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Gaming History You Should Know: The Half-Life 2 Leak October 16, 2014

Posted by Maniac in Gaming History You Should Know, Histories, Uncategorized.
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After producing our recent site video about the long and grueling development of Half-Life 2: Episode 3, I thought I would take another look into Half-Life 2’s past.  We all know that Half-Life 2 launched in 2004 and is considered one of the best PC FPS games ever made, but did you know some people just weren’t willing to wait until the game’s release to play it?  In 2003, an early build of Half-Life 2 leaked onto the internet.  With all the buzz generated from the game’s E3 2003 showing, the Half-Life 2 leak quickly became one of the most illegally shared pieces of content at the time.  Now, sit back and join me as I look ten years into the past at one of the biggest leaks in gaming history.  It is meant to inform gamers of a dark time in the history of gaming, and as a cautionary tale to game developers.  Enjoy.

Back in April of 2003 Valve announced that a sequel to their hit PC game Half-Life had been in production for the past five years in secret and would be coming out later that year.  Using a cutting edge in-house developed graphics engine and a real-time physics engine, Half-Life 2 was first shown to the public at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles in May 2003.  All of the gaming press, myself included, were blown away by the incredible thirty minute demo shown at the trade show.  To cap the excellent showing off, Valve announced Half-Life 2’s release date would be September 30th, 2003.  Unfortunately, this wasn’t soon enough for someone.

Half-Life 2’s development was not keeping to Valve’s schedule and as the weeks ticked by it was becoming more and more likely that the game would not be able to meet its September 30th’s release date.  According to Valve owner Gabe Newell, on or around September 11th, 2003 a person other then himself was accessing his e-mail without his permission.  Whoever this individual was, he wasn’t interested in e-mail.  Valve soon discovered viruslike symptoms on their computer systems, including crashes when right clicking, but strangely their anti-virus software wasn’t picking up on anything unusual.  The hacker had used a modified version of a virus called “RemoteAnywhere” to exploit an Outlook Express buffer overflow exploit, and since it had been modified it was undetectable by the anti-virus programs Valve was using.  Once it had been installed, the virus in turn installed keystroke logs on all the computers at Valve Software.  By September 19th, the attacker had downloaded an unconfirmed amount of un-compiled source code and game resources (including sounds, maps, and textures) for Half-Life 2, as well as the source code and resources for as many as two other games they had in development.  All this data found itself on peer-to-peer sharing networks within hours, and the amount of users who downloaded and shared the content was monumental.  Gabe Newell was forced to officially confirm the leak on October 2nd, 2003, and asked for the help of the gaming public to bring those responsible to justice.

Even to this day, we don’t have a complete picture of just how much of the game was stolen.  Owner Gabe Newell claimed at first that only a minor amount of the final source code was taken, and when the leak first sprang up, only the game’s source code was available on the peer to peer networks.  As the days ticked on it became clearer that whoever had stolen all of the game’s content hadn’t released all they had just yet.  Over the next week gaming news sites were all over this leak, trying to report the most up to the minute information and as time went on, more and more copies were being made of the source code by the peer-to-peer users.

The content leak may have been fun to mess around with for those who downloaded it, but it meant a lot of headaches for its creators.  Because of the leak, Valve was now in violation of a contract they entered into with a company called Havok, who Valve used to license their real-time physics engine*.  A stipulation to the contract between Valve and Havok was that Valve needed to keep Havok’s code safe, but since their code was also included with the Half-Life 2 code, Havok could now lose a lot of business.  This was a major problem for Havok since their income was from leasing their code to game developers.  Another of Valve’s issues with having the game’s source code released illegally meant the increased danger of multiplayer cheating.  Cheating is a common occurrence among multiplayer gaming and can destroy the fun of playing games online.  With the source code out before the game’s release, the program writers for cheating programs can have a head start to write their cheats for release by the time of the game’s release.

On October 7th, 2003 a playable version (dubbed “playable beta”) of the game was released onto the peer to peer networks by the hacker (who refers to himself as Anonymous Leaker).  The previously released source code was only ninety-four percent compilable, and without the game’s content it was useless.  The leak had to either have been more massive then Valve knew or bigger then they were willing to admit.  Half-Life 2’s original publisher, Vivendi Universal Games, did a press release to push back the release to April 2004 and credited the leak.

But the most interesting thing about the playable beta was that users who downloaded the illegally released version of the game found a game that was in fact nowhere near completion.  It was missing a lot of content and looked like a barely playable version of the levels shown at E3.  While this could have been because the Leaker stole either an early build of the game client, or was unable to completely obtain all the game’s assets before the content leaked and claimed it was a finished build, it raised the question in a lot of gamers’ minds if this incomplete title was what Valve planned to release on September 30th.

On October 9th, in a questionable move, a forum user claiming to be the Leaker announced the content that was released online was indeed the current work Valve had for Half-Life 2 and that the game was nowhere near completion.  Because of this, he plead innocent and said that he was not the reason for the delay of the game.  On top of that he claimed that if Valve continued to claim that the leak was the reason for the delay, he would release all the stolen content he had.  On October 13th, the source code to the game maps were released to peer to peer networks.  As far as I know, that would be the final leaked Half-Life 2 content to make it onto the web.

So who was this mysterious Leaker and why did he steal the biggest game of its time, just to release it before it was finished?  Well, as it turned out, the man did in fact have a conscience.  The Leaker, who’s name will not be posted on this site, would eventually get in personal contact with Gabe Newell via e-mail.  The purpose of the e-mail was not to gloat or threaten, but to apologize.  After verifying his identity by providing Gabe some information that had not gone public, Gabe knew he was speaking to the real deal.  At first, Gabe was furious at him for all the trouble he had caused the company, but he wasn’t planning to let the Leaker know that.  The Leaker said that he was just a big fan of Valve Software, and he had never meant for the content to go public as it did.  He just wanted the chance to play their games and he pleaded Gabe for his forgiveness.

Gabe played it cool.  On the one hand, he finally knew the Leaker’s motivations, but he still wanted to bring this person to justice.  He decided to set up an elaborate sting operation, with the intention to bring the Leaker to the United States and have him immediately arrested by the Feds.  Gabe told the Leaker that he was impressed by the Leaker’s actions, and wanted to bring him in to interview as a new “security consultant” for the company.  The Leaker was skeptical of course, but he didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to work for Valve Software.

After Gabe spent some time trying to set up this elaborate sting operation, the law enforcement agency of the Leaker’s home country got wind of what Gabe was doing and stopped it, preferring to arrest him themselves.  Shortly after that, the Leaker was arrested by his country’s local law enforcement.  He would maintain that he never wanted the content he had stolen to leak out into the open as widely as it had, and that a peer of his that he had entrusted a copy of the data to had leaked it onto the web.

Half-Life 2 would finally release in November 2004 and became the flagship title for Valve’s online distribution system, Steam.  The gamers who purchased the game legally through the service or at retail found a polished masterpiece which won numerous Game of the Year awards in a year which also saw the release of titles like Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater and Halo 2.  The game’s PC release was followed by a console port to the original Xbox shortly afterwards.  Two episodic expansions were produced for the game and these expansions were included alongside Half-Life 2, Team Fortress 2 and Portal when the game was released on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 in 2007.

As for Gordon Freeman? He has not been seen since.

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