Microsoft marketing push puts 'Halo 3' in heady spot

Film-like launch for video game

In anticipation of this week's release of "Halo 3" for its Xbox 360, Microsoft is cranking up the hype machine.

Tonight, 10,000 stores nationwide will hold Midnight Madness events for gamers who can't wait to get their hands on "Halo." In addition, there will be celebrity-studded launch parties in Los Angeles, New York, Miami and Seattle. It's just a small part of a marketing campaign that one source familiar with the situation estimated will cost $40 million.

Sometime in the next week, Microsoft also could be crowing that revenue from "Halo" sales topped the $151 million that current opening-weekend movie boxoffice champ "Spider-Man 3" generated in its first few days of release.

This is a time-honored trick in video game marketing that conveniently obscures the fact that most movie tickets top out at about $12, while "Halo" retails for $59.99. But Xbox director of product marketing Chris Di Cesare said that these comparisons are still valid. "Is it apples to apples? No, but for people's entertainment dollars, there are choices," he said.

The traditional film industry is providing much of Micro-soft's inspiration for the "Halo" rollout. The company has struck partnerships in the advertising categories you'd expect from an event film, including auto, beverage, quick serve restaurants and convenience stores as well as broadband and mobile providers.

"We put it on a plane with the biggest entertainment properties in the marketplace — the "Harry Potters," "Star Wars" and "Matrixes," Di Cesare said. "Those are the competitive set in terms of passion and in terms of overall revenues."

But unlike the film world, which tends to pour much of its marketing into driving that all-important opening-weekend boxoffice, Microsoft stresses the efforts to push "Halo 3" likely will continue through the holidays and beyond.

Included in that will be a promotion on the Discovery Channel's new show, "Last Man Standing," which debuts Oct. 4. While Microsoft has been tossing around a lot of marketing dollars to secure these type of promotions, Discovery senior vp media planning and partnership Chris Schembri said there are plenty of other benefits to attaching a TV show to a game brand like "Halo."

"Partnering with 'Halo' on 'Last Man Standing' gives us the opportunity to build credibility with that 18-34 audience we want to bring to our network," Schembri said. "The game's not going to be integrated into the show, but we're using the show to showcase the game and vice versa."

The weapons of "Halo" also were recently featured on Discovery's "FutureWeapons" series, and Schembri said it wasn't the first — and certainly won't be the last — time the network looks to the game industry for promotional partnerships.

"What I really like about gaming promotions is you get a different level of engagement with the audience," he said. "You're reaching people who are spending hours with the content, and that's what you really want them to do."

But the real test for "Halo" might not be the actual number of discs that are sold in the coming weeks, months and years but whether the game ends up driving sales of Microsoft's Xbox 360 console and subscriptions to the Xbox Live online service.

Xbox Live has about 7 million subscribers and Microsoft said it expects that to grow to 10 million by June. While not all of those new subscribers will go online solely because of "Halo," Di Cesare pointed out that online play, which is a key aspect of the game, is available only on Xbox Live.

"We know 'Halo 3' needs to have broad shoulders, but we're feeling very good about where we're at," he said.