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Saturday 13 November 2004

Half-Life 2 and what it means for PC games [Lurks]

Its close. The 16th November, US time, which presumably means Wednesday in European civilisation. Needless to say we're all looking forward to this game like nothing before. We've also dished out no end of criticism to Valve on the delays, broken promises and Steam.
As an observer and participant in the games industry for a number of years, I remember working on a PC gaming magazine back when the original came out and I was tasked to review it. The game was revolutionary as we all know and that's what we're going to get this time around as well. Yet I want to step back a little from the game itself and analyse what Half-Life 2 means for the PC gaming genre due to Valve's unique publishing mechanism for the game.
Have you been puzzled as to why it hasn't been doing the rounds with tens of thousands of leechers on the warez sites? Maybe you've even been having a sly look on those sites yourself? I mean you're going to buy it anyway right? You have to for the multiplayer stuff.
It might be useful to quickly digress to examine the genesis of a pirated game; As a rule, games are generally leaked in the testing stage which is also the same end-stage of a game's development as when journalists get the code. So an equivalent of a release candidate, if you like, is what generally gets warezed and on the rare occasion that pikey journos/tests don't leak it, the next stage is that a retail copy is liberated from a duplication house. That's generally a week to two weeks before the on-sale date.
Half-Life 2 has been in duplication for some time with a number of people already obtaining boxed copies due to some retailers breaking the release date already. But still no warez, why is that do you think?
What has subsequently emerged is that even with the boxed copy, one must go online and register the game so you're able to play it. This is a brave move and one which has never been done before. It requires that the target audience has an Internet connection so you can add that to the minimum requirements, whether or not you intend to play multiplayer.
The simple logic here must have been game sales lost to piracy is greater than game sales lost to people without a 'net connection. On past evidence, that seems a pretty fair conclusion, particularly given that this is a core gaming title that demands a more or less modern PC and those obviously tend to be those with internet connections.
Beyond that, how is it then that the misdirected talent of some acne infested youth has not managed to zap the registration and crack the game for full play. Clearly it is not for lack of trying.
The answer, when you think about it, is simple. Valve have a digital content delivery system in the form of Steam as we all know. Therefore the easiest way for them to ensure that no one will be cracking anything is basically not to give you some vital bits of the game. Most likely bits of the actual engine, which aren't too large, but basically without them you don't have the brain of the game and so any crack attempt is going to have to involve working out how the game engine works and filling in the blank bits. That's beyond the abilities of said acne-wonder, certainly within the time frame which this scheme has to last. Which is just three days more.
Another fact here is that Valve hired the author of Bittorrent. That might mean that Steam will get something of the same technology of a peer-2-peer network, then again it might not. It doesn't really matter. What is significant is that Bram Cohen wrote a file transfer mechanism which basically chopped up the data into lots of tiny little packets and then distributed those at random. Is that not exactly the sort of clever thing you'd do with Half-Life 2?
Lets take it a logical step further in terms of software engineering. If you're missing 0.1%, for example, in random chunks of a set of data, particularly if its encrypted or compressed in some way, its not only very difficult to restore to a working condition but it will even be very difficult to decompress/decrypt as well.
Like all the best ideas, this one is as simple as it is clever. There's no getting around it. You need to get Valve's server to send you the bits you need before you have the game. Effectively we have a zero-day retail release and every bastard that likes PC games is going to have to buy it. Hats off to Valve, this is brilliant and they deserve every success - not just because they've made the best PC game so far but they've also worked out how to shaft the pie-rat scum too.
Of course when the game comes out, all bets are off. As soon as a cracker has a full copy of the game they can easily package it up into a warez bundle which will work for anyone - bypassing the log-in stage. There's nothing anyone can do about that. The achilles heel of any copy protection scheme is that ultimately the code must load correctly and be resident on a PC to play it, and if that's the case, a cracker can simply get at the end result.
This approach is going to work so well that the rest of the PC games industry is going to sit up and take note. Its not a difficult stretch of the imagination to predict that where Valve have pioneered here, others will follow.
Let's assume, by say 2006, that this mechanism is standard practice across the industry. What does this actually mean?
1. Reviews: It means that you wont get every web site and magazine reviewing beta code sent to them so you end up with 98% scores for games (because they got an 'exclusive') that don't see the light of day for three months. You'll still see some of this but your big early reviews will be from the major gaming titles, the top magazines and web sites because the publisher will fly them to the developer to play the game in order to review it.
The interesting knock-on here will be that for less than triple-A titles, they'll probably be no early reviews because web sites and mags won't be arsed to spend the time and the publisher won't have the budget.
2. General health: With piracy down and sales up, the industry itself gets a welcome shot in the arm. Those studios and publishers that have deserted the PC due to the rampant piracy will once again see it as a viable platform. Particularly when it comes to easier publishing via digital content delivery systems. Now it isn't necessarily a requirement to buy the prominent shelf-space in the major retail chains to end up with a blockbuster title.
3. Complexity and annoyance: The publishers aren't going to all rush to Valve for Steam. They're going to want to build this stuff themselves. It seems likely that you'll end up having an EA application, for example, which does your digital content delivery for their games. Naturally they'll also build in all the community and multiplayer stuff into their application, having failed to attract mass consumers to their web-site offering. EA and Ubi[soft] are prime examples here. These applications may turn into monsters. They'll be flashing you advertising, they'll be pushing content. It'll be like the Real Player of games.
4. Revenue in the mod community: This week Bioware started selling premium 'modules' for Neverwinter Nights. These were started as community mods, if you like, but were then spruced up by the developer and turned into commercial products - rather like Counter-Strike was. There's always a thriving community of people making quality mods as a hobby and as an avenue into the industry. With those digital content delivery applications, this will make it easier for publishers to do the sort of thing Bioware is doing. It'll also provide revenue for modders who are moving up to the realms of the the semi-pro. It will, ultimately, be feasible for some people to make a living as a modding group so that no longer is their best prospect that of being bought out by the guys who made the host game - ala Trauma Studios and Desert Combat for Battlefield 1942.
This is a great thing because this is what we want. We want more content for the games that are familiar with the engines we've set up and know how to play - particularly on the multiplayer side of it. But often these things aren't polished very well and you never get to hear about the good ones and no one has downloaded them or is playing them anyway, in the case of multiplayer mods. This mechanism means that the developer/publisher can select a number and raise the standard to the point that it's something worth paying for.

It'll be a brave new world, a frightening and complicated world of PC games but one which has a future which is brimming with new titles, content and amateur diversified innovation. This is a good thing because, by and large, the computer games industry had been giving serious thought to the viability of the PC gaming platform - with most commentators having a negative outlook on the prospects. A successful platform means more games, bigger games, better variety of games.
I hope in the final analysis, the irony is not lost on you. What is ushering in this brave new world, trail blazing the concept into our collective consciousness? Steam, that's what. Who'd think that annoying little system tray applet could mean so much in the wider scheme of things eh?
Valve may justifiably consider they got the last laugh after all.


  1. I agree with most of what you're saying, and I think it's been clear from the outset that Valve were trying to bring about a major change in how PC games are distributed with Steam - it's just that early on, they had the ideas but not the technology. Even now it can be quite flaky.
    The big issue for me as a journalist, obviously, is the knock-on effect on media coverage, and I think this is, sadly, going to be a very negative impact. What we've seen with Half-Life 2 is pretty much what marketing spods have been trying to do with every major title, but enforced all the more rigorously - the only people who got to review it before launch were people who agreed a review and score as part of a marketing package.
    Steam-style technology allows the publishers to ensure that this is absolutely complied with and that nobody who hasn't worked out a marketing deal gets to see review code. It also means that nobody gets to play the game without someone breathing down their neck (playing a game at a publisher or developer's office is absolutely no way to prepare to review it) and, as you point out, probably means that early reviews of smaller titles just won't happen at all.
    Of course, this'll all go down fine in the USA and Japan, where there's no real games media anyway. Europe will kick and scream for a bit, though, and I think it'd be sad if the only place which occasionally produces proper, professional criticism of videogames as a medium in the English language - namely the UK - were to be hobbled by restrictive measures like this.
    That said, I'm still happy to see Steam actually working. I may not like the technology in its current incarnation much, but it's still nice to see a developer making a big wad of cash off my game purchase rather than a publisher and retailer nabbing the lion's share.

  2. You may just see something of a shift so that people don't buy games when they come out and they actually wait for the press to review retail copies. Then again, the reality of it is that the vast bulk of people who buy games don't read any form of critique at all. That's a hard demoralising fact to swallow as a games journalist, nevertheless you only have to do the sums.
    It's important to remember that not everyone is down Game on the day of release waiting to pick up their next game. A hell of a lot of people out there buy from friend's recommendations and there's bugger all difference between that and a media outlet which is forced to review a copy on the day it comes out.
    As for your central point about the marketing deals that happen for people looking at games early... I'm not sure that this is going to change that much over how it is today. Publishers have for some time decided who gets the first review. So I don't think this is going to be that much of a negative impact.
    Especially when in the New World Order of digital content distribution, you'll probably get a lot of new-wave developer/publishers keen to support all the media outlets as well as they can and that includes new heroic measures to curb piracy while still allowing early access to the game. It wont be 100% effective but many games are concerned with getting any publicity at all, rather than piracy being the overriding concern.

  3. I'm afraid I don't agree (probably no surprise) that the future is here right now. Valve have gotten away with the whole steam thing for pretty much one reason: that half life 2 is the most wanted pc game for years. It's taken me flippin ages to leech all 8 odd gigs of it on my 512k dsl, and they had to start letting folks download it in 'little' 1gb chunks over a month before release just to be able to spread the load. People are only going to be arsed to do that for a game as big as HL2, who's going to do that for a less anticipated title?
    I also wouldn't underestimate the power of the high street. I read some daft statistic that told that GTA:San Andreas has grossed more in its first weekend of sales than every movie except Titanic. That's fekking amazing, imagine a game selling more than Lort of the rings and harry potter and shit like that? People were queued for over an hour on the midnight on the day of release, just to get their pre-ordered copy that few hours earlier.
    Valve do seem to have beaten the pirates so far with Half Life 2, but I recon it'll be a good while till you see this as the primary delivery method for games, pc or otherwise.

  4. Ahah, who says we've not cracked it?
    It's just so disappointin me n my shipmates said "naw, not wurf ra effurt".

  5. What score did you give HL in 1998 then Lurks?

  6. There's been a good few games using the internet do allow customers to download games already.
    Camelot, EnB, CoH etc...
    It is the way to go, sales could only go up. A modem is what £6 now, with a PAYG account it'd cost all of 10pence to register.
    What I'd be more concerned about is products being rushed to market too early.
    Then patched via their STEAM method, after all they know the punter has a netconn.

  7. Slim, that statistic was GTA:SA sold 677,000 copies in it's opening weekend.
    I have to say, Lurks' view that we are on the cusp of a revolution in terms of content delivery methodology for PC games seems too cut & dry for me.
    Yes, Steam is boldly forging what might be rightly considered as the first true developer led anti-piracy measure, but equally it's only going to prevent folk from getting the game early, it most certainly won't prevent warez from appearing once we've reached and passed the activation/retail date.
    I am concerned that the model seems to be moving inexorably towards a completely digital solution whereby in order to get your content, you have to have a decent broadband connection, and you have to be prepared to receive gigabytes of data over it in order to get everything you need to play.
    Broadband pickup in the UK is of course growing, but it's simply not at the levels whereby Steam or other tools like it should be considered ready to replace the traditional boxes-on-shelves.
    Now, of course, being the developers of one of the most anticipated PC titles for many years, Valve can pretty much dictate terms here, and quite clearly have done exactly that - however, if we are going to be expected to download and install Steam-like tools for every publisher and devhouse around, it will become something of a problem.
    PC gamers are being used very much as guinea pigs with Half Life 2, and I think generally people are accepting of that (after all, they just want the damned game). However, if after HL2's release, it becomes clear that there is no industry wide sensible roadmap and plan for rolling this type of technology out, it will simply turn into a complete disaster.
    There are those, like UbiSoft, who are seemingly incapable of delivering a sensible, stable and robust lobby solution - I've lost count of the number of times we've had to fight the ludicrous - and if I'm expected now to install a Steam equivalent from those jokers, I'll simply stop playing their games.
    As for journalism, and whether or not we'll see a culling of media reports on titles because Steam/digital content delivery prevents preview code from getting to the journos, well I hope so - we're so inundated with sites purporting to be 'in the know' and holders of 'exclusives' that it's just so much noise in my view, and it's about time the two-bit 'write any crap just so I can get a preview copy and an invite to ECTS' crowd were cut down some.

  8. re: Product Activation

  9. It's not really hard to make it so that even once you have the necessary parts you still can't make a redistributable bundle. The key is to make those parts encrypted with a "fingerprint" of the machine. You do the encrypting on the server side.

  10. Of course, if the cracker can get at the unencrypted bytes in memory they can reconstruct the on-disk binary right? Well, yeah, but ya don't decrypt all that code at the same time, and you run a whole shitload of anti-debugging stuff before you decrypt anything. The result is basically to say that the cracker now has to capture every instruction as it enters the CPU. And by that I mean a real CPU, because along with anti-debugging stuff you also put anti-emulation stuff. This means the cracker needs hardware, and even if they do manage to build themselves an instruction grabber, they're in for a wild ride because the way you decrypt it means that every execution of the module relocates the code to a different dynamic memory address. The cracker has to build an asm file with all these different traces of instructions, and figure out which instructions are implementing the game, which instructions are decrypting other instructions and which instructions are just in there to make his job hard. So no, it's not impossible to finish, but neither is a billion piece jigsaw puzzle.

  11. Mate, rebot does paragraphs - know warra I mean? No need to do multiple posts!

  12. yeah yeah, took me two goes to find the "fullscreen" link. That's real intuitive.

  13. Phew, let's go in order. I didn't say (to Slim) that the future is here now, I said that the virtual tapping of piracy on the head for Half-Life 2 will force PC games publishers to consider this mechanism. I never said the high-street was going to go away so I'm not sure why you've started going on about that. Neither does the digital content mechanism preclude the high-street either. Half-Life 2 will be solid in the high-street, you wont need to download the entire thing, just a bit of the game to make it work and then subsequent patches, content updates and mods. The sort of stuff which is the PC's strong point, has also been a weakness - the complexity of patching, mods and so on - which then gets made easier at the same time as combatting piracy.
    Beej, PC Gaming World used a five-star system and I gave it five-stars. Xen sucked but then I wrote the review before I got there. :-)
    Sheddy does have a real valid point here. Already PC developers blatantly release buggy incomplete games since they have the ability to patch them. If an online connection is absolutely required to validate via some digital content delivery system, then this is a virtual license to ship out release-candidate one out to the public to test for you. Yowch.
    Brit, when you tackle piracy the best you can hope for is making sure that warez isn't available before the game is available to buy. It's impossible to attain after that point. Anyone who is dead set on warezing the game is going to do that. The point is that doing the best it is possible to do in terms of anti-piracy measures here means hundreds of thousands of extra sales, millions of dollars and that simply will make publishers consider this model.
    As I pointed out in the original post, some of those publishers will create some hideous digital content delivery platform which will suck. That's a nasty side-effect, I never said this trend was going to be all positive just that, at the end of the day, it will actually improve the rapidly declining PC gaming market.
    Quantum: The real goal is to simply delay piracy until after the game is released. No one has successfully delayed crackers beyond that point despite years of programmers on game development teams trying. You can make it harder but then you're just making it more fun for them too. I think what Valve have done is the reasonable compromise.
    Of course their power in killing piracy beyond that point is to simply authenticate everyone when they play a multiplayer game. So you'll be able to warez Half-Life 2 the single player game but that's not going to help you for Counter-Strike Source or any of the other mods. It's fairly safe to say that's a relatively unique position they find themselves in, well appart from the MMORPG games as sheddy says, who have worked out all of this stuff before hand.

  14. Just as a matter of interest, was WON ever successfully cracked/hacked?

  15. Is there any mileage in using this 'assumed' broadband connection to download a digital certificate of authenticity to enable the game to keep on working? Or is the only important thing first weekend sales now and move onto the next thing?

  16. Brit: It was hacked on the client side of course. People got keys which Half-Life would accept because it knew no better but just a tiny fraction of the massive array of possible keys were actually valid and the crackers never found that. However the system was flawed and it was possible, by fluke, to end up with a valid online key. But it wasn't hacked as such.
    Evilhomer: Strikes me you're getting on dodgy ground there. No doubt some will consider it but you may end up with a situation like the ultimate French-lamers, Ubisoft. Raven Shield had to authenticate with their servers every time you played a multiplayer game - in fact even when the maps changed. Because they are French they had no idea how to run a server and so they regularly fell over and everyone got booted out mid game. You'd really have to decide if you're willing to accept responsibility for a customer not being able to play their game when their Internet connection is down or your servers are.
    Bitter pill to swallow, I would have thought.

  17. There's also been some beefing up of CD check tech recently. A couple of games I have (WWII Frontline command, Race driver 2) have Starforce 3 as their copy-protect. As far as I know, this protection hasn't been cracked & it's impossible to make an image of the discs that will work. (At least without physically connecting your cd drives).
    Having said that i'd rather have an on line authentication system (if well implemented), simply because should be less intrusive than having to haul my fat ass out of the chair to find a cd. That was part of the reason I purchased HL2 on Steam. I wouldn't fancy on-line auth AND a cd check!

  18. hello from malaysia, home of some of THE best pirated software in the world.
    Crackers use bit for bit copying of CDs/DVDs and add on a crack patch, keygen, or a file full of serial numbers...
    Only Online games have escaped the scourge of piracy here...
    Was just at a popular computer center in the klang valley, Pirates were hawking their goods at legitimate outlets with walls coverd with titles. Each title, from Froggy Mc Hammers Treehouse friends to Office XP cost only RM5. (1USD = RM3.8)
    DVD games like HL2 cost a lil bit more at RM10. Comes with a nice (commercially printed?) cover and the DVD looks like the original, with colour print and all..

  19. hello from malaysia, home of some of THE best pirated software in the world.
    Crackers use bit for bit copying of CDs/DVDs and add on a crack patch, keygen, or a file full of serial numbers...
    Only Online games have escaped the scourge of piracy here...
    Was just at a popular computer center in the klang valley, Pirates were hawking their goods at legitimate outlets with walls coverd with titles. Each title, from Froggy Mc Hammers Treehouse friends to Office XP cost only RM5. (1USD = RM3.8)
    DVD games like HL2 cost a lil bit more at RM10. Comes with a nice (commercially printed?) cover and the DVD looks like the original, with colour print and all..