By Haley Moore, May 5th, 2011

So, Portal 2 is out. You may have heard.

You may have also heard there was an ARG associated with it – or maybe you didn’t. While the game received some media attention right before the launch of Portal 2, it slid past ARG communities without making much of a wave.

The Portal 2 ARG project was a collaboration between several indie studios and Valve. Most of the game was rolled out through hidden content in 13 indie games sold together as “The Potato Sack” on Steam. Playing those games led you to hidden levels and messages from the Portal’s antagonist GLaDOS, and ended up being the key to getting Portal 2 several hours ahead of its official release time.

This game tried a lot of things that are outside the normal scope of ARGs, and I feel like there are valuable design lessons to be learned here.

1) Partnerships are Awesome

Because the ARG was created as a partnership between a large group of video game designers, they were able to deliver the game as a series of easter eggs in video game that were already fully developed and polished. That’s something indie ARG creators wish they could do, but very rarely can.

The additional content inside the games was polished, and the sort of content you could only get from putting quality designers on the project. The GLaDOS levels in Rush and Toki Tori were designed to have the same feel as Portal – they challenged you to be creative with the game’s existing teleportation mechanics. I felt like I was getting a little taste of Portal 2 as I was playing them.

After the game came to its conclusion, we learned that these indie designers were principally involved in designing the entire experience. They created everything from tweets to puzzles to youtube videos and music. The total budget? $100.

The ARG was a labor of indie love designed by Portal fans, who were given free reign to work with the Portal characters and access to Valve resources. I wish I had known this from the beginning because it would have made a big difference in my second point:

2) Don’t Build Your Pay Wall Too High

The primary content for the ARG was distributed through the Potato Sack – 13 indie games that sold in a package on Steam for $38.72. For someone with very limited entertainment cash, that is quite a lot of money.

However, about four days before the release of Portal 2, a little birdie let me know who was responsible for the ARG, and my attitude toward the pay wall shifted completely. Over the course of the next 3 days, I bought Cogs, Rush, Toki Tori, and The Wonderful End of the World for a grand total of $15.

The pre-sale for Portal 2 was priced at $45, so the Potato Sack cost almost as much as the game it was promoting. By contrast, $15 felt like a pretty natural stopping point. (This is pretty comparable to other experiences behind pay walls – the print version of Cathy’s Book retails for $17.95.) That $15 was doled out in four purchases of $5 or less. The option to buy the games individually was the only reason I didn’t just smack into the pay wall face first.

The only thing I can conclude here is:

3) Screw the Curtain

If there’s something cool about the way your project was established, there is no reason to keep it a secret. Valve partnering with indie game designers to create a Portal ARG is cool, and worth supporting. The desire to keep coy and quiet about the history behind this ARG may have kept it from ubiquity.

There’s also a fundamental sales pitch difference. The idea of paying $39 to be advertised to is ridiculous, but it’s reasonable to spend that money to support an indie ARG team.

4) Countdowns Can be Compelling

As the endgame approached for the ARG, a page with a countdown timer was revealed. When that timer ran out, it led to another countdown timer. It sounds like a parody of ARG design, but it worked – and very well – because player interaction drove changes in the final countdown.

Participants had to play the games in the Potato Sack, and earn the secret challenge badges in them, to release Portal 2 ahead of the release time given on Steam. The countdown was a measure of player progress and a call to action, which made it far more interesting than a countdown alone could be. This was another area where the video game roots of the ARG really made for something great.

It didn’t hurt that it was counting down to a much-anticipated event, either.

5) Exclusivity is a Design Flaw

I’m not going to lie. Several times, especially near the end of the game, I was earned my potato badges by replicating cheat videos on YouTube. The extra levels in each of the games were more than challenging; they were hard – and as the clock ticked down, I realized I didn’t have time to beat them by my wits alone.

The previous Portal 2 extended reality campaign, which released last year with the free release of Portal, also had this issue. I had no idea that the extra content in Portal was extra, because I was playing the game for the first time. The content was also a challenge to get to, and in many later levels required a lot of experimentation and gaming skill. It seemed as though the experience was designed to reward veteran players who had mastered the game years ago. That seemed odd, considering the point of giving Portal away was to bring in new players.

This may be a fundamental philosophical difference between video game design and pervasive fiction design. As a storyteller, I seek to create intimacy with the audience. Making players struggle to reach content is one way to make an interaction seem meaningful and personal, but it is far from the only way.

More importantly, it is a bad way to do things if you want to make an experience that will engage a lot of people. To experience the Potato Sack ARG in its entirety, you not only had to buy all of the games, but master them and beat their most challenging levels. That’s quite a lot of work to get to the meat of an experience.

We usually design ARG experiences with late rabbitholes, and mechanisms that allow trailblazers to unlock content for everyone. If you treat every new player as though you expect them to be a trailblazer, only the trailblazers actually play the game. That’s not such a terrible thing if your goal is to create buzz – but when you want people to cross a pay wall, things get a little different.

6) We Can Still Pull Players “Behind the Scenes”

Several players who had been active on the game’s wiki were “kidnapped” during the course of the game. At first, I wondered if Valve had planted fake players – an unpopular but unfortunately common practice.

As it turns out, those players were brought behind the scenes and invited to Portal 2’s launch party as a reward for being active in the ARG. This is something Dave Szulborski did in Chasing the Wish, and it adds a nice layer of audience collaboration to the mix.

7) April Fool’s is a Bad Launch Date

The Portal 2 ARG launched on April 1, which might be aptly called “International Online Fiction Day.” The internet is flooded with interactive and pervasive fiction pieces on April Fool’s, most of which don’t go any deeper than a few web pages and only last one day, as our yearly ritual prescribes. This game got lost in the static, especially after it picked up the name “Potato Fools Day” – which implied that the game was a joke.

BONUS: Music Keeps the Experience Alive

This one is more of a protip than a serious lesson. The popularity of Portal spread in part thanks to Jonathan Coulton and his catchy end credits tune. “Still Alive” has become such a gaming anthem that children’s choirs are performing it, and Portal 2 is continuing that tradition two key songs for the new game. The ARG creators took cues from that, and (along with several remakes of Still Alive) released some original music for with experience.

Audiosurf featured a techno track built on quotes from Portal, called The Device Has Been Modified. 1… 2… 3.. KICK IT included a chill out track called Searching. Emergence. Discovery., and The Wonderful End of the World contains a melodious folk song by Dejobaan Games developer Dan Brainerd called “Hole in the Ground.” This song, with it’s haunting lyrics (“I took up a job that was all absentee”), was stuck in my head for nearly two weeks after Portal 2 launched.

Even though I jumped into the game fairly late, the music cemented my connection with the game and made it memorable.  This is something I might be trying for myself in the future.

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Posted in ARG experience storytelling transmedia

Haley Moore is a newspaper reporter, artist, and playwright based in north Texas. She has worked on several indie, fan and commercial Alternate Reality Games.


  •  Nice work Haley. Really helpful breakdown.

  • Ariock

    standard overly-nerdy clarification: I'm not aware of what the budget for the potato sack ARG was, but the $100 price tag was for a sort-of-ARG that Valve did for the announcement of Portal 2 last year. It was a minor update to Portal 1 that just revealed concept art and some other info about P2.

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