Master Chief Expected To Set Retail RecordRetail entertainment sales records will be shattered on Nov. 9, according to Microsoft Corp. "Halo 2 will be the biggest 24 hours in entertainment retail history," boasts Xbox marketing vice-president Peter Moore. "Halo 2 will blow the current record out of the water." That would be a hefty claim for any Hollywood blockbuster - the current retail record is held by the movie Finding Nemo, which sold more than eight million units in its first 24 hours at retail and had gross sales estimated at around $150-million ($U.S.) But Halo 2, which was finished and sent to manufacturing Oct 11, is no silver screen sensation. Its a video game — the sequel to Halo, the all-time best-selling game for Microsofts Xbox console - and its exclusive to a console thats not even the market leader. Yet Mr. Moore stakes his claim on the fact that Halo has garnered a wide following of hard-core fans in video game circles. Although late to market, it has become one of the most anticipated video game titles of the year. Both games in the Halo franchise are developed by Redmond-based Bungie Software Products Corp., a subsidiary of Microsofts Xbox division. Bungies team of 59 developers, which includes seven Canadians, has been putting in plenty of overtime in the months leading up to Halo 2s release. "A lot of our guys are showering and sleeping at work," said studio manager Pete Parsons. Both Bungie and Microsoft are committed to delivering Halo 2 on Nov. 9. The game was originally slated for a spring 2004 release, but Bungie and Microsoft agreed that extra development time was necessary. "Every publisher wants to put out games as fast as possible," said Mr. Parsons. "But weve had a great relationship with Microsoft. They understand that great entertainment takes a lot of talent, resources, and time." Mr. Moore concurs. "Had we rushed Bungie and sent Halo 2 to market prematurely, there could have been disastrous long-term results for the franchise. It would have been the worst thing we could do. This is going to be a strong franchise for a long time." Microsofts commitment to Halo 2s success is evident in the fact that nearly 14 per cent of Microsoft employees worldwide—around 8,000 people—have been testing the on-line element of the game over Microsofts internal network since early July. This enormous quality assurance effort has provided Bungies developers with valuable feedback as they attempt to perfect what Mr. Parsons believes will be the definitive on-line console gaming experience. While the original Halo could not be played on-line, it featured a local area network (LAN) multi-player mode that became extremely popular, giving rise to an unprecedented rise in "LAN parties" — players who gathered with their consoles at a central location to play against each other over local area networks - within the console gaming community. Preserving the friendly spirit of a LAN party—what Mr. Moore referred to as "esprit de corps", or a common spirit of comradeship—was a primary goal for Bungie as it developed Halo 2s on-line functionality. "We were completely surprised at how popular Halo LAN parties became, and we wanted to retain that experience on-line," said Mr. Parsons. Halo 2s on-line party system allows players to stay together as they change game types and servers. Parties can move as groups from one game room to another, and even survive host migration—when the host machine loses or ends connection and another players machine has to take over running the game. Another important objective Bungie set for on-line play was ensuring even matches. "Its not fun to play in a game where everyone outclasses you," said Mr. Parsons. "You should be able to begin playing with equally skilled people at the push of a button." To accomplish this goal, Bungie created a complex matchmaking program based on rules similar to those the World Chess Federation uses to rank world-class chess players. This system will also provide players with access to an extensive array of statistics at www.bungie.net, where complete information for both individual games and players will be available. On-line functionality isnt all Mr. Parsons team has been focusing on. Halo 2 also promises to take full advantage of the Xboxs processing power to deliver one of the most visually dazzling console games yet released. Mr. Parsons credited the genius of his team for the games stunning visuals. "There arent that many more polygons," said Mr. Parsons as he spoke about Halo 2s improved character and vehicle models. "Its just how those polygons are applied. Its about our engineers being smarter and understanding how to use the technology better." Microsoft is betting that Halo 2 will help drive Xbox console sales through the holiday shopping season. The original Halo continues to act as a strong reason for consumers to buy Xbox consoles, and remains one of the top 10 selling Xbox titles nearly three years after it was originally released — an eternity in the gaming world. Mr. Moore would not speculate on how many Xbox units might be sold as a direct result of Halo 2, but he believes the impact will be significant. "We have 15.5 million Xbox units out there right now, and we expect 20 million plus by the end of our fiscal year." Halo 2 is also expected to be a boon for Xboxs on-line service, Xbox Live. According to Cameron Feroni, general manager of Xbox Live, there will be 1.5 million Xbox Live subscribers by the end of this year, a 50-per-cent increase over last year. "Halo 2 will be a key factor in making the number of subscriptions rise," said Mr. Feroni. Sony Computer Entertainment Inc., maker of the industry leading PlayStation2 console, does not appear to be concerned about Halo 2s projected success. "Well all be talking about our big games this fall," said Matt Levitan, director of marketing for Sony Computer Entertainment Canada Inc. "Its great that there are a lot of great games being released this fall. It helps to create a frenzy at retail."