One of Austin’s longest-running major video game companies is finally raising its profile after 10 years of staying out of the spotlight.
Certain Affinity, which has done work on blockbuster games including “Halo 4,” “Call of Duty: Black Ops” and last year’s well-regarded reboot of “DOOM,” is moving its headquarters in June to a new renovated space on 7620 Guadalupe Street.
The 55,000-square-foot office space, formerly occupied by the Texas Association of School Boards, will be more centrally located for the company’s 125 employees and will offer more amenities meant to help recruit and retain workers in a competitive games industry.
It will also make the company more accessible to the public: part of the plan is to have a first floor open to tenants, a Play Test space open to outside participants and social spaces to accommodate Austin’s vibrant meetup scene.
It’s a big move for a company that has gotten squeezed in its current digs, a 25,000-square-foot office off Mopac Boulevard (Loop 1) and Scofield Ridge Parkway.
Max Hoberman, Certain Affinity’s founder and president, said the move is part of an expansion that has been in the works for a while.
“The single biggest thing above everything is just more space for staff,” said Hoberman, an Austin native who left famed game company Bungie to start Certain Affinity here in December 2006.
His company, largely known for partnering with companies such as Microsoft Studios and Activision on big-budget titles, is now developing two original, self-funded games, and is working on virtual reality projects.
The real estate deal is also the first in Texas to benefit from a little-known sales tax abatement program, the Media Production Facilities Development Program. It was established in 2009 to foster development of soundstages, animation studios and game development spaces, but Certain Affinity is the first company approved for it.
The new headquarters will include dedicated motion-capture space, an audio studio, facilities for virtual-reality production and other working areas to develop video games. Certain Affinity will receive a 1 percent sales tax benefit from the City of Austin, about $69,264 based on a project construction cost of $6,926,400, according to a consultant estimate filed with the city. The new space could allow Certain Affinity to expand its employment to about 300 employees by 2020, according to the document.
Mayor Steve Adler said in a statement: “This is exactly how we should be using economic incentives — in this case, sales tax exemptions — to target jobs and opportunity where Austin needs it most. Certain Affinity is leveraging Austin’s strength as a game-developing center to create opportunities where, for too long, inequities have held entire communities back.”
To office or not to office
It’s a Tuesday, four months before Certain Affinity plans to move to its new headquarters, but for now, things are still a little cramped in the old location.
In dedicated office spaces of game development called “Pits,” workstations are outfitted with casters so that animators, programmers, engineers and other game makers can easily shift around based on current assignments.
Hoberman, who wears glasses and is sporting a blue hoodie as he shows off Certain Affinity, will be the only employee with an office at the new headquarters, which will utilize open working spaces. It’s something he’s a little ambivalent about, even though he’s had to adjust to having an office in the old location, too.
“I have zero tolerance for bureaucracy,” he jokes. “I really dislike offices.” What finally persuaded him to take one for himself was when employees would overhear calls about potential development deals and jump to conclusions.
“I finally realized that scared a lot of people. They’d hear me taking calls and ask, ‘Are we going to work on that project?’ “ Hoberman said.
He marvels at Certain Affinity’s longevity. It has outlasted many game studios that boomed around the time Hoberman’s company started and have since relocated some or all operations out of Austin (NCSoft), were shut down (Junction Point, which was owned by Disney) or have sold off Austin assets (Sony Online Entertainment).
“As far as I know, we’re one of the oldest game companies in Austin, which is bizarre,” Hoberman said.
Some game companies with a large presence in town but headquartered elsewhere include Electronic Arts, Blizzard Entertainment and ZeniMax, which owns “Dishonored” Arkane Studios.
Hoberman said the deal with the Texas Film Commission is gratifying because Certain Affinity is homegrown.
“For years, I’ve been watching the city supporting deals for companies either relocating to Austin or expanding to Austin, or opening a satellite office,” he said. “It always seemed odd to me that the local, homegrown business built in Austin seemed like they were never on the city’s radar. It’s a really significant gesture of support from the city, so I was really happy about it.”
A certain community affinity
At the current Certain Affinity digs, you can’t really tell they’re there unless you enter the building, which shares space with other business and is upstairs and out of the way.
Sometimes, a large statue of “Halo” hero Master Chief is visible through a window, but not always, as things in the office shift around to make the most of the limited space.
Apart from simply offering more working areas, bathrooms, conference rooms and lounge spaces for Certain Affinity’s growing staff, the move to North Guadalupe Street will also allow the company to interact more with the public.
Currently, if the company wanted to invite gamers to come play test a game, those visitors would have to walk through top secret areas with information about under-contract games not meant for public consumption. The new building will have more social areas open to local meetups and playtesting, another way that Certain Affinity is hoping to raise its profile after years of flying under the radar.
Mojdeh Gharbi, Certain Affinity’s vice president of marketing and operations, said the new space opens up lots of possibilities.
“A public area was really needed,” she said. “It will allow us to do different things; bringing in external folks is really exciting. There’s currently no space for us to have anything public-facing.”
She said Certain Affinity plans to continue an internship program with Austin Community College that aims to help develop talent from Austin.
Austin City Council member Greg Casar, who represents District 4, said he’s happy to have the business come to the area. “Certain Affinity’s commitment to building home-grown talent through partnerships with local AISD schools and Austin Community College will help create many opportunities in North Austin for the creative arts and technology fields for years to come,” he said in a written statement.
The building itself, Gharbi said, will make the company more competitive. It will be near major intersections of Lamar Boulevard, Burnet Road and U.S 183, making it an easier commute for some employees and a 10-minute walk from bus and MetroRail stops.
“There’s lots of places to eat, different gyms. We have very active employees, folks doing runs at lunchtime. The ability to have different places to work out, access to coffee shops, things like that, are important.”
Jim Susman, CEO of STG Design, the firm that worked on the remodel, said Certain Affinity is creating a “second home” for employees with lounges, gaming spaces and amenities geared toward millennial employees.
The current office has large posterboards with playful bits of information, such as how many bathrooms there’ll be, the height of desk partitions and invitations to suggest games for the rec room.
“In many ways, this investment and the next phase are geared toward helping their recruitment and retention and making them competitive in a market with somewhat finite manpower,” Susman said.
Hoberman said the new location buys the company about five years before it might need to expand again. The Guadalupe Street location has space to build an additional building should that time come.
It’s also linked in one way to the company’s start 10 years ago. Its original headquarters was a small home near the University of Texas campus, also on Guadalupe Street.
“There’s something full circle about that, it’s kind of nice,” Susman said.