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

"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.

One aspect of Halo 2 did blow everyone away: multiplayer matches over the Internet. No console game had yet mastered online play. And Bungie worked closely with the engineers at Microsoft's Xbox Live service to make signing on point-and-click simple. In minutes, Halo 2 players could join a quick game of "death match" — kill others before they kill you — or assemble teams for rollicking bouts of capture the flag. Better yet, players were automatically paired with others at the same skill level, ensuring that they wouldn't be instantly slaughtered by crazily adept 12-year-olds in Texas.

Fans swarmed online. Halo 2 became a system seller again: Of the 6 million people who have signed up for Xbox Live, fully two-thirds of them joined to play Halo. Redmond was ecstatic. Online gaming had long been considered a vital next step for console makers and, thanks to Bungie, Microsoft got there first.

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