The Great Half-Life 2 Robbery

Hacking attacks and digital theft have been in the headlines a lot lately, whether it be the loss of user details on the PlayStation Network or a preview build of an upcoming game.

So let's look back today on a crime both more brazen and impressive than any we've seen in the past few years: the theft of Valve's Half-Life 2, months before it was actually released to the public.

In 2003, Valve was just a company that made video games. Namely, the classics Half-Life and Counter-Strike. Steam was yet to come (t would be released in September '03), and when it came people hated it, and there was no such thing as Portal or Left 4 Dead.

It was also a time before "hacktivist" group Anonymous, before the erosion of online privacy brought about by social networking sites and before a lot of people even had things like credit card details stored online, let alone somewhere vulnerable enough for them to be stolen.

In short, it was a simpler time on the internet. A more civilized age. Or so we, and Valve Software, thought.

Towards the middle of 2003, Valve was putting the finishing touches on Half-Life 2, its hotly-anticipated sequel to what was regarded at the time as one of the greatest first-person shooters ever made. The game was due out in September 2003, to launch alongside the company's daring new online platform Steam, and people could not wait to get their hands on it.

One guy especially. German Axel Gembe went above and beyond the average Valve fan and conducted a sophisticated, and ultimately successful, attack on the company's network that ultimately led to his stealing of not just Half-Life 2's source code, but assets and other files that were enough to allow people to build a working, albeit unfinished, version of the game.

Gembe's attack began in September 2003, when Valve boss Gabe Newell's computer began exhibiting peculiar behaviour. Newell also discovered a few days later that one of his personal email accounts (a webmail account) had been compromised. Valve would later discover that not just Newell's computer, but several others at the company, had "keystroke recorders" installed on them, which let other people see what you've been typing on your keyboard (very handy for stealing passwords).

In other words, this was a very sophisticated attack. On September 19, 2003, an unauthorised copy of Half-Life 2's source code was made, and shortly after the lifted files were leaked onto the internet for all the world to see. And, even though the build was unfinished and unstable, actually play (you can see some of the leaked build, featuring the cut Hydra and Alyx's old duds, to the left).

Valve boss Gabe Newell publicly acknowledged the hacks on October 2, at the same time asking Valve fans for assistance in tracking down those responsible.

The attack and subsequent leak was a disaster for Valve. The game ended up being delayed for months, and wouldn't be released until November 2004, over a year after it was supposed to be out. In the end, of course, the delay didn't matter, Half-Life 2 being one of the finest games ever made (the extra twelve months really helping), but remember, at the time, nobody knew that!

In its attempts to catch those responsible, Valve enlisted the help of the FBI, and a wacky attempt at luring Gembe (who had bizarrely confessed, albeit anonymously) to the US with a job offer failed, but by May 2004, Gembe's time was up. German police raided his home (actually on charges relating to his other hacking efforts, as the Germans didn't want him deported to the US to face the FBI) and he was arrested, though he'd escape jail time; in the end he was given two years' probation.

These days, the reformed hacker is repentant for his actions, telling Valve "I am so very sorry for what I did to you. I never intended to cause you harm. If I could undo it, I would. It still makes me sad thinking about it. I would have loved to just stay and watch you do your thing, but in the end I screwed it up. You are my favourite developer, and I will always buy your games."

Total Recall is a look back at the history of video games through their characters, franchises, developers and trends.


Comments

    This was one of those times when every gamer remembers what he was doing when he heard the news.
    It was shocking, disasterous and frustrating, especially because copies of Half Life 2 were attached to an ATI video card being released at the same time, a cross-promotional activity not seen before or since, which left those buying the card with only a steam code to be redeemed when the game was eventually released, and there was no date available after the hack, everything went quiet.
    It was a memorable time, and not just because it happened, but also the fallout on forums, especially when the delay was announced.

    Singin' real high praise for HL2, considering they cut half the good content and butchered the story in the end.

    But...

    The game does kick arse as it is.

    about a year after Half Life 2 was actually released I discovered that my roommate's sister had a copy of the leaked HL2 Beta on her hard-drive... and having already bought Half Life 2 at least twice (and technically have 3 more times since) I decided I could indulge my nagging curiosity without tainting my self-percieved honor.
    So I asked for a copy and even said I was willing to trade her the severed heads of 15 newborn puppies for a copy of the leaked beta. She apparently found this disturbing and hilarious so just gave me a DVD-RW disc with the words "15 severed puppy heads" scrawled across it in black sharpie. It contains the leaked Beta.

    I have to tell that story to everyone who comes into my room and stares at the disc in shock as it rests on my self. I try to finish the story before they can contact PETA.

    Tl;Dr = That blue Hydra thing is pretty sweet and I wish they had kept it in the game.

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