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Can interactive campaigns backfire?

This is a guest post from Ryo Yamaguchi , Senior Media Researcher at Cision.

There’s a lot of hype about using interactivity and game mechanics to generate buzz about a product release, but sometimes that can backfire. Should such games, in some cases, be fixed?

Late Monday evening, video game publisher Valve released the much anticipated sequel title, Portal 2, a few hours ahead of the scheduled launch time. The early release was part of a long and involved alternate reality game (ARG) that roughly began with hidden clues referencing the the new title embedded in a bundle pack of games (titled The Potato Sack) the publisher released through their distribution and gaming network software, Steam, a few weeks prior.

The ARG, in the end, prompted gamers this past Friday to purchase the Potato Sack bundle and play its games all weekend to help speed the early release. The more gamers online playing those games, the faster the clock ticked down to the release of Portal 2.

Despite their best efforts, Portal 2 released just a few hours ahead of schedule, prompting the question, was this interactive campaign a success? The ARG almost certainly bumped sales of the Potato Sack, but at what cost? Gamers on the PC saw only a few hours, very inconvenient ones at that, of early play, and that few hours reward hardly seems to justify the purchase of the Potato Sack (with the caveat that the Potato Sack includes many fine titles and is a value regardless of any relationship to the Portal 2 release). The reward/cost ratio of the ARG feels, to this blogger, greatly skewed to the negative. It would have been a much larger boon, and a much larger mark of appreciation to the community, had the ARG resulted in a weekend release, when gamers could have really enjoyed it.

The question becomes one of deception in the marketing—not so much of deceiving gamers into thinking a more substantial early release would happen, but rather the issue of whether or not this game, the ARG, was real. It appears that it was, and that gamers were simply not up to snuff (or rather, too few were) to complete the challenges quickly enough to ensure a more substantial and worthwhile early release. Would it have been better had Valve deceived the community, made the countdown only appear affected by consumer behavior, with an early release date pre-decided, a date that allowed gamers a greater sense of reward and accomplishment? Or would that have been worse, would that have secured the ARG as a marketing ploy only? The act of fixing outcomes in an interactive marketing campaign is a questionable one, but it might be the only way to ensure such campaigns provide the best results.

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