I’ve been a fan of Bungie ever since the days of Marathon (which are now availabe as free downloads). However, the studio is best known for a game trilogy that you might have heard of: Halo, in which the Master Chief — a seven-foot-tall, half-ton bad-ass mofo — tries to save Earth from an alien force called the Covenant.
Of course, you probably knew that already. Halo is a phenomena of epic proportions that moves beyond mere video games — some have even gone so far as to liken it to Star Wars as far as cultural impact goes.
The final game in the trilogy arrives in stores September 25, and it’s easily the most eagerly awaited game of the year. Fans — including yours truly — have been scouring the Intertubes, looking for any tidbit of info on the game and the new challenges and storylines that it contains.
Wired’s September issue has Halo 3 as its cover story, and it’s by far one of the more interesting stories I’ve read. Namely because it’s less about the game and its details, and more on Bungie and their pursuit to make Halo 3 as great as possible.
Sometimes I think that being a game developer would be just about the coolest job out there. You get paid to use cutting-edge technology to craft (hopefully) compelling virtual worlds that thrill and entertain. But it also has to be incredibly frustrating. You want to create something compelling and challenging but you also want to make it accessible, not just so that people will buy it (which ensures you still have a job) but so that they will also enjoy it — and play it time and again.
It’s a balancing act, between making games aren’t too dumbed down for the l33t players and making games that aren’t too difficult for the newbs. In order to ensure that Halo 3 strikes that balance, Bungie utilizes a highly advanced game-testing facility where employees can observe hundreds of gamers and watch thousands of hours of footage, which is then used to tweak and improve the game.
I have somewhat mixed emotions to the approach. On the one hand, there’s some awe-inspiring about Bungie’s pursuit of excellence and balance. For example:
After each session [Randy Pagulayan, the guy in charge of the facility] 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.
But on the other hand, what does all of this analysis mean for the artistry of the game? (Yes, I’m one of those who believes that video games can be art — though I’d also agree that most games fall very short of the mark.) Once something becomes so honed, tweaked, measured, and tested, can it still contain that spark of originality and unpredictability that we find in art? This constant research and tweaking reminds me of those producers and studio mavens who try to come up with formulas for the “perfect pop song,” or movie studios that base all of their “creative” decisions on test screenings and place little trust in the artists (directors, writers, etc.) involved.
Then again, perhaps I’m being a little too academic here. After all, we’re talking about something that is, first and foremost, a game. And the ultimate determinant of a game’s success is whether or not it’s fun, plain and simple. Perhaps, though, in this day and age, fun just isn’t as simple as it used to be, and hence the need for testing facilities and thousands of hours of gamer footage.
All in all though, it’s a fascinating article, and certainly makes one eager to come home from work, board up the doors and windows, stock up on Mountain Dew and Starbursts, fire up the XBox 360, and start blasting Covenant hiney from here to kingdom come.