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

When Bungie demo'd the game at Macworld Expo in 1999, fans were awestruck. So were Microsoft game executives. They were looking for a system seller for their forthcoming Xbox and for the Xbox Live online service they hoped to launch shortly thereafter. Microsoft bought Bungie in 2000 for a reported $50 million; a year later, Halo, recoded for Microsoft's console, became the must-have game of the year. It instantly transformed the Xbox from a dubious proposition to a credible alternative to the then-dominant PlayStation 2. Bill Gates and CEO Steve Ballmer began pushing hard for a sequel.

The pressure to deliver nearly destroyed Bungie. When it began making the original Halo, the design team consisted of 10 people. They could all sit in a single room and communicate by yelling over their shoulders or peering at each other's cool creations onscreen. To make Halo 2, the company ballooned to more than 60. Separate teams formed to design each level of the game, but they didn't coordinate their efforts: When project leaders assembled the pieces for the first time, they discovered that the story was incomprehensible and the game whipsawed from too easy to nearly impossible.

"It was a disaster in the game-story campaign," admits Harold Ryan, the studio manager. "We looked around the room going, 'I don't want to play this. I don't want to make this.'" They threw out 80 percent of the work they'd done and started over. But they now had barely a year and a half to reconstruct the entire game.

Luckily, Bungie had a secret weapon. Because games were becoming a new focus for Microsoft, the company had built a dedicated usability lab for stress-testing its titles. Bungie tapped Pagulayan, a recent PhD graduate in experimental psychology from the University of Cincinnati, to refine Halo 2 in the facility. Pagulayan's team quickly went to work building tools for extracting gameplay data, including the location of each player and when and where they fired weapons, rode vehicles, killed aliens, and died. They ran weekly tests, analyzing 2,300 hours of play by 400 gamers in under two months. Over and over again, they found snags — a mutant alien that was far too powerful, a lava pit that too many players fell into.

But the time constraints were daunting, and the lab wasn't able to catch everything. In the end, Halo 2 was a less complex, less satisfying game than the first Halo. In the original, players had three equally powerful ways to attack: gun, grenade, or punch attack — the "golden tripod," as Jamie Griesemer, Bungie's head of gameplay design, dubbed it. Like a game of rock-paper-scissors, part of the fun was frantically deciding which method would work best. But in Halo 2, the designers decided to let players wield two guns, an option so overpowering that players rarely used any other form of attack. Perhaps worst of all, Bungie's team didn't have time to finish their story. Halo 2 ended with Master Chief announcing that he's returning to Earth and "finishing this fight" against the alien force. Then... nothing. The credits roll. It was as if the coders had simply turned off their computers and walked away. In public, Bungie employees put on a brave face, but privately they were chagrined. "Just as the game was going out the door, everybody was kind of like, Holy shit — this is not what we like here," recalls Brian Jarrard, Bungie's head of community relations.

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