Countdown to ‘Halo 3’ Release Officially Begins

It’s been a long wait, but for fans of the super popular first-person shooter series “Halo,” Tuesday was a very good day indeed. Not only were gamers just hours away from the launch of the multiplayer beta for the highly anticipated game, Microsoft finally announced the game’s release date — Sept. 25.

As the day of the beta release arrived, however, a wrinkle appeared. Gamers who intended to access the beta by buying a copy of the game “Crackdown,” which included a free access key to the “Halo” preview, reported problems logging on, according to “Halo 3” developer Bungie Studios.

“With any luck this will be a short delay,” the company said. “People entering the beta through other methods — Friends and Family, Rule of Three and so on — are unaffected.”

The Sept. 25 release of the full version, however, remained unchanged.

“‘Halo 3’ is much more than a video game release; it’s the biggest entertainment event of the year,” Peter Moore, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment Business, said. “On September 25, we intend to deliver a finale that will go down in entertainment history and leave people around the world with an experience that will be shared and enjoyed for years to come.”

“Halo 3” will go on sale in Europe Sept. 26; however, in Japan, where the Xbox 360 lags behind Nintendo’s Wii and Sony’s PlayStation 3, no release date has been set.

Christmas in September

Until Wednesday’s announcement, common wisdom seemed to indicate that gamers would have to hold on until November for the release, as both “Halo” and “Halo 2” enjoyed phenomenal success after their November launches.

This time around, however, Microsoft flipped the script in a possible effort to get a leg up on the competition for the 2007 holiday season, an incredibly important sales period for the three console makers.

“The early release date is definitely there to provide a head start on holiday sales,” Michael Cai, principal analyst at Parks Associates, told TechNewsWorld. “Wii is in its own league and Microsoft is trying to differentiate from Sony through exclusive content and online multiplayer play.

“What exclusive content is better than the proven ‘Halo’ franchise?” Cai added.

The game market is really a second-half-of-the-year market, explained Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group. “The time you want for people to get really excited is as they approach vacation, and the September 25th launch gives you more time to convince parents to buy this for their kids,” he told TechNewsWorld.

The “Halo” games fall into a category of games that build on their own excitement. The more people who are playing the game and excited about it, he explained, the more other people will become excited about it and want to play the game.

“It gives you more time to build up,” Enderle emphasized. “And [Microsoft] is betting a lot on this game.”

A Sure Thing?

While the Xbox 360 has sold more than 10.4 million units during the 19 months since its November 2005 release, Microsoft has hit it big with only one of the console’s exclusive titles, “Gears of War.”

The success of “Halo 3,” while not a make-or-break situation for Xbox, is close to it, Brian O’Rourke, an analyst at In-Stat, told TechNewsWorld.

“The Xbox 360 has sold decently, but it’s been hobbled by two things: lack of sales in Japan/Asia and the lack of exclusive breakthrough titles. The only significant hit titles that’s been available on only the 360 is ‘Gears of War.’ ‘Halo 3’ will be the second.”

For console sales, it’s a bit of a horse-and-cart scenario, Enderle noted.

“The games move the consoles, but the consoles are needed to move the games. If people get excited about a game, and that game is only played on the Xbox 360, the hope is that they will get a bunch of people who own the Xbox to upgrade.”

This holiday season, the console maker will have just two major games coming out: “Halo 3” and another first-person shooter, “Shadowrun,” which launches May 29. Microsoft is betting on “Halo 3” to be its hot game of the fourth quarter, Enderle said.

“They believe this will be the one to light the market on fire,” he continued. “This is their big title for Christmas, and like anything else, it is the big title that moves the platform and will have a monumental effect, one way or the other, on how well they do in the fourth quarter.”

“Folks will traditionally buy up to three games for every console that is sold, and so if ‘Halo 3’ can pull the console in and three games are sold on top of it, that makes for a very lucrative quarter for Microsoft.”

Saving Game

The Halo series has been good to Microsoft and the Xbox. In 2001, the original “Halo” came through big for Microsoft and enabled it to move its Xbox video console into a market where the Sony’s PlayStation platform was king. Excitement about the game ran high, with an average of six copies sold every six minutes for the first six months. As a result, Microsoft was able snare a corner of the market and establish its new console as a contender. Five million copies later in 2004, just before the release of “Halo 2,” the game still ranked as one of the top 10 titles at Toys “R” Us.

The release of “Halo 2” was a tremendous success for Microsoft, with sales reaching US$125 million within the first 24 hours.

Three years later, the game remains the most-played game on Xbox Live, with gamers logging almost 1 billion hours of online gameplay to date.

However, feedback from beta users of the latest edition has been lackluster. The improvements in the “Halo 3” are not as dramatic as those in “Halo 2,” according to Enderle, who tried out the game at a preview event in San Francisco last week.

“It’s good, but it is very similar to ‘Halo 2.’ In terms of head-to-head play, it’s very similar to ‘Halo 2’ with it being a prettier game, the weapons are bit more varied. It’s not a breakthrough, but an improvement. It’s not a tremendous improvement.”

“What folks have to decide is if it is enough of an improvement for me to justify not only buying the game, but the Xbox 360 if I don’t have it. For folks with an Xbox 360, it will be a no-brainer.”

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