Looks like Half-Life 2 has been delayed – no specific date now.

Half-Life 2‘s existence was a heavily guarded secret – the game has been in development for close to five years now (shortly after Half-Life hit shelves, in other words) – until late May or so. Valve took the odd step of announcing the game to print magazines under NDA restriction until their June issues – places like Blue’s News once again had to get their dish from people whose subscriptions came in early. Part of the bold claim they made – in addition to showing it off to wowed audiences at E3 – was that the game would be in stores on September 30th.

The entire affair was significant since the usual course of events is to announce a game as soon as you have an idea for it – or at least a screenshot or two. The development goes on for a while – oftentimes years – and the game oftentimes suffers delay after delay. This is assuming it’s not cancelled outright – I’ve seen print ads for games that never saw the light of day. The publishing marketing machine coordinates the hype – which is why it’s so disasterous when games get delayed, since it throws off their timing considerably. Gamers are so jaded to delayed games that it’s hard to get excited about a game anymore. So what would be nice is if someone made an amazing kickass game, didn’t tell anyone about it, then came out with it with a minimum of hype but a maximum of sales.

And that’s what looked to happen with Half-Life 2 – the original Half-Life is like a textbook on how to do a game right. The single player portion raised the bar on what electronic entertainment is capable of, without being too ambitious for its own good (see Shenmue). The multiplayer portion was helped considerably by the fact that, by accident or design, Half-Life became the platform to modify. Counter-Strike is the most popular mod of all time, with some 50,000 players playing it at any given point in time (almost as many people as live in Texarkana, my home town). Couple this seemingly perfect game to make a sequel to with the fact that the sequel actually looked pretty good, and the fact that the game was coming out on time and early for the holidays and it seemed to be a match made in heaven.

Valve contracted the team that made Team Fortress for the original Quake to make their planned Team Fortress 2 modification an expansion pack for Half-Life. Then, some time after Team Fortress Classic was released to fill the gap, TF2 was to be a full game. Its current status is unknown, though it’s thought that more will be revealed after Half-Life 2 ships (one theory states that it might be included in HL2). Other than additional patches, additional Counter-Strike updates (by then Valve had hired that team full time) and the occasional boxed release of Counter-Strike and Day of Defeat (standalone HL mods – the 2 HL expansion packs were done by Gearbox), all was quiet from Valve – which irritated gamers. Where was TF2? Had they even thought about HL2? Everyone knew that one of the most successful start up game developers in the world had to be up to something – but what?

Valve was more or less hearlded once HL2 was announced, but shortly thereafter problems started to arise. For one, there’s been something going on I haven’t really followed where cards from Nvidia didn’t do some FSAA right, but apparently that was resolved. Then they announced the game was, confusingly, in three versions – one cheap version with single player only that wouldn’t run mods, “aimed at the Costcos of the world”, a second version complete with single and multiplayer that could run mods, and a third that also had limited edition crap. The single-player version is baffling – how many people could have a system capable of running HL2 but not want multiplayer? And shop at Costco for their games?

Then there was Steam. Steam is this sort of nebulous client Valve devised. It’s a way for them (and you) to update the Valve content on your hard drive – so that way when a new patch comes out you can get it automatically, so you don’t have to worry about waiting until most of the servers are patched to play on. Also it’s a server browser, chat interface, and even a way to purchase games – a fourth Half-Life 2 option is apparently to pay $9.99 a month to play it – which will also apparently guarantee access to future commercial expansion products. Also, it seems it is destined to become the authientication method for Half-Life and Half-Life 2 – currently when you want to play Half-Life online, Half-Life sends your CD key to an authentication server (currently operated by WON) to make sure it’s not already in use. Essentially Valve pioneered the CD Key system for games. In about a year or so that WON system is going away, and you’ll have to play with the latest version of Half-Life and the latest version of Steam.

This irks gamers because it means that they’ll suddenly have to have more crap installed in order to continue to play a game they already own. Even this wouldn’t be so bad, except that Steam has problems. For one thing, when thousands of gamers suddenly need an update, the thing is darn slow. Recently they took Steam out of beta and tons of users needed to update their Half-Life installations. So thousands of users were downloading hundreds of megabytes of data. Steam was/is supposed to migrate your existing content over and update only what is neccessary, but this didn’t work so well. It got to the point where Valve released standalone Steam installers, more or less negating the point of Steam.

There’s talk that you’ll have to have Steam in order to play Half-Life 2, either at the outset or in the future. This bugs gamers to no end for various reasons. Steam’s auto update feature is a nice idea, but imagine if it was designed such that you couldn’t play unless it had updated. So you sit down to play a quick game but instead you have to sit and wait for the client to download an update along with a million other users. It’ll be worse if it checks between levels. I don’t know for sure that either of these will happen, but it goes back to one belief a lot of serious gamers have – they want the control, and they like having things separated. They don’t want to use the server browser Steam provides – they like theirs just fine (which won’t be a problem, assuming it doesn’t purposely lock out other server browsers). They don’t want or need the “Friends” system – having four IM paradigms is too many already – plus this is something their server browser does already. And most people – myself included – would rather a traditional boxed product.

Now personally I don’t mind the idea of Steam, provided they can work out the bandwidth issues (and also provided that it’s even possible to do so). I have little use for the server browsing or chat features, but having the equivalent of a critical update notification for my games isn’t half bad. But I won’t buy games from Steam. It’s funny – years back when it was predicted that they would or could do away with the boxed product notion I was resistant, and I thought perhaps I was the only one. However, it seems I’m not alone. People on the whole want something tangible for their money.

But then after all the fiascos with Steam, Valve delays their game from its etched in stone date. Personally, I don’t mind since it’s not like it’s Duke Nukem Forever delays (yet), but people who just upgraded their systems are livid. I guess this buys me some time to do some research and see what I want to get (or have to get) to run Half-Life 2.

Still, it would have been really cool if Valve could have delivered on their crazy claim of September 30.