Valve Software advertised their release of Portal 2 using an Alternate Reality Game, or ARG. A series of puzzles led to a game that encouraged players to play a set of indie games in order to release the game early. The players participated, and Portal 2 was released 10 hours early.
A lot of people are upset about this.
At first I was really confused about how angry people were acting, even accounting for the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory. Valve had put together a cool set of puzzles, offered a bunch of indie games for cheap, and then actually gave players a real-world reward for playing. However, I’ve realized that the displeasure the ARG created is due to a classic problem in game design: miscommunication leading to false expectations.
My main source for this post is the Investigation History on the ARG players’ wiki. On the morning of April 15th, players were given a page which implied a potential early release for Portal 2. Implicitly, Valve (in the role of Game Master) was telling ARG players, “Do well at this game, and we will give you a reward of an early release.” Valve clearly had a system set up for this, and a set of rules that governed when release would happen based on the number of players and their behavior. This set of rules was soon reverse-engineered by the players, who did their best to play optimally.
In the end, their efforts resulted in a release 10 hours early. The game was scheduled to be released on the 19th at 7 AM Seattle time. This was about 94 hours after the “early release” phase began. In the end, the ARG players shaved about 10% off of the remaining time until release. This wasn’t at all what many people expected. When presented with a screen promising early release, what they assumed was that they would get to play Portal 2 within a day or two.
What Went Wrong
In the end, players got to play a day early, assuming a normal work schedule (EDIT: and assuming they lived in the US). But they expected it much earlier, it seems. There were two variables which Valve didn’t manage properly: How early people considered “early,” and how effectively people contributed to the ARG by playing the associated indie games. It’s clear to me that Valve underestimated the first, and overestimated the second. When presented on Friday with the offer of an early release, the players envisioned getting it before the end of the weekend. At the same time, they did not contribute to the ARG’s metagame fast enough to make that happen.
By Saturday, the people at Valve behind the ARG had probably realized their mistake. They’d calibrated the game to a higher level of participation than they expected, and if they changed the rules to be more generous people would notice and likely call foul. Note that the late-game “potato countdown” clock acceleration began at 10:30 AM Seattle time on Monday: just around the time that a hurried Monday-morning code fix would be finished and deployed.
What Might Have Been
How could people’s grumpiness have been better avoided? Valve could have begun the ARG earlier, which would have resulted in an earlier release. They could have more clearly communicated the range of possible release dates: “Release Portal 2 up to a day early!” rather than the vaguer “Release Portal 2 early!” Finally, they could have had less confidence in their fans, and adjusted the initial game rules so that less contribution was necessary to accelerate the game launch.
Still, the game effectively got released a day early. People shouldn’t complain too much.