— 20 September 2007 —

Halo 3 or How I learned to Stop Hating Microsoft and Love the Bomb Xbox 360

I picked up the September issue of Wired on my trip back from the West Coast this week to read about the development of Halo 3. I couldn’t really resist: The cover is Hazard Orange with Master Chief in stride. And it was that or Cosmo, and I’ve already taken all the quizzes for this month.

Halo 3 screen shot © Bungie

As I read the article, I kept thinking, “this is all about usability people saving the day” when finally the word “usability” shows up on the 4th page. But it’s obvious from the first few graphs…

Pagulayan makes a note of the problem. It is his job to find flaws in Halo 3 that its creators, who know what players should do, might not be able to see. He assesses whether the aliens have gotten too lethal, whether the revamped Needler guns are powerful enough, and — most important — if and when players are getting bored or (as is more often the case) frustrated. Clicking away on his keyboard, Pagulayan brings up video of one of the first fights in the game, in which a Brute wields a ferocious gun. Neophyte players are getting massacred.

“That enemy can kill the player in three shots,” he says. “Imagine your mother playing, where she’s barely learning how to move around in the game — bam, bam, bam — dead. That’s not going to be a fun experience.”

Their collection of failure point data is interesting, and it’s a lot of data.

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.

Particularly telling is how usability testing was brought in toward the end of the development process for Halo 2. Halo 2 is generally considered a lesser game than the original Halo, though the addition of online free-for-alls is what helped sell the game (and sell Xboxes). In that case, usability testing helped turn a disaster into a mediocre experience. They don’t seem to be making the same mistake with Halo 3; Bungie is bringing in Usability from the start.

Will having Usability involved from the start be a good thing? Only time, and more importantly sales, will tell. The Wired article has pushed me back strongly into the “must have Xbox now” camp. I had one of the first rev Xboxes. Actually, I had two of them and they both died.

But I know the Xbox 360 has been more stable (not perfect, but a lot better) and the fact that Bungie is taking the gameplay this seriously makes me want to invest some time (and considerable money) to be involved with the Event that will be Halo 3.

And I know that’s exactly what Bungie and Microsoft are hoping for.

And for the record, I am now accepting cash donations for the purpose of buying an Xbox 360 and appropriate accouterments. ;)

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