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Bright people sometimes do stupid things. Experienced people sometimes stumble into a noob mistake. Either of these instances are expressions of the fact that we’re all simply human, and therefore err…but I don’t think either of them explain why Microsoft decided to distribute their review copies of Halo: Reach digitally rather than via physical discs shipped overnight to the reviewers. I think, perhaps, that they simply just don’t care anymore.

Why should they? Even without the massive hype blitz that’s been assaulting us for months, we all know that Reach is going to be a spectacular blockbuster of a title. It’s Bungie’s last Halo game, a swansong to a decade of being Microsoft’s standard bearer in the console wars. That nostalgic appeal alone has to be good for a couple million copies’ worth of sales; and no matter what criticism any of us may levy at Bungie, they don’t make sub-par titles. If Bungie bothers to produce a game, it’s going to be polished, and pretty, and for the vast majority of us, a whole lot of fun. There’s your other eight or nine million sales, none of which are going to be truncated by early download thievery.

Microsoft says they are “aggressively investigating” the leak, but unless there’s some James Bond villainous organization-esque worldwide hacker ring that solving the mystery of the Halo: Reach theft is somehow going to expose, and therefore make the world a safer place for digital distribution, I don’t imagine that Microsoft will care for very long. Not once the accountants start calculating the profits after the game is released in September, anyway. There’s an arrogance, and a distinct sense of utter disregard, in putting the review copies of Halo: Reach on Xbox Live, neither of which really surprise me because I don’t think Microsoft had anything to lose.

It’s not as though the plot is going to be given away. Bungie has been telling us for how long that we already know how the game ends? Christ, gamers can actually participate in building a monument for all the main characters of the Halo: Reach campaign. Sometimes, with these AAA titles, it almost feels like actually purchasing the game and putting the disc into the drive for the first time is anti-climactic. Summer blockbusters work the same way: at some point we realize that their trailers take all the best bits and condense them down into a two minute reel, and we’ve pretty much seen everything the actual film has to offer us. Multiplayer has kits. There’s space combat in the campaign. We’re getting Firefight mode. The Forge toolkit has been improved. I find it hard to believe that there are any real surprises left for us.

Between E3, GamesCom, and the public multiplayer Beta, the only content that’s going to feel fresh to anyone who has been paying attention to the hype fest are the actual events of the story and the cutscenes (the first ten minutes of which are already online) and that’s something that a great many Halo fans don’t seem to really give a damn about one way or the other. Not many people complained about the lackluster, tacked-on storyline of Halo 3 which seemed to get the fiction out of the way of the multiplayer mode as quickly as possible; and the audio logs with accompanying stills buried within Halo: ODST didn’t get nearly as much critical praise as I think they deserved. It would be interesting to be able to generate statistics on how many Halo: Reach players eschew the campaign altogether, or for how long, as they dive straight into the multiplayer gaming which ultimately made Halo the rabid franchise that it is.

It’s difficult to feel bad even in the face of Halo: Reach hitting the bit torrent sites, not beyond a general condemnation of theft as a whole. Microsoft and Bungie are not going to suffer as a result of this leak. What I do feel bad about are all the explanations for why Microsoft might not give a damn, and the implications on the entire video game industry in terms of how major releases have been handled for a while. I miss the excitement of buying a new game and not knowing what I’m going to be jumping into. I had the same issue with Red Dead Redemption, when I felt like I’d played half of the game already before the title screen even loaded up, and as I progressed through the story kept hearing my wife chiming in with comments like “Hey, I remember that from one of the behind-the-scenes videos!”

The only other, reasonable explanation I can come up per why Microsoft put the review copies of Halo: Reach online was precisely because they felt the game was going to be leaked early one way or the other, and so they may as well try controlling the conditions, and the timing, in order to capitalize on the inevitable, additional hype for the game that the news stories about the leak would generate. That might be a plausible explanation if we hadn’t just established that Halo: Reach needs more hype the way Modern Warfare 2 needs more multiplayer bugs.

  1. avatar GamerWithPassion

    “I miss the excitement of buying a new game and not knowing what I’m going to be jumping into. I had the same issue with Red Dead Redemption, when I felt like I’d played half of the game already before the title screen even loaded up, and as I progressed through the story kept hearing my wife chiming in with comments like “Hey, I remember that from one of the behind-the-scenes videos!””

    Ok so I’m just going to say what I’m sure everyone who actually took time to read this story is probably thinking about this… If you don’t want to know half the story then STOP WATCHING THE VIDEOS. What I see here is a gamer complaining because they wanted instant gratification (something the market as a whole has been bending backwards to provide) before the game is released. If you miss the feeling of it then simply don’t watch the behind the scenes videos because it’s obvious that they will contain spoilers.

    As far as your article goes… I’m not sure about your statement that Microsoft doesn’t care anymore. What in fact is the difference between giving you a disc versus a digital copy? Is there some type of new super copy protection for review discs that somehow thwarts all known copying/decryption software? I think Microsoft had the impression that the people they were distributing the discs to were reputable and valued their jobs and the privilege of being the first members of a gaming population to play the game. If they had any brains the would have tagged onto the source code either the name or at least the mailing address of the digital copies and at this point would have no issue locating the offender, but I’m quite sure no one thought that far ahead. The real question that I didn’t see asked in your article is how will this affect the gaming press community since the leak clearly came from one of its members? Will Microsoft be less likely to provide review copies so far in advance of the retail release?

    • Members of the press aren’t just gamers. They’re members of the press. Any of us who take that seriously stay abreast of current events, and even if we don’t watch all of the videos, or read the details of all the PR hype, on big games like Red Dead or Halo: Reach there is such a torrential downpour of hype that eventually all those snippets we see come together whether we’re trying to get the information or not.

      Um…the difference between physical and digital copies is that it is much easier for a publisher to control access to physical copies. It’s not foolproof, just much easier. Putting Halo: Reach up early on Xbox Live was like hanging a sign on the files that said “Steal me!” Microsoft only needs a few, key outlets to have reviews ready prior to the release date to get those reviews printed on the game boxes, or hitting the key websites on release day. I think maybe 10 physical copies ought to do if for PR purposes, which makes their publishing the game on XBL even more shocking if you understand how this aspect of the marketing functions. It wasn’t worth running the higher risk of theft just for a little convenience…unless, like I argued, Microsoft just didn’t care, because they didn’t have to.

      I think maybe you need to read up on the story more…it seems to have been solidly established that the game was stolen by members of the modding community, not the press.

  2. avatar Scott

    What’s disappointing is that Microsoft basically “allowed” these modders to play Halo Reach before the rest of us who are legitimately waiting and then buying, which they didn’t even do anyway.

  3. avatar Cameron

    This is a really nice article. I didn’t agree with everything you stated but I just wanted to say I love reading well-thought out aritcles and lately I haven’t found any. This is a good example of a gaming article. Well done Dennis! I look forward to more from you!

  4. avatar NamelessTed

    Umm, call me crazy but distributing the review copy of the game digitally is WAY easier and more controllable for Microsoft.

    With the physical copy, they can only send review/unsigned code to those publications that have access to a dev kit (not many). If they want to send copies out to a larger audience of publications, they have to send the final retail version of the game. In order to do this the game has to go gold and they have to start printing the game. Then they have to actually send the copies out and who knows what happens once the reviewer is done, they can give the copies to anybody they want.

    With digital distribution, than can have whatever the latest version of the game is available online. They can send download codes to whatever publications they choose. Once the code is used, the review copy of the game is attached to whatever gamertag redeemed the code. MS can track which gamertags redeemed the codes and they aren’t transferable.

    Digital distribution actually also cuts down on piracy. If they send out disc copies of the game, a hacker can rip the ISO onto a computer and share it quite easily. If this was the case, anybody with a modded Xbox could burn the game onto a disc and have at it. With digital, the box has to have the JTAG hack with custom firmware, something that requires a more difficult process and only works on non-updated Xboxes. Even if the review gets leaked (as it clearly has) it significantly cuts down on the number of pirates that have the game. Had they sent out a retail copy of the game, there would be a much larger number of people playing the game early.

    TL;DR – digital distribution of game demos is cheaper, faster, safer, and all around better for the game publisher as well as the reviewer.

    • Under normal conditions, what you say would be perfectly true, but I’d argue that Halo: Reach isn’t a normal game by any means. :)

      On August 6th, it was reported that Bungie was finished with Halo: Reach, so I am working under the assumption that the discs are already being pressed as we speak, hence physical copies of the retail version were surely available, and obviated the need for early reviewers to have access to debug consoles.

      I can’t agree that sending out physical copies of the retail game to trusted sources really incurs increased risk of piracy versus digital distribution of review code. If the only sites that get copies are Kotaku, Joystiq, GameSpot, etc., it kind of narrows the field down as to which of them were responsible should that game get leaked out, and these sites didn’t get where they are by being stupid. :)

    • avatar NamelessTed

      Dennis, I think you aren’t understanding something. The digital version of the review code is actually much more difficult to pirate.

      I think it is safe to assume that the same publications would be getting a review copy of the game whether it is by a download or a physical copy of the game. If that is the case, Microsoft knows exactly you should have review copies of the game. If they send out physical copies, those discs could be given to anybody whether it is a friend, family member, an intern in the office, anybody. All it takes for the game to be leaked is to have one pirate get their hands on it, rip it, and put the ISO online.

      In the case of digital download, the code can only be used once. Whoever used the code could redownload the game, but only to their own gamertag. There isn’t some magic way around this. It isn’t like the entire download is available just for anybody. With it being downloadable, MS could also technically track exactly which boxes downloaded the game by using IP address, MAC address, and Xbox serial number. If they put the effort in, they could potentially find who is responsible for the leak.

      With physical copies, you also run into the possibility of it being stolen in the mail. I know this isn’t the most likely but I had a friend that used to steal shit all the time when he worked at a UPS place. If somebody saw the package as it was being sent through, there is always that small possibility of it being stolen. If they email a download code directly to a person, there is virtually no chance of it being stolen.

      Also, like I said before, by having the review copy be a digital version, it significantly cuts down on the number of people that can actually pirate the game. If it was on a disc, anybody with a modded DVD drive could pop in a back up and play it. The modded process takes all of 10-20 minutes depending on the drive and there are plenty of people with these modded drives. In order to play downloadable games on an Xbox, you have to have it JTAGed. That involves soldering wires onto different parts of the motherboard and reading/writing information using a serial port on a computer. It also has to be done to an Xbox that hasn’t been updated past the old blade dashboard. This drastically cuts down on potential piracy if the game would happen to have been leaked.

      Every way that I look at it, digital distribution is faster, easier, and safer than physical copies of the game.

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  5. avatar Oh no

    Well done in becoming part of the Halo Reach global marketing con.

    *slow clap*

  6. avatar Tompiper

    Well I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve finished Halo:Reach thanks to Microsofts slip-up. However after playing it I do make positive remarks about it to friends and online community.

    Microsoft just got paid in priceless word-of-mouth advertising.

  7. avatar PantherDST

    It is for reason like this that I am sadend by the thought the PS3′s security has been breached.

  8. avatar fhadj

    Actually, remember a little game called Modern Warfare 2? Remember how hackers got hold of it 2 weeks before it came out. And remember how two weeks after it was released, 1 million people got kicked off of XBL? Theyre gonna do it again. THATS why they did what they did.

    • avatar NamelessTed

      Anybody who is pirating this version of Halo: Reach won’t be getting banned from Xbox LIVE. People playing this version are on boxes that run custom firmware and don’t connect to Xbox LIVE so Microsoft can’t trace it. Had a physical copy of the game been leaked, there would be a bunch of people playing the game online, and those people would likely get banned.

  9. @Ted -

    In the film industry, early screeners of movies are often hand-delivered by a courier who makes the recipient sign for it. There’s no reason why Microsoft couldn’t have done the same thing with Halo: Reach. If there was a ever a game that deserved that level of security, this was it.

    Do you honestly believe that Microsoft thinks that a writer for Joystiq or IGN or GameSpot is going to let their early review copy of Halo: Reach out of their sight, and that’s why they went with this digital scheme? I find that amazingly implausible. The video game journos who work their way up to such a privileged level of access are going to guard it jealously. That’s not a realistic risk in this case, and surely Microsoft knows it.

    I was reading a piece over on CVG that rightly mentioned that the music industry has had to push up some high-profile album releases due to piracy…do we honestly think that the video game industry operates in some kind of vacuum? This was an immensely-risky move by Microsoft. Our discussion here is almost academic at this point – what happened is now history. Digital distribution of review copy is simply not safe for a high-profile game release. There are too many modder out there with the technical knowledge to keep an eye out for this sort of thing and exploit it. Case in point.

    • avatar NamelessTed

      Movie screeners are leaked ALL the time, especially when we approach award season. You also have to realize that music and movie piracy is completely different from video game piracy on a console. With movies and music, a person just needs to put the relatively small files online and anybody with a computer can then play those files with virtually any electronic device. In the case of Halo: Reach, it takes a lot of time and work to modify an Xbox to play this leaked version of the game.

      You also have to realize that Microsoft probably sent out review copies of this game to 25+ publications. They could send out copies to each of those places, but digital distribution is cheaper, safer, and more convenient for everybody. Microsoft can send the download code to specific people and see when each of those codes are used, and what gamertags those codes were used on to download the game.

      I think we have completely different understandings on how Xbox LIVE works. A hacker can’t just see that Halo: Reach is online and download it, it just doesn’t work that way. You can only download the game if you have access to it. Because of this, the leak of the game has to have come from somebody who receive a download code for the game. Was it somebody from IGN or Gamespot? Most definitely not. But smaller publications also receive download codes. The leak could have easily been by accident or on purpose from one of these publications.

      The choice to use digital distribution for Halo: Reach, as well as other games that they have released recently, is a smart and safe choice.

    • avatar GamerWithPassion

      So just so I understand what you are saying here… You want me to assume that anyone who would get a physical copy of the game would never let it out of their sight? Uhhh what world do you live in my friend? Last time I checked when you were asleep you are unable to keep it in your sight as you put it. So lets go over times where this physical disc would be available for a friend/roommate/family member to copy it shall we?

      1.) Review leaves house/apartment to go out and eat and for some clearly insane reason DOESN”T take the disc with him (can’t imagine why someone might notice a DVD for a game that hasn’t be released yet and possibly want to mug that person for it… Because I mean that didn’t occur when the XBOX360 and WIIs were first coming out right? Oh wait…. It did.). Now that the reviewer has left his/her apartment/house the disc is now completely open to someone picking it up and cracking it which at most would take roughly an hour. Think about the last time you went out to eat with friends did you take longer than an hour round trip?

      2.) Reviewer goes to sleep… I know crazy right? How dare a reviewer actually go to sleep! Now most people typically sleep on average around 6 hours… I’m sure most game reviewers after binge playing the disc will be more likely to sleep for 9-10 hours. Can I then take the disc and crack it? Of course… Hell I could even go out for drinks and still come back with time to crack it before the reviewer woke up.

      I’ll stop here but your example of a reviewer ALWAYS keeping the disc in sight and guarding it is simply put ridiculous. Hard copies of games are not by any means safer than digital copies and you have yet to provide any solid reasons as to why the digital copy was the wrong choice for this release other than “Digital distribution of review copy is simply not safe for a high-profile game release. There are too many modder out there with the technical knowledge to keep an eye out for this sort of thing and exploit it.” The modders you refer to also have the ability to easily crack/steal ISO files from hard copies and in my opinion Microsoft made the right choice by going with the digital copy format since it in theory was more secure than the hard copy.

  10. avatar Ferahtsu

    The only hype train I intentionally avoided, with record effort, was for Zelda: TP. Completely worth it

  11. @ NamelessTed -

    A smart and safe choice…except when it results in the game being stolen? *raises eyebrows*

    @ GamerWithPassion -

    I think you and I need to agree to disagree about the probable conduct, and likely intelligence, of video game journos who get early review copies. :)

  12. avatar DShiznit

    GamerWithPassion, have you heard of this marvelous little invention called the SAFE? It’s a box, with a lock on it, that you can put stuff in, and only you can open it! Amazing how advanced technology is nowadays isn’t it?

  13. avatar pops

    Youre all wrong anyway. It wasn’t “leaked” in a traditional sense. Hackers actually cracked the security on the server hosting it and stole the files.

  14. avatar watz a naime

    microsoft put it on the marketplace so hackers would get it and possibly get banned like mw2 they got tons of hackers already

  15. avatar Program commander

    As for hacking I found a site that claim to have a aimbot for Reach.

  16. Yea thanks skimming over this helped me figure out a few new things ^.^ Oh and look at this site out they claim to have free working glitches for halo reach

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