[Out of the Box] HALO: Videogame or Murderer?

Could Halo's – and Call of Duty's – sales undermine everyone else's success?
Author: Andy Curtiss
Published: October 1, 2010
Out of the Box is a recurring feature that allows the TotalPlayStation editors a chance to examine what is happening outside of Sony's magical boxes in the greater, wider world. Is Activision to blame for 2010's industry-wide sales slump? Is Bungie riding to the rescue – or hastening its downfall? And will Call of Duty: Black Ops trump them all?

“Why would you say a blasphemous thing like that?”

This was the real-life reaction from a friend when told of this article. And why would I say it? Halo: Reach has only been out for a couple of weeks and it’s already blown up in terms of sales, raking in more than $200 million in its first 24 hours alone. Want that put in perspective? Its one-day take outperformed Toy Story 3’s three-day opening weekend gross. How’s that?

If you’re from Microsoft – or if you want to be – you’re probably crying big, fat tears of joy. It’s a huge, anticipated title in a year where videogame sales are anemic, and it’s sure to put Xbox 360 sales through the roof. But the truth is the success of Reach may mean very bad things for other upcoming releases – which is to say, the rest of the industry.

A recent-but-already classic example is none other than Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, released last November. The mere mention of the game is enough to incite the screams of crazy fanboys the world over, and for good reason. Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the past year, you know MW2’s multiplayer capabilities were astounding – so astounding, in fact, that, as of June 15, 2010, the title was the best-selling videogame in the United Kingdom’s history and the second best in America’s. And COD addicts have shown very little sign these past 10 months of putting their game of choice down, making them think twice about needing to purchase other releases (remember how this year’s sales have been so sluggish as compared to last year’s?). Indeed, why bother when MW2 is still holding your attention so tightly?

But everything that has a beginning has an end, even for the vaunted Modern Warfare (sub)franchise. Enter Halo stage right, another title with another multiplayer mode so robust, with so many new features and reasons to continually play (such as Bungie’s daily and weekly online challenges), it has made gamers moist with joy for a good while now. And Reach’s sales since its September 14th debut have largely borne this out: little by little, Call of Duty is being replaced by Halo.

At what cost, though? If Reach is shaping up to be a better-selling and more-played game than Modern Warfare 2, will it have a bigger and longer-lasting disruptive effect on the rest of the industry? Colin Sebastian, an analyst with Lazard Capital Markets, an investment banking firm based in New York, thinks so. “There’s always a worry that a game like that can take shares from and cannibalize other games.”

Not that the latest Halo is the only big release threatening to extend this vacuum of sales (you can put your battle rifles down now, Xbox fanboys). Somewhat ironically and mostly predictably, Call of Duty returns with a vengeance this November with Black Ops, the seventh entry in the series and one that is expected to do very well. Indeed, between these two massive FPSes, sales of all the other big-name holiday releases – Dead Rising 2, Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, and Gran Turismo 5, to name just a few – are expected to be adversely affected, if not outright gutted. The publisher of any game appealing to multiple players will be holding its breath, hoping to make it through the season relatively unscathed.

But wait – it gets better. On September 21st, Phil Spencer, the Corporate Vice President of Microsoft Game Studios, said in an interview, “There’s no explicit strategy that says we’re to ship a Halo game every year. I will say I think one Halo game every three years – which was kind of our old cadence – is probably not frequent enough [however].” It’s certainly not frequent enough for Activision, which has made COD an “annualized” franchise, a decision which has sparked much controversy from other publishers and gamers alike (not least among the concerns is the possibility of running the series into the ground, as the company has already done with Guitar Hero). Microsoft intimating that it wants to pursue a similar strategy raises lots of similar red flags... along with the possibility that, in the very near future, the only (multiplayer) titles that will end up moving any significant numbers of units will be just the two franchises.

Is this fair to Halo? Maybe not, but the larger question should be: is this fair to the videogame industry? While we, as gamers, want to see success for the titles we love – it’s great if one release sells through the roof – we tend to forget there’s a funny balance to be had within the overall picture. Does the predominance of, say, Black Ops mean the extinction of, say, Atlus? Combined with the bleak economic reality that has already closed the doors of many developers and tightened the purse strings of many consumers, we’ve got a recipe for worry.

Is the sound of cash registers ringing for Halo: Reach a celebatory signal, then, or the death knell of the videogame market as we know it?