Over the years, it’s become increasingly difficult to say anything bad about Valve, the developer which has not only given us some of the greatest games of all time (Half-Life, its sequels, Portal, Team Fortress 2, Left 4 Dead, et cetera) but has also put together the definitive online games distribution and community integration platform, Steam. Yes, gamers have been frustrated with their infrequent release schedule, but the continued cries of gamers for them to finish the Half-Life 2 Episodes trilogy is a testament to the greatness of their games, but the truth of the matter is that while Valve is still technically in the business of making Half-Life games, their main revenue stream now comes from selling you games.
Almost exclusively, this has been a pretty good thing. Even though Valve has shifted some of its gears from development to retail, they still approach the business as if they are Valve (probably because they are Valve), and this has always meant innovation and making their customers happy and loyal. It is not uncommon to see a Steam customer with a game library larger than he or she will ever have time to play. Valve is uncommonly good at getting people to buy games from them because they make it incredibly easy to do so, usually by heavily marking down prices for a limited time. Sometimes, I go to my games library and see games that I’ve purchased that I’ve never even downloaded, let alone play. Keep in mind that I am a Mac user, and Steam was only released for the OSX platform in the last year. Just yesterday, something in my library caught my eye, and I had to go to the products page on Steam and look at screenshots and trailers before I could remember what the game was and that I had, in fact, purchased it. Perhaps one of these days I will actually get around to downloading and then playing Hoard, but then there might be some other game that catches my eye and I’ll forget all about the game all over again.
Clearly, this has become a viable and lucrative business model, and recently they’ve taken to exploiting their own wares to increase their customer base. I previously mentioned that last year, Valve brought Steam to OSX. In order to entice customers, they offered up a nice prize for downloading their storefront/software: a free copy of their surprise hit game Portal. This coming Tuesday, they convince even more potential (inevitable) customers to download their storefront/software by offering a free PC or OSX copy of Portal 2 to those who purchase the PS3 version. They’ve even convinced Sony to let them integrate Steam into the PS3. While it will currently only allow for cross-platform cooperative play and cloud saving for the PS3 game, and some (I imagine) limited community hooks, who knows what this integration could lead to in the future. What is certain is that Valve now has its foot in the door of a third potential storefront, depending on how much Sony will let them get away with. It’s a brilliant ploy, and it benefits both the company and the gamers who support and love them.
This past week, however, we’ve been witness to a bit of a misstep on the part of Valve. One of the many ways they get people to purchase games that they don’t necessarily want (or have already purchased) is with bundles. They put a bunch of games together, usually smaller and indie titles, and offer them at a significant discount. Thus, last week, we have the $40 Potato Sack Bundle, a savings of 75% off of 13 games including indie hits like Super Meat Boy, Amnesia, Audiosurf and Bit.Trip.Runner plus a potato hat for Team Fortress 2 and a unique skin for use in Portal 2. On its surface the bundle represents a good value, but some of the games included are more than three years old already and have likely already been repurchased over and over again by most of the people who would be excited by a deal like this. The Potato Sack Bundle was nice, but it wasn’t the type of bundle one would rush out to purchase, especially with Portal 2 coming so soon.
There is a fine line between incentivizing your product and exploiting your customer base. I know a few people who purchased Zone of the Enders to play the Metal Gear Solid 2 demo that was packaged with it, and I know even more people who purchased Crackdown so they could get their hands on a Halo 3 multiplayer beta code. Hell, I once bought Brave Fencer Musashi so I could get an early look at Final Fantasy VIII. These were all incentives, though. Konami, Microsoft, and Square (no Enix) dangled a piece of a game months away behind a new and untested property. It was a little cheesy, but everyone who purchased those games enticed by those demos received a game that could stand on its merits alone.
I bring this up because Valve offered a similar, hidden incentive with the Potato Sack bundle. In the last few days, it has been revealed that Valve has tied the number of bundles purchased and the number of hours played to the release of Portal 2. To be specific, if we buy enough of these $40 bundles filled with games that many of us already have, and we play them all a real bunch, we’ll get the digital release of Portal 2 a scant few days early. I first heard about this because it seemed as if the internet was exploding with celebration over this revelation, from which I assume I am in the minority in my disgust.
It pleases me, however, that my small boycott was mostly unnecessary. As of right now, which is about 8 o’clock on Sunday night, Portal 2 will already be released by the time Valve meets their Potato Sack benchmarks. I wish the makers of the games included in the bundle nothing but the best, and I will continue to support Valve as they earned a deep well of good will from the gaming community as a whole. I believe that they have spent some of that good will with this experiment, and I hope that this particular failure means that I won’t have to spend $80 on an impending Bread Box Bundle in order to ensure that Half-Life 2: Episode 3 does not cease development.