April Fools. The decision to launch the ARG on April Fools' Day was deliberate. We wanted to blend in with the typical April 1 chaos and let it sink in over time that #PotatoFoolsDay is something much larger than April Fools' Day.
Unfortunately, this tactic worked better than we anticipated. We had a lot of trouble getting early media coverage, which is unsurprising since media outlets are wisely wary of April Fools jokes. Nobody wants to release a big story only to retract it later. For days, skeptical players were insisting that the ARG was just an extended prank put together by a few indie studios.
Kidnapped Champions. The second big mistake we made was pulling the ARG champions away from their communities too early. Based on contributions in various games, on the fan wiki and in the IRC channels, we hand-selected a few individuals who had contributed disproportionately to the ARG and offered to fly them to Valve.
In order to give sufficient time to notify them and make travel arrangements, Valve contacted them a few days before the start of the crescendo. We didn't require them to sign any NDAs, but to maintain the fiction, we encouraged them to take a step back from the ARG and claim that they had been kidnapped by minions of GLaDOS.
We failed to realize just how influential these few individuals had been in keeping the ARG running like clockwork. The wiki stopped getting updated, leaving other players confused as to what was going on.
In retrospect, a few minor changes may have prevented this. For instance, we could have altered the fiction of the story in a way that allowed the champions to keep rallying the ARG community in the anticipation that the kidnapping would come later.
The Crescendo. By far the biggest mistake of the ARG was the decision to move up the timeline for the crescendo. We originally scheduled this to start 24 to 36 hours before the imminent 7 am Tuesday launch, but we worried that this would give ARG players in other time zones very little time to participate. So we decided to set the completion threshold much higher so that the crescendo could stretch over multiple days. We moved the start to Friday morning to make it easier for international media to pick up the story before the weekend.
So what really happened? When the final ARG puzzle was solved, it pointed to a webpage with a count-down timer. Players immediately assumed that this was the count-down for the early release of Portal 2 -- a suspicion that they believe was validated by a clue that was sent to several media outlets that included the hint "4/19/2011_7AM=4/15/2011_9AM," where the first time was the published Tuesday release date. In retrospect, it wasn't very hard to see why the the community was surprised and disappointed when the timer reached zero only to be replaced by a page with another timer.
If our goal was to get media attention, then we got it. The extended crescendo gave plenty of time for the news to cover the event, but we sacrificed a lot of goodwill with the players. Those who had been participating in the ARG since the beginning felt let down because there were no puzzles left to solve. They participated in the crescendo by playing the games but found it to be anticlimactic.
New arrivals often weren't aware that the ARG had already been running for more than two weeks. Rather than seeing the many hours of new content that had been hidden in our games, all they saw was a cheap media ploy to get players to buy the Potato Sack in the hope of an early Portal 2 release. Even worse, players were let down each night when the crescendo failed to complete, and felt cheated when their Potato Sack purchase didn't result in being able to play Portal 2 over the weekend.
If we had been able to do this all over again, there would have been several changes. First, we would have stuck to the original schedule of having the crescendo be no longer than 36 hours. Given the toss-up between media attention and player goodwill, we'll choose the player every time.
Next, we would have continued to add new in-game puzzle content during the crescendo so that the core ARG players could maintain their excitement and have a way to contribute to the launch in the way that they knew best. One other option that we could consider for future projects is to move a crescendo-style event to the start of the ARG to alert the media and engage our core fans from the very beginning.
Aside from the mistakes listed above, we did a lot of things right. From the very beginning, Valve gave the indie developers incredible flexibility to use the Portal 2 intellectual property without constraints. This gave us the freedom to focus on great content rather than having to worry about legal concerns or a lengthy approval process.
Everyone involved worked hard to stay responsive. We monitored the IRC channels so we knew, for instance, when players were heading to physical locations. In a couple cases, we spied on those players and then wove their usernames or stories back into the content.
This was a huge hit and made players feel like they were part of the story. In response to the media's initial hesitation to report on what appeared to be an elaborate April Fools prank, we encouraged blogs and news outlets to cover the story by sending them mysterious emails, official summaries, screenshots of new content, and trailers depicting Portal-themed content updates.
This responsiveness was also important for dealing with hackers. Chris Douglass and Al Farnsworth at Valve did an incredible job of detecting suspicious behavior and shutting down hacked content, usually within a matter of minutes.
Finally, one of the big successes was simply weaving explicit Portal 2 content into our indie games. When Phase 3 launched and screenshots and videos of GLaDOS started showing up in all of our games, fans and media went crazy. The ARG gave all of the participating developers an amazing opportunity to create new game mechanics and new content, most of which will stay around indefinitely.
With less than four months from inception to launch, the development schedule for the Portal 2 ARG was tight. But I think I speak for all of the indie teams when I say that it was one of the most enjoyable projects of my life. As Michael Austin at Hidden Path put it, "It was the most fun crunch ever."
Some of the success of the ARG may be due to the nature of the Portal IP. The core story is both dramatic and comedic, making it easy to work with. The gaps in the history gave us a lot of room to play around. In Portal, GLaDOS often plays the role of a disembodied commentator, making it easy to weave her character into another world's fiction.
Despite a few mistakes, everyone involved in creating the ARG content considered the event to be a huge success. Hopefully the lessons discussed here will help us do even better next time -- and we do hope there will be a next time.