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Bungie Jumping

Certain Affinity founder Max Hoberman on making the leap and setting up his own studio.

Halo fans and industry insiders were surprised by the recent unveiling of Austin-based developer Certain Affinity. Founded by Bungie veteran Max Hoberman, the studio's first project is the production of multiplayer maps for Halo 2. sat down with Hoberman and Martin Galway, the studio's operations manager, for an exclusive chat about the ten-person company, how they got started and what they're planning next.

"I knew I wanted to start a company," Max Hoberman begins. "I've known it for years and years." Originally from Austin, he left to work for Bungie in the mid-nineties and, "After years of trying, we were finally able to come back."

Before his near-decade at Bungie, Hoberman had other brushes with game development. He knew the founders when Mac publisher Aspyr first started, and in college he and a roommate decided to spend the summer developing a game.

"It didn't work out so well," recalls Hoberman. But one good result was the roommate later joined Bungie, becoming an engineer on Halo, Halo 2 and now Halo 3.

In the meantime, there was still the imperative to return home. Hoberman seriously considered opening a Bungie studio in Austin but the logistics, he says, just weren't right. "[Bungie is] happy to keep me on board, working remotely. But they don't want to open another studio and handle all the extra work that goes with that," he explains.

When Hoberman left Seattle, he worked on Halo 3 remotely. "Online, UI, planning... All sorts of stuff. I did that for a long time." He also wrote initial high-level online plans for Halo 2 Vista.

When both those projects reached the implementation and iteration stages, Hoberman was no longer able to work on them remotely - "They won't even let a build of Halo 3 leave the building." So he started thinking about the long term.

Perfect timing

"They've got too much on their plate," Hoberman explains. "Between Halo 3, continued support of Halo 2 online... The Halo Wars thing coming out, the Peter Jackson thing, all sorts of other stuff. There was just no way it was going to work out."

Hoberman began speaking with Bungie's acting studio manager, Harold Ryan. "Harold proposed that I hire a few contractors to make some multiplayer maps. And it would give me a good chance to get to know some local talent."

Back in November, prior to Certain Affinity's announcement, Microsoft revealed that the additional maps would be available for purchase in the spring. "It started with Harold proposing it, I ran with it."

Hoberman also spoke with the Microsoft Games Studio executives about starting an Austin office. But having closed Digital Anvil last year, they weren't keen on opening another studio in the city. After evaluating all the options, Hoberman told MGS: "I'm starting something, with or without you."

They settled on a good working relationship. "As a result of that," Hoberman says, "We're doing these Halo 2 maps now. And other things going on that I can't really talk about."

Bungie told Hoberman they would rather that he work on their Halo projects than anyone else. "And the guys that run the Microsoft Games Group would much rather I were working on games for the 360, than on any other console."

Hoberman concludes, "Those guys have a personal interest in our success." Which has allowed Certain Affinity to get off to a strong start.

Building bridges

"It was a happy accident to find so much game development in Austin," Hoberman says. Earlier in the year, he and his family were invited to a fourth of July party hosted by a former Digital Anvil employee. There he met Martin Galway and Paul Isaac.

Isaac is now Certain Affinity's engineering lead. "With Paul around, it's easy to hire good programmers." And Galway, whose experience in game development pre-dates the Commodore 64, oversees day-to-day operations, as well as production and audio.

Galway speaks of seeing what's been done in companies, right or wrong. After watching how a game company is supposed to work, "It comes totally naturally."

"I met a bunch of good people," recalls Hoberman, "And realised that the time is right to be able to pull this off. All the stars were aligned. [It was] start something up, or lose these good people. I wasn't willing to let the opportunity slip through my fingers."

Since July, the majority of Hoberman's free time has been spent interviewing people. "Now I have nine guys working for me. The group of people that we have is phenomenal," he says.

"I'm really happy with how it's gone," adds Galway. "That's one of the keys of being happy in your job: work with people you like. There's no one at Certain Affinity that I don't like."

So far, the company is self-funded, though much of the funding comes from the relationship with Microsoft. "Microsoft's a great partner, and we're founding this company with that partnership in place. Both with Bungie and with Microsoft."

"We're doing work for hire for them," Hoberman says of Microsoft. Certain Affinity could have gotten venture funding but, "I've avoided it [because] we haven't needed it yet. I believe if you can pull it off [being debt free] it's the best way to start a business." He reiterates, "To be completely honest, I'd love to be completely independent, if I can make it work."

Forward planning

And there are two projects in the works. The aforementioned map-pack for Halo 2, and one project they can't talk about. "The only thing we've said publicly," Hoberman hints, "Is that it's not a massively multiplayer game."

"Well, it's definitely on the Xbox 360," Galway adds. "We're prototyping it on the Xbox 360," says Hoberman.

"Long term business relationships are not set in stone," he continues. "We're not locked to the 360 right now." The company is using the Xbox 360 for the Halo 2 maps, "And it makes sense to be working on the 360 for other things."

"Personally," Hoberman concludes, "I like the 360 a lot. The 360 and Xbox Live, both. We have every intent of being on the 360, but we're not obliged to be on it." As evidence, he points to the Xbox Live features for Halo 3 - "It's years ahead of everything that's out there."

Multiplayer and online feature prominently in Hoberman's background. But Galway likes to describe the company as "a general-purpose bunch of experts". Sharing the same background, "We [all] did these dual-track games that have an online and single player component."

Hoberman continues, "The games we've worked on have never been exclusive." Galway says they all like the cinematic storytelling approach, "But we don't attach second priority to human-versus-human." Hoberman adds, "We don't want to say too much."

Something else that Hoberman can't say anything about is the origin of the studio's name, Certain Affinity. "That actually goes back to stuff that I'm not allowed to talk about, from within Bungie. So I'll have to leave it at that."

Hoberman has structured the company to make sure that "if Certain Affinity is phenomenally successful, everyone working there will also be phenomenally successful". He and Galway have been employees before, and see the value of making sure the best talent is paid well and kept happy.

In the end, Max Hoberman says that starting Certain Affinity isn't about money. "If it were about the money, I would have just stayed employed at Bungie. That's not what's driving us. What's driving us is making fun games. Games that we love to play."