Two weeks ago, Valve Software released -- to critical and popular acclaim -- the highly anticipated sequel to its comedic first-person puzzle game, Portal. The game was originally scheduled to launch on the digital distribution platform, Steam, on Tuesday, April 19, in the early morning. But it ended up being released nine and a half hours earlier as part of a promotional augmented reality game (ARG) designed by Valve and a group of indie game developers.
One of the indie developers, Rob Jagnow, has a lengthy discussion on Gamasutra of the entire ARG, the highs and the lows, and how Valve and its indie partners brought it all together. The concept of the ARG was simple -- after solving a series of challenging puzzles that involved both online and offline locations, players discovered that GLaDOS, the villainous AI from the first Portal game, had infiltrated Steam's servers and infected a set of indie games -- conveniently sold as a bundle for the duration of the promotion -- and was using the computers playing the games to power back up for her return in Portal 2. Players could speed up GLaDOS's return (and therefore the release of Portal 2) by playing these indie games -- each 48 hours played moved the progress bar 1%, and when the bar reached 100%, the game would be released on Steam, regardless of whether or not the retail street date had hit. In each of the indie games "infected," the developers added special Portal content -- mostly in the form of GLaDOS showing up.
Jagnow goes into the successes and failures of the ARG, with a few key takeaways for marketers who are looking to leverage a passionate fan base in the lead-up to a big release:
1. Give your promotional partners lots of creative freedom: Valve worked with some of the best indie developers in the world on this promotion, and knew that if they got creative freedom to use the Portal 2 IP, they would do great things. This required a leap of faith on the part of the Valve team -- a leap most companies couldn't make without locking their legal team in a closet for the duration. But great creative work doesn't happen without taking some risks.
2. Make your consumers part of the experience: When we plan campaigns, often we want the plan to be fixed before launch -- and after launch, to stick as closely to the plan as possible. But to allow for true interactivity, that isn't really possible. As Valve's players solved the initial set of puzzles, Valve watched very closely to see what they were doing and who was doing what, and then altered its promotional materials to weave the players' user names and activities into the overall story. This made the players feel like they were part of a story rather than part of a promotional campaign.
3. Give the power to your fans: The payoff of the ARG was that Valve actually let fans affect the release date of its game. That isn't a small thing -- street dates for video games, especially games that are also being distributed digitally, are the culmination of multimillion dollar promotional campaigns, aimed at drilling the buy-it call-to-action into the heads of as many consumers as possible. By letting fans call an audible, Valve took a risk, but that gave its consumers the chance to feel in control. If Valve had tried to somehow fake it, that would have been found out, and the goodwill generated would have been totally reversed.
Overall, the Portal 2 launch campaign was a great exemplar of the ARG category, and has tons of great lessons for marketers. I highly recommend the full article at Gamasutra (here's the link again), and if you haven't played Portal, you should take off for the weekend early and pick it up on the way home.