To understand how badly Microsoft wants you to buy Halo 4, its biggest entertainment launch ever, it helps to understand how I ended up spooling guide-wire through a pyrotechnic minefield in the mountainous heart of Liechtenstein, trailed by a dozen other shivering nerds in makeshift camo.
The night before Halloween, the Redmond-based company descended on the 62-square-mile central European principality. Smoke and sci-fi glyphs dotted alpine cliffs; scores of actors in military fatigues barked orders at tech bloggers; 10-plus military jeeps sped through the night, as Liechtensteinian teens watched agog. The fully staged and scripted series of war games, inspired by the $3 billion Halo franchise, was designed to re-create for lucky fans and journalists what the very best videogames can, if only rarely, achieve: the feeling of entering another world.
But for Microsoft, the marketing messianism is more than fun and games. The company’s profit fell 22 percent in its most recent quarter. Since last year, its earnings from Xbox and entertainment sales dropped a whopping 94 percent. But Halo 4 is emerging as a star. When it launched on Tuesday, Election Day, it sold more than 3 million copies. Its predecessor, Halo 3, sold $300 million in the U.S. and Europe in its first week, making it by far the biggest entertainment launch of 2007. Five years later, Mister Softee, as the company is known on Wall Stret, is relying on Master Chief, Halo’s super-soldier protagonist, to propel its earnings. And if there’s one place where most nerds will show up upon receiving a mysterious invitation, it’s probably Liechtenstein. (Disclosure: Microsoft footed the bill for travel and accommodations.)
It began like a bachelor party—60 eager men in a cramped room, taking cryptic instructions from two enthusiastic-sounding women. When the fans and journalists arrived at Zurich International Airport, we had no idea what Microsoft had planned. “Wear warm, sturdy clothes” was pretty much all the advance instruction. Upon landing, we received official briefing packets and were piled into two buses, flanked by the first of many fake soldiers of the evening, most with fairly convincing tough-guy American accents. (The production company, Microsoft said, was flown in from Britain.) A two-and-a-half-hour drive later, we were winding through the Alps, up medieval streets and below icy cliffs. Some eagle-eyed fans said they could see both Switzerland and Austria, the two countries that sandwich the tiny monarchy.
Sightseeing was done. The bus ground to a halt and the lights went out, and radio static bubbled over the bus speakers. Something about “visual contact with hostile craft” and “strange energy signatures.” Before we could recover from collective nerdgasm, three soldiers with massive (fake) rifles stormed the bus, ordering us to hightail it into the wintry night, leaving our bags behind. “This is not a vacation,” one yelled. “Failure to obey orders will not be tolerated.” Outside were about a dozen military Jeeps. Microsoft’s attention to detail was uncanny. As we piled in, a patsy had his bag seized and stomped upon by a fake soldier, roaring a convincing yell of, “Hey that’s my laptop, my laptop!” The actor had been riding with us since Zurich. In the dark benches of the van’s backseats, our soldier escort gruffly asked if we had any kids. In short, things began to get real.
We arrived at our forward operating base, a smoke-shrouded, flaming-trash-can-bedecked mudpit where more burly militants handed us supplies: a flashlight, facepaint, camo fatigues, a capped helmet, and, inexplicably, socks. Divided into Alpha, Beta, and Charlie Teams, we were each given missions whose thrilling details were too geektastic for publication. As we marched out into the night, a French journalist started bouncing on his heels, humming the Halo theme song. Finally, he burst out with an antsy, “Come on, I want to go to war!” The soldiers were stricter. “Duck, find cover, and hide,” said one. “We don’t need any heroes out there.”
Back in the jeeps, we rolled through snowy fields, up higher into the mountains, whose cliff faces glowed, illuminated with massive orange floodlights and arcane symbols. Atop, shadowy figures marched back and forth—tech support?—and cacophonous bass speakers shook the ground for miles around.
We bounced our way into a working marble mine. It was here, in the shadow of what we were assured were “teams of enemy snipers,” that I was assigned my mortally important, Hansel und Gretel-esque task: spooling guide-wire through an illuminated minefield. Lest I take it not quite seriously, my commander slapped me on the back and threw a pebble into the improvised line of LEDs. A massive fireworks explosion went off. As rocks tumbled from the quarry wall above, the need for capped helmets became clear. Charlie Team followed behind—shivers of Liechsteinian cold, or fear? We had to find some ancient glyphs, we were told, in order to stop an impending invasion. Also, we were finally allowed to livetweet.
When all hope seemed lost, Master Chief blew his way out of a massive mine tunnel, astride a custom-built anti-infantry vehicle and backed by enough fireworks to make a decent New Year’s in most Midwestern towns. At this point, our mission was almost over, and any Liechtensteinian citizen that hadn’t received Microsoft’s mass mailer warning was likely stocking up supplies for World War III. After another short jaunt, we climbed by foot 70 meters, up a rock face, to reach one of Liechtenstein’s most historic sites: the 13th-century Gutenberg Castle—now converted into a kind of technicolor alien temple. We saved a wounded scientist, assembled the glyphs, and prevailed. Up flew a scrim in the church’s center, revealing two-dozen flatscreen televisions, hooked up to networked Xboxes and brand new copies of Halo 4. We sat; we played. Thus, ensued too many “killing sprees” to count.
These are the kinds of events and aggressive marketing ploys that we’re more likely to associate with rap records or red-carpet blockbusters. But the gaming industry pulls in more sales than all those albums and movies combined. As Bonnie Ross, head of 343 Industries, the Microsoft studio that made Halo 4, put it, “Liechtenstein pretty much rolled out the red carpet for us.” The principality even diverted traffic in its capital city. (The expensive roll-out has continued. On Monday night, the company hired a military helicopter to loft a giant, illuminated, alien hieroglyph down London’s river Thames; it hovered for several minutes over Tower Bridge as traffic passed below. No prior announcement was made.)
As the festivities ended, one lucky fan stumbled out, tipsy but happy, gazed out across the central European steeps, and sighed, “This is one of those moments in life that you’ve really got to savor.” Another, a journalist, was less sanguine: “This is a total sausage-fest.”