Valve Software Shows How Viral Marketing is Done

On March 1, an unannounced update to the Valve computer game Portal was pushed onto the Steam game content delivery service.  The update was described in the the Steam news stream like this: "Changed radio transmission frequency to comply with federal and state spectrum management regulations." 

Shortly thereafter, people playing the game discovered something had changed.  For one thing, there was a new achievement listed for the game called "Transmission Received."

They then discovered several other interesting things.

  • A radio seen in the game world near the beginning of the game had changed.  It now had a red light on the front of it. 
  • When you carried the radio with you into a room on the first level with a big red button on the floor (a 1500 megawatt Aperture Science Heavy Duty Super-Colliding Super-Button) the light on the radio turned green, and a strange interference noise was heard.
  • There were 25 other radios hidden throughout the game’s levels.  All but four rewarded being placed in a room with a super-button with similar noise.  The other four each played a different string of Morse code.
  • When you successfully collected all 26 radios, you got credit for the achievement.

Someone had the idea of pulling from the game the audio files that sounded like interference, and running them through Slow-Scan Television (SSTV) software.  (SSTV is a picture transmission method used by amateur radio operators to transmit and receive static pictures via radio.)  This revealed the 22 cryptic images seen here.

When decoded, the four Morse code streams read as follows:

  1. interior transmission active external data line active message digest active
  2. 9e107d9d372bb6821bd91d3542a419d6
  3. system data dump active user backup active password backup active
  4. beep beeeep beep beep beeeep beeeep beeeep beep beeeep beep beep

On further investigation, Morse code stream 2 turned out to be an MD5 hash.  Decoding it revealed a landline phone number in Kirkland, Washington, near where Valve is headquartered.

(When decoded, the new Morse code from Morse code stream 4 read, "LOL".)

Upon calling the phone number, people discovered it was a modem line running BBS software.  Using Telnet and the user name and password combination from Morse code stream 3, above, they were able to connect to the BBS and discovered additional graphic images and several amusing memos from the Aperture Science Enrichment Center featured in the game.  My favorite example:

A lot of you have been raising concerns about the so-called "dangers" of what we’re all doing here. The beancounters told me to tell you that as of today, testing will no longer be as mandatory or as dangerous. That’s not gonna happen, and here’s the reason: Science isn’t about why, it’s about why not. You ask: Why is so much of our science dangerous? I say: Why not marry safe science if you love it so much. In fact, why not invent a special safety door that won’t hit you in the butt on the way out, because you are fired. Plus, in the event of your death, I personally guarantee that, thanks to the form you were required to sign this morning, your family will not suffer the indignities of a prolonged and costly legal battle against Aperture Science. Trust me, I am rich, and it is a burden I do not wish on anyone.

There’s speculation this is all a prelude to an announcement of the sequel to Portal or other fun stuff at the Game Developers Conference coming up next week.

I’m not sure what’s more genius: the marketing smarts of the folks at Valve that cooked this up, or the tech-gnomes that figured it all out.  But how often do we see companies that know their target audience this well, and show such trust in its intelligence?

(Hat tip to ModernLR for a nice summary of the details)

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