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Half-Life 2: mortally wounded?

Because of some stolen code, Half-Life 2 had to push back its release date by four months. That doesn’t sit well with a hardcore gamer who was eager to buy it.

Santa didn’t have anything for The Game Master this year…and I’m not taking it very well, nosiree. At the tippy top of my wish list was, not surprisingly, a game…but not just any game. You surely recall “Half-Life,” the alien-hunting first-person shooter that won some 50 Game-of-the-Year Awards back in 1998. Vivendi Universal had promised that “Half-Life 2”–the game that won the Best of Show title at this year’s E3 event– would be out for Xmas, but that didn’t happen. If you didn’t read why, here’s the sad, sad story.

According to a Vivendi spokesman, a hacker got into the computers at “Half-Life” developer Valve Software and stole one-third of the sequel’s source code. Reportedly, the person broke into the e-mail of Valve founder Gabe Newell and planted a keystroke logger, a spying program that records employee passwords and confidential information.

The game’s release will be delayed at least four months. That’s bad news for gamers. And worse news for Vivendi, the umbrella company whose units include Sierra, Blizzard, and Universal Interactive. It had suffered a 29 percent fall in revenue and an operating loss of 52 million euros in 2003’s first half, and it was counting on big holiday sales, which were hampered by the hacker.

If our hacker friend perceived his stunt as just a prank, he ought to think again. Sure, nabbing this high-profile game before its time must seem awfully impressive within the hacker community. But, at the same time, he may have mortally wounded a company that has been a friend to gamers with its constant outpouring of impressive titles: “Diablo,” “Starcraft,” “Warcraft,” “Space Quest,” “NASCAR Racing,” and so on. We suspect that gamers–and hackers (many of whom are gamers)–don’t realize the investment that goes into a leading-edge title like “Half-Life 2.” If game companies can’t turn a profit, they’re not going to be in business very long.

While game companies rarely talk about their expenses, a recent look at Electronic Arts’ Christmas line showed that the cost of game production is edging closer to the cost of movie production. Times have changed. These guys are no longer building the latest Tetris variation.

Take “James Bond 007: Everything Or Nothing,” a console-only (unfortunately) third-person shooter that looks like it’s based on this year’s James Bond flick. Only there was no James Bond flick this year. And so, EA decided to build its own movie. It hired a veteran Bond screenwriter to pen an original script, signed on Mya to cowrite and sing the theme song, and then convinced Bond stars Pierce Brosnan, Judi Dench, and John Cleese to “star” in the game–meaning the expensive actors came in to let artists capture their motions and facial expressions and record their voices. Shannon Elizabeth and Heidi Klum play the “Bond Girls,” and Willem Dafoe is Bond’s nemesis. They’ve even brought back Richard Kiel as the classic Bond villain Jaws.

That’s game-making in 2003, folks. It’s big, it’s expensive, and if a game doesn’t recoup its cost, it can put the hurt on a game publisher big time.

There was nothing insignificant about what our hacker friend did for a reason we may never know. If “Half-Life 2” ever arrives on store shelves, it will have been delayed unnecessarily. And Vivendi will have suffered needlessly. Let’s give the game companies their due: They are the creative force behind the products that give us so many hours of entertainment. To treat them like the enemy is pointless.

Paul “The Game Master” Hyman was the editor-in-chief of GamePower.com. He loves to receive your e-mails at [email protected]

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