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Sat, 29 Sep 2007

The Halo Effect

There's almost a sense of festival around the launch of Bungie's long-awaited Xbox 360 iteration of the Halo franchise. We won't see official sales figures for the UK (or, indeed, most other territories) until next week, but Microsoft's Shane Kim already seems on the verge of exploding with joy over $170 million first day sales in the USA, with various retailers also being rolled out to express how ecstatic they are over the figures.

Suffice it to say, then, that Halo 3 has done really rather well - critically, it has scored over 90% from almost every specialist publication in the Western world, and commercially, it seems certain that its launch day is the biggest ever recorded by a videogame.

Consequentially, it may well be the biggest launch day for any media product in history - although the caveat here is that this applies only to the dollar figure. Halo 3's comparisons with other videogame products are eminently valid, but the success of the game in comparison with products in other mediums is inflated by the high price-tag of videogames.

Bring it back to actual unit sales, or the basic number of people who engage with the product on day one, and the figures don't hold up. It's wonderful that so many people are willing to go out and pay a large amount of money for a great game - but while back-slapping is certainly in order, let's not kid ourselves that this represents a "mass-market" phenomenon on the same scale as a huge movie or music release.

This is where the Halo message gets slightly confused. The game sits on a peculiar middle ground between Microsoft's two key ambitions for the Xbox platform. On one hand, the game itself is quite clearly a hardcore gamer's dream - wonderfully polished, crafted and presented it may be, but at heart it is still a heavily multiplayer focused first-person shooter where you play a space marine taking on an alien invasion. For the core audience of Xbox 360 owners, there couldn't be a finer product.

On the other hand, the "media event" status which Microsoft has carefully crafted for Halo 3 speaks volumes about the firm's desperation to break out to a more mainstream audience. Months of forward planning by the company's PR and marketing divisions has seen Halo 3 being widely reported upon in the mainstream press, with television, radio and newspaper reports focusing on launch events around the world.

In London and elsewhere, launch parties were arranged with a coterie of "celebrities" for the tabloid papers to take pictures of. The queues outside retailers were the subject of news reports, and major news outlets cast the net far and wide to try and find anyone who could explain something about the game on air. My own Halo 3 launch day started at 5am with an interview on the BBC's World Business Report - which ended with the rather bemused presenter asking earnestly (and, frankly, somewhat hopefully) whether videogames were "just a fad".

That, in a nutshell, is where the cracks start to show in the Halo 3 phenomenon. This is not a game for the mass market; it's not the kind of game that will encourage casual players or non-gamers to engage with the Xbox 360 or even with gaming in general. In fact, fantastic though it may be, it's not even really a game that will appeal to anyone who doesn't specifically enjoy the first-person shooter genre.

It is annoying, certainly, the much of the mass media has approached the launch of such an anticipated game with a "look at the crazy gamers!" tone in its coverage. It is frustrating to see features on the London launch which focus on the fact that Pharrell Williams looked "bored" rather than on the excitement of the gamers who turned up, referring to them only in condescending terms.

However, it's not surprising to see this reaction. Unlike last year's media frenzy around the Wii, the Halo 3 launch isn't something that can be easily expressed to the non-gamers who cover this subject for the mass media. The Wii is a genuinely mass-appeal product, simply because its appeal can be summed up in simple anecdotes that easily sell the features of the system to a wide audience. Halo 3, however, is a gamers' game; a refinement of a genre whose appeal is almost exclusively to existing players.

We fully understand Microsoft's desire to push the Xbox 360 into the mainstream - after all, this very column has been advocating for years the idea that the firm needs to broaden its appeal if the 360 is to break out of the market segment which the original Xbox carved. However, Halo 3 is the wrong product for the job. It is a game which will bring core gamers more firmly onto Microsoft's side than ever, but whose vast public exposure risks painting the 360 further into the "hardcore only need apply" corner.

What Microsoft needs is not more widespread exposure for an established, core gamer franchise like Halo 3. It needs a wider range of gaming experiences to engage with a wider audience - the kind of breadth and depth of software library which ultimately drove the PlayStation 2 to its immense sales in the last generation. On a positive note, we're seeing mounting evidence that this kind of software is on the way - but it remains to be seen how Microsoft plans to inform the public of this fact. Much will hinge on its ability to project a PR message effectively beyond its core audience.

In the meanwhile, none of this should detract from the undoubted enjoyment that hundreds of thousands of gamers will be experiencing this week from Halo 3. Whatever about the mixed media response or the Xbox 360's place in the market, the game itself is a triumph for Bungie, for Microsoft and for the core gaming public.

Anecdotally, we've never seen so many of our friends on Xbox Live at the same time, and all playing the same game (bar the occasional weird refusenik, of course). Gamers' enthusiasm for the franchise may leave the mainstream media cold - but that won't stop us from taking great pleasure in Finishing the Fight.

(Gamesindustry.biz)

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