Over the past few weeks, Portal developer Valve and its more devoted fans have been engaged in an alternate reality game, which was believed to have resulted in people getting to play Portal 2 early. Just hours from its conclusion, it hasn't really worked out that way.
Were it just a game, that would fine. Disappointing, but fine. And yet it wasn't just a game, as the lure of playing one major title early had some people spending hours playing (or idling) in games, while others were buying a ton of games they'd otherwise have had little intention to purchase.
So it wasn't really an alternate reality game at all.
For hardcore consumers, the type that will engage in this kind of business, the modern video game landscape is one they rightfully approach with jaded eyes. It's an industry that often seems built to scam and exploit customers each and every step of the way, so gamers have become increasingly wary of the PR machine and its marketing stunts, especially when it comes to big publishers like EA and Activision.
A precious few companies remain outside of this fear and loathing, able to count on large, dedicated and loyal fanbases. Blizzard is one. And Valve is another. People feel that, because of those developer's track records of great games and forthright communication with fans, they can be trusted.
I think Valve blew a little of that trust this week.
For the past week or so, the company has been all but directly announcing that, if people went and played a whole bunch of indie games, Portal 2 would be released early. It seemed a neat stunt given Valve, who also developed Half-Life and Team Fortress, is notorious for releasing titles months and even years behind schedule. And hey, who doesn't like supporting indie games?
So many people bought a bundle of games they most likely did not previously own, all just to indulge in a little Portal 2 cross-promotion, and in the belief that in doing so they'd really get to play one of the biggest games of the year a day or two early.
At time of posting, that doesn't seem to be the case. While calculations vary (and the events of this ARG ebb and flow every hour), it seems the game will be released approximately ten hours early.
After all the clue-hunting, purchasing and playing of games thousands (maybe tens of thousands) of people engaged in, that's all they're going to get. The chance to play something a few hours earlier. In the middle of the night. If like me you didn't play this "game", then it's business as usual! Hell, you'll get the game a few hours early for doing nothing. But if I'd paid money for those indie games, games I only bought as part of the Portal 2 promotion, I'd maybe have expected a little more payoff at the end.
This, I feel, creates a slight problem for Valve. As the company's Steam digital delivery service has grown to be the single-most important shopfront for the PC gaming market, it has faced increasing, if muffled, criticism from both rival stores and outspoken developers. How can it be kosher, critics say, for the PC market's biggest online store to be run by a company that itself makes and sells games?
That hasn't been much of a problem to date because, Left 4 Dead aside, most of Valve's own games have not been released during Steam's period of "dominance" over its competitors. So Valve has been able to remain mostly neutral in its use of the store and its promotional power.
This "game", though, violates that neutrality. A selection of games have sold through the roof this week (Portal 2 was #1 on Steam's charts, followed by the "The Potato Sack", the collection of indie games containing Portal 2 promotions, at #2), and sold purely because people wanted to play a Valve game early. While the indie developers involved are getting a nice bonus, proceeds from each sale are still going to, yes, Valve. To promote a game Valve developed. At the expense of other third-party games.
So people were sold games believing that purchasing them would let them get at Portal 2 early. And for all their trouble got the game...a few hours early. Making matters worse is the fact the console versions of the game, shipping on physical discs, are already finding their ways into people's homes one way or another (I've already got a copy on 360, for example, while my PC version sits at "pre-load"), and those people didn't have to spend an extra cent.
There's also the matter of a disgruntled playerbase, made up of some of Valve's biggest fans, some of whom surely feel almost exploited at having "wasted" either time or money engaged in this game, with now little to nothing to show for it.
While conspiracy theorists could easily call this a stunt aimed squarely at callously squeezing a little extra money out of Portal fanatics, there is, of course, the chance that this is all simply part of the Portal universe. An elaborate, canonical gag. GLaDOS, the malevolent computer and star/villain of the series, spent the first game promising to give you something she/it never gave you. As this ARG has been mostly "run" by Valve staffers posting as GLaDOS, that's certainly a possibility.
Yes, this is far from a heinous crime. Nobody forced people to buy those games, many probably had fun with titles they'd never played and some indie developers got paid. I'm not saying the incident has been some kind of disaster, nor that everyone involved had a wretched time, or is burning their Valve merchandise in the streets.
And hey, there's the chance that, as the night drags on, those persevering with the game will be rewarded for their efforts with something. Art, in-game items, a tease of a future project, something.
Yet I can't help but feel that, through their manipulative actions over the course of the past few weeks, Valve has lost a little of its shine as a can't-fault-them company (beyond the obvious Half-Life delay jokes), and finally given critics of its online store's growing power a tangible hook to hang their complaints on.
UPDATE - As of 12:20am EST, it appears Portal 2 has unlocked on Steam for some users, while some participants in the ARG are receiving the Valve Complete Pack for their troubles.