Rise of the machines 

“Halo: Reach” sales show explosion of video game industry

Any number of statistics confirm just how popular Microsoft’s “Halo: Reach” has been since its release last Tuesday, but perhaps the best measure of the “first-person shooter” video game’s reach comes from the fact that it’s become water cooler conversation for college students, industry experts…and my mom. During a casual conversation last week, my mom happened to ask if I’d seen the best-selling sci-fi franchise’s much-anticipated prequel.

I hadn’t, but I still knew exactly what she was talking about. And how could I not? “Halo: Reach” has become, according to Microsoft, the single most successful entertainment release of the year—successful enough for its first-day sales to eclipse every Hollywood blockbuster opener ever, successful enough to earn a televised countdown on Spike TV to the game’s midnight release, and successful enough to gain name recognition with millions of innocent non-gamers, like, say, a pacifist suburban homemaker.

“The line for our midnight launch party reached from the front of our store all the way down to the Noodle Express,” says Anthony Munson, assistant store manager at GameStop inside Southgate Mall. “I think we had close to 300 people that night.”

The intricately designed game takes place in the year 2552 on an Earth-like planet called Reach inhabited by 700 million humans. A contingent of violent alien forces known as the Covenant has invaded Reach, and the United Nations Space Command (UNSC) is charged with patriotically kicking some alien ass in order to preserve humanity. Gamers get to control an elite squad of über-soldiers, or Spartans, known as the Noble 6. This being a prequel—and the fourth major entry in the series—the outcome is predetermined (the Covenant blows up Reach), but the ultimately futile effort to prevent disaster has its silver linings.

“You get to learn a lot of the history of the characters, especially how the UNSC works, how the war started, how the soldiers train, and about [the origins of] the Nobel 6,” explains Elise Chavez, video manager at Hastings off Brooks Street. “A lot of what makes the series so popular is the story. You may know what happens, but they put so much into the story to make it worth it for hardcore fans.”

Evidently, fans responded to the effort. Microsoft announced last week that “Halo: Reach” netted $200 million its first day on the market. By comparison, box office blockbuster The Dark Knight made $158 million during its opening weekend in 2008, the most ever for a film. This year’s top opener, Iron Man 2, netted just $128 million. (Movie tickets cost comparatively less than a $60 video game, but still.)

What’s more telling about the “Halo: Reach” numbers—and gaming’s overall rise—is they’re not actually that big of a deal in the grand scheme of the video game industry. Last year’s “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” brought in $310 million on its first day. The series’ sequel, “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” is expected to surpass that record-breaking number when it comes out later this year.

“I still think the biggest launch we’ve had to date was for ‘Modern Warfare,’” says GameStop’s Munson. “For that one, the line went past Noodle Express, all the way to JCPenney. We’re talking 500 people.”

The mainstream popularity of such shooter games as “Halo” and “Call of Duty,” as well as other fantasy titles and sports franchises, can be partially attributed to a demographic that’s extended beyond basement-dwelling, Cheetos-eating nerds. In fact, the market is trending older and more sophisticated as teenagers who grew up addicted to “Tetris” and “Techmo Bowl” evolve with contemporary games like “The Sims” and “Madden 2011.” According to a May 2010 report from The NPD Group, a market research firm specializing in video games, U.S. gamers spend an average of 13 hours per week playing games, up from 12.3 hours last year. The report claims “extreme gamers”—who may actually be basement-dwelling, Cheetos-eating nerds, and who comprise 4 percent of the gaming population—spend 48.5 hours playing per week. The report surveyed more than 18,000 people.

“The average age of gamers increased slightly over last year,” reads the report, “from 31 years of age in the 2009 study to 32 years in this year’s study.”

“Halo: Reach” taps into this aging market with a deep narrative and high production values, including an elaborate marketing campaign that would rival any Jerry Bruckheimer film. Two weeks before the game launched, a three-minute commercial featured live-action humans (actual actors) during a typical mid-invasion day on Reach: a father and son nervously seeing mom off at the train station, a young couple contemplating fleeing, a little girl holding a red balloon (symbolism!) only to let go as military personnel shuffle past her. “Remember when there was a tomorrow,” reads the tagline. “Remember where it all began…‘Halo: Reach.’”

Such extravagant promotions, however, gloss over the game’s—and the genre’s—primary appeal: blowing stuff up. At its core, “Halo: Reach” is about obliterating aliens in the most efficient and awesome way possible.

Microsoft touts “Halo: Reach” as the single most successful entertainment release of the year. The first-person shooter game netted $200 million its first day on the market. By comparison, box office blockbuster The Dark Knight made $158 million during its opening weekend in 2008, the most ever for a film.
  • Microsoft touts “Halo: Reach” as the single most successful entertainment release of the year. The first-person shooter game netted $200 million its first day on the market. By comparison, box office blockbuster The Dark Knight made $158 million during its opening weekend in 2008, the most ever for a film.
“It’s in key with the rest of the series, but to be honest, it’s kind of a short play,” says Chavez from Hastings, referring to the game’s full story arc. “It doesn’t matter, though, because it’s really fun to play and easy to pick up. The replay value is high for a first-person shooter game.”

Bungie Studios, which first developed “Halo,” and Microsoft, which distributes the game exclusively for its Xbox 360 console, provided a beta version of “Halo: Reach” online so users could test its multiplayer function. The game’s flexibility and depth when letting multiple people play at the same time is what separates it from other games in the genre. As Edge magazine wrote in a review, “The multiplayer offers an asymmetrical toolset of unparalleled variety and balance, and there are more ways to play than ever before.”

That review lines up with Chavez’s take on the game. She’s already played it from start to finish, but plans to go back to it often for all the reasons “Halo: Reach” hoped.

“It still has the basic story, and that’s important to fans of the franchise,” says Chavez. “But if you just want a bloody death match, you can have a bloody death match.”

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