SAN FRANCISCO--Nearly two and a half years after Bill Gates almost casually revealed its existence, Halo 3 finally arrived in North American stores. Some analysts estimate that over 4.2 million copies of the game were shipped to retailers, and Microsoft claims over 1.6 million units have been preordered.
Given the staggering amount of hype, many felt they had little choice but to buy Halo 3. For weeks, gamers were beaten over the head by Microsoft's $10 million marketing campaign, which promoted the game with cudgel-like subtlety. Even before launch day, Halo 3 achieved a level of media saturation typically reserved for Hollywood blockbusters, with the likeness of its hero, the Master Chief, appearing on everything from snack chips to NASCAR racers.
To kick off Halo 3's retail sojourn, Microsoft held four official launch events in Seattle, Miami, Los Angeles, and New York City. But Microsoft's PR blitzkrieg could be felt at most of the 10,000-plus midnight sales going on across the country. In San Francisco, the biggest such event was at the EB Games on Powell Street, a block away from the world-famous Union Square. Though the busy thoroughfare--the start of a cable car line--was not closed off, there were two police officers on hand to keep order.
"I have no idea what they're selling in there, some sort of game, I guess," said one San Francisco Police Department officer, keeping an eye on the crowd. "They just paid us to show up and work private security. We're not here on city business or anything."
While the flatfoot's vigilance was admirable, it wasn't necessary. Though the line snaked from the entrance on Powell Street around the corner to O'Farrell Street, the 300-plus people queued orderly. The only disruptions came from overaggressive panhandlers from the nearby Tenderloin district and a few members of the media desperate for provocative video footage. One correspondent for a well-known game site displayed his journalistic acumen by chugging several two-liter bottles of Mountain Dew Game Fuel. "Dis is how we do at [site name redacted].com, y'all!!!!!" he screamed, before taking a massive chug of the orange soda and spitting a sticky mouthful all over the crowd.
One person lucky enough not to be sprayed was Daniel Krug. The 18-year-old was the first person in line, having shown up around 5 p.m. that afternoon with two friends there for moral support. In the same sentence, Krug claimed to be a student at the San Francisco Art Institute but then said he was currently taking no classes. "I am gonna play this thing all night and I don't want anything stopping me," proclaimed the gamer, strutting in an army jacket covered in silk-screened Red Hot Chili Peppers logos.
A recent transplant to San Francisco, Krug preordered Halo 3 last year when he lived in Los Angeles. So did 22-year-old Dan Regan, who had put down stakes (or, more accurately, a lawn chair) about 100 people behind Krug, near a pub full of baffled European tourists. Regan had arrived right after finishing his shift working the counter at the nearby Apple Store--which he wouldn't be anywhere near on Tuesday.
"I took work off tomorrow, man," Regan crowed. "I've been evangelizing this game pretty hardcore to everyone I work with. We got a whole crew together." But while he is looking forward to Halo 3's four-player online co-op, he plans to dedicate himself to the single-player campaign first. "Once I get it tonight, I am cabbing it straight back to my place on Treasure Island," he said, referring to the man-made land mass which contains some of the last pockets of affordable housing in the Bay Area.
At the back of the line, which rounded the corner from O'Farrell onto the short Cyril Magnin Street, people were less fanatical. Even though he preordered it weeks ago, Aaron Dial, 24, didn't bother showing up to get his copy until 11:30 Monday night, and had no intention of taking Tuesday off. "No sir, I'm gainfully employed at a cubicle job," he said dryly. "But me and a bunch of buddies from Modesto are gonna blitz through the whole thing on legendary this weekend."
Just ahead in line, Robert Lee, 18, revealed he had preordered Halo 3 twice. "I reserved at my parents' place in New York, but then I realized they'd have to mail it to me, and there was no way I was gonna wait," he said. Lee, a freshman at the Academy of Art, said he, too, had obligations the following day. "I'm going to class, but it's a good thing it's gonna be a late one."
But while the excitement was palpable outside the EB store, inside the atmosphere was tense. Stressed-out managers tried to coordinate with two separate external marketing firms--one riling up the crowd outside with free Game Fuel samples, another handing out Halo 3 shirts and posters inside. As the managers tried to regulate the flow of people entering the store to pay off their preorders and then join the line, the half-dozen clerks looked on wearily, sporting looks of resigned disbelief that they were working at 11:45 on a Monday night.
"We've got about 500 preorders here alone," said one clerk. "They've had the games back there for at least a week all locked up, and we got plenty after the preorders go." When questioned about the actual number of copies of Halo 3 in the store, assistant manager Leo Zheng, 28, tensed up like a deer in headlights. "Uh, we can't give out that sort of information--company policy," he said, dissembling, as though such a disclosure would make his store the target of a well-organized robbery.
As the hour of midnight approached, the least flustered of the four EB managers on hand began rolling out large boxes stamped "Made in China." At about 11:50 p.m., the boxes were unsealed, and numerous copies of the regular and scratch-prone limited editions of Halo 3 piled up behind the counter. After the strategy guides were heaped on either side of the register, the legendary editions of the game were unpacked.
As the clock struck midnight, the first of the huge black boxes containing a legendary edition was handed over the counter to Krug, who by this point was sporting a Game Fuel T-shirt and a dazed smile. "YEAAAAH!" he screamed, posing for press pictures, before running out through the swelling crowd, holding the game over his head. With his two friends in tow, he took off whooping, running toward Market Street. As Krug's frame faded into the darkness, one bystander turned to another and caustically commented, "That guy is going to get so mugged tonight."