As I may have mentioned before, Valve Software‘s Portal is a favorite game of mine. At our December 2009 Insight conference I profiled it as an example of a game that does an excellent job of making players feel at ease in a system that is governed by alien rules, while teaching players how to think in a new and different way–valuable lessons for enterprises that wish to help their new hires hit the ground running when dealing with specific and well-established processes.
There is more to the game than a comprehensive tutorial, there’s also a sharp story, and perhaps more significantly, a robust content delivery and data-mining platform that Valve uses to update and monitor the usage of their products. Valve’s content distribution platform, Steam, allows the company to apply bug-fixes and updates to games, as well as learn about how users go about playing through the games, including but not limited to the furthest level of completion, and whereabouts in the game players are most likely to meet their end.
While the ability to glean insights about how their customers use their products must be invaluable as feedback data for making better and more engaging games, it is the ability to update content seamlessly on users’ computers that was a move to watch this past week.
To prepare for the upcoming release of Portal 2, Valve quietly and unceremoniously released an update to 2007’s portal that changed the end of the game. The practice, known as retconning, or enforcing “retroactive continuity” is usually met with nerd-rage, but seems to have been well-received by the gaming community in this case. Thanks to their content distribution and monitoring platform, Valve has been able to take a product already in the hands of consumers, and modify it so that when their forthcoming product hits the shelves, the continuity between the first and second installments of the game’s story is cohesive and correct. Not something that could be done with the game of Life or Clue.
Steam isn’t the only content distribution platform that has the ability to update and change the user experience after the sale is made, Amazon’s kindle had an unfortunate time with what is more or less the same story, and I’m sure that there is plenty of legal language and technical infrastructure in the iPod/Phone/Pad terms of service that allows Steve Jobs to legally annex users’ first born children.
As an increasing amount of products are imbued with connectivity and access to a platform, the way that companies think about the experience they deliver to users will need to change in kind. Companies will need to find ways to cleverly leverage these platforms to make their brand experience really resonate with customers–all the while avoiding pitfalls where they may alienate users and lose their trust.