Canadian Game Awards spotlight – interview with Certain Affinity leaders Mojdeh Gharbi and Dan Ayoub

Certain Affinity is a well-established and respected studio in the industry. Although the development studio’s name may not hit you right away, chances are you’ve played a game they’ve been attached to in the last 15 years.

Since the advent of the studio, Certain Affinity has assisted in the development of popular titles such as Halo, Call of Duty, and DOOM. Over the years, Certain Affinity has built a name as a reliable and knowledgeable studio in the FPS and multiplayer space.

The studio was first headquartered in Austin, Texas, and in 2019 Certain Affinity announced its expansion into Canada. That very year, the Toronto studio opened up and began supporting the Austin HQ in its current projects, which include a new original IP.

Certain Affinity won Studio of the Year at the 2021 Canadian Game Awards. We sat down with Mojdeh Gharbi, the co-founder of Certain Affinity. Dan Ayoub, former 343 Industries lead who recently joined as the VP of Canadian Operations and Toronto General Manager, also joined us to discuss the studio’s win, and to reflect on the events of 2020 in the gaming space.

Steve: Certain Affinity has been around for a respectable amount of time and has helped co-develop and assist in the development of arguably some of the best core FPS experiences out there. Now the studio is tackling its first original IP. What does this transition mean to you?

Gharbi: Ever since the beginning, every project we’ve taken on has been a stepping stone to this goal. It takes great ideas, good business sense, and good people to come together to make an amazing game. We’re finally at a point where we have done a lot of different projects and can say we’re ready to do our own lead development, and it’s hard. Making a fantastic game is hard, and frankly, the genre we’re in is very competitive.

We understand how critical this is and I think that being deliberate of the timing of it and making sure we have all the right leaders in place is key, and that includes bringing Dan onboard. [It takes] having all the elements of not only the idea and design, but also the people and skills and competency to make it successful. We’re excited, [and] it’s scary and ambitious but we believe we’re ready.

Ayoub: The transition is a natural one for us. The team has been building a lot of experience and flexibility, dealing with different engines over 15 years. We’ve got a team that’s developed a lot of skills and has the advantage of being around other AAA companies around the world. It’s an exciting time and it’s been great for me to see the company be very deliberate about it.

Image by 343 Industries

In 2019, you announced that Certain Affinity would be expanding into the heart of downtown Toronto. What was it about the city that made this expansion attractive?

Gharbi: We did a worldwide search, so it wasn’t specific to Canada. We had a whole team do an evaluation. It came down to several elements, including wanting to tap into the best talent. We know there’s amazing talent in Canada itself, and Toronto [specifically]. When you look at the education programs, there are about 40 different schools that focus on some type of game development.

We want the best talent. We don’t care where they reside. The idea is to be able to tap into the talent that is currently in Canada, [not just] in Toronto. Tapping into the East Coast [is very enticing], there are a lot of game studios, and the international market.

Of course, it was only a year later that the world fell apart. How did the studio handle that sudden shift, especially at that moment when the company was then planted across a border?

Gharbi: I joke about this, but I don’t really remember March through May of last year. It felt like I blinked and those months passed. I think the leadership team and operations team saw the trends that were happening in other countries. We knew that this wave was coming. I really appreciate a lot of the proactiveness that our team had done. You can imagine the infrastructure and investment that goes into moving from being in the studio to having everyone remote.

By February and March, we had already communicated with our studio that we were watching and following CDC and Canadian health guidelines. We were one of the first studios that had shut down early on in Canada and Toronto. We were able to do that because of the pre-planning within a week. It was crazy. We had our tech-ops team driving equipment to people’s front door, and made sure everyone was set up at home. 

There were a lot of investments made. I think long term it’s given us an opportunity to look at the future of our workforce. We’ve created a public channel for our employees where they can get the latest info on COVID and speak to different workgroups. Keeping our employees safe was our priority, and that extended to their families and the community.

It seems the studio continues to prosper despite hurdles. What kind of ongoing challenges do you foresee as you continue to grow in this current climate of work-from-home?

Ayoub: There are a couple of challenges. Obviously, there are logistical ones, like signing someone on and getting them set up. We spend a lot of time helping folks feel integrated. It can be hard to switch jobs when you’re sitting at your kitchen table, without physically meeting your coworkers. 

When I started, I made it a point to meet everyone at the Toronto studio. Everyone keeps pointing back to our culture as a huge differentiator to other companies. That’s a hard thing to instill and have folks feel connected to remotely. We’ve involved people in activities, and folks get assigned a virtual buddy to help them get through this. 

Then there is the recruiting challenge. Getting to people and doing the interview process. It’s a big decision to make and decide to come on board with a new company. You’re making that decision based on a Zoom call. It’s a challenge for us as well to understand who that person is and whether they’ll be a good fit. On the flip side, what’s been interesting is that people are using this time to evaluate what they want to do from a career standpoint.

Dan, you’re fairly new to the studio, having joined earlier this year. What has this transition been like for you as you get your feet wet?

Ayoub: It’s been interesting. I had it easier than many, as I had the opportunity to work with Certain Affinity for the last 10 years. I knew Mojdeh and Max through my long tenure with Halo. It was almost like a homecoming. I’ve been in the US for 12 years so coming back to Canada has been amazing. 

I set out some specific targets for what I wanted to get done in those first weeks, including meeting the team, understanding who they are and what’s motivating them and how they have been feeling during this crazy time. Great games start with the team. It’s been hugely different for me, having worked at Microsoft with different budgets and projects. [Being back], one of the things I’ve appreciated the most is the freedom and creative opportunities. 

Certain Affinity was awarded Studio of the Year at the 2021 Canadian Game Awards. What was your initial reaction when you learned that you and your team had won?

Gharbi: It was very humbling, to be established for two years and already be on the radar. It was a bit of a shock at first and then we were overjoyed. It was beautiful.

Ayoub: We had the studio on a group call together watching the awards. There was the moment watching everyone freak out that we won. It was validating. I said for a long time that I wanted to come back to Canada and wanted to continue my game dev career because the talent is really world-class. Knowing in my head how high the talent bar is in this country and comparing it to the other studios we were up against, it was humbling but validating. 

Image by 343 Industries

How has the diversity in the Canadian talent pool affected the studio since expanding into Toronto?

Gharbi: I think a challenge for everyone, no matter the studio, is finding senior talent. We have these amazing institutions but they may not speak to those immediate needs. For us to establish the studio, you need to have those leaders in place. You can’t grow and develop talent without leaders.

We have ambitious plans and we have tried to balance that, and then the pandemic hit. Now, we’re back on track and have had some amazing folks join us in Canada and Austin. The award gave us an opportunity to announce that we’re here. So thank you!

I know you’re not talking specifics into certain projects you are working on, but is there anything from Certain Affinity that readers can look forward to in 2021?

Ayoub: As we come into 2021, we’re talking about projects, and continuing to invest in ourselves and our employees. The number one initiative in my mind is making sure our staff is healthy and safe. It’s hard to say when we’re going back into the office. We’re trying to reassure folks, and making sure they are growing and evolving in their craft.

Gharbi: We’re back to being ambitious with our five projects. We’re looking to double in size in Canada this year, if we can. From a project perspective, we’re working on our original IP with a major publisher. It’s setting the stage for many more of these kinds of things to come. We’re also bringing in key leaders and you’re seeing that come to light.

Obviously, our work with Halo: Infinite has been announced, but there are others. Hopefully, in 2021 they’ll be more announcements about our involvement in different [projects]. I’m excited about the team because they’ve been putting in a lot of work and announcing their effort will mean so much to them.

[This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.]

We would like to to thank Mojdeh Gharbi and Dan Ayoub for taking the time to speak with us, and extend our congratulations to the Certain Affinity team for their win as Studio of the Year.

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