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''Halo 3'': Bigger than ''Pirates'' or ''Potter''?

For millions of fans, 2007’s biggest sequel doesn’t have ”Pirates” or ”Potter” in the title — instead, it’s this final chapter in the mega-selling videogame saga. How do the minds behind the game satisfy the devoted? By doing exactly what they say

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Security is tight at Bungie Studios in Kirkland, Wash. The gray, slablike hub, a former True Value hardware store tucked into the leafy Seattle suburb, is unmarked, and asking around the parking lot for its exact location will earn you threatened looks from wary employees. Once inside the Microsoft-owned company’s HQ, where bleary-eyed designers in shorts and flip-flops are quietly putting the finishing touches on the third and final edition of the hit videogame Halo, beefy guards hassle for IDs. Signatures are taken, arrivals are logged, and card-keys are required to get just about anywhere.

”All of our code and infrastructure are in this room,” says Bungie community lead Brian Jarrard, part of whose job it is to mix it up with the fans and take nosy journalists around the facility. He points out a heavy door in the rear of the studio where a clunky device actually scans your palm in order to permit entry. ”Only, like, three guys in the building have access. Seems a little like overkill to me — but in a cool, James Bond kind of way.”

Yeah, the spy-tech is neat and all, but seriously, the Halo phenomenon is hardly a secret anymore. The latest chapters of Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean may have rocked the box office, but this videogame franchise has got legions lining up to find out what happens in its finale — and they’re prepared to drop six times more than a $10 movie ticket. Halo: Combat Evolved, released exclusively on Xbox in 2001, was already one of Microsoft’s best-selling games when the sequel, Halo 2, came out in 2004 and grossed an astounding $125 million in 24 hours. Tremors shot through the entertainment industry and preparation for a film adaptation began — with Peter Jackson attached to exec-produce, no less. While that project has been shelved, the Halo saga is ending as explosively as any big-screen blockbuster trilogy. There are novels, comic books, action figures, and major marketing deals with the likes of Burger King, Mountain Dew, and Pontiac. Having received more than a million preorders for Halo 3 (at $60 to $130 a pop), Bungie’s brass are predicting that, on its Sept. 25 launch, the game’s first-day bonanza will trump Spider-Man 3‘s $151 million opening weekend — outperforming the highest-debuting movie ever.

What began as the simple story of an armored super-soldier fighting to save humanity from marauding aliens has gone unequivocally Hollywood. ”Master Chief could easily be Frodo,” Jarrard says of Halo‘s main character. ”He could be Luke Skywalker. One guy against overwhelming odds — obviously, we didn’t invent that.”

But for some outside of Bungie, the Star Wars analogy is an ominous one. ”The first three [films] were classic,” says Michael Sepso, who, along with cofounder Sundance DiGiovanni, runs Major League Gaming, an organization of professional gamers and spectators with an online membership of 1.8 million. As such, they represent the hardest of hardcore Halo enthusiasts. ”When the next three [Star Wars movies] came out, Star Wars fans were like, ‘This sucks. It’s overcommercialized.’ There’s a [similar] fear in the Halo community that they’re going to be abandoned for this mass consumerism. The core fan is saying ‘Why do I have to have Halo french fries?”’

NEXT PAGE: ”We’d be a bunch of p—ies if we backed off because it was difficult. If we can do it, we do it.”