By 11:30 p.m., there were already about 150 people milling around in the line that formed outside EB Games in Uptown. Mostly, they were white, in their early 20s to mid-30s, and overwhelmingly male. They were pretty normal-looking. Nobody was dressed up as a member of the Covenant. Nobody was dressed as Master Chief. In other words, they were more Abercrombie and Fitch than Loser that Lives in My Parents' Basement.
As I took my place in line, William Abbott Shawn, a boyish-looking 30-year-old with curly hair peeking from underneath his ski cap, greeted me with a generic shout-out: "Hello, fellow Haloists!" That was about as demonstrative as anybody got. My fellow gamers had been excited for months, but it seemed there was an unspoken, collective urge to control our fidgeting and maintain some dignity for the final stretch.
Two months earlier, like everyone else, I had plunked down a five-dollar deposit at EB. All that was left was to wait for the stroke of midnight, at which point Halo 2 would make its official debut. In the gaming world (and on Wall Street), the November 9 release date had been anticipated as much as any release date ever. After all, this was the sequel to Halo: Combat Evolved, The Game That Built Xbox. Now, people like me were about to make Halo 2 the biggest game in history, with a first-day take ($125 million) that would best Hollywood's all-time top opening weekend box office by some $7 million.
As midnight neared, friends who had been staying warm at the nearby bars joined their comrades on the sidewalk. The line swelled to more than 200 people, stretching past the corner by the bar Tonic to the end of the sidewalk at Girard Avenue. I casually asked if anybody was planning on purchasing the commemorative edition. "Look, I'm going to bring home the case and piss on it. I'm here for the game," replied Quinn Jorgenson, a skinny 24-year-old with a baseball cap and a blond goatee.
A group of MCAD students at the front of the line laid out their plans for their night. After making the purchase, they would make a pit stop at a buddy's house to pick up an additional Xbox and another television set. Then they would hold a marathon group Halo session. Halo is a community game; you can connect four people per Xbox and then connect up to four Xboxes for a battle royal. Naturally, such epic sessions can intrude on real-world obligations--a fact not lost on the MCAD crowd. "It's our last semester, so we have to self-sabotage somehow," shrugged 24-year-old Molly Buesin.
The guy next to me, Shawn, had a lonelier plan. "It's just going to be a whole lot of me and my television tonight." Technically, that was not really true. Halo 2 is geared toward Xbox Live, an online service that works with high-speed cable internet to connect real world "solo" Haloists like Shawn. By Shawn's estimate, about 75 percent of the people in line were already Xbox Live subscribers; and if they weren't, EB was offering a discount on a headset and a subscription with the purchase of Halo 2.
Just before midnight, a limousine pulled up. Who could it be? A celebrity Haloist? Josh Hartnett? Prince? People abruptly stopped talking about the previews they had read on the internet ("Yeah, I guess one of the boards from Halo 1 is repeated") and their gaming injuries ("My brother got carpal tunnel;" "I got shocked by a broken controller") in the hopes of catching a glimpse of whatever eminence was about to join them. But the limo was quickly forgotten as an EB clerk--a pasty guy with a clipboard--opened the door and began admitting customers, 15 at a time.
When I reached the door, the clerk crossed my name off his list and let me in. Two teenagers behind me asked the clerk if EB had ever done a similar midnight sale for any other game. "No, and if they make us do it again I'm going to kill somebody," the clerk harrumphed. "The biggest anticipation for a game before this was Zelda: The Ocarina of Time for the Nintendo 64 console." The teens nodded knowingly. When I shot them a puzzled look, one of the kids explained, "Ocarina: a small flute."
Then they noticed a cardboard display for a sequel to an older game I had played as a kid. "Oh, is this the new Metroid?" "Yeah," the sales guy said. "It has some different weapons and they brought the screw attack back." One of the teens let out a low whistle. "Yeah, and there's some new visors too." An older, deeper voice farther up in line responded, "I like that." "Well," the EB guy gloated, "you get a free T-shirt with a copy. We have a few left."
After the EB cashier checked my ID and took my $60, he gave me a bag for my commemorative edition. On the way out, I encountered a manager from Tonic, who was outside explaining the late-night drink specials and inviting the Haloists to come enjoy a cocktail. The invitation, obviously, was ridiculous. "Do you have Xboxes over there?" someone sneered.