Why Blizzard veteran Paul Sams took the COO job at Certain Affinity
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Blizzard veteran Paul Sams recent became the president and chief operating officer at game studio Certain Affinity after serving a few years as a strategic adviser.
Sams is working with founder and CEO Max Hoberman, a former Bungie multiplayer and online lead who founded the Austin, Texas-based and Toronto-based company in 2006.
Sams is being tapped to help lead growth so that Certain Affinity — which has worked on 30 titles like Call of Duty, Halo, World of Tanks, Left 4 Dead, and Hearthstone — can go to the next level. Most of its work so far has been helping other developers complete their ambitious games. Now it is weighing making its own intellectual properties.
I spoke with Sams and Hoberman about running a studio at a time when the game market is in a state of flux, as world economic conditions and a tough gaming cycle add uncertainty. They say they will focus on developing a quality-based culture and leveling up the skill of the team. The company has 240 employees and it is hiring.
Sams spent 20 years at Blizzard, where he held the role of COO, and he was recently the CEO of Ready At Dawn Studios, the maker of Lone Echo and The Order: 1886. Certain Affinity worked on Halo Infinite and it is still working with 343 Industries on the title.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: What are you hoping to do with Certain Affinity?
Paul Sams: Well, I don’t know how much you know about what I’ve been doing thus far with them, but for the last three years I’ve served as a strategic advisor and special consultant to the company, working closely with Max and the other executive management and senior leadership team on a variety of initiatives, including the strategic planning process, helping with a variety of projects, negotiations, different types of activities related to helping to scale and grow the business and deal with the various challenges that any company faces. I’ve had a great opportunity to work with Max and get to know him and the company.
During that time, I’ve fallen in love with the company and the team. I see some incredible opportunities for the company in the future. One thing we’ll talk about today is–me being able to join forces with the company is going to allow me to do a lot of the types of things I’ve historically done in my past, which is to help talented development leaders be able to focus on making great games, and to not have to do all the other stuff that they might have traditionally done, particularly with a founder that’s both trying to do development and lead the company.
Max is a very experienced, talented development leader. This transition is going to allow him to focus the majority of his energy against making great games, which is something that Certain Affinity has already done a lot of, mostly in a co-development capacity on major franchises. But our desire is to move into becoming more of a lead development company. Not that we’re going to leave co-dev. We’ll continue doing that. But we also want to transition into lead.
I’m excited about the prospects of the company. I see huge potential. I see a lot of parallels with my past experiences where I joined and felt like I saw some special, unique things about the company that would help propel it to the next level. I’m super pumped to be able to do that with Max and the team. I feel like this is a truly unique and special company that can benefit from that.
GamesBeat: What’s your specific role and title?
Sams: My title is going to be president and chief operating officer. We can talk more about the division of labor, but essentially Max will be leading our development activities, and I’ll be leading the non-development activities. Much like I’ve done in my prior roles at other companies I’ve helped to lead. That doesn’t mean that Max won’t still be involved in leading the company. He absolutely will. But he’ll be in a position to focus on the development stuff more so than having to worry about other things.
GamesBeat: How large is Certain Affinity now? What kind of milestones has it reached?
Max Hoberman: We’re in a pretty steady state now at about 240 total staff. About 200 approximately are in the U.S., and then 40 in Canada. We opened up a second studio in Toronto a few years ago, a bit before the pandemic. We’ve been slowly building that team. But relative to our number of projects and the scope of projects and our ambition, that’s still pretty small. We need to bring on a lot of additional people to realize that ambition.
GamesBeat: What have been the big projects to date that you’ve been spending your time on?
Hoberman: Weirdly enough, it’s a hard question, because we’ve done so much. At any point in time we typically have three different teams running. I’ve been doing that since I started the company. I’ve lost track. We’ve worked on 15 to 20 different IPs and probably close to 40 different distinct releases. We’re about to turn 16. The most notable franchises we’ve worked on are Call of Duty and Halo. We’ve done five or six–I think five different Call of Duty games and six different Halo titles that we’ve worked on in some form or fashion. But we’ve also worked on other things. We did all the multiplayer for DOOM 2016.
We’ve actually done a lot in recent years that either hasn’t seen the light of day yet or may not see the light of day. We’ll see. We’re attached to Hogwarts Legacy, helping them get that game out the door. We haven’t made any big announcements, though it is public that we’re working on it. We worked on Amazon’s New World and helped them a bunch. A lot of the work we did for them is just about to release. That’s pretty exciting for us.
The biggest thing we’re doing that’s public right now, for more than two years now we’ve been working on Halo Infinite doing something that–they’re very prescriptive about what we can say. But we’re doing something unannounced, and we’re doing lead development on that unannounced thing, from conception and design. It’s something big and new for the franchise. But I can’t say any more about it. That’s our single largest project of our three projects currently. We have close to 100 developers working on that.
GamesBeat: Have you taken the lead on anything else over time?
Hoberman: We’ve done a few smaller games that have released historically that we did lead development on here and there. The first one was all the way back in 2007 when we did Age of Booty, our own IP with Capcom in a partnership. Later on we did Crimson Alliance, our sort of dungeon crawler. We made a mobile Age of Booty as well. Beyond that, we’ve done lead development on numerous things that aren’t out in the market yet.
The other one that’s publicly out there is a game called Last Expedition, which we ended up licensing. We built a really fun playable demo for this co-op survival sci-fi shooter, and we ended up licensing that to another company to do the development because we didn’t have the bandwidth. We had too much going on. That was bittersweet. It was economically good for the business, but it’s a game we’re really passionate about. We’ve done lead development on a few other things that are NDA’d. Two other major games that we’ve done lead development on that are still in the works and will eventually come out someday. But we’re not allowed to talk about those.
GamesBeat: What have you noticed over the past year or so, where we’ve gone through so many different states of the game industry? We had a 30 percent growth year in 2020, a little bit slower growth in 2021, and now it looks like some contraction in 2022 with different challenges related to recession and maybe the availability of money as well. How have you ridden through some of this? Were there decisions you had to make that reflect these larger macro trends?
Hoberman: I was just chatting about this with some of our leaders and advisors yesterday. For us, a lot of the–we never really felt like, in the high end co-development space, that we had much competition. There are very few people that do what we do, and there’s more than enough work to go around. Last year was a lot of acquisitions, and some of these studios that historically were in the same space as us getting acquired and shifting to doing lead development. The number of people that do what we do, independent companies, is incredibly small. In high end co-development, where we own an entire chunk of a game, player-facing, start to finish, I think you can count the companies on one hand worldwide.
We’ve had no shortage of work despite the ups and downs of the industry. We turn a shocking number of projects. That’s always been the case for Certain Affinity. Ironically, despite all this chaos, we had our most profitable year in our history last year. We’re on track to beat that this year. The downturn hasn’t directly affected us from an economic standpoint. But it has affected us from an employee acquisition and retention standpoint. The entire labor market has become far more competitive and far more expensive. That affects everyone. We’re not alone in that. But that’s absolutely affected all of us. Everyone I talk to feels like it’s affected all of us roughly equally.
But as far as forward-looking, my view is that the economy–it’s a pendulum, and it swings and rebounds. It’s natural that during the peak of the pandemic, when everyone was stuck at home, for a lot of people’s entertainment dollars to get spent on video games. They’ve always been amazing bang for your buck, so to speak. Great ROI in terms of time. I think as that pendulum swung, things are starting to relax and open up, and it’s natural that there are other things competing for entertainment dollars. In the long run, it’s been a huge boon for the industry. It’s been an opener that has introduced so many new people to games and broadened the market immensely.
That pendulum will swing back. I predict that next year at some point, from the standpoint of the big players in the industry, they’ll see trends start to improve. I’m guessing the middle of next year, the trends and forecasts will start to improve and they’ll start to loosen their belts. But that’s predicting the future.
GamesBeat: Partly because a lot of these games that have been delayed are going to ship?
Hoberman: The pandemic and working from home and all the turnover in the industry have created some real challenges, absolutely. The pressure to retain people has added to that, where quality of life is at a premium for more publishers and more developers than it used to be. It’s always been for us, but more people are starting to treat their developers–it’s a power dynamic shift. They’re starting to treat their developers a bit better, which means they’re not going to turn the screws on them and push them quite as hard as they might have historically. That has a cascading impact on releases. This is Paul’s world more than mine, though.
GamesBeat: As far as the need for a COO in general, have you seen this over time? Are there some specific tasks to do at this time that make more sense for you?
Hoberman: I know Paul has seen a need. Over the past couple of years of getting to know Paul, it’s opened my eyes to it. I started out as a developer and spent my first 10 years more on the development side in the industry. I’ve been running Certain Affinity for 16 years, dipping one foot in each camp, development and business leadership. The level of experience and expertise and the breadth of skills that Paul brings to the table makes my experience–it just dwarfs it, to be honest. There are limits on what I’ve been able to do with split focus, but also with somewhat limited experience as far as helping the company to take it to the next level and realize our ambitions, some of the more transformative things we want to do.
I have no doubt in my mind that bringing Paul on board, having Paul as a partner really, a seat at the very top of the organization at the leadership table – alongside me and my wife, who also works for us in a leadership capacity – is going to be a total game changer for us. I know you have more specifics about your goals and focus, Paul, that I’ll let you speak on.
Sams: Honestly I feel like we need to unlock the power of Max on our game development, together with our very talented group of other development leaders. I’ve seen this in a variety of circumstances in my past, where you had a really talented development leader that has split focus. When you’re able to help them not feel like they need to have their focus in all those areas, but rather can focus on making great games that are fun and engaging, building that insistence on the part of the player to want to play these games and build these communities, it can help propel the company to the next level in ways that you can’t when you have to split the focus.
When I think about the role that I’ll have at the company and the parallels that it has with some of the roles I’ve had previously, I want to help to build an environment where the game development leaders and all the game developers don’t have any worries in the world other than making great games. As you can imagine, when you’re running a company, and particularly an independently owned company, you have to always think about the next contract. How do we manage all these different aspects of the business? When you don’t have the safety net of a parent company that can cover the costs if things fall short, you have a level of stress and worry on your heart regularly. You want to take care of your employees and make sure the bills are being paid and all that.
In my mind, I feel very comfortable being able to run and manage all those types of things at a level that will allow Max to feel comfortable and not stressed about those things. He can use his superpowers toward what I think is going to really propel the company to the next level. I’ll also focus on our talent, growing our internal talent that we have and augmenting it with some other great talent from outside to help, again, scale the company and take it to the next level that we want to be able to achieve. I feel good about being able to do that in partnership with Max and the rest of the leadership team.
Max talked earlier about how Certain Affinity is one of a very select group of companies that does what they do in the co-development space. My official start date isn’t until next week, so I can say this, since I’m still an outsider. I would argue that they’re not only one of a few, but I believe they’re the best independent triple-A co-developer in the world. That’s part of what attracted me. I’m excited about working for what I perceive to be as the best companies in their space. That’s what I think Certain Affinity is. It’s why I was with the companies that I was with before. There’s a lot of parallels between the commitment to quality and the gameplay-first focus mentality, the commitment to finding fun and building a vibrant player community.
I’m pumped up to be able to help them get to that next level. I think they’re right on the edge of being able to do that. It’s an exciting time for Certain Affinity and I’m excited for us to be able to work together in a day to day capacity so we can make those things happen.
GamesBeat: Do you have some thoughts on more dramatic changes, like doing your own IP or making acquisitions or raising money?
Sams: One thing that I’d say about IP development–I’m a big fan of it. I can tell you that Max is as well. If you get more time with Max, he’ll tell you how he’s also an author. He’s written his own novel recently. He’s heavily involved in all of the kinds of IP activities that we have internally, and we have a number. Last Expedition is one of them, that we’ve licensed out. We also have another game we’re working on that’s unannounced, that Max and some of our key development leaders have been advancing on the new IP side of things. It’s definitely part of the DNA of the company, but that has not been able to come out as much as they might have wanted to. In co-development you’re often working within a franchise and IP that your publisher has provided to you. It’s certainly aspirational for us to be able to do that. We see the benefits of building our own IP and owning our own IP. It’s something we’re committed to. Max can talk to it more.
Hoberman: I have a background as a developer. I had a lot of success as a multiplayer, social systems, online developer, taking the Halo series online. I feel like over the past 16 years, in addition to growing as a business leader, I’ve also grown on my own as a creative, as a world-builder and a storyteller and a lot of other things. I haven’t really gotten to apply that in gaming space in the way that I’d like to. I’m excited about being able to merge that passion and something I know I have some real aptitude before, merge that back into gaming and see where it gets us.
Sams: One little tidbit to add to that. You know some of the prolific world-builders I’ve worked with. I’ve had the opportunity to work deeply with them, some of my best friends at the companies I was at. I think Max has, from what I’ve been able to observe–he has many of the same attributes and capabilities and skill set. He’s done it more outside of the game space with his novel work, but he’s also been doing it at the company. Every single thing I’ve seen that’s come out from him has been really solid. I think it’s going to position the company well as we’re building our own IP.
Hoberman: I know that I have some aptitude. I’m pretty sure that I have some real potential in what I’m writing. But we don’t want to overpromise. It’s still an experiment.
GamesBeat: We’re in a different world now with a more diverse set of gamers and more diversity issues to deal with in running companies. How are you approaching some of those challenges?
Hoberman: As an organization, I feel like we’ve done a good job. Paul’s been with us for three years as an advisor, along for the ride but also helping guide us. I feel like we’ve ridden out some unprecedented challenges, probably better than many, even many of our large clients and competitors, in terms of making remote work and hybrid work successful, and some of the political and social pressures and challenges, things like that. I think we’ve done a good job. I’m handing that baton to Paul with support from a very strong business leadership team. I’m confident that we’ll continue to be a leader and a role model and set an example in how we treat our employees, how we interface with the community, all these things that present radical challenges for everyone. That’s very high level. There are a million examples of that.
From a business standpoint, the challenges on the business side aren’t new, in a strange sense. The trend has always been that it’s getting more expensive to do high end games. Unless you’re going to radically pivot and become a small indie developer, in order to compete in the space that we’re in we have to ride that wave and figure out how to be successful. Specialization amongst developers is growing. Costs are growing. Timelines are growing. All these factors. But none of that’s new. That feels like change is continuous to me, for a long time.
The challenge for us, the unique challenge, is how do we preserve all the good in what we’ve built, how do we preserve the aspects of our business that are working, while also making the necessary changes to set ourselves up to be a strong lead developer in the future? Those things are not always–sometimes they’re contradictory to one another. You have to figure out how to make everything work together. It becomes a unique formula for Certain Affinity. That’s where I’m excited to have Paul to help solve that puzzle.
Sams: Honestly, I think the company has been doing a pretty great job at this. I don’t know if you know, but the company has offices in both Austin and in Toronto. The Toronto office has only been around for a couple of years. But in that short time, they were named the best place to work in the game industry in Canada. That’s an indicator to me of the commitment to the employees and the employee experience. It’s something that you see throughout the company. I’ve been really impressed by how Max and the leadership team prioritize the employees’ work-life balance. It’s better than any company I’ve seen in the industry. And how they prioritize the employees’ families and their needs.
One thing Max does that I love, every year he asks the HR team to find something new that they can add to the employee benefits or the employee experience, something that can be additive without taking anything away. Commonly what you see in big companies is they say, “We’re going to add this…but then we’ll remove this.” Max is all about, “How can we make it better every year for the employees? How do we create a more safe and inclusive environment? How do we make sure we put diversity first?” If you look at our management team, we have multiple women and minorities in the senior executive team. It’s been a major commitment and priority on the part of Max and his leadership team to do that.
That’s super exciting to me, because I believe, like you said earlier, that the industry is changing. It’s evolving. More women are playing video games than ever before. There are more people playing games across the world in different countries than ever before. In order to build games that appeal to that broader audience, you need to have a similar representation within your organization. You understand what those players want and need because it is you. I’m excited about being a part of that, being able to hopefully expand that in meaningful, material ways. It’s not only the right thing to do, but it’s the thing that’s going to deliver the best results for the company and for the players.
Hoberman: Here’s a fun tidbit for you. After 16 years at a bootstrapped startup–I started the company funding it out of my own bank account. In that entire time we’ve grown every year, and we’ve never laid off a single person, ever. That’s what I’m saying. Despite all the ups and downs of the game industry and the economy and everything else, there is a better way, I believe. There is a way, even with the limited resources of an independent company, to create a stable, healthy work environment.
I find it frustrating to say the least, and sometimes appalling, that companies with much greater resources don’t do that. They don’t invest in their employees and provide that extreme level of security for their employees, that stability. That’s one thing that sets us apart. That particular wave, I feel like we’ve ridden it like professionals, while so many in the rest of the industry feel like amateurs to me. That’s very blunt, but it’s honest.
Sams: On that topic, we’re not trying to say that’s everyone. But as it relates to protecting the employees and prioritizing stability, I think they have very few peers, if any.
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