There are no more molehills. Just bigger and smaller mountains.
So Valve sent out a press release cancelling one event and hinting at a 'surprise'. It was a way of adding the tiniest bit of flavour to the otherwise blander-than-bland world of press releases. It was so out of the ordinary, in fact, that nearly every major gaming news website in the world instantly started up the rumour mills. What on earth could this surprise be?
It's tempting to absolve Valve of all sin, because really, none of this is their fault, at least directly. The problem is they've made a reputation for themselves by creating ever more elaborate ways to reveal their games and any new developments. Just a month or two ago we got the Portal 2 reveal after a few days of brilliantly enigmatic ARGs from the game itself. So it only makes sense that if they tease something, it's going to be something big.
Thing is, this was teased in a press release, which, for the most part, are somewhat internal. If they wanted to tease something to their fans, have no doubt it wouldn't be done like that. It'd be in patch notes, or on a website, something that they can guarantee the fans will have access to. All it was, in the end, was a little light humour to illicit a smile or some such from the recipient of the release.
So it blows up, inevitably. A few enterprising individuals create a really quite convincing set of red herrings, along with a load of old ones resurfacing, and suddenly everyone is predicting Half Life 3, or something along those lines. Of course anything less than that is going to be a shattering disappointment, and try as they might have, there was no way Valve were going to be able to convince everyone that this was the most minor of surprises.
The seed of hope had been planted, and it's terribly tenacious. No matter what anyone said, until it had been proved, (and, to the ardent fan, an assurance from Valve that it was merely Portal 2 related isn't enough), no one is going to give up that seed. When you want something bad enough, you think it's going to be real, maybe, just.
Do I blame the journalists who reported the story? No, not really. If I'd been a news editor receiving that press release, I can certainly see the temptation of getting a veritable fuck-tonne of hits by hinting it might be HL3 related. I'm sure they don't regret it, and the fact was there was a chance it wasn't just a run of the mill surprise; an event cancellation hints at something big, even when it wasn't.
And you can hardly blame the fans for getting riled up. When you're in charge of such a huge franchise, even the hint of a hint is going to be taken desperately seriously. You just have to see how quickly people get worked up at the latest fake teaser to realise that.
So if neither Valve or the journalists or the fans are to blame, what the hell went wrong? In the end the blame probably lies in the cynicism and nature on which sites work. You're searching for hits, and when you see an opportunity like this, you're going to take it. I'm not saying that everyone posting a story about this was thinking 'this is probably nothing, but it'll get them slobbering', but I am saying that anyone posting news online in the past few years has been conditioned to seeing a potential story, even when it's not necessarily there.
This is an issue of habit, rather than any pre-meditation. No one is truly to blame, but the system certainly doesn't make things any easier. And, because Valve operate in a slightly different way to the majority of developers/publishers, when they put out a press release that's a little bit unusual, people are going to jump on it.
My problem is that, after all this, you've just got a large number of viciously angry fans shouting at Valve because they had the good grace to make a press release a little less boring. They never teased anything of consequence, and they even made efforts to put down any wayward rumours. It was too late though; the internet had already given the rumour far too much life to be slain by 'facts'.