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Valve Be Trippin’

posted on March 6th, 2010 by christian

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.

15 Comments

  1. coleman984 said on March 7, 2010:

    Please their customers? Yeah right…I bought a game from steam and had a couple mix ups with it being tied to the wrong account…well long story short I can’t play a game I paid for. They have no interest in pleasing their customers…buyer beware. Don’t buy from steam.

  2. Bereaver said on March 7, 2010:

    The problem is, it isn’t REALLY for the consumer. It’s just mind games.

  3. Peter said on March 7, 2010:

    lol coleman984 you fail its imposible to “mix” your games with another account on steam, games are instantly tied to the original account you used to buy the game…

  4. Jack said on March 7, 2010:

    Valve has always been ones to help their consumers, whether it comes from free DLC or awesome customer service. They try to have fun and seem to be one of the only companies out there that isn’t doing everything for money. They create game and mind changing experiences. I love their marketing along with their games. Every company should take note

  5. Josh said on March 7, 2010:

    Valve has got to be one of the most overrated developers of all time. Dont get me wrong, they’re quality developers, but people act like they are Godly… I think they are just good. Good, but highly overrated.

  6. Guy said on March 7, 2010:

    ” 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.”

    Are you sure about that? Portal 2 ARG practically started inside Portal, so I have no idea how someone can not guess it’s going to be about a sequel announcement. It was quite clear the minute Portal was updated with the achievement.
    The only thing that wasn’t obvious, is if it’s going to be just Portal 2 or Portal 2 + EP3 or some other “box” (and that may still happen).

  7. christian said on March 7, 2010:

    Guy – You’re right that once the update came, people had an idea that it might be a clue to a new game. What I meant was, “did anyone expect an update to Portal?”

  8. Aaron Colas said on March 7, 2010:

    Nice read. This is a great example of how game related journalism should be; interesting, insightful and revealing; not the massive load of crap most other websites belch on an hourly basis like: “t0p I0 bewbs ladies GaMerz fPs” or “consol3s r like… totally better than pC!”

    Keep up the good work, I’ll certainly be back for more.

  9. Dirk said on March 7, 2010:

    I don’t expect much from such announcements so I am not disappointed when a game does or does not come out with relevant information. As a consumer of video games this is a hobby for me so for me to tear what little hair [on my head] I have left out is foolish.

  10. That Guy said on March 7, 2010:

    Wish they’d hurry up & drop Half Life:ep3 instead of more of this crap. (as fun as Portal was I want my HL!)

  11. ManAnimalX said on March 8, 2010:

    I hate Valve, They stand for DRM, Steam is competively unfair to other(s), and i dont care for them or L4D , that silly lookng Team Fortress or Portal, wheres the New Half-Life game, then they can just die then, i dont care.

  12. christian said on March 8, 2010:

    Aaron – thank you for the compliments! I’ll be the first to admit that my writing isn’t perfect, but I’m always trying to get better, so criticisms are taken to heart. Thanks for stopping by.

    ManAnimalX – Your point about Steam DRM isn’t without merit. I agree that it would be nice to have absolutely none of it, but they’ve done a whole lot to try and make it as painless as possible. Letting you backup your games, as well as play them from other computers are very nice features, and I appreciated that I had the ability to type in my old CD keys from my Half Life discs to register them on Steam back when the platform first launched. Also, there is still the old concern that once Valve disappears, what happens to our games? I think, however, that they’ll come up with a fair solution. They have to work within the confines of the current industry mindset, but I don’t think they’re purposefully out to screw gamers.

    Also, it seems that you’re frustrated with the general “all or nothing” attitude that occurs with Valve and other popular developers, in which those that like them like everything, without compromise. That certainly doesn’t describe myself. I’ve been playing their games since ’99, jumped onto Steam right away, etc. But I wasn’t entirely in love with Portal, and I’ve never been a fan of the performance of Source engine games on the 360. I’m praising them here, but I’m not afraid to criticize them when needed.

  13. Cunzy1 1 said on March 9, 2010:

    Sadly I suffer from Valvitis. Definition from WHO:

    ‘Valvitis is a disorder of the sensory organs characterized by a sincere dislike of arcadey shooters.’

    It is debilitating.

  14. Spyder Mayhem said on March 11, 2010:

    Thank goodness you still have Pokemon to play, then. Sort that Pokedex with all your might, Cunzy. Sort it with your entire being.

  15. Cunzy1 1 said on March 12, 2010:

    Filling Spyder, filling. It pretty much sorts itself or can be sorted by a criteria of your choosing.

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