"We knew we had a loyal and passionate fan base of gamers," says Chris DiCesare, 41, director-games marketing at Microsoft Game Studios and brand steward of "Halo 2." "But our goal was to be a pop-culture event, to broaden the appeal beyond the faithful."
Mr. DiCesare and his team borrowed a page from Hollywood-unveiling "Halo 2" as if it were an event film-and ended up beating the studios at their own game.
The first-person shooter game, in which aliens of the evil Covenant invade Earth, raked in $125 million in its first day. That's a bigger haul than Hollywood's highest-grossing movie opening-"Spider-Man 2" at $114 million-and a better take than the entire first weekend of the "The Incredibles." "Halo 2" outsold predecessor "Halo," earning in three weeks what it took the original three years to make. The franchise has rung up $600 million so far.
To stoke interest among core gamers, Mr. DiCesare's team crafted specific programs, including "Halo 2" specials on MTV and Spike TV, a limited-run collector's edition of the game available only for pre-orders and movie trailers before such synergetic fare like "I, Robot." Information was strategically placed in gamer magazines and Web sites months in advance of the release.
Mr. DiCesare, a pop-culture junkie who helped launch Acclaim's hit video game "Mortal Kombat" before joining Microsoft, strove to make the campaign broadly accessible. He hired two established Los Angeles film-marketing mavens: Ant Farm, to create broadcast and cinema ads, and for branding, Concept Arts, which handled "The Matrix." Estimated marketing costs for the game were $20 million.
Attention-grabbing tactics included a deal with 7-Eleven stores and Mountain Dew for "Halo 2" Slurpee cups and merchandise, and a soundtrack with songs from rock bands Incubus and Hoobastank. Viral marketing included an ilovebees.-com site, which set up a "War of the Worlds" type story line aimed at sci-fi fans.
Sales of Halo 2 helped double Microsoft's fiscal second quarter earnings, and a movie version is in the works. "It has the potential to be the `Star Wars' of this generation," says David Comtois, executive producer of the documentary "Video Game Invasion." "The marketing has helped create a mythology and extend it into ancillary products like novelizations, comics, music and movies. This is a new way to tell a story and interact with it, and a lot of young people are responding to that."