Max Hoberman is a Bungie alumnus of no small standing. He’s one of the people who brought you Halo 2 Matchmaking, and is in part responsible for the fact that Halo 2 is still the most-played Xbox Live game, ever. So when he went off to Texas to form his own studio, we shed a tear of sadness. Then he started billing us and the tears became tears of rage.
Max and his company, Certain Affinity have taken their first baby steps in the world of game development by recreating two classic Halo maps, but as you’ll read, these baby steps will soon turn into giant strides. Certain Affinity has filled some big boots with some big guns.
But without further ado, let’s ask Max about remaking these classics, and what we can expect from Certain Affinity in the future.
First off, why remake a map nobody has ever heard of, or cares about, like Hang ‘Em High?
Well “why?” is the easy part—Hang ‘Em High was a clear fan favorite from Halo 1. It seems like over time this has become even clearer, which has gotta be, at least in part, due to a great deal of nostalgia.
So if the map was so popular why not port it to Halo 2 in the first place, along with Battle Creek and Blood Gulch?
We wanted to remake Hang ‘Em High for Halo 2, but we were intimidated by it—the changed movement, the lack of falling damage and the changed weapons on the design side, the challenge of making the bizarre geometry look good for the artists. It’s also a minefield working on a map so many people feel so strongly about. So we experimented with it early in Halo 2 development but weren’t happy with the results, and our multiplayer team was tiny so we had to pick our battles. After we shipped we considered it for the map pack, but most of the artists and designers working on those maps had previously worked on campaign, so I didn’t want to push a particularly challenging map on them, and no one offered to pick it up.
Did you always plan on someday bringing it to Halo 2? When did you start working on it again?
After I moved down to Austin, but while I was still working remotely for Bungie, we started experimenting with modifying the vertical scale of the map to replicate the feel of the original. I was impressed with the start we’d made, so we dove right in to prototyping it, oblivious to the art challenge. (I’m a designer, art is easy!)
When I left Bungie and started Certain Affinity we had to make decisions about which of the 5 or 6 maps we’d been experimenting with we’d move forward on. At that point the map, codenamed “High Plains,” was too literal a port of Hang ‘Em High, and in all honesty wasn’t as fun as it needed to be. Mike brought some fresh perspective and interesting ideas to the table, and I realized that the only way this map would live up to peoples’ expectations was if we took some liberties. Peter Marks was working for me when he designed the original (his first map too!), and I knew what was intentional and what was a happy accident, so we started over on paper planning out subtle changes that we felt would fix the problems while staying true to the original intent.
These changes paid off, and so we committed to re-creating the map despite the considerable challenge we faced giving the crazy geometry a world-class makeover. It ended up taking a ton of work, but I’m thrilled with both the gameplay and the visuals on the final product!
We’ve been following your progress, We know you guys put a huge amount of effort into both of these maps. But why did it take so long? The pressure from fans must have been relentless.
Once we decided what we were working on we still had to build a team and learn the tools. I did the multiplayer design on Halo 2, but even though I had artists working with me I never had to get my feet wet on the visuals. In all honesty you never really know someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes, and I have a huge amount of respect for Bungie’s artists after what we’ve gone through with these levels.
In all honesty, while it seems like it took a while to create these, we had to not only build a team from scratch, we also had to teach ourselves the art tools without much in the way of documentation or support from Bungie, as you guys obviously have your hands full. That, coupled with the super high visual bar we shot for on these maps, which were both designed with zero consideration for performance, conspired to eat up a huge amount of time and energy. The pressure from the fans, mainly trying to make sure we’re as true as possible to the good qualities of the originals, was just icing on the cake of expectations. CA’s art team—Chris Wood, Steve Pietzsch, Dean McCall, Brad Jeansonne, and of course Shishka—did a phenomenal job with both of these levels. I’m proud of the end result; these maps look gorgeous and are a blast to play!
Max Hoberman finally finds the Easter Egg in Hang 'Em High.
Obviously Tombstone is very, very close to the original, but what changes can we expect and for what reason?
Besides the obvious game engine changes (movement, jump height, falling damage, weapons, no H1 pistol, etc.) we did make a few tweaks to the map. This wasn’t actually our goal when we started, as we knew that any changes risked ruining a good thing, but it was inevitable given the changed game and how much we’ve playtested the map. While I’m sure plenty of people will still claim we broke Hang ‘Em High, I think the majority will agree that we made the right calls.
The biggest changes we’ve made on the map are redoing the starting weapons and weapon layout, and improved connectivity. For example, there’s now an overshield at one end of the canal and a rocket launcher at the other. There’s now a most delicious way to travel between the long hallways and the walkway above, just behind red base. (Incidentally, we had to switch red base and blue base from the original in order to make 1-flag CTF work properly in the engine.) There’s a sneaky way up the catwalk to the left of blue base from the ground below, and there are numerous other sneaky shortcuts, usually by crouch-jumping on top of tombstones, including back alley paths into bases. Oh, and lest I forget, no more lip on the canal to get stuck on! (Someone is bound to say we ruined the map by removing this!)
"I have to admit, I wasn't a fan of the original Derelict either"
Desolation is an awesome map, and actually massively improved this time around – but it wasn’t one of the more famous fan faves – so can you explain why this one was picked, of all the maps to remake?
I have to admit, I wasn’t a fan of the original Derelict either. However, when we started the project we wanted to create a map that would be fun for small groups of players and we wanted an arena, ideally something that would appeal to Midship fans. I drew the layout of Derelict in Illustrator and started tweaking things, and in the process I realized that the map was a diamond in the rough. We made a few quick and dirty changes to test these ideas out, and lo and behold, the map was a blast!
Though I love team games I’ve always been a fan of small maps (less running, more carnage!), but there are few opportunities for the two to meet. This was why I insisted on porting Wizard to Halo 2, though I wasn’t entirely happy with the gameplay results. That’s also where the inspiration for Midship came from. It turns out Derelict, with a few simple changes, is an awesome arena map and an awesome team map, far better than Warlock in my opinion. Just rip the roof off so you can throw grenades across the map and so that it’s bright and sunny out … replace the teleporters with jump pads … move the flag locations to the upper level, across from each other but with no straight line path … add a sneaky alternate path between the levels and put a shotgun in it … this map is gold I tell you, gold!
What were the biggest challenges in remaking two maps when folks are so invested in the originals?
Everyone had a different experience with the originals. I don’t think this mattered so much with Desolation, as no one was too attached to Derelict, but this mattered big time for Tombstone. Personally I played at lot of rockets, snipers, and slayer with assault rifle/pistol start on Hang ‘Em High. I didn’t even realize until later in the project that the Plasma Rifle was actually the default starting weapon, or that the shotguns in the bunkers get replaced with sniper rifles in CTF games. This turned out to be a huge problem—there’s definitely a group out there that played with Plasma Rifle starts and that loved CTF, two things that we weren’t taking very seriously. I will say that we decided against a Plasma Rifle start, and that we made some major changes to the way CTF plays, but ultimately we put tons of work into ensuring that CTF is a blast. We just had an epic 1-flag CTF match in a playtest today, in fact, good times!
There are some important differences in Halo 2 gameplay that affect how the maps play – talk to us about dual wielding and of course, fall damage.
Well you see, dual wielding is where you can pick up two … nevermind. Let’s just say the weapons in general are changed from Halo 1, and that has as much, if not more, impact on the way it plays as dual wielding does. The more obvious differences, however, are changed movement and jump height and no falling damage or stun. We had to scale the map vertically way more than you’d have thought necessary to account for the higher jump height in Halo 2, and this led to ramps that were way too steep and all manner of other problems. The big center ramp on Tombstone was the worst offender, and ultimately it stuck out so far and looked so silly that we decided to replace it, in part, with a lift. Yes, there’s a lift on Tombstone. Wacky.
As for falling damage, it is what it is, which I guess in Halo 2 means it isn’t, and there’s nothing we can do about it. This ended up having the most impact on the weapon layout, as the risk in going on the catwalks is decreased and it’s far easier to get weapons up high and down low in quick succession, without even stunned movement from falling to slow you down. This ultimately led us to rearrange weapon layouts a great deal, which I’m sure will be a topic of hot debate from now to eternity!
You guys built some pretty interesting audio for both maps. Talk to me about monkeys!
I should probably leave this one to our audio director, Martin Galway. But I won’t. Wait, did you say monkeys? I take that back.
Alright, just kidding. It turns out that striking the right balance between calm, idyllic multiplayer environments and the fierce firefights that drown out environmental audio in multiplayer games is a real trick. I definitely recommend that people run around these maps with a nice surround sound system though, they sound great!
What are your fundamental tips for playing in these new maps, and what game types would you recommend?
I just sent you a whole slew of tips and tricks, might I humbly suggest you turn that into a strategy guide? (Ahhh, should have held that back until after the Humpday!)
As for game types, my personal favorites on Desolation are Slayer, Rockets, Juggernaut, and Multi Flag CTF. Actually I also enjoy Neutral Flag CTF, this is probably the very best map for that silly game! You’ll see why when you try it.
On Tombstone I enjoy Slayer and Team Slayer, Rockets (though Shishka and Clopticon win too damn often, annoying), Oddball (same goes for Pokey), Swords (make sure you try this one!), and especially 1-flag CTF, fast please, with fries, and every so often with a little sumthin’ sumthin’ that can be enabled....
"I ownz you, noob."
Are there any Easter Eggs players should look out for?
Do you really want me to answer this?
We'll take that as a 'maybe.' What is your personal favorite Halo 1 map and why?
That’s a tough one. My fondest memories are probably from Wizard, but mainly because we used to play these absolutely insane CTF Shotty games on there with about 10 Bungie guys.
What’s your favorite Halo 2 map and why?
Hands down, Lockout. I hate running. I love a mix of short and medium range battles. I love always having enemies around the next bend to blast with my shotgun. I love vertical loops. I adore lobbing grenades into the middle of other peoples’ battles and strategic bouncing of frag grenades. And I absolutely, positively, love a map that lets me move around like a ninja.
So did Shishka fare any better in your internal playtests than he used to do over here at Bungie?
I asked him, he says “I ownz u noob.”
Frankie once said that Hang ‘em High wasn’t initially ported to Halo 2 because the map was no longer fun when applied to the Halo 2 game engine and changes. What do you have to say to this, now that the map IS done for Halo 2 and is quite fun.
Well, Frankie was right at the time, no longer fun was certainly our initial assessment. There was a lot of risk involved in bringing this old favorite to Halo 2, but the results speak for themselves.
Thanks for the interview, Sketch! I didn’t really get a chance earlier, but since there are no credits I want to thank everyone at Bungie and MS that helped make this project a success, and give a special thanks to you and Frankie, Harold Ryan, Paul Clift, to our awesome producer Matt Priestley and Bungie-side project manager Zach Russell, artists Marcus Lehto, Mike Zak, and Chris Barrett, audio guys Jay Weinland and C Paul, and to test lead Doug Boyce and tester Jeremiah Pieschl. I also want to give a special thanks to Phil Spencer and to Jay Ong and Kirsten Duvall from biz dev, the Building 116 crew from Microsoft, who helped playtest, as well as the MTC guys down here in Austin who were kind enough to loan us office space. All of these guys and gals helped make this project a reality and helped make these maps awesome, can’t wait til the 17th!
Certain Affinity's bourgoise luxury office tower.
That’s enough about the maps. Let’s find out a little bit about the Certain Affinity corporation! You’re a video game studio with a mysterious name. We demand you explain it.
C’mon, is it really any less mysterious than the name Bungie? I know the true origin of that name, by the way, got it straight from The Man. And it’s disgusting I tell you. Now as for Certain Affinity, I’ll admit, it is a bit longer than your typical name, so we usually say CA. As for the origin, I’ll tell you sometime in the future; you might feel a bit uneasy, but you won’t feel the need to take a shower.
"We model ourselves in large part after Bungie"
Fine, I’ll hit you up on the company name again later. Here’s a freebie. You’re a video game studio with a surprising breadth and depth of talent. Want to drop some names?
We definitely have some real talent on the team, glad you noticed! I’ll just throw out some names and leave it to anyone that’s interested to dig up dirt on these guys. Martin Galway is our audio director and manager of operations. Paul Isaac is our engineering lead. Dave Bowman is our design lead. Chris Wood is our art lead. Mike Clopper is our designer. Pete Carter is our engineer. Steve Pietzsch and Dean McCall are our modelers. Brad Jeansonne is our concept artist. Chad “Shishka” Armstrong is our technical artist. Oh, and me of course. I just do interviews and generally try to look busy.
What’s the studio’s philosophy? And is there another outfit you model yourselves after?
We model ourselves in large part after Bungie in its early days. Not that there’s anything wrong with Bungie now, but the earlier model is more fitting for a startup and a small team. The biggest difference is our development focus (Bungie was also a publisher) and our console focus. Our philosophy is to create fun, social, action-oriented games, and have a great time doing it! Perhaps we need something deeper, but that’s really what it comes down to, so why beat around the bush?
You guys are based in Austin, TX. What are the advantages of that location?
Austin is an awesome town with a lot of personality and a great home for a game studio. There are more than 50 game companies in town and tons of other high tech companies, not to mention the University of Texas, so there’s a huge community of developers and a huge pool of talent to draw from.
Austin is also located in the central time zone, which I’ve found has led to me getting to work 2 hours earlier than when I was in Seattle! You Bungie folk are still hitting snooze on your alarm clocks while we’re working like busy bees, so it’s a definite competitive advantage.
We know you worked on these Halo 2 multiplayer maps, but what is Certain Affinity’s eventual goal? I get the feeling this is just the beginning.
We’re still small and modest, so none of this “take over the world” or “shoot enemies into the sun with a giant slingshot” business. We just want to get to the point where we can invent our own worlds and create our own games. If in the process we end up destroying this world and making our creations a reality, well, that’d be great, but we realize that’s ambitious so we’re taking baby steps.
Can you tell us anything about other projects in the works, or what’s next once these maps have shipped?
We’ve been working on an original title since November but we’re not ready to say anything publicly about it yet. We’ve spoken with most of the major publishers and there’s serious interest, so our goal is to continue self-funding the company until we’re ready to sign a publishing deal and move everyone full time onto this project.
Now that you guys are in Texas, has Shishka had any run-ins with the real Lord British?
Funny you should ask! For those not in the know, ever since Frankie pointed out Shishka’s uncanny resemblance to Lord British we’ve been giving him a hard time about it. A number of our ex-Origin and ex-NCSoft guys know Richard personally, so we’ve brainstormed all sorts of schemes to get the two of them together. Unfortunately we’ve been so busy on these Halo maps that we haven’t had a chance to pull anything off, but when we do we’ll send you a photo! I expect you’ll have to censor parts of it if you want to share it with your readers. Speaking of which, when is the world at large going to see some of those, ahem … security camera photos with Charlie, his two pals, and, um … you know who?
Those photos don’t officially exist. So tell me, what are the biggest challenges to overcome when creating your own game studio from the ground up?
As far as I’ve seen so far there are two huge challenges. First, it’s really difficult to build a strong team. You want experienced and talented game developers, but the more experienced and talented the person the more likely they’re a) employed, b) happy, and c) well compensated. Now in reality b) and c) don’t always coincide, so things can work out, but it inevitably leads to the second challenge—talented, experienced people are expensive. These are both major hurdles I’m sure every new company faces, but so far we’ve done a great job building a world-class team and managing to self-fund in the process.
When you’re not working on Halo 2 maps, what games is your team playing around the office?
Honestly, not much! Not around the office anyway, everyone enjoys Halo far too much for that! It’s a real testament to the longevity of Halo 2’s multiplayer that we’re still having so much fun playtesting all the time! I’m sure this will change soon, as we move on to other projects … I know Dave has some obscure -blam!- party games he wants us to try out.
Who’s the best Halo 2 player on your team?
That sort of depends on your definition of best. Shishka is clearly the best shot with the battle rifle, but if you take that away he’s like a crying, bed-wetting infant. Our concept artist, Brad Jeansonne (“Pokey”), has become uncannily good at Oddball of all things (reminding me of Bungie artist Dave Candland’s wholly unjustified Oddball skillz). Then there’s Mike Clopper (“Clopticon”) who’s a dead shot in Rockets, and Pete Carter (“Pete” … I know, lame) who’s just all around good, and he’s not really left-handed! I’m not bad either, I’ve definitely improved a ton since starting on this project!
Which reminds me, when are we going to have that Bungie vs. CA Humpday Challenge on these maps? We always have to divvy our best players up between teams, can’t wait to beat you at your own game together!
Soon! In the meantime, are you still looking for people to join your team? How would someone go about applying to join Certain Affinity?
Always! We haven’t formally opened up a position yet, but we’re looking for an exceptional character artist and an amazing animator. We’re always on the lookout for exceptional developers of all shapes and sizes though, there’s no other way to make AAA quality games. Interested parties should apply to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Who is Max Hogan and what’s his role at Certain Affinity?
You’re a bastard. When are those Tombstone boxers coming out, btw?
Describe Certain Affinity in one word.
That’s a tough one, so I asked a few of the team members to throw out the first word that came to mind. Here’s what I got back:
Indescribable. Experienced. Lightmaps. Wires. Awesome. Invincible. Sack.
"The entire company was small enough that we could all go out to eat together,
and without making reservations!"
Where do you see the game industry in 3 years? 5 years? 10 years?
You don’t really want me to answer this question.
Alright then. How about this. What is the next big trend for the game industry?
Surrendering before the mighty game development prowess of Certain Affinity, of course. But lack of competition will make us lazy, so we’ll let a few choice developers meek out a meager existence making mind games for infants. I’m sure your new baby boy will appreciate it!
What’s your fondest memory from your days with Bungie Studios?
My fondest memory is actually from my nights with Bungie Studios. In fact, one night in particular, when Bungie Studios came in dressed in this … just kidding! My fondest memories are definitely from the early days at Bungie, back in Chicago, when the entire company was small enough we could all go out to eat together, and without making reservations! Probably the best times I had were right after we shipped Myth: The Fallen Lords, both within Bungie, as we planned our next big strategic move to take over the world, and experiencing the awesomeness of an incredible online social experience from the inside out playing Myth on Bungie.net with friends both inside and outside the company night after night after night.
Shishka, off-camera, strips and dances for the Certain Affinity team. With varying critical results.