NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
The holiday season just got a little more crowded for gamers. Vivendi Universal Games and developer Valve announced Monday that "Half-Life 2," one of the year's most anticipated titles, would go on sale worldwide Nov. 16.
"Half Life 2" will forge new paths in digital distribution for the gaming industry. In addition to partnering with Vivendi to sell both a standard and collector's edition of the game at retail, Valve will sell three separate packages online, using a proprietary distribution system.
"This may be the first real iteration of what's been promised since people started getting broadband," said P.J. McNealy, an analyst with American Technology Research.
While it's likely to be hard-core enthusiast gamers who take advantage of the online sales, a successful trial could lead to a wider distribution with future PC games -- and not just those made by Valve.
By utilizing direct distribution, independent developers might stand to increase profits from titles they create, since they may be able to directly pocket online sales revenues, rather than split them with publisher partners.
Of course, in any sort of digital distribution, there are risks. Valve said its "Steam" distribution system is secure, but after the company's security problems last year, there are bound to be nervous customers. Even if the system is secure, though, it could face other hurdles.
"The challenges are akin to Microsoft launching the Xbox Live service," said McNealy. "There are so many pieces along the distribution chain that Valve doesn't control that make it fundamentally challenging. If someone has a problem, is it a broadband issue? Is it a firewall issue? I mean, where did the package get lost?"
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To avoid these sorts of complications at the game's launch, Valve has been pre-loading "Half-Life 2" on buyers' computers for the past several weeks. Essentially, this means the game is currently sitting, locked, on thousands of hard drives. Once retailers begin offering the game, Valve will simultaneously unlock the digitally distributed versions.
Retail publishing partner Vivendi (Research), meanwhile, will simultaneously ship localized versions of the game in English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Traditional and Simplified Chinese, Korean, Thai and Japanese.
Digital distribution options aside, "Half-Life 2" should be one of the year's top selling PC titles, if not the best selling. PC Gamer magazine, which has played the game start to finish, awarded "Half-Life 2" its highest score in over four years. And gaming message boards were instantly clogged with celebratory messages upon news of its completion.
"I was at my girlfriends dorm when I saw the news! She is now not speaking to me after my nerdy excitement," wrote 'manlyman' on Shacknews.com.
While the PC version of the game has been the focus of gamers so far, Valve is also working on a version of "Half-Life 2" for the Microsoft (Research) Xbox. Valve's director of marketing, Doug Lombardi, declined to discuss this much, but did confirm that work is continuing and the console version of "Half Life 2" would not be out this year.
Interestingly, Lombardi refused to say whether the console version would be available for the current generation Xbox or the upcoming Xbox 2 (which analysts and publishers expect to hit retail during the 2005 holiday season) when asked. Along with the recently released "Doom 3," "Half-Life 2" is one of the most graphically intensive games to ever come out for the PC -- and the game would look dramatically different on a next gen console.
Lombardi also declined to discuss the long-in-development "Team Fortress 2." The title, originally expected in 2001, has been under a veil of secrecy for nearly as long as "Half-Life 2" was. 18 months ago, Valve promised to discuss "TF2" after it finished the announcement process for "Half-Life 2."
"Right now, the same thing applies," said Lombardi. "We're on it and we're going to be releasing more soon."
(Sorry, hard-core gamers...I tried.)
For those of you scratching your head and wondering what the big deal is over a video game sequel, here are a few numbers to take into consideration. Since its 1998 launch, "Half-Life" and its various add-on packs (including mods such as "Counter-Strike") have sold more than 8 million copies worldwide, according to Valve.
Curiosity over the game was so intense that a group of hackers tunneled into Valve's offices a year ago and stole the source code for the game, later releasing it on the Internet. Valve delayed the game, blaming the intrusion, though there is speculation the company would not have met its initial deadline, regardless. A cyber-crime task-force announced arrests in relation to the theft in June of this year.
Morris is Director of Content Development for CNN/Money. Click here to send him an e-mail.