The indie origins of the Portal 2 'Potato Sack' ARG

For fans, the recent Portal 2 ARG began with the discovery of unexpected, hidden messages within the "Potato Sack" bundle of indie games. As it happens, the project's development also started with a mysterious missive -- to the developers of those games.

"Dude, it was so rad," Alex Neuse, CEO of Bit.Trip Beat developer Gaijin Games told Joystiq. "[Valve] contacted a bunch of independent developers -- like a whole bunch. They contacted a bunch of us and said, 'Hey, we're thinking of doing something wacky up here at Valve, and we were wondering if you'd be interested in coming up here and talking to us about it.' And that was about it."%Gallery-121034%
Neuse and "a whole bunch of teams" arrived at Valve HQ around December, Neuse said, none of them with any idea what the summons concerned. Gabe Newell arrived and told the collected indie talent that Valve wanted to do some kind of ARG for the release of Portal 2, and it wanted to include their games. "I think they wanted to do that because they're an independent studio as well," Neuse said, "and they see a lot of potential and value in independent games. So they basically said 'we want to work together on this ARG, and we have no ideas on exactly what we should do, so let's figure it out.' And then we all sat down and designed it together."

"Not only did we get to be part of this really cool event, get spazzy with a bunch of other indie devs and Valve and have fun, but we made some money out of it, too."- Alex Neuse, Gaijin Games

Valve had only one idea: releasing Portal 2 on Steam early through this ARG. The rest was crafted as a result of this indie summit, including coded messages hidden in the games at varying levels, and -- eventually, Portal 2-themed content unlocked within the games. With the ideas in place, the teams went back and started working on their own individual games. That set of 13 games, including Bit. Trip Beat, Super Meat Boy, Defense Grid: The Awakening, and more, would be bundled together in a discounted 13-game pack on April 1, with no indication that they were part of an ARG. Over time, secret messages were discovered in the code, along with potato references that were initially taken as April Fools' Day jokes.

"We were very in tune with what we were doing at each step of the ARG, and what the overall sort of goal was with each update, the overlays that would pop up and then you'd get the password and stuff," Neuse said. "But we didn't know really what the other teams were doing." He believes that with more coordination at each step, the ARG could have included more puzzles that interconnected between the games. "I think with a little more time it would have been even deeper and creepier and even more challenging for everybody."

Much of the team's time was spent creating the new Portal 2-themed content, which, for Bit.Trip Beat, meant a level with Portal music, GLaDOS watching in the background, and blue and orange dots racing at the player's paddle. "We tried to make it super hard," Neuse said -- a goal that Gaijin Games has never failed to achieve. "They gave us all the assets from Portal 2 for GLaDOS and everything. We threw them all in there."

The efforts of Valve and the indies didn't just serve to get Portal 2 out a little early. In addition to promoting Valve's mega-high-profile sequel, it also promoted the indie games with a well-publicized, heavily discounted Steam bundle, the purchase of which was tied to the early release of Portal 2. In other words, there were suddenly a few additional, convincing reasons to buy these games. As a result, Bit.Trip Beat saw "a huge increase in sales," in Neuse's estimation. In fact, for much of the promotion, the Potato Sack was #2 on Valve's sales chart, directly under Portal 2 pre-orders -- and just above Portal 2/Potato Sack bundles. "Not only did we get to be part of this really cool event," Neuse said, "get spazzy with a bunch of other indie devs and Valve and have fun, but we made some money out of it, too."

There was a catch to all the sales. "Of course, Bit.Trip Beat is discounted, so the financials of it weren't as massive as they could have been," Neuse told us, referring to the 75% discount for buying the whole Potato Sack, and the 50% savings from Bit.Trip Beat's normal $10 price for buying it alone during the promotion. But nonetheless, Bit.Trip Beat and the other games ended up on a lot more hard drives than they occupied before the ARG. And now those games are indelibly tied to Portal 2 in the memories of players, and there are worse things to be associated with ... even if many of those players were disappointed that the Potato Sack didn't unlock Portal 2 earlier than it did.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.