Portal 2

An Alternate Reality Game (ARG) can be an interesting way to market products. As the name implies, an ARG is a game that brings players into a fictional universe through real world media, oftentimes presenting a problem inspired by the product or show as real. For instance, websites for fictional organizations and people may be created to immerse the player in the alternate world and fictional problems encourage participation in the completion of objectives. These games create tight-knit communities dedicated to the collective solving of whatever mystery the ARG presents. Successful ARGs have been run for Artificial Intelligence, the Halo franchise, Heroes, and LOST.

Along with a robust traditional marketing plan (I see billboards on my way to and from work), Valve recently ran an ARG for the promotion of Portal 2 that let players gain access to the game early by completing it (only by half a day, though, to the grumbling of some fans). The ARG included hidden screens in videos and secret messages in audio files among other things, but perhaps its most interesting feature was that it hid features related to the game in the “Potato Sack” (named by removing RLW from POrTAl TwO), a collection of indie games available through Valve’s purchase platform Steam.

Games in the “Potato Sack” were offered at a large discount if the user purchased the whole package. But to get that point, Valve had to open up the idea to indie developers, see how they would feel about inserting content into their already finished games, and finally open up their IP to developers for the ARG. While it is certainly an interesting idea, at the end of the campaign there are a few main points to consider and a couple of questions left to be answered.

1. How well did the “Potato Sack” sell?
2. How well did Portal 2 sell? Did it meet or exceed expectations?
3. The ARG was pretty complicated – were there plans for a different prize or was it really just a 10 hour difference in release time all along?
4. How many people were exposed to the ARG (through the Potato Sack or otherwise)?

Until Valve goes public, I guess I won’t really know the answer to the first two but I can guess at the third and fourth. All in all, it was an interesting move that easily targeted the people most likely to buy Portal 2 (although Xbox 360 and PS3 owners were excluded from the fun unless they had a PC). I’m not sure if the money and time invested was worth it for Valve who could be pretty much assured that any players likely to play a Portal 2 ARG would be purchasing the game anyway, but it seems like a great opportunity for indie developers to ride the coattails of a monster game to get their own work noticed. I’d like to see how the sales for games in the “Potato Sack” are affected in the coming months.

What are your thoughts on ARGs in marketing? Do you think they necessarily need to offer consumers some sort of reward or is simple participation in a unique experience reward enough?