Play The Potato Sack, Help Release Portal 2 Late?

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Portal 2 GLaDOS screenshot snapped at 9:11am EDT.

Portal 2 was supposed to come out tomorrow. In the U.S., that usually means 12:01am Eastern time (in this case, on Tuesday April 19). But as of this morning, the launch time still looks to be nearly a full day away, clocking in at just after 4:00am ET, or four hours past hour zero of the launch day. That’s early in the morning, granted, but a betrayal of sorts for those who paid Valve extra money on the premise the game might activate last week or this weekend.

Blame our assumptions about when games should launch. Or just blame the game’s publisher, Valve (Half Life, Counter-Strike), for pulling a prerelease press coverage and viral hype stunt designed to tease and tantalize discounts on older indie games in lieu of Portal 2 itself.

The stunt began with some crypto-gaming tomfoolery involving a suite of indie games bundled in a “Potato Sack.” Within these games, players discovered out-of-place items or art that offered “clues” about Portal 2’s world and storyline, including a countdown clock that some interpreted as an early launch timer for Portal 2. Had they been right, the game would’ve launched last Friday, April 15.

Instead, the countdown launched another countdown, powering up “GLaDOS@home,” a sendup of distributed computing projects like SETI@home that encouraged players to purchase The Potato Sack game bundle: 13 indie games listed individually for half price, or for 75% off purchased in the Potato Sack bundle. By playing the games in the bundle, all those player CPUs might collectively “Help Release Portal 2 Early!” by “rebooting” the GLaDOS computer. (For non-Portal aficionados, GLaDOS is the villainous artificial intelligence from the original game.)

Player reaction to all this hasn’t been what you'd call "positive." Gamers thought Valve actually would release the game early, and spent an inordinate amount of money to make it so. Scan Valve's forums and you'll find a kind of civil war underway, with some accusing and others defending Valve's promotional campaign. A fellow games editor told me Friday he was certain the game would drop by Monday--I balked and argued Valve never intended to let the game loose early.

Valve’s idea seemed promising enough: Offer over a dozen indie games substantially discounted, give players a chance to participate in an event and outcome their actions could actually change. The problem was creating a game they couldn’t win--or, if we assume the rules were dropped in place Friday and thereafter untouched by Valve, by setting the distributed computing bar too high.

Portal 2 should’ve come out early, whether by a day or a weekend. You don’t put that possibility out to a fired-up player base, charge extra admission, then fail to deliver the goods.

Update: Valve's Portal 2 blog lists the launch time as April 19 at "7AM PST," making activation at somewhere around 4AM PDT technically early, but it's more of a consolation time bump than anything the ARG intimated.

Update 2: At 4:00pm ET, the clock's at 11 hours, 6 minutes, putting us at 3:00am ET, about an hour bump from 4:00am ET this morning. At this rate, we might see it go live around 2:00am ET, or a few hours after East Coast midnight launch gamers begin snapping up the store-launched Xbox 360 and PS3 versions.

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