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

Another case of terrain-sprawl trouble popped up a few months later in one of the upper levels. The level is intended to introduce vehicle combat, with players following a bunch of their fellow marines as they clamber aboard Warthog ATVs and ride out over a wide-open plain. But Pagulayan's data showed that a significant number of players were trudging across the plain on foot. It turns out the designers hadn't put enough vehicles in the scene, and the artificial-intelligence marines were taking them all before players realized they were supposed to hop aboard. The solution: More Warthogs.

On a sunny Thursday afternoon, I'm finally allowed my own taste of Halo 3. I'm escorted into the faux game room, seated in the comfy chair, and handed a controller. I'll be playing the Jungle mission. Pagulayan settles behind the one-way mirror to observe.

As I wander through the lush forest, I'm struck by details: Steam rising off felled logs, clusters of insects flying in clouds, plants that sway realistically as I brush past them. Halo 3 may not have the most advanced graphics available, but it's noticeably more gorgeous than the previous Halo games. Soon, though, I get confused; I try to follow one of my comrades up a short cliff, but I can't scale it. It takes me five minutes to figure out that I'm supposed to go around instead.

Then, bang — the action starts. A phalanx of Grunts comes squealing to attack, and soon I'm wearing out my trigger finger as I blast away with my machine gun. Sure enough, the "golden tripod" balance has been restored. The guns seem to run out of ammunition more quickly than usual, so I'm constantly opting for punching attacks and, later, grenades to take down large groups of enemies. It takes me a while to figure out which button controls my melee attack — where my avatar runs up and smashes an opponent in the head — but once I get it right, I discover that it's enormously satisfying: Each blow delivers a moist, brutal impact that sends foes flying.

After half an hour, Pagulayan pulls me out of the room for a debriefing. I'd been temporarily flummoxed at the cliff, he observes. "We've had participants spend 30 minutes trying to climb up there." He thinks the designers will need to make it easier, maybe adding a little arrow to show the correct route. He also picked up my confusion over the melee attack button. Other testers are having the same problem, and Bungie is not yet sure how to fix it.

Pagulayan makes notes on my experience — more data to feed into the Bungie machine. They'll crack these problems, he is sure. They'll solve the mystery of why some Brutes are going AWOL in a later Jungle battle. They'll train their AI marines so they don't keep mindlessly hollering the same curses over and over while fighting. And they'll figure out how to get players to monitor their ammo — before they run out and get gunned down.

Last week 52 percent of players gave the Jungle level a 5 out of 5 rating for "fun," and another 40 percent rated it a 4.

Pagulayan wants to do better.

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