Microsoft's Halo2 soars on viral push

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Microsoft's Halo2 game has already streaked past 1.5 million orders in the U.S.-and it won't reach retail shelves until Nov. 9.

Xbox, Microsoft's gaming system, achieved this feat with an unearthly viral push that isn't in English-or any other known language, for that matter. Instead, its edgy pre-launch teaser Web site whetted gamers' appetites by engaging the hard-core gamer at his own tricks.

Developed by interactive agency AKQA, San Francisco, was "discovered" by players the weekend before the company's ad campaign began Oct. 18. It is not only written from the point of view of the Covenant-the aliens who are poised to attack Earth in the story line of Halo 2-but is in the alien's language. Although there was not one word of English (or any other Earth language for the global effort) on the site, gamers "cracked the code" and translated the language within 48 hours of its going live. AKQA thought it would take them two weeks.

These avid players moved so quickly because they worked as a community-an army pursuing amusement-chipping away at one area after another, sharing information on gaming chat rooms and divvying up responsibility until they'd accomplished their mission.

The tactic worked, agency executives said, because it aimed to reach beyond the stereotype of the gaming nerd in the bedroom. "We felt like-if we were talking to a passionate gamer, casual gamer or entertainment junkies-the best way to communicate with them is to provide a rich, creative, cinematic experience," said Rikki Khanna, account supervisor at AKQA.

spreading the word

Pointing to the "Blair Witch Project" online promotion-a touchstone for interactive creatives-Mr. Khanna said, "If you give your core audience something to get them further excited, then they will become advocates for you and go out and spread the word."

TV, cinema and print promotions begin the last week of October in the language of the nation in which they appear. Using the slogan, "Earth will never be the same," these efforts blur the line between fiction and reality. The slogan is a double entendre: If you are playing the game, you are fighting to keep Earth from being destroyed; and if you are just viewing the ad, Earth will never be the same because the game is now available. All point to the Web site, said Brian Rekasis, group marketing communications manager at Xbox. "I didn't want the Web site to be a game, I wanted it to be an experience-driven campaign."

Industry observers said the promotion is powerful, but the popularity of the original Halo helped greatly to push pre-sales. It will also reinvigorate console sales to new customers who may own consoles by rivals Sony and Nintendo. "It's the classic razor and blade strategy: Sell the razor and you have a market for the blades," said Jay Horwitz, senior analyst at Jupiter Research.

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