‘Halo 3’ Breaks Sales Records Before Hitting Shelves

Microsoft’s “Halo 3” video game for the Xbox 360 console will blast its way into the world Monday at midnight when it goes on sale for the first time. The first two games in the “Halo” trilogy, a series of first-person shooter games that lets friends cooperate as well as play against one another online, were wildly successful. All indications suggest that “Halo 3” will meet with a similar destiny.

First, there’s the Microsoft marketing blitz, and it doesn’t appear to be unfounded. The company has been selling collector’s items, special edition green and orange “Halo 3” Xbox 360s, and co-branded “Halo 3” Mountain Dew soda — no doubt aimed at helping gamers stay awake well into the wee hours of the morning as they blast aliens.

Microsoft said it’s sold more than 1.5 million copies of “Halo 3” in advance of its retail launch, making it the fastest pre-selling game in history, beating out “Halo 2,” which happened to generate a US$125 million in sales in the first 24 hours. In total revenue, blockbuster game titles can blow past blockbuster movies, and “Halo 3” is widely expected to sell fast around the globe. Microsoft will roll out “Halo 3” to 37 countries in 17 languages.

The Biggest Launch of 2007

Microsoft is holding special midnight launch events in major cities in the U.S. as well as overseas, and 10,000 retail outlets will be staying open past midnight just to sell copies of the game.

“Our customers have been waiting for ‘Halo 3’ since the day after ‘Halo 2’ launched in 2004,” noted Jill Hamburger, vice president of movies and games at electronics retail giant Best Buy.

“‘Halo 3’ is is probably going to be the biggest game launch of 2007,” Paul Jackson, an analyst for Forrester who is based in the UK, told TechNewsWorld.

“You’re seeing a lot of other promising other titles that may or may ship this year, but it’s difficult to think that, particularly in North America, which is Microsoft’s Xbox stronghold, that any other game is going to have any more mass appeal than ‘Halo 3,'” he explained. “In the UK, the hype is running high. The biggest stories at the moment are about supermarkets breaking the release deadline, which seems to have been a UK phenomenon — people going into Argos, which is effectively a catalog shop, and buying ‘Halo 3.'”

Lucky Souls

While some players in the UK have apparently gotten their hands on copies early, most everyone else will have to wait. Rob Enderle, principal analyst for the Enderle Group, however, has been playing ‘Halo 3’ all weekend.

“I think it’s going to meet expectations. The beta was so limited, it wasn’t giving me the experience I was expecting. Now that I’ve got the full game, I can go into the mission mode,” Enderle told TechNewsWorld.

“The story line for me is pretty nice — it’s actually really good, and the AI [artificial intelligence] is good, it pulls you in. The new weapons are great — the hand canon is a ball to shoot. And the fact that that you’re actually playing alongside an alien for much of the game is great, too,” he added.

Great Expectations

Enderle thinks the game will live up to its acclaimed predecessors. “I think it’s going to meet some rather lofty expectations for the game. The Xbox 360 was really dropping off in the face the Wii, and I think ‘Halo 3’ is going light a fire under the Xbox 360,” he said.

If it does sell well, it might not be due to supreme graphical play — a hallmark of the high definition Xbox 360 and competitor, Sony PlayStation 3.

“From what I’ve seen of the previews, it’s by no means a spectacular-looking game — it’s no ‘Gears of War’ for pushing a graphical boundary,” Jackson noted. “What will be interesting to see is if the actual game play lives up to what was, at the time of the original ‘Halo,’ very revolutionary. It’s the perfect balancing of weapons, being able to carry two weapons and swap them.”

Developer Bungie Studios has made some tweaks to the game, reportedly increasing the power of melee punches — for example, hitting an alien with the butt stock of a rifle — in an effort to get back closer to the sweet spot of game play that lets gamers make a variety of fun and effective choices while in the heat of battle.

Microsoft Needs This

The success of ‘Halo 3’ is also widely seen as critical to the success of the Xbox 360, which has faced tough competition from the widely selling Nintendo Wii.

“I think that ‘Halo 3’ will bring new buyers to the Xbox 360,” Van Baker, a vice president of media industry research for Gartner, told TechNewsWorld.

“It will not dramatically increase Microsoft sales of the Xbox 360, but it will add to the installed base. It could ultimately add somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million, but that will be over time. People forget that ‘Halo’ made the Xbox. Without this franchise Microsoft would probably be out of the gaming business by now,” he added.

Live, Online

Microsoft makes money each time someone buys a game for its Xbox 360 — and more, of course, when the game is wholly owned by Microsoft — but the company’s base of online playing customers is what keeps a steady stream of revenue heading into Redmond’s gaming division. Xbox Live currently has 7 million users, Microsoft says, though not all of them are on the Xbox 360.

“In the old days, you’re looking at a game where you play your way through it — and then you take it online,” Jackson said. “I think ‘Halo 3’ might be the first major selling title that gets huge amounts of online play more or less from the day of launch.”

In fact, the online experience might be the most important factor in the success of the “Halo” line.

“People playing against one another online — that’s really what it is all about,” Billy Pidgeon, IDC’s consumer gaming markets program manager, told TechNewsWorld. “The single player experience is good, but that’s not really the point for the fan base.”

One-to-One This Time Too?

“The attach rate of ‘Halo’ with the original Xbox, if not one-to-one, was really close to that. People have been waiting for ‘Halo 3’ to get the 360,” Jackson noted.

The overall impact of ‘Halo 3’ on a wider audience, however, remains somewhat murky. “‘Halo 3’ will help Microsoft widen the install base, but it’s not going to get anybody into gaming who wasn’t already into gaming,” Pidgeon noted.

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