Valve Software springs a leak

You’ve spent the past five years of your life developing a project that could determine the future of your company. You work long, hard hours to create the product as quickly as possible while still assuring that your fans are happy. Millions of dollars are at stake and you want to make sure everything is perfect.

Everything is just right, until the project is stolen without any trace and is released for the general public and your competitors to analyze.

Such is the case for the PC game Half-Life 2, being developed by Valve Software. According to a posting made by Valve’s founder Gabe Newell on’s forum, the game’s source code was stolen around Sept. 19 and is now freely available on the Internet.

The source code for a game, or application, is the blueprint for a program’s operations. Essentially it would be like someone stealing the blueprints for the White House and knowing where all the weaknesses or secret passageways are located.

According to the posting, one-third of the source code was stolen.

With the code circulating around the Internet, Valve has been forced to delay the release date until April.

Along with id Software’s Doom 3, Half Life 2 is one of the most anticipated next-generation games. Leading-edge titles such as these have a significant impact on which hardware consumers purchase as they demand higher amounts of memory and processing power.

Aside from the loss by the company, this leak could also have repercussions for PC vendors and component companies.

One company, ATI Graphics, is partnered with Valve to offer the game for free with the purchase of its forthcoming video cards. These video cards are what allow PC gamers to play graphic intensive games that require extra visual processing power.

Newell said, on the posting, that sometime around Sept. 11 a hacker broke into the Valve computer system and installed a keystroke recorder that allowed them to view passwords or any other typing on the infected computer.

Newell has pointed to the possibly of the hacker gaining access to his computer by utilizing a security hole in Microsoft’s Outlook.

In addition to the keystroke recorder, the hacker also used Remotely Anywhere, a remote desktop-style administration tool that allowed the hackers to control Valve’s computers through the Internet. There was also another utility used that allowed the hacker to transfer files through the network undetected.

The transfer of the source code has many implications for Valve. The first of these is the problem with cheating on multiplayer gaming. Because hackers know where vulnerabilities exist in the game code, they could exploit the holes and find ways to make themselves invulnerable, thereby ruining the experience for others.

Second, the leak could also allow other developers to see how the game was created and use that information in their titles. Developers of high profile games sometimes make a physics engine that details how objects in the game react to a player’s actions.

Through the sale of this “engine” game developers generate a substantial portion of their profits. This early disclosure of the code could allow developers to bypass the thousands of dollars that are needed purchase the technology.

Making the situation worse, five days after the initial report of the theft, a compiled version of the code started to surface on the net, leading some to believe the entire source code for the game was stolen.

With any program or game, the source code has to be compiled so others can make use of it. In the case of Half-Life 2, the playable build has been spreading throughout the Internet like wild fire.

An anonymous hacker who said he was responsible for the break-in released a message to several Web sites stating the reasons behind the attack.

“To all those saying HL2 was delayed because of the hacking action, I’ll just remind you that what was leaked is what Valve has, nothing more and nothing less, so it’s pretty good to understand it wasn’t finished yet.”

The anonymous hacker also offered Valve a suggestion in regards to reports that only a third of the source was taken.

“I suggest (Valve) stop lying to your customers about how much was stolen/compromised, or I’ll have to release everything just to prove my point. And you know what you got, as I do.”

Although the build is a crude version of the game, several fans in the community have questioned whether the originally posted completion date for the game was done as a marketing ploy.

Although the game was previously scheduled for release on Sept. 30, many users who have played the build wonder if Valve was even close to completing the game.

Speculation aside, the full effects of this leak could be seen in the coming months.

Having the release date pushed back could have hindered the sale of newer video cards because gamers will be less inclined to upgrade their system if they don’t need it.

This is of utmost importance to video card manufacturers because they have to constantly find methods to please their top-level consumers. The high-priced cards are where these companies make the majority of their profits.

PC manufacturers could also feel the effects of the late release as holiday shoppers may hold out purchases until the two games are released in the first quarter.

Regardless of what effect it has on the industry, the main thing to consider is that the damage has already been done. Even if Valve were to find who broke into its computer systems, it must deal with the reality of having a leaked version of its game circulating the Internet.

The biggest question that needs to be answered is how the leak will affect Half-Life 2’s development. Although the release date for the game has been changed to April, gamers and individual computer companies will have to wait and see what the far-reaching effects of this breach will be.