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

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.

After each session Pagulayan analyzes the data for patterns that he can report to Bungie. For example, he produces snapshots of where players are located in the game at various points in time — five minutes in, one hour in, eight hours in — to show how they are advancing. If they're going too fast, the game might be too easy; too slow, and it might be too hard. He can also generate a map showing where people are dying, to identify any topographical features that might be making a battle onerous. And he can produce charts that detail how players died, which might indicate that a particular alien or gun is proving unexpectedly lethal or wankishly impotent.

The lab also records video footage of every testing session and hyperlinks these clips to the individual progress reports. If the design team wonders why players are having trouble in a particular area, they can just pull up a few test games to see what's going wrong. Take what happened last March: A report noted an unusual number of "suicides" among players piloting the alien Wraith tank in an upper level. After watching dozens of archived test games, Griesemer spotted the problem. The players were firing the tank's gun when its turret was pointed toward the ground, attempting to wipe out nearby attackers. But the explosion ended up also killing (and frustrating) the player. To prevent this, Griesemer reprogrammed the tank so that the turret couldn't be lowered beyond a certain point. The Wraith suicides stopped.

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