The "Microsoft" and "343 Industries" names and logos may be most prominently shown on copies of Halo 4 (available today at retailers worldwide), but not all work on the game was done in Redmond, Washington. Halo 4's Forge mode, as well as numerous multiplayer maps and even game modes, were built by independent studio Certain Affinity.
This Austin, Texas-based game studio has a formidable multiplayer development pedigree. The company contributed to Halo 2, Halo: Reach, and Halo Combat Evolved: Anniversary, as well as Call of Duty: World at War and Call of Duty: Black Ops. That makes them the only studio to work on both Halo and Call of Duty.
GameSpot caught up with Certain Affinity president and creative director Max Hoberman (a Bungie alum) and vice president of product development Phil Wattenbarger recently to talk about the studio contributing to one of Microsoft's crown jewels. The discussion touched on the pressure Certain Affinity felt working on the game, the difficulties of contributing to the project remotely, and why it's OK that most players will not spend time in the Forge mode the studio worked so hard to create.
Certain Affinity's position as an external developer contributing to a project the size of Halo 4 is pretty unique. What kinds of challenges did you face not being on-site at Microsoft?
Max Hoberman: This isn't the first time that we've done co-development, so we're not entirely new to it. That said, I would say every time is a little bit different. Every time has its own challenges.
Phil Wattenbarger: One of the biggest challenges is [that] co-development is much different than just being an external vendor when you're just making assets. We're basically trying to be as if we are part of the internal team, just on a remote site. And the challenge is communication and trying to keep in sync and make sure everything is running at the same pace.
Hoberman: We actually are directly connected on their corporate network. Which is a big deal. It's actually really nice. Unlike some other projects we've done, we actually worked directly together with them…rather than being sort of downstream and a little outdated and out of sync, which is usually the norm when you're doing co-development.
If you had a question and you wanted to go and raise it to the actual 343 people at Microsoft, you can't just go over and talk to them, because they aren't there [in Texas]. Did that present any problems?
Hoberman: There's definitely some challenges [and] we overcame that a little bit…because we're on their internal network we're on their same [instant message] system, so we actually could, at any time, just go over to our computer and check and see if someone is online and instantly initiate a chat with them. So that helped a lot. But yeah, there's also a lot of travel involved to try to overcome that communication challenges. I won't lie to you, there were definitely times where it was a little challenging.
We had worked under the umbrella of their publishing organization. It's the same group we worked with for Halo: Anniversary and other projects at Microsoft. And we worked with the publishing group, so we kind of had a dedicated man on the inside over there. And whenever there was something going on that they thought was of interest to us…they would represent for us. But overall, we had a pretty good system. There were some times that it broke down but overall it actually worked fairly well. And that's a result of [Microsoft] putting so much effort into integrating us rather than treating us as a separate studio.
Halo is one of Microsoft's crown jewels, if not the crown jewel. Did you feel much pressure working on Halo 4?
"Yeah, this project had a ton of a pressure."-- Hoberman
Hoberman: Yeah, this project had a ton of a pressure. I don't think the pressure was so much due to the fact that it was Halo and the crown jewel because we've done that before; we've worked on big franchises. I certainly have a history with the Halo franchise. Some of our staff, it was a little bit newer to them. But the internal team at Microsoft / 343, they took what they were doing so, so seriously and they took the responsibility so seriously. They were so reverent about the franchise and it was so critical to them that they treat it respectfully. Honestly, that created a lot of stress because I think for us we were probably more casual and comfortable with it than they were. There was always a little bit of risk there. Not that we weren't taking it seriously, but in all honesty, I think we just have that greater comfort level because we've done it before.
Can you talk about how much oversight there was with regards to Certain Affinity being offsite and working on a big part of the game?
Wattenbarger: We shipped two products--the Defiant Map Pack and Anniversary--working with the [Microsoft] publishing team, so there was a history of working with them and milestone approval. And so we had that kind of history of how we deliver work, how we communicate; and I think the added challenge with Halo 4 was getting on the same page with the internal teams as well. A lot of that was we just had to be very adaptive and understand how they're working internally.
Hoberman: To add to that answer a little bit, we worked on a lot of different stuff on the game. And in some areas we really were affiliated with them and we certainly got feedback, but the feedback was fairly infrequent and fairly limited. And when we were working on multiplayer maps, for instance, we've done that for them before and we've done so much that it was a lot easier. Then we were working on feature work, be that Forge or multiplayer modes, like Dominion, there was a lot more integration and a lot more feedback necessary. And a lot more interaction. So our experience kind of ranged the gamut.
Some of the pressure you probably felt when developing it I would imagine is alleviated now that you've seen some of the early reviews that have been very positive. What's your take on the early round of reviews?
Hoberman: It's been awesome. I think having done this a few times before, we were all…cautiously optimistic about what the reviews would say and what the press would be. We were sort of expecting it to be positive, but you never know for certain, so you always want to be patient and be careful. But yeah, it's really gratifying and it's really awesome. We put a ton of hard work into it; 343 put a years and years of hard work into the game. And a lot of sort of love into the franchise. For us, since we focused on multiplayer a lot more, the jury is still out on multiplayer when you read those reviews. For the stuff we did, we're still taking a sort of wait-and-see attitude. [Ed. Note: GameSpot reviewed Halo 4's multiplayer component, lauding its diversity and praising Forge mode's more user-friendly approach.]
"We were sort of expecting [Halo 4's critical reception] to be positive, but you never know for certain, so you always want to be patient and be careful."--Hoberman
I know that Certain Affinity contributed to Forge mode, but can you talk more about what other contributions Certain Affinity made to the game itself?
Hoberman: We worked on War Games, so most of our focus was on the multiplayer side of things, and we worked on Forge. Kind of broad categories for stuff we did: we did a whole bunch of multiplayer maps for War Games; you've seen a bunch of them. We did a lot of game mode work for War Games, including Dominion, and we also re-did some other classic game modes like Oddball and King of the Hill. And Forge on top of that. [With] Forge, we did the majority of the feature work for Forge. And pretty much all of the content [laughs].
What kinds of differences have you noticed between a 343-developed Halo game and a Bungie Studios-developed Halo game?
Hoberman: From a co-development standpoint, it's been a completely different experience. Because even though we worked on content for [Halo: Reach], we weren't actually working with Bungie, we were working with 343. There was a little bit of a firewall up; we didn't really have any interaction with Bungie. Even though we have some history with them, 343 kept it separate. So [it was] a totally different experience co-developing versus developing at arm's length.
Can you talk about why Certain Affinity is the right studio to assist Microsoft with Halo as opposed to someone else?
Hoberman: History with the franchise is kind of obvious; we have several people here who worked at Bungie on Halo games previously. We have some history with the franchise that predated [343 Industries] even. We did the Halo 2 Blastacular map pack way back when with Bungie. Besides that, we're one of the only people out there that does what we do, which is really AAA multiplayer co-development. There's not a whole lot of other choices anyway [laughs].
I think this is still true. I think we're the only company anywhere that has worked on both Call of Duty and Halo.
Halo's Forge mode may be easy to overlook when it's compared to the game's campaign, War Games, and Spartan Ops. Why should players spend time in Forge mode?
" The majority of people aren't going to get into Forge, but the vast majority of people benefit from the creations of those people who are really willing to invest in it."--Hoberman
Hoberman: Forge is kind of interesting. The approach that Bungie took originally; I was there when we were first kicking it off for Halo 3, and it was really just to try and create something that was really powerful and as a result you end up with a tool that is really powerful, but with great power comes…challenges with accessibility. You can do something really crappy really quickly, but to do something really well takes a ton of craftsmanship. Forge isn't necessarily for everyone.
One of our goals this time around was to make Forge more accessible; we wanted to make it a little bit easier and broader the audience. The majority of people aren't going to get into Forge, but the vast majority of people benefit from the creations of those people who are really willing to invest in it. And that's where you end up with Grifball and all these other community-created game modes and original creations and the Flood. And the original Infection-type game modes. Even though we tried to make Forge mode more accessible, ultimately the majority of people, even if they don't get into Forge, they'll still benefit from Forge.
Like you were saying, [Forge] is more accessible this time around. Are you hearing any critical feedback from people who playtested it or in the wild now that they're not so happy with that you've made it more approachable?
Hoberman: We made a conscious effort to preserve all of the prior functionality. In making it more accessible we were just adding features on top of what was already there. We weren't sort of dumbing it down. Not a lot of people have gotten their hands on it, but the response has been super positive. So far there's been one little issue that has come up inadvertently that we're talking about possibly addressing through a patch. Otherwise, so far so good.
What's the extent of the issue if you can talk about that?
Hoberman: There's just something that we overlooked that allows you to move objects around with intimate detail that…like I said, it's just an oversight on our part and we're already talking about getting it fixed. We'll see what comes up, but like I said, our goal is to preserve all the functionality and add features that make it more accessible.
User-generated content is playing a bigger and bigger role in games today. Competition for modes like Forge is certainly ramping up. Do you look much at what the competition is doing with regards to these content-creation tools?
Hoberman: Yeah, we look around. When you're in the AAA FPS space, there's really not a lot to look to. You end up with the Crysis-type stuff and what not, but really, Forge is kind of its own very interesting and unique take on map-editing. Because it isn't a full-blown editor. You can't do everything. And it's not Call of Duty, which releases the actual editors to the community on PC. Because [Halo 4] is on the console, it's just kind of inherently more limited. So there's really not a lot of analogs, so we end up blazing new trails most of the time.
We actually brought some community map makers in, got them under [non-disclosure agreements]; brought them in while we were developing Forge to let them try it out and build some stuff and give us some actual feedback on the maps and the feature set. So we're just trying really hard to get it right. And make sure that whatever we put out there is going to be heads and tails above whatever came before us.
What can you say is a distinguishing trait between a Certain Affinity-developed Forge mode as compared to the others?
"I honestly think that these few features that we added [to Forge] are just going to blow the lid off the creativity for the community and what they can do"--Hoberman
Hoberman: Our approach was to take what was already there, use that as a foundation, and just add to it. I think three things that we're most proud of is first, we were able to preserve what was there. And the second is that we were able to make it more accessible while preserving what was there. And third, we also were able just to sneak a few additional features in. Along the way we had some cool ideas and we were able to put a couple new features in there. I honestly think that these few features that we added are just going to blow the lid off the creativity for the community and what they can do.
Is there going to be a Forge mode playlist online for Matchmaking?
Hoberman: I don't know [343 Industries'] final plan. I know that day-one, they have a plan that is sort of more compact in what's available in matchmaking. And over time they are going to open it up more. I don't know specifically if they're going to have a Forge-specific playlist, but I know initially they are trying to rely on Forge content in matchmaking a little bit less than Halo: Reach did.
Is Certain Affinity signed up for the Reclaimer Trilogy, being Halo 5 and 6?
Hoberman: We are working on two of the three map packs that have been announced for War Games. But we can't talk about anything beyond that.
Halo 4 released today exclusively on Xbox 360 for $60. A $25 War Games map pass is also available.