The Big Game Battle

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By Ian Sherr

In a slick two-minute trailer from David Fincher, the director of “The Social Network” and “Fight Club,” a young boy is stolen from his home, turned into a surgically enhanced supersoldier known as “Master Chief,” then set loose to battle hordes of evil aliens.

The splashy preview isn’t for Hollywood’s latest major motion picture. It’s part of the elaborate build up to the release of “Halo 4,” the latest installment of Microsoft’s blockbuster videogame for the Xbox 360. When it debuts on Tuesday, the game, in development for four years, could easily end up bigger than most movie releases. Its predecessor, “Halo 3” sold $300 million worth of copies in the first week following its 2007 release.

Microsoft is pulling out all the stops to ensure that every male under 45 in America knows “Halo 4” is on its way. In partnership with PepsiCo, there will be Halo-themed Mountain Dew and Halo Doritos. Boys can wear Halo Axe deodorant while playing a Halo version of Risk.

All the marketing muscle is projected to help sell six million to eight million games, according to some estimates, one of the biggest videogame releases of the year. Microsoft is betting the new game will help sustain a business that has generated more than $3 billion since its debut in 2001. Over the past 11 years, more than 46 million “Halo” games have been sold at about $60 each, helping spawn a universe of products including toys, Master Chief action figures, books, comics, a hit Internet television show and seven sequel games.

“Halo 4” is far from a slam dunk. A week after its opening, Activision Blizzard will launch the ninth installment of “Call of Duty,” an annually released war simulation shooting game franchise that has sold more than $6 billion world-wide. Unlike “Halo,” which is available only on Microsoft’s Xbox console, “Call of Duty: Black Ops II” will be available on Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Nintendo’s coming Wii U as well. The intense competition has put pressure on the “Halo” developers to make sure the game arrives on time. Microsoft estimates a week of lost momentum could wipe out roughly a third of projected “Halo” sales.

“If we screw up, it’s the beginning of the end of the franchise,” says Bonnie Ross, who heads up Microsoft’s 343 Industries game studio in Kirkland, Wash.

 

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(Published November 2, 2012, in The Wall Street Journal.)