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16 Jan 2018
With [safewow.com]buy wow gold[/url] its big guns and corny sci fi plot, the Halo video game series is undeniably the province of the teenage boy, yet it has become one of the most lucrative entertainment franchises of all time. Sam Leith meets the programmers and professional gamers to find out why
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In four days' time, what may be the biggest entertainment launch in history will take place. Most readers of this magazine won't have the first idea it's coming, because it isn't a film, a book or an album it's a video game. Halo 3 is as big as business gets. The release of its predecessor, Halo 2, was bigger than Harry Potter and bigger than the Beatles. Microsoft, which owns the Halo franchise, says it sold $125 million worth of Halo 2 units in the first 24 hours of sale. By mid August, pre orders of Halo 3 had passed the million mark.
For the uninitiated, it is called a 'first person shooter', a game in which, looking through the eyes of its protagonist, players charge around virtual landscapes shooting stuff up. Its ancestors are rudimentary but addictive 3D games such as Doom but Halo does something rather different. It tells a story. The central character, the Master Chief a Spartan supersoldier, the last of his kind struggles to defend the galaxy from an alien theocracy called the Covenant, in the process uncovering the secrets of the ancient Forerunners and the feared Flood. It is, as it sounds, the mightiest heap of science fiction codswallop possible and therefore utterly compelling to adolescent boys.
The original Halo, released in 2001 exclusively on the Xbox console, created fanatics at both ends of its gameplay spectrum. Players could enjoy 'campaign mode' the 'story' game that you play against the computer or the multiplayer option, in which players fight each other over the internet.
The importance of Halo to Microsoft (the games are not available on rival consoles) is not in flat sales alone. People bought the console specifically to play Halo; and, Bill Gates will be praying, people will upgrade to the Xbox360, the machine's latest incarnation, to play Halo 3. Microsoft acquired Bungie Studios, the company that makes Halo, before it launched the Xbox.
The Master Chief, with his distinctive suit of metallic green armour and reflective gold visor, an icon to rival Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog, more or less single handedly made it possible for Microsoft which entered the console gaming market with deep pockets but no track record and no backlist of games to compete with Sony and its PlayStation. Of the seven million odd people who have played on its Xbox Live internet gaming service, five million joined to play Halo.
The man regarded as the presiding genius of Halo is the mysterious Jason Jones. Jones doesn't do interviews. His profile on the 'meet the team' section of Bungie's website has every category marked 'classified'. When I asked Bungie's publicists for more information, I was told I had 'requested the one thing you weren't meant to'. The company released three sentences: 'Jason was born in St Louis in 1971 and attended the University of Chicago. He left, however, to pursue a career in making games. He co founded Bungie Studios in Chicago in 1991.' Jones is the JD Salinger of video games. His utterances even at second hand have a prophetic mysteriousness.
Joe Staten, Halo's smart and sarcastic writing director, says, 'Working with Jones is fun, but he is also very challenging. I once said to him, "Let's talk about the story for Halo 2. What do you think the story for Halo 2 is?" And he says, "I know what the story is. At some point the Master Chief says, only blood will pay for this. He meets this thing called the Gravemind and it says, I am a monument to all your sins."
'I said, "OK. So what?" And he said, "That's it. That's the story." He's very good at big, monolithic issues, deep concepts, big signposts.'
There are no big signposts to the offices where I meet Staten and his colleagues. Bungie does not occupy a purpose built complex in the shape of a Covenant Battle Cruiser in downtown LA, though it could probably afford to. There's not even a sign on the door outside that says 'Bungie Studios'. The makers of the fastest selling video game in the world work in a one storey grey building with no windows, next to a pancake house in a mall in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland.
Sitting around a table with Bungie's senior developers is more like sitting around a school common room than a boardroom table. The audio director Marty O'Donnell, with his mane of swept back grey hair, is by far the oldest person here. Most of his colleagues are in their late twenties and early thirties. A couple and these are senior programmers seem barely out of their teens.
They backchat, share in jokes, goof about. Lunch, ordered in, is fatty junk food in polystyrene cartons, washed down with Mountain Dew. (In the run up to the release of the last game, the staff competed in a daily weigh in to see who would gain the most weight over the period.) The 113 odd employees for Halo 3 (twice as many as worked on Halo 2) are proper geeks: very clever, highly caffeinated, borderline obsessive, deeply enthusiastic.
The main room of the studio is one big open plan office. There are 50 miles of cable beneath the false floor, desks are arranged in pods, and almost everyone is male. There are multiple fridges full of fizzy drinks, and Starbucks coffee machines. A big bowl of jelly beans. A punchbag. An inflatable monkey. A magazine cover featuring Bill Gates, vandalised to give him a beard and moustache, is pinned to one wall. An immaculate 6ft pyramid of soda cans rises from somebody's desk.
'Everyone has their crunch rituals,' shrugs Bungie's community relations manager, Brian Jarrard. When I visit, Bungie are deep in the crunch. 'Crunch' is the name video game developers use to describe the closing weeks before deadline: the tweaking, playtesting and bugfixing. You notice that something's broken in one bit of the game, but discover that fixing it will, unexpectedly, make something even more broken in another bit. This is a time when people sleep in the office, pull all nighters, develop strange rituals. Some refuse to shave or cut their hair until the game ships.
The game is 'content complete' , that is, past the stage when anything new will be added. So almost everyone, at the moment, is playing Halo. Playing it, if they can, to death. In a room known as 'the freezer', so called because of how high the air con has to be cranked up to cool all the processers there, 15 playtesters are trying to 'break' the game so that glitches can be removed before the consumer finds them. At the back of the room, for the same purpose, 300 Xbox360s are running automated tests non stop.
That's why Halo 3's most significant innovations are the ones that let fans fiddle about with it and share the results: the 'save film' option, whereby every game is saved and can be re played and edited millisecond by millisecond with a free roaming camera; and 'forge', which allows you to customise maps during the course of the game. These custom maps and films can be shared online. The fan community at whom this is aimed is what Microsoft executives, at least in public, like to call the 'Halo Nation'. Most are well balanced people you would happily share a Mountain Dew with Julia Roberts has admitted to being a devoted Halo player but in its most extreme form, the Halo addict has the potential to resemble an alarming hybrid of fanatical Trekkie and devoted subscriber to Guns and Ammo.
The Halo Nation can be tough to please. A glitch on the first day of the beta (a demo version of Halo 3, playable online for a limited time) meant that a number of players weren't able to access the game for several hours. One player got hold of the direct lines of Bungie executives, and bombarded them with phone calls threatening physical harm.
'Microsoft takes that stuff very seriously,' Jarrard says. 'We had to step up security. Turned out it was some 12 year old kid from North Dakota or something.' Did they get the police involved? 'No. I think they just talked to his mum.'
A couple of days later, I travel to St Charles, Illinois, to meet the Halo Nation in person at a conference centre hosting one of the tournaments on the Major League Gaming (MLG) tour.
MLG, founded five years ago, is one of the organisations attempting to establish games such as Halo as professional sports, with fans paying to see star 'cyber athletes' compete. A decade ago there was no such thing as a professional video gamer. Currently, MLG has 13 players on three year contracts worth $250,000 each. The winning team at this event will share $20,000 prize money.
It's early days, though, and the Pheasant Run Megacenter is far from the Super Bowl. Outside the doors a handful of kids smoke cigarettes in the rain. Inside in the foyer, food is being served from a row of tables: limp pizzas; hot dogs swimming in manky looking water; nachos with custardcoloured synthi cheese dip. It smells horrible.
When you enter the dark, noisy space of the hall proper, the smell changes slightly. It smells of teenage boy: sweat, feet, sexual frustration and something sweeter over the top. That sweet smell, you realise a bit later, is Red Bull (the official sponsor). The 5,000 people here roaming the room with Xbox controllers clutched to their chests and their 'gamer tags', the nicknames they are known by in online play, embroidered or stencilled across their shoulders have an air of general adolescent dyspraxia that belies just how stupendously good some of them are at aiming a sniper rifle across a virtual arena the size of an Olympic stadium.
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