I think of Valve as both the most interesting and depressing developer we have. Interesting because they are a shining example of what can happen when you give time, money, and freedom to developers. Depressing because they are an increasingly obvious outlier. If armchair analysis of the industry were a fighting game, Valve would be the character banned from tournament play. It just wouldn’t be fair.
That being said, we can still admire their most recent bout of antics. Earlier this week, the company released a series of parody images that inserted Valve characters into classic Apple advertisements. That might not sound entirely clever, but this is Valve we’re talking about. They always have tricks up their sleeve. Each of the fake ads was sent to just one news site, and the one that has actual text in it is an incredible homage to the rambling copy Apple used in the 80’s (90’s too?). While we don’t know the details, there is little doubt that the company is preparing to announce Mac compatibility with Steam, or at the very least the Steam client with just Source Engine games. The fact that the new Steam Beta UI is apparently made with Webkit helps further solidify the speculation.
Portal 2’s jokes will be worn out before it ships.
But the Mac teasers are nothing compared to the method they chose to announce Portal 2. A random and unexpected update to Portal added a slew of new radios, which play a blast of screechy noise when brought to a certain point in each level. Fans decided to put the noises together and do some awesomely geeky analysis, leading to the discovery that the sounds decode into a series of teaser images when run through Slow Scan Television (others contained Morse Code messages). Better yet, when some of the decoded sequences were run through an MD5 hash translator, they revealed the address and login info for an old modem-accessible BBS, which contains even more teaser pics. Here’s a good article if you want some better explanations.
But as gamers continued to puzzle over each new secret, Valve had one more surprise. Portal was updated once again, and if certain sites are correct, it was triggered by enough people logging into the BBS. The patch sheet for the update lists “Added valuable asset retrieval” as its sole feature, and gamers quickly discovered what that meant; the game’s ending was retconned, and Portal 2 has officially been announced.
While this is hardly the first time that a game developer has set up a clever Alternate Reality Game, Valve’s may be the most clever and cryptic. Still, even if you award that title to Bungie’s ilovebees campaign for Halo 2, Valve still wins with the surprise factor. ilovebees popped in preparation for the release of Halo 2, a game we knew was coming. The Portal 2 announcement, however, is entirely out of left field.
And this is where my excitement turns into depression again. I don’t expect every developer to do these kinds of treasure hunts: in fact, I don’t think I’d want them all to. But while Valve’s ARG might seem unnecessarily obtuse, I feel like it is far more respectful to its audience than more common forms of game advertising. One popular trend among developers is to create a teaser site with either false (or unhelpful) information and a countdown timer that may lead to an announcement, or in some cases may lead to yet another vague teaser. This feels less like a gift as it does an insult. Apparently we aren’t worthy of knowing their big secret, and have to wait in agony until they decide it is time for us to know.
On the other hand, Valve created this elaborate series of codes because it knew the fans would break them in a timely fashion. They gave us the pieces to the puzzle, and let us figure them out. When they’re all put together, the secrets within are not concrete, but are obvious enough that we can be certain of what they’re going to do at the minimum. That’s a level of trust that few game companies have in its customers, though one that can only be created with years of interaction and loyalty.
All of this makes me wonder – is Valve so good at pleasing their fans because they are successful enough to have the ability to do so? Or do they have that ability because they’ve always pleased the fans? Maybe their model actually can be used for the good of the industry.