In a presentation at the MI6 marketing conference earlier this week, Microsoft staff dissected Halo 3's marketing for an audience eager to discover the secrets of the game's massive success.
The talk particularly explained Halo 3's launch from the perspective of its incomparable media blitz last September - with multiple Microsoft staffers weighing in.
Leveraging The Beta
Jerret West, global group product manager, spoke about the beta campaign launched alongside the release of Crackdown, another first-party MS game. Users who bought Crackdown were the only players eligible to enter the Halo 3 beta, months before Halo 3's retail debut.
"We had a massive beta, and a lot of people were talking about whether this made sense at all for a game of our magnitude," West said. However, the beta wasn't necessarily about testing the game's technology, from West's perspective. "We wanted to drive preorders. For Halo, it's all about day one."
Allowing users into the beta created "a psychological investment" in the game, according to West. "The idea was basically to make the beta launch huge and let the tastemakers make the launch for you... to really drive it beyond the gaming press." Thanks to the beta, "we saw a spike of preorders 25% week over week," West revealed.
Connecting With More Than Core
Chris Lee, global group product manager, took up the thread of how the marketing for Halo 3 was designed to humanize the game's lead character, Master Chief, and bring in a wider audience than the adrenaline-soaked core gamers the series resonates best with.
According to Lee, "The marketing statement was really based around Master Chief. We did some research, and found out that people thought of Master Chief the same way they think of Robocop and the Terminator, a killing machine... we had to humanize him to reach a broader audience."
Into 'A Starry Night'
This process began with a commercial entitled "Starry Night", which showed Master Chief recalling his childhood in the heat of battle. "That really put a human face on Master Chief," said Lee.
"We aired this one time on Monday Night Football one time, nine months in advance of the launch of the game... It was very expensive... [but] as soon as it was broadcast it was made available on the web... people watched it once on TV and then again and again, tens of millions of times," Lee revealed.
The style of the ad itself was designed to not be jarring to the TV-watching audience, eschewing game graphics for real actors and lifelike CG.
However, it worked on another level, as it introduced new gameplay concepts to a watchful core gamer audience -- such as Master Chief's use of the Bubble Shield, a new defensive item introduced in Halo 3.
Master Chief As Hero
Noting that 2007 was filled with political, celebrity, and athletic scandals, the creative team working on the ads reasoned that "there was an opportunity to elevate the status of Master Chief to a hero."
This was accomplished with a variety of ads which show "veterans" of the sci-fi war depicted in Halo 3 recollecting their fictional memories of Master Chief's battlefield heroism.
Said Lee of the core gamer dilemma, "The challenge we had, and it was identified early on -- we didn't have an awareness problem, people knew it was coming out. It was a perception problem... we wanted to invite people into the console and into Xbox 360 and to play Halo 3 as a mass-market entertainment product." His advice? "You should find another way to do the message for your audience."