Sitting in an office chair and frowning slightly, Randy Pagulayan peers through a one-way mirror. The scene on the other side looks like the game room in a typical suburban house: There's a large flat-panel TV hooked up to an Xbox 360, and a 34-year-old woman is sprawled in a comfy chair, blasting away at huge Sasquatchian aliens. It's June, and the woman is among the luckier geeks on the planet. She's playing Halo 3, the latest sequel to one of the most innovative and beloved videogames of all time, months before its September 25 release.
The designers at Bungie Studios, creators of the Halo series, have been tweaking this installment for the past three years. Now it's crunch time, and they need to know: Does Halo 3 rock?
"Is the game fun?" whispers Pagulayan, a compact Filipino man with a long goatee and architect-chic glasses, as we watch the player in the adjacent room. "Do people enjoy it, do they get a sense of speed and purpose?" To answer these questions, Pagulayan runs a testing lab for Bungie that looks more like a psychological research institute than a game studio. The room we're monitoring is wired with video cameras that Pagulayan can swivel around to record the player's expressions or see which buttons they're pressing on the controller. Every moment of onscreen action is being digitally recorded.
Midway through the first level, his test subject stumbles into an area cluttered with boxes, where aliens — chattering little Grunts and howling, towering Brutes — quickly surround her. She's butchered in about 15 seconds. She keeps plowing back into the same battle but gets killed over and over again.
"Here's the problem," Pagulayan mutters, motioning to a computer monitor that shows us the game from the player's perspective. He points to a bunch of grenades lying on the ground. She ought to be picking those up and using them, he says, but the grenades aren't visible enough. "There's a million of them, but she just missed them, dammit. She charged right in." He shakes his head. "That's not acceptable."
Pagulayan makes a note of the problem. It is his job to find flaws in Halo 3 that its creators, who know what players should do, might not be able to see. He assesses whether the aliens have gotten too lethal, whether the revamped Needler guns are powerful enough, and — most important — if and when players are getting bored or (as is more often the case) frustrated. Clicking away on his keyboard, Pagulayan brings up video of one of the first fights in the game, in which a Brute wields a ferocious gun. Neophyte players are getting massacred.
"That enemy can kill the player in three shots," he says. "Imagine your mother playing, where she's barely learning how to move around in the game — bam, bam, bam — dead. That's not going to be a fun experience."
All game companies test their products, but generally they just pay people to report any bugs they find — monsters that disappear or places where graphics don't render properly. But because it is owned by Microsoft, which launches dozens of Xbox and PC games every year, Bungie has access to one of the most advanced game-testing facilities ever built. Pagulayan and his team have now analyzed more than 3,000 hours of Halo 3 played by some 600 everyday gamers, tracking everything from favored weapons to how and where — down to the square foot — players most frequently get killed.