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This devotion is fueled by a belief, not shared by the world at large, that video games are an art form with genuine emotional meaning and that Halo 3 will be the premier example of that art. But there is, as it happens, a whole lot of money at stake too. At launch, Halo 3 will run only on Microsoft's Xbox 360 gaming console, lending the Xbox, into which Microsoft has sunk billions, huge credibility in its costly death match with Sony's PlayStation 3. "We're a platform company," says V.P. Kim. "It's about driving sales of Xbox 360. Sony has no answer to that. We have a really big chance to put Sony back on its heels."
There's an opportunity beyond video games, too, for Halo to break out of the ghetto and become a mainstream, mass-market, multimedia entertainment property. Other parts of the culture are catching on. Marvel publishes Halo comic books. There are five Halo novels in print. The Halo sound tracks are released as albums. Peter Jackson, who directed the Lord of the Rings movies, is working with Bungie on a hush-hush Halo spin-off project, and he has signed on to produce a Halo movie (though a deal with Fox and Universal fell through last year). "When we were launching Halo 2 , you'd spend half your meetings with brands educating them on the video-game business," says Chris Di Cesare, director of creative marketing at Microsoft. "People still thought, 'Ah, it's this thing for kids.' Now my partners are Pepsi, Burger King, Pontiac, Comcast. And it's not me selling them anymore." There's an opportunity, in other words, to decloak the Halo subculture, to turn it from invisible to visible.
Not that the Bungies care. They don't need to legitimize Halo by associating it with other, more respectable media. They sell enough units and make enough money. They're happy in their invisible geek ghetto. But that's the logic of the marketplace: it can't leave subcultures alone; it has to turn them into cultures. It may be time for the Master Chief to come in from the cold and join the party, with the popular kids. Just don't expect him to take off his helmet.
The original version of this story mistakenly said that Halo 2 is Microsoft's weapon of choice in its struggle with Sony. The correct game is Halo 3.