RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The final installment of Microsoft's video game trilogy Halo goes on sale tonight at midnight. Halo has been one of the most popular games of all time. And Microsoft had turned to psychologists who used one-way mirrors and sophisticated testing to help designers create an experience that won't be too hard or too easy.
NPR's Wendy Kaufman spent some time with those psychologists to explore what makes a video game fun and what makes it too frustrating.
WENDY KAUFMAN: In video games such as Halo, the protagonist's player is supposed to die, dozens of times. But there are good deaths and bad ones, say game designers and testers. Shooting yourself with a tank weapon or falling off a cliff you don't see can frustrate gamers. If they're going to die, they want to go down in a blaze of glory.
(Soundbite of video game, Halo)
KAUFMAN: In an effort to find the right balance between fun and frustration, and to tweak the game in other ways, Microsoft turned to its in-house psychologists, who use both observation and complex computer programs to figure out when gamers are having fun and when they're not. They often begin in the usability lab, which is equipped with numerous cameras and a microphone.
Mr. JOHN HOPSON (User Research Engineer, Microsoft Game Studios): I want to hear everything you're thinking as you're playing the game; just don't try to plan what you're going to say, don't try to edit, just say what you're thinking as you're thinking.
PHIL (Gamer): Okay.
KAUFMAN: Psychologist John Hopson is explaining the testing process to a young gamer named Phil. I'm watching from the control room on the other side of the one-way glass.
Mr. HOPSON: Do you have any questions for me before we start?
PHIL: No, I don't.
Mr. HOPSON: Okay. Then I'm going to get this started on and head off the other side and we'll get started.
KAUFMAN: Phil begins the game. After just a few minutes, an onscreen message asks, is the game too hard, too easy, too fast, too slow? He answers, it's just about right. But if he had said anything else, Hopson would have asked more questions to find out exactly what was bothering him.
Dr. HOPSON: So tell me what your goal is right now.
PHIL: I'm getting radio commands - sounds like my goal here is to meet up with maybe some other Marines. He said he's on the Savoy Highway or something like that.
Mr. RANDY PAGULAYAN (User Research Lead, Microsoft Game Studios): It's really important for us to make sure players know what their particular task is.
KAUFMAN: Randy Pagulayan, another Microsoft psychologist, is a senior researcher on the Halo 3 testing team.
Mr. PAGULAYAN: We were running into this problem over and over again, where people didn't know what they were supposed to be doing. So what we ended up doing is, the design fix was whenever a new objective happens, it actually flashes on the screen.
KAUFMAN: That's just one of hundreds of changes that were made to the game. The angle a gun could be fired was altered because too many players were shooting themselves. A barrier was installed on a highway after too many players were flying to their deaths. Again, Randy Pagulayan.
Mr. PAGULAYAN: The goal for us is to identify where the discrepancy is between what the player's actual experience is versus the designer's vision and the designer's intent.
KAUFMAN: Paul Bertone is one of Halo 3's lead designers. He says sometimes designers like himself need an outside observer's perspective. And when their observations are backed up with hard data, problems in the game are hard to ignore.
Mr. PAUL BERTONE (Designer): You can't hide from a hundred people playing the game, and everybody got stuck there. Even if that was a spot where we wanted the game to be hard, but everybody said they hated that spot, that's when we're going to go in and go, you know what, it's time to suck in your ego and just change it.
KAUFMAN: Asked if he thinks the game is better as a result of the testing, Bertone answers with a single word: absolutely.
Wendy Kaufman, NPR News, Seattle.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.