Max Hoberman, the man once in charge of Halo 2’s groundbreaking online multiplayer, writes fiction in his spare time — stories he shows to no one. One day, he hopes to publish a novel. That’s “my real secret dream,” he says.
He just left a workers’ rights conference in his hometown of Austin, Texas, and he’s calling from the road; he’s headed home to check on his wife, who hasn’t been feeling well. “But her fever broke, so that’s a good thing,” he says.
To an outsider, Hoberman’s life seems to share many of the qualities that have made his various high-profile game projects so successful over the years: this is someone with a lot on his shoulders, who’s often cautious and pragmatic, and yet he always keeps an eye to the future.
Certain Affinity, the company Hoberman founded when he left Halo developer Bungie in 2006, is undergoing the biggest evolution in its decade-plus history. What began with a small Xbox Live Arcade title and a Halo 2 multiplayer expansion has grown into a studio with over 125 full-time employees.
Since its inception, Certain Affinity has contributed to more than a dozen triple-A releases, including the multiplayer for 2016’s acclaimed Doom reboot. In June, the team relocated to its own 55,000-square-foot office building, and in October the company sold a 20 percent stake to Hong Kong-based Leyou Technologies, which also owns the free-to-play action game Warframe.
Now, the Austin studio is hard at work on, among other things, its first original shooter — a four-player co-op game set on a hellish alien world. Its working title, Hoberman says, is Last Expedition.
“Which is kind of an odd name. It’s funny, when we came up with ‘Halo’ way back when, almost everyone inside the studio thought it was a terrible name,” he says, laughing. “And it kind of grew on us, and eventually everyone thought it was a great name.”
Last Expedition isn’t trying to be the next Halo, but they share a common ancestry.
Like Halo, Certain Affinity owes its existence to the 1994 shooter Marathon.
Hoberman grew up playing games exclusively in the Apple ecosystem. His first computer was a Mac Plus; he didn’t touch a PC until the day he got hired at Bungie. “Gaming on the Mac was a pretty sorry experience,” he says, but fortunately his tight-knit group of friends all had Macs, as well. (“We still go backpacking every summer,” he says.) He fell in love with ports of classic games like Richard Garriott’s Ultima 3; he played several Blizzard titles, such as Warcraft 2, and quickly discovered the thrill of online multiplayer.
“But who was really big on the Mac, for at least multiplayer games — which was almost always what I enjoyed the most — was Bungie, actually,” he says. “Bungie was absolutely the top game developer on the Mac, mostly because of Marathon. ... If you think about the impact that Doom had, and Doom multiplayer, Marathon was exactly the same thing for Mac users: LAN-party heaven.”
He attended the University of Texas with no long-term career plan, and stumbled his way into a photography course that led him to consider a career as a photojournalist. But he couldn’t let his other hobby go. “I had four roommates, and we ran coaxial cable; we all bought network cards, and we used that network exclusively to play multiplayer games, and 80 percent of the time we were playing Marathon.”
After graduation he turned down a job opportunity at Aspyr, which was in the business of porting games, because he wanted to make them on the developer side. He tried to get his foot in the door at Origin Systems, the studio behind his beloved Ultima 3, but it declined to grant him an interview. He then remembered his love of Marathon — and a ’92 cult-hit dungeon crawler called Minotaur.
He checked the postings on Bungie’s website and saw an opening labeled “Graphic Designer / Webmaster.” It couldn’t have been more perfect; he’d put himself through college doing part-time graphic design and trying his hand at making websites. At last, here was a real gig in the game world that he was qualified for.
“So I basically joined Bungie’s publishing team, and for years was [co-founder] Alex Seropian’s right-hand man, which really taught me a lot about the business. Alex is great. Alex and Jason [Jones, Bungie’s creative lead] both. I consider them the two mentors I’ve had in my career — Alex in business and Jason in game development.” Hoberman took most of what he learned from them, he says, and applied it to Certain Affinity.
Under his own banner
Contrary to the typical Bungie narrative circa 2004 — that Halo 2’s development was a waking nightmare from beginning to end — Hoberman looks back on his time with the game with far greater fondness than his time on its sequel. When asked how he feels about Halo 3 having recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, he says: “It doesn’t feel like a game that I worked on.”
Because of high turnover within the Xbox Live team, and a number of changes made to the service for the launch of the Xbox 360, Bungie was forced to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. Initially, the 360 made certain Halo 2 features impossible to reproduce in Halo 3. In order to implement host migration, for instance — where a “host” player would drop from the game and a new host would be selected to replace them — Hoberman had to beg the Xbox Live team to modify their services. “Which was a huge pain in the ass. Oh, God, it was so difficult,” he says. “For me it was less a game and more a political and technical puzzle to solve. ... It was infuriating.”
If not for a handful of celebratory tweets on Twitter, Hoberman probably wouldn’t have given any thought at all to Halo 3’s 10-year anniversary. “I feel very disconnected from it,” he says. “Even though I spent many years of my life and many, many late nights working on it, there’s a weird disconnect.”
Hoberman moved back home to Austin for family-related reasons in 2006 and continued working on Halo 3 remotely for about nine months before he made the decision to part ways with Bungie. When asked to develop the Blastacular Map Pack as the final DLC release for Halo 2, he saw an opportunity and approached Phil Spencer — then the head of Microsoft Game Studios — about the idea of developing the maps under his own banner: Certain Affinity.
“I actually gave notice on Christmas Day, I think, of 2006. And on the exact same day, like an hour later, I digitally signed the agreement,” says Hoberman. “Phil Spencer signed it, and we were off. So I started my company having a contract in place the same day. I guess I had one hour where things could’ve gone to shit.”
The team at Certain Affinity commenced work on a small multiplayer strategy game, Age of Booty, for Xbox Live Arcade, and soon found itself involved in a number of triple-A releases. It was hired by Valve to work on the original Left 4 Dead, by Activision for Call of Duty: World at War, and by Microsoft’s 343 Industries time and again for various Halo multiplayer jobs, such as Halo 4. “There were some years when we were actually working on Call of Duty and Halo at the exact same time,” he says with a laugh. “You can imagine — when the Microsoft or Activision guys would come to visit, we had to very carefully separate them from each other’s projects.”
Today, after more than a decade of juggling mostly those kinds of work-for-hire contracts, Certain Affinity is finally poised to start developing its own intellectual properties again.
Chocolate and peanut butter
Last Expedition is only one of the games in development at Certain Affinity (the studio is also toying around with a “skunkworks” project loosely inspired by Bungie’s Minotaur, Hoberman says), but it’s the one that has Hoberman most excited from a creative standpoint. Roughly six weeks out from this year’s E3 in Los Angeles, he challenged his team to build a playable demo for industry insiders to try out behind closed doors.
“We’d just been kind of chugging away at it, building a real game but not worrying at all about making it sexy, making a good demo, et cetera,” he says. “But I made a decision that there was a great window of opportunity, going into E3, to kind of give a sneak peek of this work in progress to potential publishers [and] to actually get some feedback on the idea. Because I’m investing my own money in this game, so I wanna do everything I can to ensure it’s gonna be successful. And there were a lot of people there who we know really well — they see everything out there, they see all the games, they know what they’re doing internally, they know what other people are doing. Plus, we’ve made a lot of allies in the industry, a lot of good people who are kind of rooting for us, that I knew we could get the game in front of and get some good feedback.”
Their next step? “We’re committed to bringing it to Steam Early Access.”
According to Hoberman, Last Expedition’s design is informed by two concepts, the first of which emerged during his Halo 2 days. One of the things early big-budget first-person shooters had in common, historically, was a predilection for including as many different components as possible — single-player, multiplayer, a map editor, a spectator mode and so on. But what made the multiplayer in Halo 2 so remarkable, he believes, was his early instinct to resist that tendency toward Destiny-like maximalism.
“I always insisted that we had our priorities straight,” he says, noting that each map was devised with two specific game types in mind. “We wouldn’t start designing a map on paper until we’d decided what game modes it was going to support. And I also had the wherewithal back then to realize that the most popular game mode is deathmatch, or Slayer, so I mandated that one of the two — either the primary or secondary on every single map — had to be Slayer.”
The fewer variables in place, the fewer possible permutations, the more pure and refined a game experience can potentially be, he says, similar to how Overwatch launched with just three simple modes. It’s a philosophy that’s also served PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds phenomenally well in recent months.
“There’s this real trend toward ‘specialization,’” Hoberman says. “It would be incredibly easy for us to do competitive multiplayer. It’d be easy for us to do a map editor and all this different stuff. But [Last Expedition is] co-op by design — that is the core of our game. ... You can think about deathmatch, capture the flag, those sorts of things, and you can put them in the context of a co-op game. And I notice my team’s inclination is, ‘Well, maybe we’ll have one primary, but we’re gonna have all these other ones,’ and I keep having to step in and say: ‘No, we’re not. That’s not the focus that we need right now. We need to pick one — what is our game mode? And we need to be hyper-focused on that and be sure that it is an absolutely top-notch, exceptional experience.’”
The second core idea behind Last Expedition is that it’s not just a co-op shooter; it’s a survival game.
While working on the Xbox 360 port of 2008’s Left 4 Dead, Hoberman found himself admiring the game for its co-op-by-design approach. But he noticed it “was incredibly programmer-driven,” due to the use of AI and procedural generation, and the team at Certain Affinity couldn’t help imagining how that sort of game might benefit from more deliberate, concrete design.
“We have a ton of experience doing incredibly high-quality content that’s been designed by hand and carefully crafted and iterated on and tested — versus something that’s procedurally built. It’s a wildly different experience,” says Hoberman.
As head of the IP-development team behind the project, he’s enjoyed delving into his library and filmic influences in search of inspiration. (Longtime collaborator Matt Soell, who wrote combat dialogue and served as community lead for the original Halo, is the narrative designer on Last Expedition.) A voracious reader who dabbles as a writer in the science-fiction genre, Hoberman’s uninterested in doing what’s already been done ad nauseum, however. He says he’s prepared to let the game get supremely weird rather than settle for a rehash of tired space-opera tropes.
The prime example he holds up is a dusty old Harry Harrison paperback called Deathworld. While he’s hesitant to reveal too much concrete info about Last Expedition’s systems, he freely uses examples from Deathworld to illustrate his line of thinking. “You’re not alone in the universe,” he says. “It’s an exceptionally hostile alien planet. Flora, fauna, weather — everything is trying to kill you.” At the start of a match, four Firefly-style misfits land on the surface of a distant world and discover that they’re ill-equipped to survive, and then have to either build or earn things like weaponry and essential tools.
Hoberman also points to James Cameron’s Aliens as an influence, though not in the ways you might expect. Whereas Halo cribbed from Aliens’ characters and vehicles, the human elements, Last Expedition takes its cues from the more Gigeresque, cosmic-horror side of things.
“It’s been a real challenge from a design perspective to figure out how to take [key ingredients of the survival genre] and mesh them with more traditional triple-A gameplay systems and mechanics, but that’s where we think the real ingenuity comes in with Last Expedition. We’re really happy with the way that these things have come together. It’s chocolate and peanut butter, honestly.”
With so much happening at Certain Affinity, there’s no telling when Hoberman might get around to writing his novel; that may very well depend on how successful his team's new original games are. But his history is one of understated triumphs: automated matchmaking, in-game host migration, mainstay Halo maps like Lockout and Midship, the Xbox Live friends list and party system and plenty more.
These inventions have stood the test of time. Last Expedition is a working title for now, but given the track record, it might just stick.