Last week, what started as a seemingly-minor update to Valve's beloved Portal turned into a massive Alternate Reality Game (ARG) as members of multiple online communities including Steam and Something Awful raced to figure out the myriad puzzles before them. The ARG hinted at - and eventually reached a climax in - the official unveiling of Portal 2, but it is still ongoing.
What's interesting is that when you think about it, the Portal ARG - and others like it - are similar to MMOGs at their core.
First, let's define "MMOG." As with last time I discussed the increasingly blurred demarcation line of what makes an MMOG, we'll use the simplified Wikipedia definition: "MMORPGs are distinguished from single-player or small multi-player RPGs by the number of players, and by the game's persistent world, usually hosted by the game's publisher, which continues to exist and evolve while the player is away from the game."
Looking at that bare-bones definition (and ignoring the "RPG" part), how is the Portal ARG not an MMOG? Number of players? The thread on the Steam forums alone had over 2 million views and 11,000 comments as of Sunday, and that was just one of the groups trying to solve the mysteries at hand. Even people who weren't sifting through data and creating hash-brown-with-ketchup-strings while reversing the dilithium polarity or whatever the techno-voodoo talk is were at least partially engaged: "Hey, that looks like a screenshot!" "I think those are two Vortigaunts holding hands." "No they're clearly Combine soldiers!"
There's no question that the puzzle was persistent, either. The data wasn't going anywhere hidden on Valve's servers, nor was it depending on "player" action to move it along - everything was there from the start. While the puzzle-solving itself wasn't necessarily on any one group of servers, it too was persistent: Even if you gave up for the night to go to bed, it would still move on without you, because there would always be somebody around the world looking at what had been unearthed and trying to find more.
So there we have it: Looking at the base, simplified version, it's clear that the Portal ARG at least qualifies to be an MMOG on definition alone. But the similarities don't stop there: By its very nature, the ARG was a cooperative event. No one sleuth could have solved it on their own; solving it required a wide range of talents and abilities from dozens if not hundreds of different people. Some looked at code, some pieced images together and some even made in-person trips to the address listed as the host for the game's mysterious BBS server. Think of it like one massive raid, but instead of killing monsters, they were putting together data to solve a mystery. The cooperation inherent in top-level MMOG content was right there all the same in the Portal ARG.
It was cooperative, yes, but it was also competitive. As the mystery heated up, the different communities taking cracks at it became more secretive. The real juicy data was moved to private forums and to chat clients like IRC, to prevent rivals from other communities like Something Awful or 4chan from getting the jump on them. Each group wanted to be the first one to put it all together - they were all separate cooperative groups that were competing to get the World First. Hey, does that sound familiar to you at all?
The wizardry involved might have been technological rather than anything requiring the use of mana, and simple deduction and analytical elbow grease might have replaced swords and shields, but the core principles of people working together to surmount a foe were exactly the same.
In the end, though, the thing that ties it all together for me is that I can't think of any reason that the Portal ARG wouldn't be considered an MMOG. It was a free-to-play game with no monetary barrier to entry, and it lacked all the trappings of a traditional game - no leveling up, no loot, no character creation - but the fundamentals of what we call an MMOG were all there.
Now all Valve has to do is make an actual MMOG set in the Half-Life world, and we'd be set. And it would probably still come out before Episode 3.
John Funk fears that this announcement will result in a new wave of "the cake is a lie" jokes.