EW gets an inside look at ''Halo 2'' -- After three years, the videogame championed by fans like Justin Timberlake and Bill Gates is hitting stores

By Geoff Keighley
November 05, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

Quick: Which personal-computer pioneer-turned-new-media mogul is about to dazzle America with a new computer-animated smash hit? Steve Jobs? Well, yeah. But don’t forget about Bill Gates. On Nov. 9, just days after Disney floods theaters with The Incredibles, the latest moneymaking machine from Jobs and Co. at Pixar, Gates will unleash his own animated superhero: a green-armored, machine-gun-wielding soldier named Master Chief, the star of the Xbox videogame Halo 2. Preorders guarantee that the game will reap at least $80 million on day one, far more than The Incredibles is likely to earn its first day — indeed, far more than any motion picture in history has made in a single day.

Gates, for one, isn’t surprised that videogames are generating such huge numbers. ”Movies are great,” says Microsoft’s chairman and chief software architect, ”but games like Halo 2 take the experience one step further. They allow you to be the character, the director, and the audience, all at the same time.” Just ask all the Xbox owners who’ve waited three long years for the sequel to Halo, a man-versus-alien thrill ride that has grossed around $225 million. Fifteen-and-a-half million people now own an Xbox, and many of them bought their console just to play Halo. The new game — which cost upward of $20 million to create — retails for about $50. No matter how you do the math, the release of Halo 2 is a major event, even though videogames still fly under the mainstream radar.

Flying under the radar comes naturally to the game’s writer-director, who once pursued a career in the CIA. Joe Staten, 34, is the philosophical ringleader of Bungie Studios, a 60-odd-person cadre of shy coders who toil in a Microsoft cubicle farm in Redmond, Wash. Staten has spent the past three years laboring on Halo 2 — and the last few weeks grabbing naps in the sleeping bag he stashes under his desk. It’s hardly the life that Staten once thought he’d lead. But after graduating from Northwestern’s drama school, he realized performing wasn’t in his blood. The acting bug squashed, he went on to earn a degree in military history, writing policy papers on ethnic conflict. Then he applied to become a spy. After two years of psychiatric evaluations, polygraph tests, and background checks with his college roommates, the CIA turned him down. ”That would have been a pretty exciting career,” he admits. ”But I’d also probably be dead by now.”

So Staten did what any failed spy with a degree in acting would do: He turned to writing videogames. His first effort, Halo, pitted Master Chief against aliens hell-bent on attacking Earth. Halo wasn’t particularly innovative, but it came wrapped in a pretty package: The visuals were cinematic; the lush vistas included snowcapped mountains and breathtaking waterfalls. And the music was evocative, effectively using choral chanting and moody jazz. But what really resonated with fans (who include such A-listers as Julia Roberts and Justin Timberlake) was the game’s multiplayer mode. ”You get so consumed in the game that your brain feels fresh when you finish playing it,” says music producer Nile Rodgers, who worked with Incubus and Hoobastank on the sequel’s soundtrack.