“We hardly make anything any more,” says Jason Holtman, Director of Business Development at Valve. “Not because we’re lazy, but the community has solved the problem better.”
That applies not only to in-game items and maps, but also to old-fashioned, grass-roots, word-of-mouth marketing campaigns. When the company decided to lift the curtain on Portal 2, they came up against the usual question: how to do it. The answer? Pass word to the Steam community, then sit back and watch everyone get excited.
“The classic thing is someone would call up the business department, the marketers, let’s go and get our spend in place,” says Holtman, speaking at the Develop in Brighton conference. “This is not what we did.”
Instead, they just added content to the first Portal game. And that was enough to tease information out to the core Portal players who helped spread word of the discovery in order to decipher its meaning.
An update to the first Portal game changed the broadcasts of radios found in various levels. Along with a cryptic message left on the company forum, that got the ball rolling. The Steam community immediately jumped on both trails and tenaciously followed the bread crumbs. It didn’t take long before fans decoded the new radio broadcasts, revealing mystery images. Suddenly, everyone was talking about it, and the news spread to — and was spread further by — media outlets.
“This is all happening over the space of hours,” says Holtman. “Two or three days after that, chatter starts to happen that maybe this is Portal 2.”
Then Valve dropped another update that completely changed Portal’s ending. “This, of course, made everybody go ballistic,” says Holtman. Valve’s forums lit up with 2.7 million views and 12,000 contributors chiming in. Over on YouTube, 500,000 people watched the new ending.
Valve dialed in to fandom’s enthusiasm, generating enthusiasm for the product and creating a personal connection to it at the same time simply by offering a mystery to solve. And the community loved it.
“That’s better than sending a press release out,” says Holtman. “All of these pieces had to be done by people outside of a traditional business background. You had to be able to make the ending of the game, you had to be able to put the radios in the game, you had to be able to make this fun,” offered Holtman. “If this would have been a top-down strategy, if I were sitting around with a traditional marketer it just couldn’t be made. This was being made as we iterated with people saying ‘why don’t we make a new ending and what’s fun about finding this new radio?'”
For even more interesting insight into how Valve tapped into the community for user-generated content for Team Fortress 2, read the complete story here.