Can an 'offensive' shooter be an eSports money maker?

It's a delicate balancing act.

On the one hand Michael Schorr wants his game to attract the most serious of first-person shooter fans: The ones who play these games for a living and see virtual gun battles as a sport, not a diversion.

On the other hand Schorr and the rest of the developers at U4iA Games have crafted a game that is methodically unserious, unhooked from reality. There is no story attempting to pull together the endless, rolling online battles in their game. There is no particular theme. You can fight in space, in villages, in abandoned factories. You can fight as a robot, as a marine, as a man dressed in a giant banana suit.

And then there is the game's name, Offensive Combat, which the free-to-play browser-based shooter strives to live up to. In my half hour or so playing, I was congratulated for taking down another player by a precise shot to his groin with a medallion embossed with a picture of a rooster and the word "shot" on it. My corpse was tea-bagged, danced upon, galloped over by an enemy riding an imaginary pony. In the future, the developers tell me, a player might do a little "Gangnam" dance upon my dead body.

"It's irreverence, but the core of the game play is serious," Schorr, the game's lead designer tells me. "If you want to play with a serious character you can load up with a serious military guy with a serious weapon. You might get tea-bagged or someone might fake ride a pony on you, but we tried not to force the tone down your throat. While I think the tone is lighthearted, that's serious gameplay. I think we can satisfy both types of players."

The major selling draw for Offensive Combat is that it's a game you play in a web browser, one that the developers promise you can download and hop into in about a minute. It's also free to play, unless you want to splurge on custom outfits, weapons, or special corpse-ridiculing dances.

Dusty Welch, co-founder and CEO of U4iA Games, says that at the game's core is a "very serious eSports competitive game that MLG and others will want to run tournaments for."

"We have the guts that make an eSports game," he tells me. "It gives you the ability to express yourself, to really put up and show off, like a real tea bag or Gangnam dance. Tournament players can say, ‘I just kicked your ass.'"

Welch says that all of those wacky outfits, weapons, and antics also makes for some fantastic color commentary.

"It's better than any tournament we've watched," he said. "Broadcasters are finding there are so much more elements to talk about."

While the game can be played as a bit of a hodgepodge, matches that pit people with futuristic space weapons against those with realistic Word War II guns, it doesn't have to be. Built into the game is a hefty set of tools that allow for the creation of strict rules and playsets.

That means you can set up a map and rules that essentially mimics the look and a bit of the feel of a traditional military shooter. And the game isn't just a collection of what other developers have done. In fact Schorr pushes back at the notion that the game rips off any other shooter.

"As far as it relates to existing games, I don't think we are trying to directly rip anyone off," he said. "You will see hints of Quake Live and Call of Duty and hints of other shooters but that's because sometimes cliches work and we're not going to remove them."

Layered on top of some of those familiar aspects of shooter gameplay are some interesting new ideas.

Weapon systems have complete customization, something that isn't unfamiliar to the genre, but the way that customization works is unique.

Each weapon has mods and tuning slots; to fill those slots you get a stat spin, a mini-game of sorts that delivers a randomized stat buff, like a quicker rate of fire, to your weapon. If you don't like the stat you can pay for more spins. Once you find a buff you like, you can lock it in.

Characters also have role-playing game-like skill trees that can give a player special buffs.

While the game looks to make its money in tiny purchases, the team says they're being very careful how to balance that.

"Our philosophy is time for money versus pay to win," Schorr said.

In other words, everything can be unlocked in the game for free, if you have the patience and the skill, but if you don't want to take the time to grind your way toward a new set of skills or weapons, you can buy them.

Players earn coins in the game for killing other players, for assisting in a kill, for doing those victory dances, for team wins, even for team losses. Coins in turn are used to unlock things and to buy one-time use items like defensive and offensive buffs, a limited-time radar showing enemy locations, health refills, even quicker respawn times.

My short time with the game left me feeling impressed, but only within the context of how this game was delivered. It's fun, it looks pretty impressive, but only when I remember that it's a game running inside a web browser. Offensive Combat is not the sort of game that could take the latest Call of Duty or Battlefield head on, nor is it designed to be.

What it does do well, regardless of comparison, is deliver an experience that's hard to stop playing.

The roulette-like sound of coins being delivered with a kill, the crow of a fatal crotch shot, the ability to customize your victory dance, all add up to equal the sort of game that is likely to find and keep a significant shooter audience.

This is a game that embraces its weaknesses and teases its competitors for their strengths.

Offensive Combat's open beta just went live, so now the team is carefully tracking player behavior trying to see what needs to be tweaked, added, or taken away.

"Driving toward console quality in a browser is very critical," Welch said.

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