After forking out over $1.3 billion to fix dodgy XBox 360 consoles, Microsoft is now banking on the roll out of Halo 3 to save its day in a bitter battle with both Sony and Nintendo in the games console market.
With Australia set to be one of the first countries in the world where Halo 3 software will offically go on sale, Microsoft is doing everything it can in an effort to rescue its gaming reputation which has been hit hard by the constant failures of the Xbox console which had a 30 percent failure rate in Australia compared to less than 1.5 percent failure rate for the Sony PS3 and the Nintendo Wii.
More than 42,000 advances have been lodged for the Halo 3 game in Australia, which will retail at $99.95 for the standard edition.
Also available is a AU$199.95 Legendary Edition of Halo 3 which will be released in limited quantities and arrive in a highly collectible Spartan helmet case. Included in the Legendary Edition will be two bonus discs packed full of extra content.
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Already millions of fans around the world have placed orders for the new Halo 3.
Microsoft’s marketing mavens are using the slogan “Finish the Fight” to promote the company’s “Halo 3” video game, the final chapter in a popular science-fiction combat game trilogy.
Microsoft is hoping that Halo 3 will be the rallying cry for Microsoft to beat rival Sony n the next-generation video game console war. Though few hold out hope as Sony is getting stronger by the week with PS3 sales improving over forecasts.
“We’re locked in a pretty good fight with Sony and (its) PlayStation 3 to win the generation. That’s always been our aspiration,” said Shane Kim, corporate vice president of Microsoft Game Studios. “This holiday season is critical in terms of winning that generation.”
“Halo 3” is Microsoft’s biggest weapon yet. The game goes on sale on Monday night at EB Games stores and JB Hi Fi. Some retailers, including EB games, will hold Monday night events capped off with “Halo 3” sales at midnight.
With its big guns and corny sci-fi plot, the Halo video game series is undeniably the province of die hard gamer, as a result it has become one of the most lucrative entertainment franchises of all time. Sam Leith of the Daily Telegraph in the UK met up with the programmers and professional gamers to find out why.
Halo 3 isn’t a film, a book or an album – it’s a video game. Halo 3 is as big as business gets. The release of its predecessor, Halo 2, was bigger than Harry Potter and bigger than the Beatles. Microsoft, which owns the Halo franchise, says it sold $125 million worth of Halo 2 units in the first 24 hours of sale. By mid-August, pre-orders of Halo 3 had passed the million mark.
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For the uninitiated, it is called a ‘first-person shooter’, a game in which, looking through the eyes of its protagonist, players charge around virtual landscapes shooting stuff up. Its ancestors are rudimentary but addictive 3D games such as Doom – but Halo does something rather different. It tells a story. The central character, the Master Chief – a Spartan supersoldier, the last of his kind – struggles to defend the galaxy from an alien theocracy called the Covenant, in the process uncovering the secrets of the ancient Forerunners and the feared Flood. It is, as it sounds, the mightiest heap of science fiction codswallop possible – and therefore utterly compelling to gamers.
The original Halo, released in 2001 exclusively on the Xbox console, created fanatics at both ends of its gameplay spectrum. Players could enjoy ‘campaign mode’ the ‘story’ game that you play against the computer – or the multiplayer option, in which players fight each other over the internet.
The importance of Halo to Microsoft (the games are not available on rival consoles) is not in flat sales alone. People bought the console specifically to play Halo; and, Bill Gates will be praying, people will upgrade to the Xbox360, the machine’s latest incarnation, to play Halo 3. Microsoft acquired Bungie Studios, the company that makes Halo, before it launched the Xbox.
The Master Chief, with his distinctive suit of metallic green armour and reflective gold visor, an icon to rival Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog, more or less single-handedly made it possible for Microsoft – which entered the console gaming market with deep pockets but no track record and no backlist of games – to compete with Sony and its PlayStation. Of the seven million-odd people who have played on its Xbox Live internet gaming service, five million joined to play Halo.
The man regarded as the presiding genius of Halo is the mysterious Jason Jones. Jones doesn’t do interviews. His profile on the ‘meet the team’ section of Bungie’s website has every category marked ‘classified’. When I asked Bungie’s publicists for more information, I was told I had ‘requested the one thing you weren’t meant to’. The company released three sentences: ‘Jason was born in St Louis in 1971 and attended the University of Chicago. He left, however, to pursue a career in making games. He co-founded Bungie Studios in Chicago in 1991.’ Jones is the JD Salinger of video games. His utterances – even at second hand – have a prophetic mysteriousness.
Joe Staten, Halo’s smart and sarcastic writing director, says, ‘Working with Jones is fun, but he is also very challenging. I once said to him, “Let’s talk about the story for Halo 2. What do you think the story for Halo 2 is?” And he says, “I know what the story is. At some point the Master Chief says, only blood will pay for this. He meets this thing called the Gravemind and it says, I am a monument to all your sins.”
‘I said, “OK. So what?” And he said, “That’s it. That’s the story.” He’s very good at big, monolithic issues, deep concepts, big signposts.’
There are no big signposts to the offices where I meet Staten and his colleagues. Bungie does not occupy a purpose-built complex in the shape of a Covenant Battle Cruiser in downtown LA, though it could probably afford to. There’s not even a sign on the door outside that says ‘Bungie Studios’. The makers of the fastest-selling video game in the world work in a one-storey grey building with no windows, next to a pancake house in a mall in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland.
Sitting around a table with Bungie’s senior developers is more like sitting around a school common-room than a boardroom table. The audio director Marty O’Donnell, with his mane of swept-back grey hair, is by far the oldest person here. Most of his colleagues are in their late twenties and early thirties. A couple – and these are senior programmers – seem barely out of their teens.
They backchat, share in-jokes, goof about. Lunch, ordered in, is fatty junk food in polystyrene cartons, washed down with Mountain Dew. (In the run-up to the release of the last game, the staff competed in a daily weigh-in to see who would gain the most weight over the period.) The 113-odd employees for Halo 3 (twice as many as worked on Halo 2) are proper geeks: very clever, highly caffeinated, borderline obsessive, deeply enthusias
The main room of the studio is one big open-plan office. There are 50 miles of cable beneath the false floor, desks are arranged in pods, and almost everyone is male. There are multiple fridges full of fizzy drinks, and Starbucks coffee machines. A big bowl of jelly-beans. A punchbag. An inflatable monkey. A magazine cover featuring Bill Gates, vandalised to give him a beard and moustache, is pinned to one wall. An immaculate 6ft pyramid of soda cans rises from somebody’s desk.
“Everyone has their crunch rituals,’ shrugs Bungie’s community relations manager, Brian Jarrard. When I visit, Bungie are deep in the crunch. ‘Crunch’ is the name video game developers use to describe the closing weeks before deadline: the tweaking, playtesting and bugfixing. You notice that something’s broken in one bit of the game, but discover that fixing it will, unexpectedly, make something even more broken in another bit. This is a time when people sleep in the office, pull all-nighters, develop strange rituals. Some refuse to shave or cut their hair until the game ships.
The game is ‘content complete’ , that is, past the stage when anything new will be added. So almost everyone, at the moment, is playing Halo. Playing it, if they can, to death. In a room known as ‘the freezer’, so called because of how high the air-con has to be cranked up to cool all the processers there, 15 playtesters are trying to ‘break’ the game so that glitches can be removed before the consumer finds them. At the back of the room, for the same purpose, 300 Xbox360s are running automated tests non-stop.
The building of a game like this is a work of electronic engineering comparable in scale to the building of a medieval cathedral. It is not like making a film. You are not just shooting the action, as one of the game’s designers explained to to me: you are inventing the camera first. You are not just telling a story: you are creating a narrative architecture within which the players move of their own accord. You get a sense of the scale and intricacy of the task by considering the sound effects alone. Sixty per cent of the however-many gazillion megabytes of Halo 3 is sound files. The game contains 54,000 pieces of audio and 40,000 lines of dialogue. There are 2,700 different noises for footsteps alone, depending on whose foot is stepping on what.
Jay Weinland, a genial guy of about 40, with oval glasses and a sandy goatee, makes a few mouseclicks on the PC he has linked to his Xbox. ‘I know this is a gweat game,’ a familiar British voice says, ‘but don’t you think it’s time you changed your underpants?’ Jonathan Ross is one of the celebrities who volunteered to voice lines for the game. (That’s one you might hear if your character stands next to a particular marine and looks at him for an unnaturally long time.) Ross is reported to have waived his fee.
The degree of independence and control Bungie enjoys, its latitude for perfectionism, is testament to how important it is to Microsoft.
When there was talk of making a Halo movie, rather than sell the option to Hollywood, Bungie insisted on control , presenting, in effect, a blueprint of what they wanted to the filmmakers. They recruited the British writer Alex Garland (himself a big Halo fan) to write the script, and he presented a treatment that very closely followed the story of the first game Halo: Combat Evolved. Fox and Universal both joined the project, and Peter Jackson, the director of the Lord of the Rings films, became executive producer. At a later stage, though, the two film studios withdrew, and in October 2006 the film was officially put on ice. Insiders say the clash of having a games company in creative control made it too high a risk for the film studios to back. If Halo 3 does what it is expected to, the chances are the project will be resurrected.
That will be down to the fan community. A big shift has taken place, in recent years, in the way video games are played. What was once generally a solitary activity is now , in the vast multiplayer realms of Second Life or World of Warcraft, just as with Halo – overwhelmingly a communal one.
That’s why Halo 3’s most significant innovations are the ones that let fans fiddle about with it and share the results: the ‘save film’ option, whereby every game is saved and can be re-played and edited millisecond by millisecond with a free-roaming camera; and ‘forge’, which allows you to customise maps during the course of the game. These custom maps and films can be shared online. The fan community at whom this is aimed is what Microsoft executives, at least in public, like to call the ‘Halo Nation’. Most are well-balanced people you would happily share a Mountain Dew with – Julia Roberts has admitted to being a devoted Halo player – but in its most extreme form, the Halo addict has the potential to resemble an alarming hybrid of fanatical Trekkie and devoted subscriber to Guns and Ammo
The Halo Nation can be tough to please. A glitch on the first day of the beta (a demo version of Halo 3, playable online for a limited time) meant that a number of players weren’t able to access the game for several hours. One player got hold of the direct lines of Bungie executives, and bombarded them with phone calls threatening physical harm.
‘Microsoft takes that stuff very seriously,’ Jarrard says. ‘We had to step up security. Turned out it was some 12-year-old kid from North Dakota or something.’ Did they get the police involved? ‘No. I think they just talked to his mum.’
A couple of days later, I travel to St Charles, Illinois, to meet the Halo Nation in person at a conference centre hosting one of the tournaments on the Major League Gaming (MLG) tour.
MLG, founded five years ago, is one of the organisations attempting to establish games such as Halo as professional sports, with fans paying to see star ‘cyber-athletes’ compete. A decade ago there was no such thing as a professional video-gamer. Currently, MLG has 13 players on three-year contracts worth $250,000 each. The winning team at this event will share $20,000 prize money.
It’s early days, though, and the Pheasant Run Megacenter is far from the Super Bowl. Outside the doors a handful of kids smoke cigarettes in the rain. Inside in the foyer, food is being served from a row of tables: limp pizzas; hot dogs swimming in manky-looking water; nachos with custardcoloured synthi-cheese dip. It smells horrible.
When you enter the dark, noisy space of the hall proper, the smell changes slightly. It smells of teenage boy: sweat, feet, sexual frustration and something sweeter over the top. That sweet smell, you realise a bit later, is Red Bull (the official sponsor). The 5,000 people here – roaming the room with Xbox controllers clutched to their chests and their ‘gamer tags’, the nicknames they are known by in online play, embroidered or stencilled across their shoulders – have an air of general adolescent dyspraxia that belies just how stupendously good some of them are at aiming a sniper rifle across a virtual arena the size of an Olympic stadium.
Their skills are precise. One of the top-rated professionals is 18-year-old Chris Smith, who plays as ‘ShocKWav3’. ‘It’s funny,’ he says. ‘Everyone’s got their own controller, and you really don’t like people messing with them. We’ve even detected differences in the colours. I can only play with a black controller because I don’t like the way the blue one feels. The blue one’s joysticks are too loose, whereas the black one’s are stiff. I like that.’
On either side of the hall are enclosures with rows of networked consoles. Fans cluster behind to look over players’ shoulders at the screens. An announcer calls teams to the game stations when they’re up. Referees supervise play. On the main station at the far end the onscreen action is projected on to the wall behind the competitors, huge and divided into several sections so that you can see every player’s point of view.
‘Walshy’ ,aka Dave Walsh ,is a rangy, hollow-cheeked man older by a few years than most of his rivals, and older by more than a decade than some of his fans. As captain of the ‘Final Boss’ team – regarded as one of the world’s best – he is one of the 13 players currently on contract with MLG, and is, in this world, a star. People talk knowledgeably about his playing style (he’s credited with inventing the ‘claw grip’ on the controller – ‘I never take my thumbs off the sticks’), and exchange montage videos of his most spectacular kills online. His own branded apparel range, Kiaeneto, sold more than $20,000 of goods, he says, in its first month.
‘I guess I’m like a grandpa out here,’ he says. ‘I’m old compared to most of the crowd.’ So what is the shelf-life of a professional gamer?
‘I think I’m going to be one of the first people to test it out,’ he says. ‘There’s really no defined date when you’re over the hill with this profession. With this, it’s like, well, can someone play in their late twenties or early thirties, or is that way too far ahead? Is 25 or 26 the cut-off age? It’s hard to say, because I’m probably one of the oldest ones. I’m 23.’
Later, I’m standing behind a three-deep crowd at one of the game stations when Walshy’s team is due to play Perfect Storm in the Halo tournament. ‘Final Boss to station four,’ the announcer’s voice booms through the PA system. Perfect Storm have turned up, but the favourites don’t seem to be anywhere. ‘This is the last call for Final Boss.’
In front of me, a seven-year-old boy is standing with a woman I take to be his mother. The boy is wearing an outsize Walshy T-shirt, signed across the back. ‘Look,’ she says, turning him round to point back through the electric gloom. ‘They’re coming. There’s Final Boss.’ The crowd parts to let them through. Walshy sits at his post, the Ogre brothers – two of his three team-mates are twins who play under the tags ‘Ogre1’ and ‘Ogre2’ – take chairs to his right, and ‘Strongside’ sits to his left.
Walshy, in a gesture that recalls a boxer taking off his dressing-gown, removes the silk blouson bearing his Final Boss team logo. He puts on his Red Bull-branded headphones, plugs in his controller, adjusts the game settings. Then he slaps skin with Strongside, nods, and leans in to the screen.
Copyright: Daily Telegraph Syndication.