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.