Last week Microsoft made the announcement that Halo Online, a PC-exclusive free-to-play online multiplayer Halo title, was set to be released late Spring. Despite this initially generating some excitement, it soon became apparent that the release would be geo-restricted to players in Russia only for the foreseeable future.
Videogame piracy is a large problem in Russia, with some reports claiming that up to 90% of all games played in the region are pirated copies. A free-to-play Halo game which includes in-game items that are purchaseable using real money could help Microsoft and developer Saber Interactive tap into that market, while ensuring that the company and developers receive a return on their investment.
However, the geo-restrictions and in-app purchases present in Halo Online have been met with resistance by some, who would prefer that the game was accessible to all, without any restrictions or pay barrier. After a leaked copy of Halo Online was obtained, one team of hackers uploaded a tool which allowed exploration of the game to Github, but it didn’t last for very long – Microsoft whacked Github with a DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) takedown notice, and GitHub quickly responded by disabling access to the files.
TorrentFreak was able to catch up with the team behind the hack, who detailed the background of the leak and their encounters with Microsoft. “Microsoft is probably quite bothered by what we’ve done already as these files were leaked. We obtained the files from a user on 4chan’s /v/ board,” said team member Woovie.
The 4chan user in question has a still-live link to the files, hosted on Microsoft partner Innova. They’ve yet to be taken down, Woovie claimed. “From there, user Emoose proceeded to create a hack that would allow the client to load files and thus get in game,” Woovie continued. “He has in the past done the same for Halo 2 and Halo 3 betas so he had experience with this. The files we have are definitely an early internal alpha. A lot of left over code from other Halo games.”
“In terms of DMCA/C&D mitigation, we have made redundant git backups on private and public git servers. This is to ensure we will always have one working copy. These are being synchronized so that data is always the same,” Woovie explained. Further DMCAs may happen potentially, it’s not really known at the moment. Our backups will always exist though and we will continue until we’re happy.”
The motivation for them to carry on seems to go beyond a passion for the Halo franchise. They claim to be perplexed by the geo-restriction that’s been added to the game as well as what they believe to be purchasable in-game items that could turn Halo Online into a pay-to-win game. They aim to strip back these two features so that the game they desire to be released will be accessible worldwide.
“We of course still don’t know 100% what items are purchasable with real money, but it would appear at first glance to have pay-to-win potential. We also of course want to play this game, which as far as we see, is a Russian market only game,” Woovie speculated.
There actions will almost definitely lead to more action from Microsoft. However, team member Neoshadow42 believes that their actions should be seen as more of a service than anything else.
“As someone involved in game development, I’m sympathetic with some developers when it comes to copyright issues. This is different though, in my opinion,” he explains. “The game was going to be free in the first place. The PC audience has been screaming for Halo 3 for years and years, and we saw the chance with this leak. The fact that we could, in theory, bring the game that everyone wants, without the added on stuff that would ruin the game, that’s something we’d be proud of.”
Neoshadow42 argues that the team’s actions are not damaging in any way, stating that: “I don’t particularly see this as damaging, as some people have said. I don’t believe it for a moment, honestly. We’re working to improve people’s experience, bring it to those who wouldn’t have been able to play it anyway. I’d see that as a noble cause.”
Opinion: Regardless of the hackers’ feelings about their actions, there’s no getting away from the fact that what they’re doing is a clear breach of international copyright laws. And Halo Onine has actually been available to play in Western countries for close to a decade – the PC version is simply a modified release of Halo 3‘s multiplayer component.
With piracy in Russia being so rampant, it’s understandable that a publisher or developer would seek to protect their work and ensure a return on their investment. Games, even ported games, aren’t free to develop or release in any territory, and releasing a title in a region where copyright theft is endemic carries large financial risks.
However these hackers try to justify their actions, the fact remains that what they’re doing is unlawful and carries stiff penalties in most countries.
They might be getting away with it now, but now that Microsoft has taken notice of their activities, it’s unlikely to be long before the hackers find themselves facing the full force of the publisher’s wrath.