interested in to contribute. Admittedly, this is kind of a weird complaint coming from the gaming community, but they have a point. A lot of people planned on playing Portal 2 all weekend, and instead had to play a bunch of other games (not all of which are appealing to everyone) in the (crushed) hope that they might be able to play a little Portal 2 before heading back to work/school on Monday.


Valve is a great company and Portal 2 is amazing.  My dissatisfaction with the finale of the ARG in no way turns me off from playing their games, and in fact will probably not dissuade me from participating in their next big release.  However, I really hope that they take all the criticism to heart and come up with a more satisfying strategy for marketing their next big title.

And of course, I hope they’re giving each other big pats on the back for making a title that people care about enough to warrant all of this bitching!


If you’ve participated in the ARG, played Portal 2, and have finally gotten all the grumbles out of your system, go sign the thank you page. I know I did!

If you haven’t played Portal 2 yet, what the hell are you waiting for?

  • http://padinga.com/members/maul42/ Maul


    Favorite caption thus far.