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This Post Is Not About Portal

May 13, 2010

Edit: Apparently some of you are still clicking that link.  Sale ended May 24th, sorry!  I’ll leave this article up so that you slowpokes may continue to wallow in your misfortune.

Did you hear?  Portal is Fr

Okay, okay, I’ll stop now.  Obviously everyone with an internet connection knows by now that Por—sorry, Portal—has just been released for free.  To everyone.  For keeps.  No strings attached.  So the question to be asked now is: Why?

All the marketing for Portal proudly trumpets the game’s 70+ Game of the Year awards (this feat is doubly impressive because it occurred in 2007, a year that already contained several of the best games in recent memory).  I know that any game makes the lion’s share of its sales in the first couple weeks after release, but you have to figure something this good is going to keep being profitable for several more years.  Or it would have, if Valve hadn’t just voluntarily thrown all that future-money out the window.

Then again, maybe they are getting something out of this after all.  Free publicity, for one thing.  Also the love and adoration of, say, the entire internet.  And did I mention there’s a sequel to Portal coming out just in time for Christmas this year?  I’d imagine most people who play the original game will be wanting more, so giving away Portal means selling more copies of Portal 2.  Shrewd.

On a completely unrelated note, Steam—Valve’s online store and digital distribution platform—was finally released for the Mac.  Yesterday, in fact.  The same day Portal became free.

Hold on, that’s a really big deal.  Apple claims more than 75 million Mac users as of 2009, and that number continues to grow at an astonishing rate.  More importantly, none of these users have ever been treated to a proper gaming experience on a Mac before.  The fact that Steam is now available for Macs is already significant by itself: Valve are the first prospectors in a consumer gold rush, arriving in this new market months or even years ahead of everyone else.

And then they released Portal for free.  No one is going to resist getting such an excellent game, especially not the gaming-starved Mac community who have had to listen to us PC folk go on about it for three years.  And since Portal requires Steam to run, that means suddenly every Mac user who is the slightest bit interested in videogames will have Steam installed on their computer.  Steam, and nothing else.  This is the sort of market stranglehold that any company would kill to have, and all Valve had to do was give away one three-year-old game from their extensive catalog.

Just a quick explanation of what this means, for those of you who don’t pay much attention to this stuff: Steam is the service Valve uses to distribute, install, and automatically update their games, but it’s also a much larger online store.  Any developer who wants in on the action can make their games available for purchase on Steam, and customers can download them directly without having to visit a store.  This cuts out several middlemen: The stores (obviously), the publishers that print the games on physical discs, the shipping companies, and even a fair amount of advertising.  The games still get sold at the same price, so the developer gets a much larger profit margin, and Valve also takes a cut for their trouble.

Now picture this situation again, but with Steam being the only option for Mac gamers.  Valve doesn’t just take a cut of sales on their own platform; they take a cut of the entire industry.

Update: Valve just released a new promo for Portal.  It plugs Portal 2 and the new Steam Mac support, and also features the dulcet, vaguely sociopathic tones of one Genetic Lifeform and Disc Operating System.  Enjoy:

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 14, 2010 8:27 am

    You really have to admit that Valve know how to grab a market by the throat. I’m honestly surprised that nobody has tried to make a major push for Mac game publicity earlier. I guess nobody really had a means to do it before Steam. Also, it should be noted that the whole free Portal thing ends on the 24th of May.

    • May 14, 2010 10:31 am

      Interviews with Gabe Newell suggest that Apple has been dismissive of proper game support on their platform for several years now, although the details are pretty sketchy. It could be that other companies have tried, and just got stonewalled. Maybe Apple was just waiting until they could get the Steam juggernaut to bring gaming over in a unified package, like you said, rather than one developer at a time. Hell, maybe Apple required Valve to release Portal for free, as a condition of their partnership. I kind of doubt that last one, but it’s all speculation anyway.

      You’re right, the promo does end on May 24th–but Valve confirmed that anyone who downloads Portal before then will still own it after the window closes. It looks like this is just a way to encourage people to get the game now rather than later; I wouldn’t be surprised if they make it free for good later on.

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