Certain Affinity Working on Big-Time Project


It's all hands on deck these days at Austin video game developer Certain Affinity. 

That's because the studio is working on perhaps the year's highest-profile video game: "Halo 4" for the Xbox 360. While the Microsoft-owned 343 Industries is the primary developer, Certain Affinity is assisting with many aspects of the game, most notably on its multiplayer components. The game is due out in November, just in time for the holiday shopping season. 

"When you're working on those big holiday titles, there's no room for slip; there's no room for error," Certain Affinity founder and president Max Hoberman said. "It's like, for Halo this holiday, we will hit our deadline. Absolutely. Once it's announced, once that date is out there, you'd better get it done." 

That sort of work-for-hire on high-profile games has become stock-in-trade for Certain Affinity, which Hoberman started in 2006. The company has worked on several top-tier franchises in the first-person shooter genre, including "Halo," "Call of Duty" and "Left 4 Dead." 

It's hard work that involves remotely communicating with offices in different time zones and working on proprietary development engines. But it's a niche that Certain Affinity has carved for itself to great success. 

"Co-development is just hard in general," Hoberman said. "We hear that from the publishers a lot; we hear them talking about how they have so much trouble finding good partners to do co-development with. It's kind of a chronic problem that they face, so that's something that we're really proud of, that we're a really easy partner for them to work with." 

Certain Affinity's involvement in "Halo 4" was announced this month at RTX 2012 at the Austin Convention Center, an event hosted by Rooster Teeth Productions, the Austin company that produces online shorts and video series. Hoberman and others sat on a panel with 343's Halo Franchise Development Director Frank O'Connor while demos of the game played. 

During a Q-and-A session, a fan asked O'Connor about the challenge of living up to the series' history. 

"The external pressure, the pressure from the fans, is something that we think about every day, but I have to be blunt ... that pales in significance compared to the internal pressure among the team members and our extended team members," he said. "Every single person in that building right now is trying to make the best game they've ever worked on, and that's who we hire and that's who you should hire. So the pressure is there, and we'll let the fans decide when the game comes out. But the effort and the energy poured into that effort is unbelievable." 

There is already significant buzz around the game, which is a signature franchise of the Xbox 360. Its multiplayer demo won an award at the Electronic Entertainment Expo conference this year. ("Some of that was our work," Hoberman said.) 

"Halo 4" represents the lion's share of the work for Certain Affinity, which employs about 80 people. Company officials said they didn't add staff to handle the workload. Unlike many gaming companies, which routinely add or lay off employees depending on their development schedule, Certain Affinity prides itself on keeping its talent. 

"I think the key is, we've grown as a company," said Phil Wattenbarger, vice president of product development. "It's not that we necessarily staffed up to do this project, it's more -- as we've progressed through the years -- we've found these opportunities that have allowed us to grow stronger (and) add more world-class talent to the studio." 

The bigger Certain Affinity gets, "the bigger the opportunities get," Hoberman said. He said he's not worried about growing, as long as the quality of his company's work is not compromised. 

"We don't think about downsizing," Hoberman said. "We're always thinking about growing, because our long-term ambition is to be making these types of games that we're working on ourselves, one day. We're always thinking about how do we get to the next step and how do we broaden the skillset that we have here at the studio and how do we increase our own capacity?"

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