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The Work Organization and Hiring Practices at Certain Affinity

Studio Art Director at Certain Affinity Lori Zawada has spoken about the studio's work organization, discussed strategies for avoiding burnout, and explained how they create a welcoming atmosphere for new team members.

Certain Affinity is an independent game developer with offices in Austin, Texas, and Toronto, Ontario. Founded in 2006, the well-established and highly respected studio has co-developed some of the largest franchises in gaming — Halo, Call of Duty, DOOM, and more — and also has exciting lead development projects currently in the works.


Hello! My name is Lori Zawada, and I’m the Studio Art Director at Certain Affinity. I joined Certain Affinity 12 years ago when I moved to Austin, TX, and was very interested in their approach to shipping original games and co-development projects. Over the years, I’ve had opportunities to work on some incredible projects and assumed a variety of roles with exposure to different projects and partners.

At our studio, the art department includes Art Directors, World Builders, Materials, Lighting, Tech Art, Character, Hard-Surface, Technical Animators, Animators, Concept, Vista, VFX, and cinematic artists. We do a lot! CA has many subject matter experts across these fields, but working on a variety of projects with a mix of IPs and gameplay means there is a lot of opportunity for cross-functional learning and being able to explore new areas of focus.

While my love of gaming started very early in life, I actually graduated with a business degree from Columbia College, though art was always my passion outside of school. Over time, I built up a digital art portfolio and got my start in the industry 22+ years ago as an Environment Artist, and I haven’t looked back. I believe the combination of business and art skills has really helped me throughout my career. I started out as a Map Lead at Certain Affinity.

Even as the Studio Art Director, leading the Art department, I continue to challenge myself to grow professionally in addition to growing and developing my team. I am always looking ahead and building a vision for the future and how we get there.

The Certain Affinity Team

Game development is both an art and a science. It requires a lot of cross-group collaboration and process to ensure alignment of vision and direction. Depending if our project is our own IP or we’re co-developing with a partner, we tweak our approach to best suit the circumstances. This flexibility is part of what sets us apart.

One of our main vehicles of communication is Slack, and we have different channels set up by department, topic, project, etc. We also have regular team meetings to check in on the status of each project and review progress. With teams working across two different studio locations, both hybrid and remote, it is critical that we work well together, no matter the department, discipline, or location. The COVID-19 pandemic introduced challenges to working together but also introduced new ways of collaboration and sharing progress and updates.

Welcoming Beginners

It is important that our new team members feel welcome and equipped for success. We have extensive onboarding and orientation to teach new hires about our projects and the game worlds we work in. We also assign a buddy to help people navigate as they ramp up. Certain Affinity has a culture of openness, support, and transparency, and that starts from day 1. We try to build connections early and get the new team member integrated quickly. 

One of the best things anyone can do to make someone new feel welcome in the studio is to share a sense of openness, support, and actual vulnerability. A new career and/or a new studio is full of new cultures, expectations, and even different values. It can be intimidating and overwhelming working with such a seasoned team. Mistakes happen no matter your role and level, and it is important to learn, evolve, and move on. 

In addition, we set aside regular social digital department meetups, and most recently, in December 2022, the studio invested in an amazing event hosted at our Austin studio focused on our developers by bringing in many renowned game industry speakers for three days of learning, inspiration, and connection.

Avoiding Burnout

I think it's important to understand that there are different types of burnout. The "crunch" burnout comes to mind first, where spending an inordinate amount of time focused on a project affects mental and/or physical health. Since the start, our studio has always been sensitive and deliberate about avoiding crunch culture. We always balance our projects, workload, and commitments to ensure we are able to meet our goals while balancing work and life. I can't emphasize enough that this is not us just saying it - we really and truly have a culture that does not support "crunch", and that has been the case since day 1. 

There are other forms of burnout as well that a studio must be aware of and take steps to address. This includes burnout where someone is asked to constantly switch between tasks. A good lead and producer will be aware of this impact and help minimize it. Everyone wants to feel like they have time to "finish a thought." On the other hand, asking someone to work on the same type of task for an extended period of time can also drain someone's creativity and sense of growth. Expertise can be a double-edged sword, as it can mean you get pigeonholed into only flexing those skills. We make sure everyone, even our most seasoned veterans, have a chance to learn and try new things.

At Certain Affinity, we work hard to understand how these types of situations impact an artist and make active changes to adjust work, rotate people to other efforts, or find ways to give them agency to help create solutions to make the environment exciting with just the right amount of challenge and downtime. The fact that we are a multi-project studio allows for that flexibility, plus the ability to ship AAA projects set in some of the world's biggest game franchises on a regular basis while also allowing more time for longer-term projects. 

Freedom in the Working Environment

I truly believe that every artist’s perspective is important, whether that’s focused on the game they are working on or feedback on the studio itself. Professional and open communication is more important now than ever. It’s actually easy to listen to everyone’s input, so our team feels fulfilled when they see their suggestions put into action.

My advice is to keep in mind how someone communicates. We are all different, and we take in and share information in a multitude of ways. This can mean the difference between feeling heard and feeling frustrated. We are constantly learning new software, methods, processes, and pipelines, and we naturally seek out peers, training, videos, and documentation online to advance our knowledge. The same needs to happen when perfecting our communication and professional skills. We prioritize taking the time to understand how to communicate effectively to ensure our messages resonate with the intended audience. 

Approach to Education

Since our projects are varied, this opens up opportunities to leverage additional skills and interests. Three areas we focus on are the art fundamentals, the tools and tech, and the game development process. 

Art fundamentals

This is what defines good art, regardless of what software you use. These are the classic core skills like composition, anatomy, motion, etc. If you don’t have this understanding, you will limit your potential. What I love about this area is that there are hundreds of years of reference and training out there focused on this.

The Tools and Tech

The second is the actual tools we use. Game development is software development, and this can change quickly. Many times new software is adopted at the studio because one or two of our people experiment with new techniques, and share them with peers, it subsequently builds momentum and is then adopted. Also, at times, we have to learn, adopt, and master a partner’s tool and tech. It is important to have flexibility on the tools and be open to change.

The game process

Because Certain Affinity works on both co-development and original game development, we gain exposure and experience with many game development processes. A lot of these pipelines are tailored to the project. We work hard to make the training as relevant as possible. This includes documentation, videos, workshops, mentoring, and bringing in external training and subject-matter experts when possible. 


The best conversations I’ve had with candidates are when they walk through their portfolios and share the intent with each of their portfolio pieces. If someone can passionately explain why they made certain decisions about their work, whether it’s set dressing, concept design, character design, animations, etc., then they are providing a glimpse into their problem-solving and creative process. While an understanding of the technical side of game development is critical, it’s only part of the puzzle. As consumers, we so often see just the final product, but being able to articulate to a game designer or engineer the context behind artistic decisions is an important skill.

Also, art is only one part of the entire experience when creating a game. It is exciting when an artist can talk about how all the parts work together. This includes telling us how their work not only impacts the player, but also other development teams like engineering, design, production, audio, etc. Hyper-focusing on one aspect of art and “throwing it over the fence” without regard to how the work will impact others will, unfortunately, lead to narrow problem-solving and miss an opportunity to grow essential collaboration skills. This doesn’t mean you need to be an expert in all disciplines, but you should have an awareness of other disciplines, how your work affects the overall project, and what others may need or be expecting from you.

Lori Zawada, Studio Art Director at Certain Affinity

Interview conducted by Arti Burton

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