NEW YORK (CNN/Money) – Officially, "Half-Life 2" doesn't come out until Tuesday. But that didn't stop retailers around the country from putting it up for sale this weekend -
escalating an already public squabble between the game's developer and publisher.
The early sales were no real surprise. Retail embargo dates for video games get broken about as often as eggs at an all-you-can-eat omelet festival.
But here's the twist. Given the game's prior problems with piracy, developer Valve built a verification system into "Half-Life 2," requiring buyers to authenticate the game online before they could play it. Anyone attempting to do so this weekend, however, was out of luck.
Vivendi Universal Games, which holds the publishing rights to "Half-Life 2," refused to allow the developer to activate purchased games, Valve charged in a news release.
"Vivendi is insisting that the game has not yet been released, and has threatened that Valve would be in violation of its contract if we activate the Half-Life 2 ... authentication servers at this time," said Valve spokesman Doug Lombardi.
By insisting on a Tuesday release, Vivendi is likely trying to protect its retail partners who didn't break the embargo date. You see, once authentication begins, Valve would theoretically be able to authenticate all of the copies bought from it online directly via Steam, its proprietary digital distribution system.
Hardcore gamers who aren't near a retailer that has broken the embargo may choose to buy directly from Valve – meaning neither retailers nor Vivendi would see a penny from those early game sales. And "Half-Life 2" is a game that every hardcore gamer is going to snap up as quickly as they can.
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Vivendi declined to give specific comments on why it would not allow Valve to authenticate copies sold this weekend.
This weekend's quarrel between Valve and Vivendi is just the latest in a feud between the two companies. For the past two years, they've been quietly engaged in a courtroom battle. Valve claims copyright infringement. Vivendi claims the developer is circumventing its retail plans by distributing "Half-Life 2" via Steam.
Valve and Vivendi's problems are bad – but hardly unique. Last June, the bad blood between Take Two Interactive Software and 3D Realms (developer of "Duke Nukem Forever") spilled over into the public forum in an ugly fashion.
Valve and 3D Realms have third-party relationships with their publishers, though. Along with id Software, they're among a select few developers who are financially independent enough to wage these sorts of battles. Direct employees typically aren't so lucky.
To be blunt: Relations between developers and publishers have never been more unstable. Developers are speaking out privately and publicly about unpaid overtime and mistreatment by managers.
"Crunch time" has been a well-known industry secret for years. Basically, in the weeks -- sometimes months -- leading up to a major milestone, developers are expected to go into overdrive, working as long as it takes to get things done. A recent survey by the International Game Developers Association found "crunch" hours to be anywhere from 65-80 hours per week. In extreme cases, workdays can last up to 15 hours.
In June, Neil Aitken, a former employee of Vivendi Universal Games, sued the publisher, saying the company had ordered him and several co-workers to falsify timesheets to show they only worked eight hours instead of the 12 or more they regularly did during crunch times.
Vivendi (Research) declined to comment on the suit.
Recently, industry giant Electronic Arts (Research) found itself the target of a class action lawsuit seeking unpaid overtime on behalf of a group of EA employees. (The California Superior Court overseeing the case has yet to certify the class, however.) At issue is whether certain employees are exempt from overtime.
In an e-mail to employees, EA denied the claims in the suit, saying "it is EA's position that it treats its employees fairly and lawfully, and that it has properly classified its employees within the meaning of the law."
While the suit has a long way to go before it reaches resolution, EA is taking a very public drubbing from people claiming to be employees and spouses of employees in well-circulated Web postings. These people claim that crunch time hours are beginning to seep into non-crunch periods. Of course, whether these claims are legitimate or not is impossible to prove. Since these began circulating last week, though, I have heard from several developers who said the postings were on target. Because those developers (or their spouses) work at EA, they requested anonymity.
EA did not return calls for comment.
Of course, long hours aren't exclusive to any publisher. There are some whispers already about unionization in the gaming industry – the repercussions of which remain unknown. Games already cost an extraordinary amount to make, with today's top titles regularly seeing development costs of $10 million and more.
It's no secret that pretty much everyone works too much and is too stressed out these days. So why all of the attention on game developers? Incredibly long work-hours are burning out many bright, creative developers before they have a chance to mature and contribute their best work.
The battle between developers (and I'm using that term to encompass anyone who contributes to the making of a video game) and publishers isn't likely to end soon. And it's likely to get a lot uglier before it gets better.
Morris is director of content development for CNN/Money - and welcomes comment from both sides of this battle. Click here to send him an e-mail.