Ex-Call Of Duty Head On Business Vs Innovation

By Nathan Grayson on July 10th, 2012 at 11:00 am.

Recently, I got the chance to play a few matches of upcoming browser-based F2P multiplayer shooter Offensive Combat, and all told, I had a nice enough time. I ran, I jumped, I beat a man to death with a hunk of ham. Everything – a basic array of weapons, modes, experience unlocks, etc – functioned pretty much exactly as it was supposed to. Problem is, that’s all it did. Even the game’s “zany” sense of humor came across as relentlessly calculated, seeking refuge in the evergreen arms of “pwning” (an actual game mechanic in which you dance over an opponent’s body for extra points), mash-ups of tried-and-true game settings, and pop culture references. U4iA CEO and former Call of Duty co-founder Dusty Welch, meanwhile, has no qualms with admitting that his latest project is steeped in business trends and careful analysis first and foremost. But he also adamantly contends that this style of game development doesn’t compromise creativity.

“Certainly, there was a researched approach that went into coming up with this idea,” he begins when I voice the above concerns. “A business model wrapped around that to make sure it made financial sense to pursue. So then we looked at FPSes being under-served in the free-to-play space. That’s great. There’s a nice market niche there. Then it was ‘Who are the right guys who can innovate in that space so you’re not coming up with another Call of Duty clone or World War II military shooter?’ What’s the innovation that you can bring to the marketplace? So you find something that’s really gonna be revolutionary and delight consumers. Then you proceed.”

“So that’s what we waited for: what are the concepts and how are we going to take advantage of the marketplace? So I would say definitely a regimented business approach first makes the most sense. Understand the marketplace, what’s the business potential, do your homework. And then it was about finding the right kind of concept and idea.”

It’s a mentality that puts U4iA in an odd space: that of a small independent developer with values closer to those of a triple-A publisher. But, as I continue to chat with Welch, it becomes apparent that his passion for these sorts of games – positively drowning in them though the industry might be – comes from an honest place. And while a cynical perspective could certainly produce a game along Offensive Combat’s lines, I don’t really get that sense from Welch’s animated gestures and fond memories of Duke Nukem and Doom.

He clearly loves games, and he definitely knows business. It’s a meeting of two disparate mindsets responsible for the grand majority of the industry’s biggest standouts. So I decide to delve deeper into that. Aren’t, for instance, the goals of true, out-of-nowhere innovation and meticulously researched business at odds with each other on some level? Could, say, Minecraft and its open approach to development have flourished if Notch was constantly fretting about what everyone else was up to?

“Yeah, you can [make something like Minecraft],” Welch immediately replies. “If we’d had that concept or vision in our head, we would’ve started down that path. But we didn’t. I mean, good for those guys. It’s fantastic how that came out of nowhere and has been so simple yet successful. That’s the kind of grassroots creativity I think you have to have maintained in this industry to delight consumers.”

“I wouldn’t say we’re boxed into an approach. What we believe in is free-to-play triple-A core gaming that’s also connected socially. That’s what we really believe in. That’s our business approach. That leaves us open to making lots of different types of games and delighting consumers in many different ways. So I don’t think we’re boxed in at all. We’re constantly experimenting to see, for instance, what we should do on tablet or mobile. What kind of FPS gameplay would you want on those platforms, and how should it connect in? We have no preconceived notions, which is great. We can experiment with different technologies and gameplay.”

Fair enough. But those, I note while rapidly swinging back-and-forth (and thinking “wheeeee”) in my swivel chair like a Real Professional, are minor innovations in the grand scheme of things. So I take it further still: Would Welch ever consider steering his company into entirely uncharted territory? Could U4iA toss out what’s worked in the past and go for broke on a completely new genre?

He pauses, full-stop.

The room goes pin-drop silent for upwards of ten seconds while he mulls the question over, gaze averted. It’s a characteristically measured approach, but his eventual answer’s a bit more multifaceted than that. He takes a deep breath and then begins:

“For me, no. My DNA and my passion is first-person shooters. That’s what I do and that’s what I love to play. I can’t make you a game. I’m a business guy by background. I’m not a developer. But I may have more consumer insights into the first-person shooter gamer than most people on the planet – given my background. So I wanted to leverage that. I’m the most passionate about that genre, and I felt like I had the next big idea after Call of Duty, and I wanted to pursue that. I feel like these big ideas come, for me, only once every six, seven, or eight years, so this is what I wanted to do.”

“I would say I was more looking at a disruptive marketplace [when I decided to leave Activision] – something Activision was not engaged in at the time. I was seeing the growth of tablet, free-to-play, mobile, social, etc and the decline in the console business, and it looked like a great time to leave 13-plus years in the console business to go and embrace the new world. And I was afraid I’d look back five years from now and be at a company where the industry’s dying on the console side. I had to embrace the growth market and the growth factors.”

But Offensive Combat is Welch’s baby, so it comes with the territory. U4iA, however, is more than just the man at the top, and Welch insists that he won’t corral his company into being a one-trick pony simply because it’s not his normal straight-and-narrow.

“Now, that’s my answer,” he clarifies. “I can tell you that Chris Archer, who’s my co-founder, is one of the most creative studio heads you’ll ever meet. There’s a reason I picked him: because he can manage teams, he’s been a developer as well. He’s been on the business side. But he’s super creative. There’s not a day that goes by where he’s not coming up with new ideas and concepts that are unrelated to what we’re doing. I can tell you that we’re pursuing some of them – that have nothing to do with Offensive Combat or first-person shooters. We’re just prototyping and seeing what comes out of that Minecraft-y type of juice.”

Will they ever see the light of day? Who knows. But for now, Welch is adamant that he’s always open to change, noting that – thanks to some slick browser-based tech and the ability to respond rapidly to beta testers’ criticisms – nothing about Offensive Combat is set in stone. If, for instance, the jokes don’t fly, they’ll get launched right out the window. So even if you’re not going to reinvent the wheel right off the bat, there’s something to be said for being small and nimble.

And yet, as I exit the tiny corner of the tiny room Welch and I spoke in, I don’t feel particularly differently about Offensive Combat. To me, it came across as solid yet unspectacular from a guns, guts, and glory standpoint, and some of the humor was utterly cringe-worthy. But I can’t think of a conversation I’ve had with someone so deeply steeped in the industry’s business side – let alone a CEO – that felt authentic. When I voiced a concern – and believe me, I voiced many – I didn’t receive the normal reaction of being sidestepped in favor of some meticulously rehearsed PR spiel. We just talked – mostly about videogames. I don’t plan on ceasing to campaign for games to be more than “just games” any time soon, but there’s a whole hell of a lot to be said for people just being people.

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60 Comments »

  1. povu says:

    Hooray for transcription!

  2. EPICTHEFAIL says:

    I started twitching when I read the title. Not really sure whether or not OC will actually work, considering the existence of Blacklight, TF2, SMNC, etc. but I am hoping it turns out good.

  3. Fitzmogwai says:

    Obviously – considering the numbers – I’m in the minority here but I’m so, so tired of FPSes these days. They just don’t excite me any more. Maybe I’m just jaded and cynical but all I see is a more and more refined mechanic taking the place of a soul, if that makes sense. Modern shooters just feel empty and sterile.

    Maybe I’m just turning in to an old grump and the FPS is a young man’s game.

    • robalypse says:

      My feelings are very similar. Once upon a time, I had a rather strong fondness for them, from Doom onward to the last 4 or 5 years. Since then, I’ve rapidly began to sour on them. Now I hear something about a farily by-the-numbers FPS and I cringe.

      Maybe it is an age thing, or that my expectations demand a little more complexity, I don’t know. This couldn’t sound any less appealing to me though, but something tells me I wouldn’t be the target audience anyway.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      I grew up with Wolf3D and DOOM, and even spent loads of time making levels for DOOM, but none of that holds any nostalgia value for me. I don’t like modern shooters, and I don’t like older FPSes either.

      Except Deus Ex. I’ll always love Deus Ex, though the best bits are when it’s least like a standard FPS. The shooting is not terribly interesting, it’s the world and everything you can do in it.

    • WHS says:

      I doubt it; it just used to be that when a new FPS came out, there was some chance that it would offer something NEW. I can imagine ten different FPSs that would excite me personally–just, none of them has any chance of ever being made today. Especially the sandboxy Deus Ex-flavored one with the Victorian ninja assassin. *sigh*

      • Adventurous Putty says:

        “Especially the sandboxy Deus Ex-flavored one with the Victorian ninja assassin.”

        I honestly can’t tell if this is a joke or if you just aren’t aware of Dishonored.

    • Brise Bonbons says:

      I still like the act of moving and shooting from a first person perspective, but my target ratio between the first and second task has changed significantly over time.

      Which is fine, since games like ARMA (and DayZ), Red Orchestra 2, and the STALKERs all come pretty close to my current ideal shooting/running mixture.

      It’s hard to say if this is due to age, or just my changing relationship to games in general. I don’t feel like my reaction time is hampering me yet, and I still feel pretty comfortable with fast shooters as long as I’m not rusty. Mostly I feel like my interest has shifted from games as tests of skill, to games as truly interactive artificial worlds, thus the interest in titles with lots of emergent narrative play and ambiance.

      • Machinations says:

        Deus Ex is a classic. Always will be. A masterpiece. STALKER – well, not a masterpiece, but still great, with some great ideas.

        However, Red Orchestra 2 is bad by any objective measure.

        The auto-aim tank gunners in particular are just…wrong.

        Auto-aiming (and very good auto-aiming) should not be in any competitive multiplayer FPS. It’s a shame the game should have been great but after burning 60$ on that steaming pile I will never buy anything from that company again.

        Even Killing Floor, which they did not develop but merely bought then slapped their name on. Tripwire, I believe is the company name?

    • Gandaf007 says:

      Hell, man, I wouldn’t say it’s a young man’s game either. I’m 17, really only started playing video games 3 years ago and the amount of first person shooters on the market sickens me. Battlefield 2 and 3, Call of Duty 4, and Team Fortress 2 (God that is a lot of nubmers) are four of my favorite games, so it’s not like I detest the genre. Every FPS I’ve played outside of those four all just feel the same and they just bore the shit out of me.

      I think that there’s going to be a maturing of the gaming community sooner or later and developers will be forced to do something awesome. I think the analogy of video games to movies stills stands true. Right now, video games are in the same place movies were in the 50s. Instead of tons of samey FPSs, tons of samey B class monster movies where directors are just trying to get a quick buck.

  4. ArcaneSaint says:

    Ok, what’s going on here? I saw an article of the exact same name appear in my RSS feed about a week ago, but it led to a 404 page, and now it’s suddenly back.

    • Alec Meer says:

      It’s so dark and awful a conspiracy that you’d surely take your own life in horror if we told you what the reason was.

      • Fuzzball says:

        Bagels, right? It’s always bagels.

        • feoinc says:

          Oh, no, not bagels again!
          I hope next time is at least crumpets

        • Bluerps says:

          Shhh… they’ll hear you!

          Bagels! Bagels are awesome, aren’t they? I love how they don’t secretly rule the world!

  5. Screamer says:

    “What we believe in is free-to-play triple-A core gaming that’s also connected socially.”
    I must be getting old, or not getting with the times because nothing in that sentence appeals to me.

    • noodlecake says:

      Nope! I’m young and it makes no sense to me either. The whole interview turned me off.

    • SanguineAngel says:

      I agree. But I am really really pleased to see that Welch is passionate and honest about games and his own business.

      • Wut The Melon says:

        …even if they are, in fact, shit. Nothing against the person, everything against the approach. If you call this innovation or creativity, an accountant is an artist too. Which is true, in a way… in some way.

    • MikoSquiz says:

      He also uses “leverage” as a verb. Players are “consumers”. This is an outside-the-box blue-sky man who’s innovative in the turnkey cloud ecosystem, and it makes it very hard to absorb what he’s saying instead of repelling it, like water off a duck.

      • Brise Bonbons says:

        But how can you not like someone who is so dedicated to delighting consumers?

        • Dances to Podcasts says:

          Ah, but this man doesn’t delight. He fulfills the demands of his target demographic.

          • Machinations says:

            He should go (back?) to work at EA, he would fit right in.

            This kind of risk assessing, demographic testing, passionless, calculated approach to game development – what the big players consider safe and sane but what is actually drab, pathetic and stagnant – is why indies will increasingly eat their lunch. This decade will see the game industry go through a major revolution.

            I for one will be very happy. The future looks bright, but hearken to Steam – they have (almost) single handedly been able to protect us from Evil, so far. Sure they are evil as well, but in a cuddly kind of way, and they help indies enormously.

            if the digital distribution market fragments too much, the small players will again start having trouble making sales without a big advertising campaign or lots of word of mouth, a la Minecraft.

          • robalypse says:

            I got a huge laugh out of this thread. Thank you.

    • WHS says:

      Deep thought: the reason his games suck is because nothing in that sentence appeals to him either.

    • Dances to Podcasts says:

      The problem with that sentence is that these are not ideals to believe in. Things you believe in are things like art, beauty, love, wonder, fun, cleverness, relevance, depth. I’d even accept ‘kickass epic explosionisms in space’.

      And, really, I’m not even sure if thinking as inside the box as that is really as financially smart either. Look at Amalur, or all the failed WoW clones. Being safe seems awfully risky to me.

      To put it in language he might understand: needs more unique selling points.

  6. misterT0AST says:

    I won’t lie: this is what I imagined his face would look like:
    http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_aUO3BHXk4sA/TTEcyzOwuGI/AAAAAAAAAJg/Rz7GMnRmJpM/s1600/Evil_Nicholas_Cage.jpg
    but with a pair of shades, chewing a gum with his mouth open and smoking a cigar at the same time.
    “It’s all about the money Craig! These fuckers don’t know what they want!”

  7. Kollega says:

    But I can’t think of a conversation I’ve had with someone so deeply steeped in the industry’s business side – let alone a CEO – that felt authentic. When I voiced a concern – and believe me, I voiced many – I didn’t receive the normal reaction of being sidestepped in favor of some meticulously rehearsed PR spiel.

    I don’t know. To me it felt exactly like meticulously rehearsed PR spiel, not genuine enthusiasm for a mash-up F2P game he’s making.

    • Sparkasaurusmex says:

      Yep, this is exactly by the script. Sell our cookie cutter focus-group-developed game to the indie hungry crowd by sounding “human.” It’s not hard to sound human if you are a human being, after all. But the ideas are still crap.

    • Hmm-Hmm. says:

      Well, it doesn’t have to be. What I think is that he is honest, but he is so infused by considering the business-side of things that he doesn’t actually know how making engaging game works. It all sounds so formulaic (and topsy-turvy from a gamer’s perspective), and that just may be because of how he thinks about gaming.

  8. marcusfell says:

    Why are people who have ideas everyday described as super creative?! Does the rest of populous have like one a week or something? This is from a guy building a different design document every week, and that takes a lot more than one idea a day.

    • Terragot says:

      The idea of creative people annoys me. Everyday people solve problems themselves, nobody is the result of a consistent mechanical process.

  9. Dinger says:

    If you’re aiming for the mass-market, you need creative people, and you need someone to keep those creative people working in directions that will result in a game done under budget and with sales above the break-even point, preferably well above the break-even point. If your vision can’t feed you, it may be a great piece of art, but it’ll probably be the last piece of art you make. If you’ve built an indie hit, and you’ve made just enough profit to fund the next game, then you’re in financial trouble.

    So yes, this industry has an artistic side and it has a business side. It helps nobody to hiss at the business side: we admire starving artists for their uncompromising vision, not their mass appeal; we loathe cheap-cash-ins and knock-offs because they sell crap, but many of them are entering a saturated market with a poorly differentiated product that offers nothing we haven’t already seen.

    But hey, he’s talking about taking a first-person experience and sticking it on a tablet or a mobile phone. How the hell are you going to do that? Personally, I don’t see it. These mobile platforms are great computing devices for the situations where the computing device is not the focus of activity. But if he does pull it off, and makes something that people want to play all the time, there’s a huge payoff.

    • Brise Bonbons says:

      Personally I feel like your comment ignores a huge swath of people who are working as amateur designers and making great, innovative stuff, but aren’t worried about whether those projects can feed them or not.

      Visual artists usually have to keep day jobs, no reason it should be different for indie game “artistes”.

      (Sorry if I’m taking your post too literally; I find it insightful and interesting for the most part, just thought it odd that you seem to lump everyone into either the “mainstream success” or “abject indie failure” boxes.)

      • Machinations says:

        Terraria. 3 people. Millions of dollars. No ‘smart, businessesy type mens’ there to keep them ‘on track’, whip in hand.

        Your common-sense, seen-it-all, been-there-done-that MBA bullshit mentality is ridiculous. Games are fun, made well and marketed well with original ideas at the right price point and convenient to the customer – they’re gonna get bought.

        By the way, I do have a prediction. This game is going to fail hard, I would bet a hundred thousand pounds sterling on that, and my left nut.

  10. ColOfNature says:

    My eye started sliding off the page when I got to “So then we looked at FPSes being under-served in the free-to-play space. That’s great. There’s a nice market niche there.”

    • MacTheGeek says:

      “So then we looked at FPSes being under-served in the free-to-play space.”

      Wat.

  11. ReV_VAdAUL says:

    I liked the part where he stated he could’ve invented minecraft or something else creative. It was pretty much: “Sure I’m creating something that has been focus grouped and market researched to death to make sure it is as profitable as possible and has as broad a mass market appeal as possible but I could’ve created something totally out of left field if I wanted to!”

    It is just silly he says something like that from a basic logical point of view but also from a fact based point of view, the guy who created Day Z has said several publishers wouldn’t fund him because they did not think this was what the Market wanted, their focus groups etc did not lead them to believe it was profitable. The Day Z guy isn’t the only one either, several kickstarter projects that have been successful have said pretty much the same thing.

    Not that I disagree with what Dinger says, the industry of course needs business people to count the beans and make sure the project comes in on time and under budget. I have no problem with that at all. I do have a problem with Mr Welsh implying his safe and calculated business model is capable of just as much as the risk takers. It isn’t and he shouldn’t pretend it is.

    • Vorphalack says:

      Opening with ”this style of game development doesn’t compromise creativity” immediately set off my bullshit detector. Market orientated, focus tested development is the closest thing to procedural game generation there is. Granted the trends change over time, and there is a little wiggle room for individual games to put their defining stamp on the genre, but to say there is no compromise is either willfully ignorant or outright lying.

    • Baines says:

      To be fair, he kind of said that he couldn’t create Minecraft or something else creative.

      Yes, he says “Yeah, you can [make something like Minecraft],” but it is followed by “If we’d had that concept or vision in our head, we would’ve started down that path. But we didn’t.” When asked about going for broke on a completely new genre, he says “For me, no. My DNA and my passion is first-person shooters. That’s what I do and that’s what I love to play.”

  12. Eightball says:

    It’s a mentality that puts U4iA in an odd space: that of a small independent developer with values closer to those of a triple-A publisher.

    Worst Of Both Worlds Studio

    The actual game sounds like an abomination of Call of Duty with a few strands of TF2 DNA spliced in at the wrong places.

  13. Gap Gen says:

    BUMFACE: Offensive Combat.

  14. Sparkasaurusmex says:

    Kind of interesting that the best screenshot in this article is the one with the lowest textures

  15. MikoSquiz says:

    I expected “Ex Call of Duty Head On Business vs. Innovation” to just consist of “Business, duh.”

    Possibly with “Boom. Winning! Am I right?” tagged on the end.

  16. Koozer says:

    Is that title supposed to be tongue-in-cheek..?

  17. Universal Quitter says:

    I hate focus groups and market-research as much as the next pleb, but I’m kind of tired of everyone mentioning Notch, as if anyone can do what Mojang has done. It’s great to tout stories like his, but everyone forgets that for every one Notch, there are thousands of bloated, stinking dream-corpses littering the path to success. No one enjoys failure (I hope), and it’s hard to resent someone for trying to outsmart it.

  18. Apples says:

    You’d expect a guy whose DNA is made of first-person shooters to be a bit more exciting…

  19. Dances to Podcasts says:

    Am I the only one who reads that company name as UFIA?

  20. Push says:

    Have to agree with others that, even if this CEO is sincere and passionate (not to mention an actual gamer), he still comes off as a typical corporate bot given all the buzz words. Kind of reminds me of this guy in fact:

    http://pushingcontent.com/2012/06/19/checking-in-with-captain-buzzword/

    Maybe they went to the same business school?

    • Hmm-Hmm. says:

      I think you’re right. It’s the point of view of someone who knows the gaming industry from a very specific point of view. It’s like when you hear about certain managers speak.. somehow in such circles you can easily lose sight of what your customers think, feel and see. And consider market projections, the latest shiny developments and added social features instead.

  21. Malibu Stacey says:

    Even the game’s “zany” sense of humor came across as relentlessly calculated, seeking refuge in the evergreen arms of “pwning” (an actual game mechanic in which you dance over an opponent’s body for extra points)

    Worked for Bulletstorm. Oh wait…

    That sort of stuff appeals to 12 year old Halo playing Xbox kids. Pitching a F2P game at them which isn’t Halo or Call of Duty is destined to fail (not to mention, wrong platform but lets not get into technicalities).

    What did I really expect from a studio who name themselves “U4IA” though?