With much excitement, the eagerly awaited Portal 2 launched last night. Those who pre-ordered and pre-loaded the game were the first to delve back into Aperture Science laboratories, their patience rewarded after an uncomfortabe marketing ploy by Valve. To stir up excitement for the game and earn a few extra bucks, Valve decided tp release the game early. I pick my words carefully here. I have neither the evidence to prove Valve’s campaign was a failure nor the gall to call the project an affront to common decency. The marketing stunt, if we can call it that, is unsettling, at least personally, because it fires a spotlight on the cultural power differential between the development studio and its player fan base.
The use of cryptic countdowns, alternate-reality games, and consumer involvement in marketing campaigns is not new to any media, videogames included. From a bevy of transmedia marketing experiments, we can conclude at least this: people do not like waiting just to wait again. In 2009, Metal Gear Solid fans were aghast when Kojima’s countdown clock revealed a future date, at which point he would reveal a real announcement. No one likes to get their hopes raised, only to have them quickly deflated.
Valve repeated this mistake when their own mysterious countdown trailer revealed, that’s right, another countdown. But there was hope, this countdown had play conditions and a win state! If people downloaded any or all of the games from Valve’s “Potato Sack” indie games bundle, clocking in enough “cpu” usage, Portal 2 would be released early. Not only that, but speculation was abuzz about what else the countdown could reveal - did the hidden G-Man image in the site allude to a Half-Life tie-in?
As players got to work, disillusionment set in. The countdown clock was moving down so slowly that completing the task would take days. Players left their games idle while they went about their daily business, just to fuel the collective effort. Regardless, it quickly became clear that Portal 2’s early release would occur mid-day Monday at best, just one day before the official launch and right in the middle of the work day. Come Monday night, when many east-coasters were already asleep, Portal 2 was, in fact, released early - about ten hours ahead of schedule. Imagine the momentary panic in the eyes of gamers everywhere when they saw yet another countdown, the game being decrypted.
Regardless of Valve’s intentions, their marketing campaign irked so many people not because gamers were greedy and wanted all their demands met promptly, but because they were confronted with the disparity of power between players and designers. Tying Portal 2’s early release to hours spent playing other games transformed play into labor. The excitement of fans became fuel for an alien machine in which numerical representations of “play” sterilized anticipation. The countdown is not aesthetically organic, it does not convey an appreciation for human elation. The release of Portal 2 as a cultural artifact became implicitly contested. Fans, invigorated by the thought of playing early, were confronted with the calculated power of the corporation who actually claims ownership over the game. Their excitement suddenly seemed derided, or at least ignored. Gamers suddenly became aware of their own powerlessness. Our appreciation for games as an art form can be manipulated - we can be manipulated. This realization is deeply unsettling.
Now be a good test subject, run off and play Portal 2, and forget how weak you really are.