portalsstvimages All right, I will admit it: this is not about e-books. Well, not directly at least. But it does hold some interesting implications. I’ll get to the e-book connection at the end.

A Game-Changing Event

Yesterday, Valve updated the popular Portal first-person puzzle game with a rather cryptic patch that simply said “Changed radio transmission frequency to comply with federal and state spectrum management regulations.”

I simply thought this referred to the clock radio object in the game that is playing a cheerful tune when your character first wakes up. I remembered it having an unrealistic frequency on the dial, and figured maybe they patched to fix the art.

But it didn’t take very long for more industrious fans on Valve’s community forums to notice that there were now new “radio” objects planted at various locations in the game, and they included audio files with a series of images encoded in them. Apparently Valve is launching a new “alternate reality game” (ARG), perhaps having to do with the Portal sequel fans have been awaiting, or maybe even the next episode of Half-Life 2.

This may be the first instance of a gaming company (or at least a non-MMO company) to hint at something new using a patch to a game several years old. Even Halo’s “I Love Bees” campaign was entirely external to the game.

And it’s really only possible to do this in the first place because Valve uses the Steam launcher/updater to push out new patches automatically and instantaneously, rather than relying upon fans to go to a website and download it. Thus, updating content gamers bought years ago is as simple as making a server change now.

Does this sound familiar?

“Patching” Books?

In the e-book world, this instant-update-of-old-content feature has been used for ill in the past—Amazon’s infamous “1984” incident. And I’ve reflected on the possibility of using it for making corrections in the future.

But what if that’s thinking too small?

In the past, I reviewed a special annotated version of A Fire upon the Deep, for Slashdot. In this e-book, you had to buy the annotated version separately, as a complete separate e-book. But what if you could buy just the annotations, and add them to (or subsequently remove them from) the e-book you already have? Or study/lecture notes, or other supplementary material?

What if when a sequel came out, your e-book shop could push a “patch” out that let you know about it? Perhaps putting sample chapters right on your device for you to look at. (Of course, you should be able to choose to opt out of this system, just as you would with any potentially-spammy updating service.)

Wagging the Long Tail

But perhaps a better way to apply this to e-books is to think about how Valve is essentially revitalizing old, “forgotten-about” content with this new patch. It will get people who bought the game playing it again, and might even attract a new crowd to go out and buy the game (which can be had as a digital download from SteamPowered.com for $20, or as part of the “Orange Box” pack for $30). Talk about a good swift kick in the Long Tail! (As I mentioned last year, Valve has long been known for doing this sort of thing.)

What if a publisher or author were to launch an ARG across selected e-books, with clues (perhaps in the form of bold-faced key words, illustrations inserted into the text, hyperlinks, multimedia content, etc.) automatically pushed to anyone who already owned the e-book?

Of course, a few thing would be necessary for that to be truly effective. Most of all, there would have to be a way to push those changed books out to customers right away, with a minimum of effort required on the customer’s part. (And to return them to normal afterward, unless the added content provides added value to the book in its own right as well as in the context of the game.) At the moment, only the Kindle and the Nook seem to have this capacity thanks to their always-on Internet connections.

Also, the e-book format and reader itself would need to be suitable for the inclusion of this content. If the clue was a multimedia file, for example, it probably could not be read in most e-book readers today.

Of course, given that publishers today are having so much trouble just getting e-books right in the first place, this can only be considered so much blue sky at this point. But maybe someday, when e-books have achieved a greater level of maturity, something like this could become commonplace.


The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail newteleread@gmail.com.