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Thousands of Americans lined up last night, not to vote, but to buy one of the most anticipated new video games of the year. Halo 4 is the latest installment of the popular franchise for the Microsoft XBox 360. Some gamers refer to Halo as their Star Wars.
Now, after five years, the game’s hero, the Master Chief, returns. And the fantastic world the Master Chief inhabits is hardly confined to just the screen. The game’s publisher hopes that this latest installment will be an evolution of the franchise.
Twenty-one-year-old Quinten Redd is not your typical Halo player.
“I started playing Halo when I was in sixth grade,” said Redd when I interviewed him in his Southern California home. An aspiring professional on the Major League Gaming circuit Redd has sponsors and has won tournaments for money.
“I started playing competitively around the 7th or 8th grade,” said Redd, “and I’ve been playing since. So I’ve been playing about seven or eight years.”
Redd’s team is physically spread out across the country. The other members hail from North Carolina, Florida, and Arkansas. I caught up with Redd as his squad practiced for last weekend’s MLG tournament in Dallas, where Halo 4made it’s competitive gaming debut. MLG tournaments draw hundreds of players to the events, and thousands more that watch online. The league boasts 8 million active players, the advantage of running an eSports franchise in the era of online multiplayer games.
He’s given similar games — like Call of Duty and Gears of War– a chance but Quinten keeps coming back to Halo.
“Most games you die really quick, so it’s more about skill and strategy and teamwork. It’s got all the bases of a good game, where some games are unbalanced in my opinion.
Alongside the multiplayer component, Halo features an epic story. The short version: religious fanatics, who also happen to be aliens, are trying to wipe out humanity. Standing in their way is a cyborg super soilder named John-117. Better known as the Master Chief.
Since Halo made it’s debut eleven years ago, the franchise has been designed for multiple media platforms, like books, comics, and toys.
“This is how Halo started. The book actually came out before the game,” said Frank O’Conner the Franchise Development Director for 343 Industries. 343 overseer of all things Halo for Microsoft, and know one knows Halo as well as the man fans’ know simply as “Frankie”.
“So some of our fans kind of grew up with Halo knowing more about it from the books than they ever did from the game,” said O’conner.
Gamers like Redd and others who play the game on an almost daily basis are just part of the fanbase.
“Halo’s always had a really disparate audience segmentation,” O’Conner told me. “We talk about the Halo Nation and I think we mean that in a very real sense. It’s not like the Halo Village or the Halo Corporation, it’s more like a nation with all the variety and disparity that entails. And we have people who don’t even play the games. We have people who just read the fiction or just buy the toys or just collect the comic books.”
In the run up to today’s release, Microsoft launched a live action Web series on the Machinima Prime YouTube channel, to draw newcomers into the Halo story. The series, formally known as Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, introduces a new character to the Halo mythology a young cadet named Thomas Lasky. When we first meet Lasky he’s has reservations about the war he’s training to fight.
An animated version of the adult Lasky shows up in Halo 4, the game. He’s also a central character in what just might be Halo 4‘s most innovative feature. To keep the revenues coming in, Microsoft is offering a weekly download that complements Halo 4, called Spartan Ops. The bonus content is organized as a mini-series, each week’s “episode” features both an animated short and five playable missions.
Microsoft hopes that Spartan Ops is where competitive players like Redd and fans of the game’s complex story will get together.
I asked video game journalist Adam Sessler, former host of the cable TV showX-Play, to weigh in on Microsoft’s overall strategy with the Halo franchise.
“Remember gamers are very savvy,” said Sessler, “and they can tell when they are being sold to and they’re also very paranoid. So the idea of embedding your marketing into the availability of narrative and the availability of story is probably the most effective route. They feel like they’re getting something for giving you their attention.”
Sessler says that Halo‘s hero, Master Chief, is not as developed a character as someone like Star Wars’ hero Luke Skywalker. But like Skywalker, Master Chief inhabits a complex universe.
“If you look at franchises with staying power. Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter, all of them have universes in which you could tell hundreds of stories, said Bonnie Ross, general manager of 343 Industries. “So when we’re laying this foundation it’s not necessarily about making money, although we all want to make money, it’s about establishing a universe that people want to be in. And I think that does require multiple mediums to do it justice.”
Halo isn’t the only game with a universe that unfolds across multiple platforms–Assassin’s Creed and the World of Warcraft come quickly to mind– but few companies have taken this strategy to such lengths. Few can afford to. In a marketplace crowded with cheap and free games, big game publishers are banking on elaborate story worlds to keep fans dedicated, and willing to pay sixty dollars or more for a game.
Want to know more?
Hear our interview with Stewart Hendler, director of Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn.
Check out our exploration of Halo’s “transmedia” story world.