Bungie doesn't just test its own games this way. It also buys copies of rival titles and studies those, too, to see how Halo matches up. "I've never seen anything like it," says Ian Bogost, a professor of digital media at Georgia Tech, who toured the testing lab in the fall. "The system they've got is insane."
It might seem like an awfully clinical approach to creating an epic space-war adventure. But Bungie's designers aren't just making a game: They're trying to divine the golden mean of fun. They need to create an experience that is challenging enough to thrill the 15 million existing hardcore fans of Halo — yet appealing enough to lure in millions of new players.
If anyone can pull off this delicate balance, it's Bungie. Released in 2001, the original Halo seamlessly blended riveting gameplay with a cinematic narrative — the fight between humans and a murderous alien race was told through plenty of twitchy, white- knuckled combat. When Halo 2 debuted three years later, it again broke new ground by letting gamers square off against their friends on the fledgling Xbox Live online service. Fans went berserk. They debated the intricate plotlines, bought T-shirts and figurines, read Halo novels that Bungie produced, and crawled into work bleary-eyed after all-night death matches. Halo became a cultural touchstone, a Star Wars for the thumbstick generation.
Now the company has to do it again, only better. This will be the first Halo for the Xbox 360, and it comes at a critical point in the console wars, with Microsoft fighting both Sony's graphically superior PlayStation 3 and Nintendo's unexpected hit, the wrist-twisting Wii. Microsoft needs Halo 3 to be a system seller — a game so good that people buy an Xbox 360 just to play it (the original Xbox's only profitable quarter came during the launch of Halo 2). "I don't see any other game that's going to have as big a blast radius for the Xbox as Halo 3," says Dean Takahashi, author of The Xbox 360 Uncloaked. "They need to sell a lot of consoles for Microsoft."
So Bungie's designers sift through Pagulayan's reports, peer through the one-way mirror, and scrutinize every second of the game. Videogame development involves artistry, obviously. But at Bungie Studios, it's become something of a science as well.
Bungie's office in Kirkland, Washington, houses more than 100 workers in a massive open room covered by a domed roof. It's early June, and the place has an air of quiet, frantic energy. In a far corner, a group of artists work on crafting the swoopy attack movements of the aliens. Along a wall, environment programmers stare intently at screens, fine-tuning scenery in the latest levels. Marty O'Donnell, the company's audio engineer, is holed up in a soundproof studio room, tweaking Halo 3's 34,000-plus lines of combat dialog, to ensure that aliens and marines curse and yell appropriately during battles (Wired's editor in chief, Chris Anderson, voiced a few blood-curdling screams for the game). Near the kitchen area, a programmer naps in a small pile of beanbag chairs.