Microsoft shooting for $155 mil debut

The summer of threequels is winding down, but there’s still one more juggernaut third installment everyone will have their eyes on this year. Just don’t look for it in theaters.

The videogame “Halo 3″ hits store shelves Sept. 25, and Microsoft is positioning it to be the most successful debut of any entertainment property ever with an extensive multiplatform advertising blitz geared to generate debut grosses topping even the biggest of summer tentpole pics.

In its first 24 hours of release in 2004, the second installment of the sci-fi shooter earned $125 million. That number forced many nongamers to take the vidgame biz seriously for the first time.

With “Halo 3,” Microsoft’s Xbox unit wants not only to top the 2004 figure but to reach $155 million in a single day — besting the $151 million opening weekend for “Spider-Man 3,” the current record holder for a pic at the box office.

Officially, of course, the software giant is hedging its bets.

“We did $125 million last time,” said Microsoft director of creative marketing Chris Di Cesare, who oversaw much of the second installment’s launch. “We’re confident we can do better.”

Microsoft wants a headline-grabbing figure to tout because a blockbuster game will not only help sell more games but also move more of its Xbox 360 consoles. “Halo 3″ can only be played on that gaming system.

Company said it has sold nearly 15 million copies of the first two “Halo” games since 2001, earning roughly $700 million.

“Halo 3″ it the fastest-selling pre-ordered vidgame ever at more than 1 million units already, a figure that has insiders saying they wouldn’t be surprised if one-day sales near $170 million.

Xbox will sell three versions of the game: a $60 standard edition, a limited edition and an “ultra-collectible” Legendary edition for $130.

A direct comparison to any film’s opening weekend over three days, of course, is unfair, given the price of the games.

“I caution the comparison at times,” Di Cesare said. “I recognize it’s not apples to apples. But it’s big business any way you cut it.”

Microsoft won’t be alone in pushing “Halo 3″ on the masses.

Promo partners Comcast, Burger King, 7-Eleven, Mountain Dew and Pontiac are eager to associate themselves with the “Halo” franchise.

Such planned promotions for a game launch are unusual, but the effort for “Halo 3″ is on the level of deals centering around a major film bow.

“We’ve taken a very event-film approach to the launch,” Di Cesare said.

Campaigns start today, with Pepsi launching a 12-week effort that includes a new flavor of its Mountain Dew drink dubbed Mountain Dew Game Fuel that’s loaded with 30% more caffeine. “Halo’s” Master Chief character is emblazoned on the specially designed cans.

Each marketer, with the exception of BK, plans to spend around $5 million on TV spots in addition to traditional in-store ads and contests. Comcast is expected to air exclusive “Halo 3″ video content on its VOD service, its website Gameinvasion.net and Ziddio.com, and channels like G4 and E!; the cable system operator will also provide Xbox with an estimated $2 million in ads across various channels, which reach 22 million homes.

Pontiac will host Pontiac Gamers Garage events in various cities, similar to the music events it sponsors during the summer tied in with “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”

Burger King’s effort kicks off with the launch of the game and runs through Oct. 22, with the fast-food chain offering themed drink and French-fry packaging and exclusive content that can be viewed online.

Tie-in with “Halo 3″ is an effort by the brands to connect with the valuable but elusive 18-34 demo.

For “Halo 2,” only 7-Eleven and Pepsi, through the retailer, were promo partners. But the success of that title enabled Microsoft to bring aboard more marketing muscle for the next game.

Before the release of “Halo 2,” “People didn’t understand the scale or size of what ‘Halo’ was,” Di Cesare said. “When we went to talk to promotional partners, you’d spend half the meeting talking about the videogame business. When we opened to $125 million, that really caught a lot of people’s attention. It showed that videogames were no longer that thing that kids play in their basement.”

Of course, Microsoft itself will pony up tens of millions of dollars on ads to push the game, and it has plans to air original programming on cable networks that target young males.

Programming, to air a week before “Halo 3″ bows, will revolve around the making of the game, and the game’s soundtrack; it will feature “Halo”-obsessed celebs and musicians, such as bands Linkin Park and My Chemical Romance, playing the game. “Halo 3″ is the official sponsor of the Projekt Revolution music tour featuring those bands.

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