Today, the biggest retail launch in entertainment history is expected to bring in an estimated $80 million, gaming industry experts say. It's not the latest from the folks at Disney, not a Jay-Z album, not a special DVD collector's edition of "The Godfather."
It's a video game.
Pat Dwyer, left, and Ramsey Mourad play the original Halo on two TV sets during a 13-hour marathon Saturday at Dwyer's home in Jeffersonton, Va.
(Margaret Thomas -- The Washington Post)
Halo 2 -- the sequel to the sci-fi man-vs.-alien juggernaut, which involves a battle over the secrets of a ring-like planet known as Halo -- is creating the kind of buzz usually reserved for a Hollywood opening of, say, "The Incredibles." That animated film grossed $70.7 million over the weekend. In contrast, Halo 2 -- with preorder sales of 1.5 million copies of a game that retails for about $50 -- guarantees a one-day take of at least $75 million. It started leaving store shelves at 12:01 a.m. today, with staff at outlets such as GameCrazy and EB Games preparing for lines reminiscent of a Harry Potter book release.
For three years, the excitement over the sequel has been fueled by the original, released in 2001. Many fans of Halo bought their Xboxes simply to play the game.
It was all Halo for 13 hours Saturday at Pat Dwyer's three-story, four-bedroom home in Jeffersonton, near Warrenton, Va. His three kids were sent away. His wife was gone for the day.
Dwyer, 36, had invited his friends the Mourad brothers -- Ramsey, 35, and Reem, 34, owners of their own telecommunications company -- to come over, their Xboxes in tow. Together, the men own four Xboxes, which they set up with four TV screens. They were also stocked with two cases of beer, lamb steaks, a seven-layer dip, peanuts and cigars. The Virginia Tech-North Carolina football game could be heard in the background -- blasting from an Internet broadcast in the family room. These thirty-something guys -- "the Atari generation," says Dwyer, referring to the classic platform, "with the orange buttons and the stick" -- are not far from the typical video game player, who is 29 years old and male.
The fact is, as the industry has matured, so has its players. U.S. game sales last year were $7 billion, and this year's figures -- with such hits as Halo 2, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and the yet-to-be-released Half-Life 2 -- are expected to top that, industry watchers such as NPD Group say. In a way, Halo 2 is symbolic of the new wave of entertainment, which depends heavily on virtual reality. The next versions of Sony's PlayStation2 and Microsoft's Xbox are due out in the next two years and promise even more enhanced visual effects and realism. This is interactive entertainment: You're in the game. In Halo, if you're shooting, the controller vibrates. If you fire rounds into a wall on the screen, the bullet holes stay there.
To Dwyer and the Mourads, playing Halo together, which they do every four or so months, is a way of socializing, a way of hanging with the guys. ("Some women were invited, but they were busy," Ramsey Mourad says with a shrug.) They could be outside at a park, shooting hoops. Instead, they're in the family room -- with Redlo, the pet snake, in a cage in one corner of the room, a pink doll house in another -- covering the windows with blankets secured with duct tape. Too much glare on the television.
Reem Mourad talks about Halo as if it were a movie or a book or a song.
"I realize it's only a game," he says, a glass of beer in hand. He and the others are taking a five-minute break. "I haven't lost sight of reality. But there's a story within the game, and that's what attracts me."