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Gameworld: "Halo 3" public test may start new trend

LOS ANGELES (Reuters Life) - A public test of Microsoft Corp.’s upcoming “Halo 3” video game is in full swing with over half a million players which may encourage other companies to run “betas” to create a buzz before a game’s release.

Guests mingle during the Xbox 360 "Halo 3" Multiplayer Beta video game preview party at Quixote Studios in Los Angeles May 15, 2007. A public test of Microsoft Corp.'s upcoming "Halo 3" video game is in full swing with over half a million players which may encourage other companies to run "betas" to create a buzz before a game's release. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

The test began May 16, with Xbox 360 users downloading the partial game using codes distributed by Microsoft or embedded in “Crackdown,” another Xbox 360 game published in February.

The final version of “Halo 3,” the software giant’s flagship game franchise in which players assume the role of a futuristic soldier fighting an alien army, is scheduled for a retail release on September 25.

Despite problems during the first few hours of the beta’s release preventing some “Crackdown” players from downloading the code to join, Microsoft said more than 580,000 people have already played the beta online.

“The thing that caught us off guard about (‘Halo 2’) was the scale of it,” said Frank O’Connor of Microsoft’s Bungie Studios, which developed “Halo”.

“If you think you’re going to have millions of players online you’re going to have to be prepared.”

Public beta testing is common in the realm of PC gaming, and is a valuable tool in detecting and fixing glitches.

However, console betas are typically done with tightly controlled groups behind closed doors, and the “Halo 3” beta is one of the first to open to such a wide segment of the public.

Some industry experts think the bug-fixing component of this test is minimal, and classify the “Halo 3” exercise as a unique new marketing tool for selling big games.

“This public beta is clearly just to promote the game,” said Wedbush Morgan analyst Michael Pachter. “It’s highly unlikely there will be material added to the game because of this.”

SNEAK PREVIEW OR TEST?

In addition to raising brand awareness of one of the most popular games in Microsoft’s arsenal, Pachter says the public beta, more of a sneak preview in his estimation, has the added benefit of bringing in thousands of lapsed Xbox Live players.

Xbox Live is a key feature setting Microsoft’s console apart from Sony Corp.’s Playstation 3 and Nintendo Co. Ltd.’s Wii. The service, which lets players compete against others online, has about 6 million users and Microsoft says more than half of those are paying $50 a year.

“Microsoft is masterfully building this,” said Pachter. “It builds loyalty, it promotes online and most important, it makes loyal customers feel special. It’s the beginning of a new trend in the console world.”

Microsoft, however, insists doing such a public beta does have risks, including people mistaking this early version for the finished game and feeling shortchanged.

“This isn’t a marketing program,” said Shane Kim, the head of Microsoft Game Studios. “We don’t need to do a beta to get product awareness. We’ve got to stress test the system because we know there will be millions of people playing on day one.”

“Halo” is arguably Microsoft’s most important original game franchise. “Halo 2” became the top-selling game ever for the system in 2004, with sales of $125 million -- roughly 2.5 million copies -- in just its first 24 hours.

Microsoft expects “Halo 3” to be an even bigger hit than its predecessor, making the beta the first litmus test of future retail enthusiasm.

“This is kind of like a trailer campaign for a blockbuster film,” said Jamil Moledina, director of the Game Developers Conference. “For tentpoles of the game industry, you’ll see this more and more.”

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