By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 20, 2007
It wasn't even close: The Redskins shut out the Bengals and the 49ers six to nothing this week.
Didn't hear about those matches? That's because they took place on Microsoft's private servers and in a desert world level of Halo 3, a sci-fi "shooter" title. One of gaming's most anticipated releases, it's due out for the Xbox 360 next week.
Redskins wide receiver Brandon Lloyd played host, while Microsoft filled the game room of his Leesburg home with widescreen TVs, Xboxes and four copies of Halo 3. Lloyd and teammates Ryan Boschetti, Mike Sellers and Nehemiah "Nemo" Broughton shot and lobbed grenades at some of their NFL colleagues playing online in San Francisco and Cincinnati.
Sponsoring Lloyd's house party was one small part of Microsoft's marketing blitz for the game, which the company hopes will help lift sales of its Xbox 360. It has a lot riding on the Halo 3 franchise, developed exclusively for the Xbox; the game's previous versions sold 15 million copies.
Even consumers who know nothing about video games will be encountering the last in the sci-fi trilogy in the next few weeks, as images from the game appear on Burger King wrappers, Slurpee cups and Pontiac car promotions.
Not all games capitalize on high expectations, of course. A much-hyped Godfather game title, for example, fizzled last year.
Halo 3, an epic tale of space marines vs. aliens, was developed by Microsoft's Bungie Studios and is Microsoft's leading argument to consumers this holiday season that they should buy an Xbox over rival consoles from Sony and Nintendo. The new game represents Microsoft's shot to maintain its momentum against Sony this holiday season -- and steal some attention back from Nintendo, whose Wii console recently passed the Xbox 360 in sales.
"Microsoft knows that they are in a battle right now for the hearts and minds of gamers. Halo is their weapon," said Kevin Pereira, host of "Attack of the Show!" on the video-game-oriented channel G4. The channel is planning five hours of Halo coverage on the eve of the game's launch Tuesday.
Analyst Edward Woo estimated Halo 3 could outsell the first two versions, driving 400,000 more sales of the console this year on top of the nearly 2 million people predicted to buy the console this holiday season. Based on pre-orders for the title at game stores, Halo 3 could sell up to 3 million copies in less than two weeks, some analysts said.
Although that could boost Microsoft's business, it "won't change the fact that the Wii has the strongest sales momentum of the consoles right now," Woo said.
To stage its debut, Microsoft's PR team is busy giving video gaming tastemakers like the Redskins an early look. The company staged a similar session in Atlanta at the recording studio of rapper Lil Jon. Company representatives also spent five weeks touring with bands Linkin Park and My Chemical Romance -- and giving those musicians an early taste of the game.
Lloyd himself took a trip to New York this summer to attend a Halo event sponsored by Microsoft. He's not a Microsoft partisan, though; he also owns a Nintendo Wii and PlayStation 3, even if they've been put away for the duration of the Microsoft event. (For the record, Lloyd also carries an iPhone.)
At least one of Microsoft's rivals wasn't troubled by the marketing blitz. Halo 3 is "clearly their tent pole for the year, and they are depending greatly on its success," said Perrin Kaplan, a vice president at Nintendo of America. But she said the big launch could actually help Nintendo's mission of building a bigger audience for video games: "We welcome any products that continue to bring consumers into the fold."
Lloyd called his advance look at Halo 3 the "number one" perk he's gotten as an NFL player. "Playing video games is such a major part of my life. This is what I do to unwind. This is what I do to be by myself and escape. I go in my game room and play video games."
He's not alone. Washington Wizards point guard and team captain Gilbert Arenas sponsors a professional Halo team called Final Boss.
Solo and team video game play is a regular activity for Lloyd. Until Halo 3, he played Rainbow Six Las Vegas, a Tom Clancy game, "religiously," he said.
Funny thing, in case you're wondering: Lloyd doesn't spend a lot of time playing the popular Madden football video game. As an NFL player, Lloyd notices more than the average player how that virtual version "cheats" the real football experience, he said. His preferred virtual sport? NBA games.
The trash-talking in Lloyd's game room, packed to capacity with TVs, game consoles and football players, sounds like what you'd hear from any group of gamers -- except for a few job-related jabs.
"I can see why y'all lost to the Browns!" taunted Lloyd, after fragging a virtual warrior identified onscreen as a Bengals player.
Lloyd eventually declared that he wanted some tougher competition. "They need to bring Bill Gates and Mr. Bungie in to beat us!"