In the run up to the release of Halo 4, Microsoft's blockbuster Xbox 360 exclusive that launched this week, the question every Halo fan wanted to know was this: how good a job had 343 Industries, the studio set up by Microsoft to take on the beloved franchise after Bungie waved it goodbye with the release of Halo: Reach in 2010, done?
But what most Halo fans don't know is 343 wasn't alone in taking on Microsoft's most treasured IP - it had a little help from an unsung hero.
That unsung hero is Certain Affinity, a studio you've probably never heard of before.
Certain Affinity, a six year old independent developer based in Austin, Texas, was the only outside company 343 contracted to help with the development of Halo 4. It started its work in early 2011, ramping up to 85 staff as it co-developed a raft of Halo 4's features - including perhaps its most innovative. But you'd never know it.
Certain Affinity co-developed War Games, Halo 4's competitive multiplayer portion, developed the majority of the War Games maps, developed all of the maps in Forge, Halo's user-creation tool and created some of the competitive multiplayer modes, including Dominion. In short, if you're playing and enjoying Halo 4, you're probably playing and enjoying something Certain Affinity played a part in creating.
“Every single product 343 has released to date, if we haven't been the sole developer then we've been the co-developer," Max Hoberman, president of Certain Affinity, tells Eurogamer. "If nothing else I would say we've been instrumental in helping 343 transition their stewardship of the franchise from Bungie to them.”
Every single product 343 has released to date, if we haven't been the sole developer then we've been the co-developer. If nothing else I would say we've been instrumental in helping 343 transition their stewardship of the franchise from Bungie to them
Certain Affinity president Max Hoberman
Hoberman is keen to praise 343 for its work on Halo 4, and points out that he is not suggesting they haven't been the overwhelming driving force on the project. “It's a very respectful relationship. We have a good relationship with 343. We don't want to downplay all the awesome work they've done.”
But he agrees with the suggestion that Halo 4 fans have probably never heard of Certain Affinity and will, for the most part, play through the game oblivious to the fact that the developer played a part in its creation.
“That's one of the reasons why we're reaching out,” he says. “We've just decided we need to be a bit more proactive about talking about ourselves. We're pretty humble and we don't often talk about ourselves. We don't mind letting other people be in the limelight.
“But this was such a huge engagement for us over an extended period of time. I'll be honest, we want to make sure more people are more aware of what we do.”
Certain Affinity's love affair with Halo - and indeed other high-profile first-person shooter games - goes back a long way: over 10 years in fact.
Hoberman is a 10-year veteran of Bungie, and, according to his bio on the Certain Affinity website, “was one of the key people responsible for the success of the Halo franchise, having led efforts to bring the game online as Multiplayer, Interface, and Online lead for both Halo 2 and Halo 3”.
Certain Affinity's first gig was to create the Blastacular Map Pack for Halo 2 - a job secured off the back of Hoberman's relationship with Bungie. But after that it branched out. It tried its hand at its own IP, with Age of Booty, an original strategy game for PSN and XBLA, and, more recently, Crimson Alliance, an original action role-playing game for XBLA. It even found time to create the Xbox 360 version of Left 4 Dead for Valve. But the foundation of its reputation as a quality co-developer was built by by the work done on the biggest video game franchise the world has ever seen: Call of Duty.
Certain Affinity co-developed the multiplayer for two of Treyarch's efforts: World at War and Black Ops, the best-selling game of all time. This, coupled with the co-development of Halo Waypoint, the Defiant Map Pack DLC for Halo: Reach and multiplayer content for Halo Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition, helped Certain Affinity secure the Halo 4 contract.
“Obviously my deep background with Bungie and Halo originally got our foot in the door with the Blastacular Map Pack,” Hoberman says. “But ever since then the quality of the work we do and the reputation we've built for ourselves has been what's helped us.
“I'm sure you've heard the expression, 'you're only as good as your last game.' I and a couple of other ex-Bungie guys are involved, but really the team itself and the quality of work we've done most recently on two Call of Duty games is what opened the door for us to get back involved with Halo.”
Hoberman is proud of all the work Certain Affinity did on Halo 4, but he highlights the Dominion mode, which fans are already hailing as the best new multiplayer mode to hit Halo in years.
You can play slayer or capture the flag all day long. But trying to introduce a new game that's on par with those games is really hard. We have high hopes for Dominion.
Dominion is Halo 4's take on the territories game type. It features three bases that need to be captured. Once a base is captured it starts a fortification process, unlocking defensive features such as shields and turrets. When a team takes control of all three bases the enemy team is put into Last Stand mode. All these players are issued an Overshield so they can take extra damage, but they each have only one life left.
“I'm dying to see what people think of Dominion,” Hoberman says. “It's something new. It's something that's going to take people by surprise. I'm just crossing my fingers people are going to enjoy it. You can play slayer or capture the flag all day long, but trying to introduce a new game that's on par with those games is really hard. We have high hopes for Dominion.”
“It's always hard to source ideas,” Phil Wattenbarger, vice president of product development, adds. “What was the genesis of this? When we first started working with 343 they were interested in taking some risks and some chances and working on a big battle type game mode. People liked Invasion. They liked the ambition of Invasion. But they didn't like the accessibility of it. They felt it wasn't accessible enough.
“So it was posed to us like that: how can we get a really great big battle type experience that's a lot more accessible than Invasion? That was a great starting point of the discussion. They came to us with that and then there was a lot of back and forth as we went through the development on evolving the idea and getting it playable and ultimately super accessible and, frankly, a lot of fun. We think it's a unique part of the multiplayer.”
With work on the content that shipped on the Halo 4 discs complete Certain Affinity is hard at work on downloadable content. But what then? It's got a mobile verion of Age of Booty due out early next year, a couple of prototypes in development, but its ultimate goal is to make a high-profile triple-A game for itself - its own Halo.
“We see every project we work on as a stepping stone to help us get closer to that goal. Every self-funded project is a great opportunity to get experience,” Hoberman says.
“We're pretty patient. We take a slow and steady approach. But that is our ultimate goal, to get hooked up with a publisher interested in us creating something really big and original and triple-A.”
You never know, in the next few years, Hoberman and Certain Affinity might just manage it.