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

As I peer over his shoulder at the computer screen, Tom Doyle prepares to show off his new gun. Holding an Xbox controller, he walks Master Chief over to a menacing, garbage-can-sized weapon and cradles it in both arms. Doyle spins the in-game camera around, so that we're staring right down the barrel, and fires. A stream of white-blue plasma pours out. This is the Plasma Turret — a powerful alien weapon debuting in Halo 3 that can blast through your shield in about two seconds. Doyle designed it.

"A lot of the energy weapons in Halo 2 felt frail, like pyoo-pyoo-pyoo Buck Rogers lasers" he says. It made people not want to pick them up and use them. "This feels more deadly. You can almost feel the heat of the weapon, the ignited plasma beams." He chuckles. "You know this thing is gonna kill."

Bungie is determined not to repeat the mistakes of Halo 2. This time it wants to make the single-player game perfect. To this end, it has committed to a two-step process: First dream up the new weapons, levels, and situations. Then monitor hundreds of people as they play the hell out of them in Pagulayan's lab.

There are a few things to fix right away. One of Bungie's central goals is to restore the "golden tripod" of play. Working with Doyle and the other weapons artists, gameplay chief Griesemer tweaked the guns — for example, reducing the amount of ammo many carried — so that wielding two at a time won't always be the most effective way to dispatch an enemy. He then boosted the power of grenades and the "melee" punching attacks. Battles, he hopes, will once again become the sort of lightning-fast chess matches they were in the original Halo, requiring constant, on-the-fly decisions about which method of attack to use.

To make combat even more unpredictable — and to give longtime Halo players new treats — Griesemer and the team devised new objects for the game, doubling the number of weapons. Inspired by a real-life, high-powered beam called a Galilean laser, Doyle invented the Spartan Laser. It produces a bolt that can destroy an enemy in one shot — but because it takes a few seconds to charge, it gives astute opponents the chance to notice they're being targeted. Other designers came up with the Bubble Shield, a temporary force field, and the Gravity Lift, which players can use to propel themselves into the air. Among the new vehicles is the Mongoose, a small four-wheeled motorcycle, and the Brute Chopper, a sort of high tech Big Wheel with a ferocious cannon mounted in front. Each new addition, Griesemer points out, brings new facets to the gameplay. But each also inevitably causes unexpected problems: A particular gun becomes too powerful, a vehicle ends up making battles lopsided — and suddenly the game is less fun.

This is where Pagulayan and two assistant Bungie researchers step in. Every other week, beginning in the fall of 2006 — when the first builds of Halo 3 were available for testing — Pagulayan and his team have recruited about 20 people to come into the lab and play the game. Some tests include a pop-up box that interrupts the player every few minutes, asking them to rate how engaged, interested, or frustrated they are. Pagulayan also has gamers talk out loud about what they're experiencing, providing a stream-of-consciousness record of their thought process as they play. Over time, he's gathered voluminous stats on player locations, weapons, and vehicles.

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