STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Millions of Americans stand in line today to vote. Last night, thousands of Americans lined up to buy one of the most anticipated new video games of the year. "Halo 4" is the latest installment of the popular franchise for the Microsoft Xbox 360. Some younger gamers refer to "Halo" as their "Star Wars," a cultural touchstone. Now, after a five-year hiatus, the game's hero - the Master Chief - returns.
Noah Nelson reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF "HALO" CHORAL MUSIC)
QUINTEN REDD: My name is Quinten Redd. I started playing "Halo" when I was in like sixth grade.
NOAH NELSON, BYLINE: Twenty-one-year-old Quinten Redd is not your typical "Halo" player. He has sponsors and plays for money.
REDD: I started playing competitively around like the seventh or eighth grade and I've been playing since. So I've been playing about like seven or eight years.
NELSON: Redd is a member of a team that competes in a gaming league that has millions of players.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And the guy wins two (unintelligible).
(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)
NELSON: This is the sound of Redd's team practicing. The guys are physically spread out across the country - California, North Carolina, Florida and Arkansas. "Halo" is what you call a multiplayer game - meaning many people play at once, from different locations, online.
REDD: Most games you, like, die really quick, so it's more about like skill and strategy and teamwork.
NELSON: "Halo" also has an epic story. Religious fanatics, who also happen to be aliens, are trying to wipe out humanity. Standing in their way, a cyborg warrior named Master Chief.
Since Halo first came out, 11 years ago, the franchise has been designed for multiple media platforms, like books, comics and toys.
FRANK O'CONNER: We have people who just read the fiction or just buy the toys or just collect the comic books.
NELSON: Frank O'Conner is the Franchise Development Director for 343 Industries, overseer of all things "Halo" for Microsoft.
O'CONNER: And we have people who don't even play the games.
NELSON: In the run-up to today's release, Microsoft launched a live action Web series on YouTube, to draw newcomers into the "Halo" story. It's called "Forward Unto Dawn," and it introduces a new character, a young cadet named Thomas Lasky.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "FORWARD UNTO DAWN")
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) We should blank them and force surrender.
TOM GREEN: (as Thomas Lasky) You force the blank then he'd never surrender.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as character) But they would like to circle around. There's still time.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (as character) We can make it.
GREEN: (as Thomas Lasky) Twenty five seconds.
NELSON: An animated version of Lasky shows up in the video game. And to keep the revenues coming in, Microsoft is offering a weekly download that complements "Halo 4," called "Spartan Ops," which people can play, or simply watch.
ADAM SESSLER: Now remember, gamers are very savvy and they can tell when they are being sold to and they're also very paranoid.
NELSON: That's veteran video game journalist Adam Sessler.
SESSLER: And so the idea of kind of embedding your marketing into the availability of narrative and the availability of story is probably the most effective route. They feel like they're getting something for giving you their attention.
NELSON: Sessler admits that "Halo's" hero, Master Chief, is not as developed a character as someone like Star War's hero Luke Skywalker. But like Skywalker, Master Chief inhabits a complex universe.
BONNIE ROSS: And if you look at I think franchises with staying power. "Lord of the Rings," "Star Wars," "Harry Potter," all of them have universes in which you could tell hundreds of stories.
NELSON: Bonnie Ross is the general manager of 343 Industries.
ROSS: And so when we're laying this foundation, it's not necessarily about making money, although we all want to make money, it's about establishing a universe that people want to be in. And I think that does require multiple mediums to really do it justice.
NELSON: "Halo" isn't the only game with a universe that unfolds across multiple platforms, but few companies have taken this strategy to such lengths. Few can afford to.
In a marketplace crowded with cheap and free games, big game publishers are banking on elaborate story worlds to keep fans dedicated, and willing to pay $60 or more for a game.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NELSON: For NPR News, I'm Noah Nelson.
INSKEEP: Noah Nelson is a reporter for Turnstylenews.com, a project of Youth Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.