Halo 3: How Microsoft Labs Invented a New Science of Play

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.

Now one of the largest game design studios in the industry, Bungie began as a two-person operation. In 1991, college pals Alex Seropian and Jason Jones gathered in Jones' Chicago basement to create games for the Macintosh. Their first hit, in 1994, was a first- person shooter called Marathon. Most shoot-'em-ups of that time, like Doom and Wolfenstein 3D, had little or no plot; finishing a mission was as simple as fighting your way to the end. But Seropian and Jones imbued their games with intricate story lines and vibrant characters. Marathon and its sequels also pioneered technical advances astonishing for the era. Two gamers could team up and play the game in cooperative mode, while up to eight players could spar against one another in virtual arenas, taunting opponents over AppleTalk.

With the Marathon franchise and another game called Myth, Bungie built a loyal cult following. In the late-'90s, the designers started planning a new strategy-based title in which players would control an entire army of space marines fighting a rival band of hyperactive, gibbering aliens. The action would involve moving entire military battalions around the battlefield at once, and players would engage in a sort of futuristic version of Risk. But as work on the project began, the team found itself drawn back to the first-person, kill-frenzy action of Marathon. Eventually they decided their new game would focus not on the whole army but on a single soldier — Master Chief — as he fought the Covenant, a race of aliens driven by a mysterious religious prophesy. Halo was born.

Early on, the Bungie crew came up with a mantra that would eventually guide all aspects of Halo gameplay: "30 seconds of fun." The idea was to have Halo repeatedly immerse players in hectic battles that would last for half a minute — just long enough to create heart-thumping chaos and the risk of death — before offering a respite. Meanwhile, each level would also include scripted cinematic scenes to push the story forward. It was a subtle but deeply pleasing balancing act: Halo neither bored people with overly long storytelling animations nor numbed them with pointless fighting.

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