Halo Believers, Rejoice

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Microsoft didn't hold back when it came to promoting Halo 3, arguably the most anticipated Xbox 360 video game release of 2007. McCann San Francisco, along with its division T.A.G as well as digital agency AKQA have teamed on "Believe," an all-out integrated effort comprised of an ARG (code-named IRIS), TV spots and a website that allows visitors to explore a 1,200 square-foot diorama of a historic Halo moment, the Battle of New Mombasa.The elements combine to make myth and hero of protagonist Master Chief and infuse historical depth to the Halo story, in an attempt to broaden the game's demographic beyond the hardcore gaming set.

With Halo 3's imminent launch and the campaign in full-swing, we spoke with McCann group creative director Scott Duchon and global strategy director Mike Harris to dissect the monolithic marketing push and explain why the tenets of history informed their future vision.

There are so many different components to this all tying into the mythic Halo character, Master Chief. How did the concept get off the ground?

Mike Harris: Halo is a massive franchise, obviously. It was the biggest entertainment franchise first weekend out, bigger than movies I think until Spiderman 3 or Pirates 2. When Halo 2 came out, it did like $125 million in its first weekend. So when they came to us and said they want to do something for Halo 3, which is potentially the last one, we figured we should something pretty big and treat it like an entertainment property. We always had the idea that the guys who were into Halo were going to buy Halo 3 regardless and we really didn't need to talk to them.

But we said it would be interesting to get Halo 3 out into popular culture. Our client really thought it was a popular culture icon. We said yeah, it probably is, but there are a lot of people that just think it's a shooter game and they're just not into it. We said if we could make an idea that transcended video gaming, that would be really good and we'd get people that potentially weren't into Halo to look at it and go That's something cool and something I should check out.

From there, the idea was pretty simple. We just said if you take a look at the storyline, it's got properties that come from epic storytelling from the beginning of time. It's really the story of heroism, and a story about one man going up against insurmountable odds with a lot of self-sacrifice. All of the qualities of a hero are in the story. One of the things that we thought was really good about this is when you take a look at hero stories, there's always a measure of fallibility. You're not exactly sure if this is guy is going to win; you have an idea, but you don't know 100%. For us, that was really good for the non-Halo audience because everybody thought he was a robotic shooter that couldn't be defeated. We tried to lend some humanity to him.

It seems you basically looked to the past to gain a vision of the future.

MH: So, we came up with this idea of a mythic hero story and we started looking back to the beginning of time said and [wondered] well, what kind of artifacts go with heroes? There are songs, paintings and books, and if you take a look at 20th century and now 21st century, there are things like the History Channel and Ken Burns documentaries. If you push that out to [the years] 2500 or 2600, what might those artifacts look like? That's when the story takes place, in 2500, and there's a historian from 2600 or 2700 looking back on it like we look back on World War II today. What kind of stuff would you make? That was basically the idea of the campaign.

Was Master Chief highlighted to this heroic extent in past Halo efforts?

MH: He was looked at as a hero before, but it was really through a clichéd gaming lens. It was heroic poses of him in the ultimate victory, and it was basically that this guy was the complete kick ass hero. He shoots people, takes names and for Europe especially, it was a very Western version of a hero—it was Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator.

Scott Duchon: For us, because the story of the game was so rich and we wanted to humanize Master Chief because he always seems so superhuman, it was a challenge because it was like how do you bring humanity to a faceless, 7'2", golden-armored demigod? That's where the artifacts that surround him and other people that have witnessed [Master Chief] in first-person to talk about their experiences became very important for us. That's part of the idea when we push it out towards creating those artifacts that represent a moment in time the way that we always talk about Washington crossing a Delaware. Was that a really heroic moment? Apparently not, because everyone was really scared and wanted to turn around. But from this painting, it looks like something that's epic. We wanted to create that moment in time for this. It's transcending the Xbox itself it seems. Will that make it more appealing to casual and non-gamers?

SD: Obviously, game footage is something that everyone thinks hardcore gamers latch onto so easily. They're just kind of spoon-fed that. For a game like this, with the hardcore gamers and the Halo nation especially, they already know what's coming. They've seen it, they've been on the sites and looking at every frame that's been popped out by [Halo developer] Bungie Games. For regular people, they're not exactly turned on by game footage, especially for Halo, or they would've been turned on by Halo or Halo 2.

So we had to approach it a different way which was to take that emotional side and show it. In the sense of a TV commercial, yes, it was completely filmic, emotional and trying to bring some humanity to a story that everyone's been familiar with since the dawn of a time.

I think that's why we chose the diorama idea for the TV spot because that's one of those things that represents a battle. It's a tableau or something that's always been done where you see depth and dimension. It also happens to take something familiar to gamers as well. Figurines are things that people are familiar with our modern culture at this point in time, so it felt like this was a way of creating a moment in time that way.

This was to celebrate the phenomenon of Halo in a big way as well, and make casual gamers feel that there's something deeper through this future history angle. We thought if we created something artful and thought-provoking, we'd get casual gamers to want to give Halo a try knowing full-well the game footage wouldn't do it for them.

You're tapping a host of online/offline marketing avenues for this campaign.

SD: Talking about even the tagline of "Believe," we went in there with this idea that the entire organization from Microsoft onto even Bungie need to believe in this idea if their goals are so lofty in making the largest entertainment entity ever. That's pretty big with the Spiderman 3 and Shrek 3 and everything that just came out. We wanted to try and bring it to the people in a bunch of different ways. If you just use conventional marketing, it'll feel small and insignificant. We needed to try and find a way to make it feel as big as the idea. There are a lot of things that are going on and it's not everything we wanted to do yet.

MH: If you're not into Halo, with the standard way Xbox would advertise, you could kind of avoid it if you weren't watching certain TV channels or reading game publications. What we wanted to do is get stuff out into the world that everybody would see, and when people saw, even though they know they've being marketed to, it was an experiential thing you'd look at and go, that it's pretty cool Halo did that. We were looking for places—we didn't get to do everything that we wanted to do—but we wanted to put stuff out into the world where people you think it interesting and have a little experience with Halo that they like.

Tell me about New Deal, Stan Winston and MJZ director Rupert Sanders' work on the diorama.

SD: You have to understand that for the diorama, it turned into becoming the focus point for this campaign. We wanted there to be a museum where the diorama would just be a part of the museum. Rupert Sanders orchestrated this whole thing. The vision for us was to make this story come to life with real figurines on a real set and a massive diorama. It was time and cost-prohibitive to say the least, but Rupert just wouldn't take no for an answer. He teamed up with Stan Winston and New Deal Studios in making this thing come to life completely—30 feet x 40 feet, 900 figurines or something like that and every weapon and vehicle.

MH: Those figurines are based on scans of real people.

For the web experience, what was the collaborative process like with AKQA?

SD: Collaborating with AKQA on our idea, it was pretty easy. We had a diorama that we built. We knew in the TV spot, you weren't going to get to see the entire 30 feet x 40 feet experience. You'd get a sense of the scale and scope, but we wanted to find a way that there was more to it. We were hoping that after seeing the spot, people would have an emotional connection to it and want to go deeper. As far at that idea, it was pretty easy for AKQA to bring to life. And what about the creation of the short films?

SD: On top of the [site], we also had the idea of doing these 'future recounting' stories, these testimonials from people who were there at the battles. We went out and shot four of these short films. Rupert did two of them and [GO! Films'] Simon McQuaid did two more. Then, we also knew we had the notion of making this diorama. I was there filming stuff and we were all there filming stuff and as we were making it, we were like 'God, look at how they do the face scans, look at how they're building the models and look at how New Deal is building the set.'

We were saying that we've got to do a 'making of,' but we didn't want to do a traditional making-of. We wanted to do it all within the fiction of this idea that this diorama is a future memorial to the greatest hero and greatest battle humanity's ever faced. We were also trying to be as respectful as possible to war and war veterans, and how we treat that—but at the same time, this is for a fictional story that takes place 500 years from now and we're looking back at.

We wanted a place for everything to live and for it all to have a purpose because it's latching on how people just love the game. They're taking pride in it and we wanted also give the Halo nation some pride in what they love because I think they're looked at being hardcore gamer geeks that live in their parents' basement and don't see the sun at all. But they love it and take pride in this game. They see the depth and dimension, and they want there to be more to it because it's such a rich story. To discuss this article, visit the Creativity Forums.
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