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Why is Valve giving Portal 2 away for free?

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PC gaming is dead. Again. Or still, if you've heard the claim repeated every single year for the last decade or so. It's almost become part of PC culture, this imminent demise. Hell, Greg Vederman, then-editor-in-chief of PC Gamer Magazine, volunteered a complete denial of any impending format implosions without any prompting from me roughly ten minutes into our first conversation. Very reassuring.


Dear sweet baby Jesus, no! Not another Windows update!

Personally, I never subscribed to the theory. Hell, PC gaming's so screwed that Steam, Valve's digital distribution platform, cleared an estimated $1 billion in revenue last year, to say nothing of competing services. Horrible, eh? I'm thinking a Viking funeral, something with pizzazz, cool hats, and lots of fire.
 
Ah, but then Valve releases Portal 2, and I start to sense that something's going down for real.
 
We're talking about one of the most anticipated games of the year, and Valve chose (via Steam) to give the PC/Mac version away for free with a purchase of the PlayStation 3 port. You know what else you can get for free? Worthless things! Why undermine their game this way? What does Valve get out of not only dumping their own product, but backstabbing their own service?

Well, potentially a lot.

 

In one aspect, they're not exactly giving away the store. A gamer typically buys a game once, for one system. The guy who gets Portal 2 for PS3 doesn't also buy the PC port for his collection, so it's not like Valve loses out on an extra sale. They do, however, lose money. Valve self-publishes their games on Steam, while Electronic Arts publishes the physical disc packages for other retail outlets…and EA takes a cut of every unit sold. Plus, manufacturing, shipping, and return costs eat into profits. A purchase on Steam lets Valve keep all that cash itself.

But here's the thing: By offering a free PC/Mac Steam key with a purchase of Portal 2 for PS3, they encourage gamers to not buy from Steam. Indeed, I ran a very unscientific straw poll of Bitmob personnel (along with a few others), and aside from two of us who actually considered getting the thing on the Xbox 360, nearly everyone planned on getting the PlayStation 3 port specifically because it also got them Portal 2 on PC for free. And man, the nerd rage did flow when word dropped that people who bought the game through Steam (sans PS3 bonus keys) might get early access to the game by as much as an entire day or two! Oh, the humanity.

Portal 2
I just don't get those Japanese toilets.

Now, for all anyone knows, Sony's subsidizing every Steam key that gamers redeem. Word around the campfire suggests they threw a lot of cheddar Valve's way (after Valve Managing Director Gabe Newell spent years slagging them and their platform) to get the "definitive" edition of Portal 2 on the PlayStation 3. So maybe the real question should be what's Sony getting out of all this?

Honestly, I think what they get — and what they want most of all — might be Steam connectivity.

In order to nab that free PC Portal 2, you've got to link your PlayStation Network and Steam accounts, and they make it very, very easy to do this the second you pop the game into your PS3. This allows you to play/chat cross-console, see Trophies/Achievements, and (according to Steam's website) "access downloadable content registered in Windows or Mac, and vice-versa."

That last bit interests me greatly. Buy DLC on one platform, play it on both platforms, and since settings and progress from either platform are all saved to Steam Cloud, it's not a matter of downloading the same package twice. It's one game accessed from two different points…a computer and a gaming console. You'll need the Portal 2 disc in your console (though not in your PC), but I have to wonder how stringent a requirement that might be in future, particularly when you get into downloadable titles. And these days, just about anything can be downloadable.

Portal 2
Day 3 of Apple hosting Coachella.

Try this one on: If firmware updates put the coding and user interface in place, you could probably access Steam Cloud — and anything stored there — from a PlayStation 3 providing you'd purchased the content. It works for Portal 2. Open the system, and it could work for, say, Torchlight…a game available on Steam and Xbox Live but not on the PlayStation Network. Yet.

Valve gets another outlet for Steam downloadable sales. Sony gets an entirely new catalog added to their system, handily circumvents a few exclusivity issues, and undermines Microsoft's own digital distribution service, Games Marketplace. Maybe it'll work both ways, with PC gamers buying digital copies of PlayStation exclusives like Infamous, which is downloadable on PSN right now.

That's all purely speculation, of course, but offering free Portal 2 seems too grand a gesture to brush off as a mere "intro to Steam" move. This is a first step in a direction that's not entirely clear yet. We'll have to wait and see how the PSN/Steam link plays out. But definitely expect to see console and computer gaming merging like this more often from here on out, because contrary to all those popular rumors, PC games aren't dying. They're evolving. Possibly into cloud games, accessed from the platform of your choice wherever you happen to be.

If so, offering up Portal 2 to prompt gamers into making that first connection is a small investment in one very big future.


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