Texas-based indie game developer Certain Affinity has an interesting split of projects, having been formed by Bungie veterans and having first worked
on add-on map packs for Halo 2
However, the firm now has two projects in progress, since it's working with Valve and creator Turtle Rock to develop the Xbox 360 version of the upcoming zombie action title Left 4 Dead
At the same time, Certain Affinity is preparing to release their first original title, hex-based strategy game Plunder
, to be published by Capcom for digital download later this year.
In this in-depth interview, Gamasutra spoke to Certain Affinity president and Bungie vet Max Hoberman about some intriguing industry-related issues centered around both Left 4 Dead
Topics include the advantages of developing from scratch as opposed to using middleware, working with Valve and Capcom, and the 'messy' politics of doing cross-platform play across PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360.
Tell me about Certain Affinity. How did you get started?
Max Hoberman: I’m originally from Austin, Texas, and I moved up to Chicago and then out to Seattle. I went to work for Bungie and I was there for about ten years. I moved back, finally, to Austin. I missed the sun.
When I went back, I was working for Bungie remotely, but there’s only so much you can do remotely in the game development business. It’s very much collaborative, especially since I worked in multiplayer as the multiplayer online lead at Bungie. It’s just an extremely collaborative business.
I wanted to go on and do bigger and better things. I met a really good group of guys and we ended up founding Certain Affinity. Austin has a lot of people with a lot of experience – some of my guys are old Origin guys, going back to the late eighties. Our lead programmer started in ’87, and was the lead programmer on some Wing Commander
games. So we put together a really good initial group, and since then we’ve about tripled in size.
MH: We’re eighteen people right now, and we’re interviewing and have a number of people we’re probably going to make offers to soon, so we’ll probably go up to twenty-two or twenty-three in the near future. Yeah, we’ve got a really good group of guys, and since Halo 3
wrapped up, I’ve managed to get a couple of good friends from Bungie who moved down to Austin and are now working with us – good team.
Is the company going to be very multiplayer focused, coming from your background?
MH: It’s kind of weird. It’s kind of unavoidable for us – the common thread running through us at the company is that we all love multiplayer. I say 'multiplayer,' and then I kind of catch myself, because it’s actually cooperative
multiplayer play that we like.
Multiplayer in a free-for-all setting, I don’t think it has the same kind of appeal as team-based cooperative multiplayer, whether it’s a cooperative single-player experience against the computer or against other people. It’s cooperative, team-based games that are really fun, and that’s a thread that I see going through everything we’re doing. We’re doing the Xbox 360 version of Left 4 Dead
for Valve, which is this cooperative zombie FPS, and it’s definitely a common thread for the company.
Are you doing the Xbox 360 version or the multiplayer stuff?
MH: We’re responsible for every aspect of the Xbox version, and the game is also in development so we’ve helped them out a lot with the PC version. It’s not exactly a port, it’s simultaneous development on the Xbox version and there’s a lot of back and forth with those guys. But yeah, we’re responsible for everything from the control scheme to the matchmaking, and doing some pretty cool, pretty ambitious things. I can’t talk about that too much without Valve here, but we’re doing some pretty cool stuff.
Regarding Plunder, it’s hex-based, and there haven’t been a lot of hex-based games for a long time. A couple of Japanese RPGs have filled the gap since the eighties—
MH: --Was there a gap? I wasn’t aware there was a gap?
I haven’t seen a whole lot.
MH: Yeah, I know what you mean. I actually wrote up the design doc for the very first draft and it’s changed a lot, but the very first design doc for Plunder
I wrote up a couple of years back, and at the time I was playing Settlers of Catan
. I was just incredibly impressed with that game. Everybody I’ve brought in to play that game has enjoyed it, whether it’s my friends, parents, wife, my siblings, everyone. I just wanted to make a game that had that same accessibility.
You know, one thing I hated about it, because I’m impatient, is that it’s turn-based, so I thought I’d start with some of that, take away the turn-based, turn it into a real-time strategy and see where that leads, and we ended up with a really interesting game. It’s hex-based, but it doesn’t feel hex-based.
Some of the early shots I saw of the Live Arcade version of Catan
, where you can play in a 3D environment got me thinking, "Oh, wow, you can do 3D in a hex-based game really well," and I think we have.
When you’re playing the game, it doesn’t feel hex-based. I think what actually happens is that you actually forget you’re playing on hexes. You think you’re in this little 3D world. Hexes are a beautiful interface for the map editor, for example. You’re laying out hexes, and that sort of thing and interface for controlling your ship and all of that.
So is that the reason for the hexes – a gauge of where you are?
MH: Well, the hexes provide the interface in a way, because you’re always telling your ship, go here, go to this hex, when you’re attacking an enemy two ships cannot occupy the same hex, so everything’s always based on adjacency of hexes.
So really, the foundation of the control scheme and the interface of the game is really based on hexes – it’s very novel. It’s not something we’ve seen before. When we did it initially, I was actually amazed, because it all came together so beautifully. I sort of had this idea on paper, and when we put it all together, and I was like, do this, do that, and when it all came together I was, ‘Holy shit,’ – can I say that? – ‘this is awesome!’ Wow, this just came together beautifully. I’ll admit I was surprised.
I don’t know if you’ve thought about this, but what do you see as the benefits of hexes against squares or octagons?
MH: Oh, we don’t have that kind of technology yet – octagon technology? Too far in the future. But the nice thing about hexes is the directionality of them – every hex is surrounded by this ring of hexes, and you can come at them from the bottom, from the top, from the sides, and that’s kind of the problem of doing something with squares – you don’t get that same directionality. It’s kind of a centered experience.
You can go to more complex things, but you don’t really gain anything. Hexes are just the perfect in-between. It is weird when you start laying out maps and you realize one direction is going to be completely vertical, and you can go straight down this line of hexes, but for the other one you’re going to have to zig-zag as you go, but we solved all the problems inherent with that.
I mean, the first time we implemented it, and you told your ship to go somewhere, it followed this crazy path, but we got the logic in there that traverses the hexes in an intuitive fashion, and the path-finding and that sort of stuff. You actually forget that it’s hex-based after a little while.
What did you use for path-finding?
MH: Oh, we did everything in-house. We did all the engine -- every single thing in this game is from the ground-up. There’s nothing from a third-party. The most recent thing was we needed a particle editor, so our lead programmer locked himself in a room for a week, and that’s our particle editor, and it’s actually pretty awesome, too, and that’s from the ground-up.
What do you see as the benefits of from-the-ground-up development as opposed to licensing?
MH: The benefit is that you’re really doing something which is custom-designed for your game. I think there’s also some potential, just from experience now, we’d looked at some particle editors that really slowed down our performance. If I pop-up the frame-rate counter while we’re in there playing a game, you’ll really be amazed, because for a multiplayer game right now, the frame-rate is absurd. Usually our counter’s at 170, maybe 130 at the really intense times.
So performance is definitely a big thing, and we’re able to fine-tune the technology and really get the performance we want. It’s got a lot of up-side in the custom-tailored technology, but it’s got a down-side too in the time it takes and the financial investment that we’ve made in this game is really huge given the scale of the game. But it is our first original title, so we wanted it to really kick ass.
Do you think digital download is a good way to recoup the investment? Have you had to get VCs?
MH: So far, the company is 100 percent self-funded and there’s no outside money – it’s an employee-owned company. We’ve done really well. But at the same time, obviously we’re working with Capcom as a publisher and they’ve made an investment in the game. But we’ve also made a pretty big financial investment ourselves, to really push it and to get some of these systems that you only really see in bigger games – really sophisticated matchmaking and a party system and that sort of thing.
It’s a huge investment for us, and I think to recoup our investment the game will have to do really, really well. But that’s to recoup our financial investment, because for us, it’s an investment in technology, in building a team, in relationships with publishers, an investment in the IP. There’s so many things that go beyond the initial financial investment.
Is your engine going to be extendable for future games?
MH: Yeah, that’s always been our intent. If you ask our programmers, there’s some other things they would love to rip out and redo because that’s the way it always goes, and you always get rushed and that sort of thing, but there’s elements of the technology that are absolutely applicable to any other game.
And a lot of that’s to do with the shell that surrounds the game in-play. It doesn’t matter if you’re sailing a ship, or flying a spaceship or whatever you’re doing – you still need a lobby, the ability to get together with friends, move around collectively, join games as a group and those sorts of things that transcend what it is you’re actually doing in the game, so as far as that goes it’s a technology investment for us also.
Is it your engine or Source for Left 4 Dead?
MH: Left 4 Dead
is all Source-based. We’ve obviously done a lot of custom work on it, especially when you get into the online systems – a lot of stuff from the ground up, essentially, but the core game engine for Left 4 Dead
, that’s all Source-based.
Is Capcom running specific servers for this, or is it Microsoft?
MH: There’s no servers, it’s a client-hosted model, so one of the players in the game is also the host. The game play: there’s not a lot going on. We’re not dealing with physics engines and stuff so it’s really easy to get good performance out of that model. So there really isn’t any need: the Xbox Live service provides the backbone that we need on the Xbox, and then there’s other similar services for the other platforms.
Map-storing; is that stored in a similar way? In order to play a certain map does the host have to have the map?
MH: The map-sharing’s actually a really interesting model. It’s map-sharing lite in a way. Internally, we call it viral sharing. It just sort of happens. The way it works is that you make a custom map, the host loads any custom map that he has on his ‘box, and in just the act of loading that map in the lobby, the map gets blasted out to every single player in the lobby, and they now have it automatically saved in a Recent Maps list without even having to do anything.
And now they can go into that list and permanently save it into the My Custom Maps list, so it’s really, really easy. We’re putting in a mechanism for when you’re in the lobby to hand-off to someone else so they can load their map. You don’t have to play the map to have the map in your list – it’s actually a really cool system.
And that data’s then stored locally for each player?
MH: Yes, all the data’s stored locally along with any of your custom maps and that sort of thing.
How was it developing for all three platforms?
MH: It’s pretty overwhelming. What we’ve ended up doing is that we have a partner who’s working with Capcom. We help them out a lot, but Capcom’s managing it, and they’re doing the PlayStation 3 version, following along, and we’re helping them figure out the back-end and stuff like that.
We’re doing the Windows version and the Xbox version, but we have so much on our plate we’ve even had to get some help from some friends of ours on the Windows version. We’re still responsible for it and we’re still driving it, but we have contracted some of the work out to some guys down the street from us who are helping us out.
I know there are problems with licensing and people not liking each other, but do you think it would be possible to have cross-platform multiplayer on all three versions?
MH: Oh, God, I know all about that and the politics of it. I’m right in the middle of it, what with Valve being a PC-based company and Microsoft and everything. It’s actually possible and pretty simple to get the PlayStation 3 version playing with the Windows version – I don’t know if a final decision has actually been made on that.
MH: Even if we wanted it to, yeah. For the Xbox version, Microsoft tends to be a little bit more closed, if we wanted the Games for Windows Live, we could get cross-play between those platforms, but between all three is – technically – not that hard, honestly, but it’s the politics. I’d be surprised if it ever happens. You’d have to be a pretty big player to get something like that to happen.
It would be pretty cool if you could get 360 and PC, and PC and PS3 running, because then you almost have it. What is the likelihood?
MH: There’s definitely a chance, and I need to go talk to some guys about it and see where we’re at with this, because it’s still an open issue about whether we want to have cross-play between PS3 and Windows. There’s definitely a possibility there. We’re not really going down the GFW Live on PC route, so I don’t think we’ll see cross-play between Xbox Live and Windows.
I thought that was actually going ahead.
MH: It’s all political and messy.
It’s kind of a silly aside, but there’s a wave of pirate popularity right now – are you riding that wave?
MH: Certainly the wave of popularity – the Pirates of the Caribbean stuff – it hasn’t really been a big influence on us. There’s some things that are just universal and universally liked and enjoyed by everyone, and pirates is just one of those things.
Pirates, when they’re light-hearted and done with a sense of humor, is just universal. So it’s not bad timing with the wave of pirate stuff coming out, but pirates are just fun and they have the right fit for this game – it was just kind of a natural choice.