Marathon's Short Run on Group Cortex's Netweb

When the official Marathon World Wide Web site went live last December with College Pro Painters as a sponsor, it looked like a perfect combination of content, advertiser, and medium. Marathon, a 3-D shooter game for Macintosh that was drawing great word-of-mouth reviews on Internet newsgroups for its demo version, would no doubt attract the attention of college-aged males.

That's precisely the target that College Pro, which franchises house-painting territories to college students on summer break, was looking to reach. An explicit hotlink ("Please visit our sponsor." it said) to College Pro's testimonial-type advertising (http://www.metweb.con/mail/collegepro/) was spread across the bottom of the Marathon home page. By late February, however, users saw the following message from Marathon marketer Bungie Software when they typed the home page URL: "Bungie Software has decided that maintaining a World Wide Web site is not an appropriate investment of scarce marketing resources."

What went wrong?

"There are still a lot of people who are very scared and nervous about the Internet," says Brent Halliburton, director of business operations for Group Cortex (, which is the Internet presence developer and consulting service in Philadelphia that developed the Web sites for both College Pro and Marathon. "They're not sure if they're reaching their target market, and Marathon was one of those companies. They didn't want to spend money on this."

Group Cortex constructed the site for Marathon on spec after one of its part-time programmers told Halliburton that a pre-release demo version of the game was proving popular with his fellow students. The demo strategy is to give away a fully-functioning but truncated version of a game (e.g. four levels of a 40-level program) to whet users' appetites. For example, five-million copies of the demo version of Doom, a 3-D shooter game for the PC, were reportedly downloaded from the Net. Hundreds of thousands of complete versions were later sold.

Besides offering a demo download, the Marathon site offered breaking news about Marathon ("scooping the world by eight hours on its official release date"), contained information on strategy, content, and storyline, and provided hotlinks to related information. Halliburton says that the Marathon site was a hit, but that Bungie bowed out when he proposed upgrading the site with features for which Group Cortex wanted to charge less than $1,000 a month.

Web Commerce must evolve

Bungie CEO Alexander Seropian says that from the beginning he was "skeptical" about using a Web site as a marketing vehicle. First, Marathon's core audience already knew about the product before its mid-December release because of the "enviable" word of mouth generated on Internet newsgroups like,, and Second, people are still reluctant to order products over the Internet, Seropian says, primarily because of the fear of credit-card fraud. "I've read very few success stories, and a lot a tragic stories, about people making large investments in Web sites and nobody places orders." But Seropian also says the experience showed him the value of the Web for exchanging information, and that Bungie will bring back a Marathon site under its own control.

As "cool" as the Web is, though, it's not quite ready for prime-time commerce, he feels. "I think there's another step to take," he says. "A little more structure, organization. A few more rules. With that kind of evolution, I think it can become a very powerful sales tool."

What Group Cortex wanted to do for Marathon

Halliburton says his parting with Bungie was amiable. He says that he wanted to upgrade the site to keep it technologically ahead of "unofficial" sites that enthused gamers have established ( Group Cortex proposed creating an online ordering mechanism, as well as some cutting-edge interactive features, such as a Web discussion group, that would require greater bandwidth. "We wanted to invest a lot more time to upgrade the site and re-do a lot of the graphics. We thought that it seemed silly to have an 'official' Web site that might not be as good as something else." Halliburton says.

This illustrates an interesting phenomenon: In the many-to-many environment of the Web, you may not only have to keep up with your competition, but also with your customers. The day we talked to Halliburton, in fact, he had been up until 5 a.m. writing code and brainstorming ideas to take advantage of new interactive features offered in a just-released beta-version upgrade of the Netscape browser.

Tips, techniques, and the future

Like many Internet presence developers, Halliburton ( or 215-854-0646) is working with agencies to develop sites for a variety of clients. "When we got started there were five or six companies in the country doing this sort of thing." says Halliburton, who co-founded Group Cortex in December 1993 while attending the Wharton School of Business. "Now there are more than 200 businesses providing similar services." Halliburton suggests that marketers:

Create awareness for the site. Contribute on-topic information to appropriate newsgroups and make references to your home-page address, for example.

To draw people back, offer extraordinary content and services that are always changing.

Stay on top of the technology as it develops, particularly to take advantage of interactive features. With the new Netscape release, Halliburton says, pages can be updated even as the user is looking at them. "Now we can virtually take control of the user's machine," he says, changing content on the fly.

Use the multimedia and interactive capabilities of the medium to their fullest. "Content may be king, but it's a lot better to have exciting, compelling, interactive content than dead content," he says. The inevitable shakeout of Internet winners and losers, he feels, will revolve around this distinction as bandwidth and security issues are resolved. [Remember, however, that college students not only are technologically savvy, but also often use communication lines that are much faster than the ones normal consumers can currently access. -TF]

Security standards still need to be developed so that customers feel secure making transactions. But Halliburton points out that Prodigy, CompuServe and AOL users are "very used to spending money online," and feels that they will bring a new enthusiasm for online commerce when all the commercial services offer gateways to the Web.

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Last Updated: July 19, 1995