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

But though expansive levels may be one of the keys to Halo's appeal, the problems they cause go well beyond graphics. Enormous battlefields also create lots of places where things can go wrong — areas where players can get bored, stuck, or killed. This has been one of the main challenges facing Halo 3's designers; it first showed up in testing of the beginning Jungle level. Players were simply baffled about where to go.

In the lab, Pagulayan pulls up an early map of Jungle; on it are superimposed the locations of about 30 testers after half an hour of play. The dots are scattered throughout the terrain. This, he says, is bad: It means that people were wandering aimlessly instead of progressing through the level. "People were lost," Pagulayan says. "There wasn't much deep analysis to do here."

To solve such problems, the designers must subtly direct player movement by altering the world in small ways. In this case, they decided to change the geography of the Jungle level so that in certain places players had to jump down a steep ledge to reach the next area. This way people can't go backward, because they can't climb back up the ledges. Pagulayan shows me a map from the next testing round, after the fix was implemented — and sure enough, all the dots are clustered in tight bunches, right where they are supposed to be.

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.

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