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Q&A: Certain Affinity's Max Hoberman Talks  Halo

Q&A: Certain Affinity's Max Hoberman Talks Halo

February 12, 2007 | By Alistair Wallis

February 12, 2007 | By Alistair Wallis
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Max Hoberman spent ten years working with Bungie, during which time he worked as multiplayer, user interface, and online lead for Halo 2 and the forthcoming Halo 3. Hoberman left the company late last year, before announcing the formation of Austin based studio Certain Affinity in December. The team is made up of industry veterans from Bungie, Microsoft, Red Storm, Origin, EA and Digital Anvil who boast an average 12 years in the industry each.

The newly formed company's first effort will be multiplayer maps for Halo 2 , developed exclusively for the Xbox 360, currently set for release via the Xbox Live service in Spring 2007. While a full length project is also planned for some point in the future, Hoberman is reluctant to reveal too much about the studio's plans.

We spoke to Hoberman about leaving Bungie, Certain Affinity's formation, and the company's strategic partnership with Microsoft and Bungie.

When did you begin working to found Certain Affinity?

In some ways I started before I even worked at Bungie. I did graphic design on the side in college, and also did some work for Aspyr when they were opening their doors, so I had some money saved up when I graduated. My friend Charlie and I decided that we'd blow the summer trying to make a game. We called ourselves Goblin Games and started small, intentionally as unambitious as possible--our first title, a multiplayer only game for the Mac, sported the intentionally generic title Space Battle. Unfortunately this was also our last title--Charlie got hung up in the sound code, and I got hung up struggling with buggy 3D software, and school started up for him again, so I had to look for a real job.

In September that same year, 1997, I got an offer from Bungie and so put my plans for a game company on hold. But I've often considered it since. As Bungie's co-founder Alex Seropian used to say, it's better to be The Man than to work for The Man.

He also said a lot of other things far too inappropriate to include here.

Why did you decide to move on from Bungie?

I decided to move back to Austin for family reasons, though it wasn't entirely clear what would happen long term. I didn't actually decide to move on from Bungie until I met Paul Isaac, a programmer formerly with Digital Anvil and prior to that with Origin, and now our engineering lead--I learned way back in the Space Battle days, not to mention from years at Bungie, the importance of strong programming talent and leadership. Ironically, my friend Charlie later dropped out of college and joined me at Bungie, eventually becoming the engineering lead on Halo 2 and Halo 3!

I made a decision when I joined the development team at Bungie that I wanted to make games more than I wanted to run a business, so I seriously investigated the possibility of starting up a Bungie studio in Austin or even a Microsoft game studio rather than striking out on my own. The timing and risk involved wasn't right for either, Bungie because they have their hands full and Microsoft because they'd just shut down Digital Anvil. I admit I was a little taken aback, but only because I knew it meant more risk and more hard work, but deep down I was excited at the prospect of starting a company. It wasn't easy leaving my friends at Bungie, but I'm having a great time and I'm optimistic about where Certain Affinity is heading.

How difficult was it for you to leave the Halo 3 multiplayer project in the hands of other people, and how did you go about preparing the team working on that?

It helped that I knew I was going to be leaving about a year in advance. As the ambition of the project grew the team also grew, so there were far more people intimately involved in multiplayer, online planning, UI, etc. than there had been on Halo 2. The multiplayer team and leadership at Bungie are talented and more than capable of delivering an awesome experience, so it turned out to be pretty easy to leave, professionally anyway. It was a lot harder on a personal level.

What do you feel you have learnt from working with Bungie?

My experience at Bungie was probably the best thing that ever could have happened--I've learned just about everything I know about making games! I've also learned how strong leadership and incredible talent can make or break a game and a game company, and how much fun game development can be if you don't take yourself too seriously. I'm currently applying these lessons to Certain Affinity, as evidenced by our innovative "no pants Friday" policy.

What challenges have you faced in setting up and running the company to date?

I could probably go on for days about this, but most of it is fairly common stuff for a new game company. We've faced challenges finding the right people, paying the bills, establishing business relationships, and finding enough time in the day to both run a solid company and do amazing development work. Most of the leadership is doing double duty on game development and helping to run the business, and so far that's worked out well.

Why have you previously commented that you're not "setting out to change the industry", and what aims do you have for the company?

A lot of this goes back to me wanting to make great games more than anything else. We don't have a revolutionary business model; we're just trying to do work at such a high quality bar that we can attract the best talent, build strong partnerships, get to a position where we can create a compelling title, and eventually all get rewarded for its success. We intend to sign with a publisher (we're evaluating them right now, deciding which we think the best fit and strongest potential partner) and hopefully we'll ultimately be able to spend the majority of our time and resources making games instead of split between game development, work for hire, and making ends meet.

How and why did you enter into the partnership with Microsoft and Bungie to produce Halo 2 maps?

I worked on Halo 3 after I moved back to Austin, and also helped with Halo 2 for Vista, but as these games moved further and further into production that work dried up. I want to be making games more than anything, so Bungie hit me up on the idea of making Halo 2 multiplayer maps and seeing if I could build a team capable of that type of work.

It's possible this could have led to me staying part of Bungie and hiring some full time artists instead of contractors, after we'd proven ourselves, but you don't need engineers or even many more designers for multiplayer maps, and maps aren't as fulfilling as working on a game. Staying with Bungie remotely also meant losing a number of strong developers that I'd become friends with in Austin. Eventually I had to make a tough call, and I chose the riskier path. I was able to work out an arrangement with Bungie to continue work on Halo 2 multiplayer maps as a separate company, and this was important as it provided the initial funding for the company and laid a foundation for a potential longer term relationship with Microsoft.

How important is it for you to develop and maintain partnerships of this nature?

Right now it's critical. Creating a game at the high standard we've set for ourselves is time consuming and resource intensive, and we're hoping that relationships like this will buy us enough time to create a publisher-ready demonstration that's true to our vision.

What do you feel the new maps will add to the game, and are you approaching them differently to the way you approached the game previously?

The maps that we're working on should be a breath of fresh air, not because the current maps aren't awesome, but because it's been a while since Halo 2 fans have seen anything new. All of them are currently playable and we're having a blast testing them - yes, that's the fun part - but I don't think Bungie is quite ready for me to reveal anything else.

Interestingly enough, we have more people working on these maps than we've previously had on Halo 2 maps. This is partially because most of the team is still new to Halo development, but it's also a reflection of the level of artistic and design quality that we're shooting for. Based on the experiences that we've had on the maps so far I'll go out on a limb and say that Halo fans are going to give these maps a very warm reception!

Why did you hire the team that you have for Certain Affinity?

That's a tough question since we brought each person on for a different reason. We now have experienced leadership and strong talent representing most of the major disciplines and fitting our immediate needs, and both of these qualities are critical in our hiring.

After our 10th hire, an art lead named Chris Wood, we thought we were done hiring for a bit. Everyone asked me about this and I said that we didn't have any open positions, but that if someone absolutely phenomenal came along that we'd figure out how to bring him or her on board regardless. Of course that's exactly what happened, so we're considering hiring an 11th employee, a concept artist that's too good to pass up. This puts more pressure on the business, but in the long run he'll be invaluable.

How important do you feel the average "12 years in the business" is?

Tenure alone doesn't mean much, but it's important to have the right mix of experience and naivetť. Experience helps you make solid plans and smart decisions not only in your own area of expertise, but across the board. Having the leadership at Certain Affinity be experienced in game development and in business helps keep everyone here down to earth and working towards common and achievable goals. The trick is to temper experience and caution with the right mix of ambition and inspiration. It's too early to tell whether we have the right balance, but this is always at the top of our mind as we grow our people and as we hire new employees.

Will you be continuing to work exclusively with Microsoft and Xbox 360, or will we see Certain Affinity branching out to other platforms?

There's nothing binding us to Microsoft and the Xbox 360, right now we're investigating all options. That said, we're currently working on the Xbox 360 and have a lot of experience on it so it's definitely our choice platform for the time being.

What plans do you currently have for full length game development?

Right now we're focused on producing great Halo maps and on creating a solid plan for our game and an amazing demonstration that shows it off. By the time we've reached that point we expect to have wrapped up this map work and whether everyone goes into development on our game or we continue to do work for hire remains to be seen. Yes, we're being cagey!


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