The free-to-play business model has conquered social gaming, and in the past year has become the dominant monetization method for mobile games. The smashing success of Riot Games' League of Legends showed that a real-time strategy game could succeed brilliantly without charging for the basic software, but only for virtual items - and just cosmetic items at that, with no way to buy items that affect game play.
Still, with League of Legends, as with many games, you have to download the client before you begin to play for the first time, which can take hours. Updates to games can often be large, time-consuming downloads as well, which means that you can't just jump in and play when your friend invites you. Downloading a client has been a necessary evil if you wanted a game to perform well. Otherwise, you're trying to play a game in a browser, and how good could that be? Usually not very good... at least until recently.
A team of industry veterans, headed by Chris Archer and Dusty Welch, formed U4iA Games in 2011 with the goal of redefining what kind of a game you can lay in a browser. They wanted a console-quality shooter that could be played entirely in a browser, and after experiencing it firsthand it's clear they have certainly met that standard with Offensive Combat.
The game has removed as many barriers to play as they could. There's no download necessary, and no upfront price. If you want to play, point to the web site and play. Invite your friends, and they can play too. It sounds simple, but this has eluded the game industry for a long time. If you wanted to play with your friends in Halo, they had to have an Xbox and a copy of the game, and invariably some would be missing one or the other. Maybe they all have a PC, but do they all have Battlefield 3? Or maybe you have Call of Duty, and your friend does too, but you're on a PS3 and he's on an Xbox. Sorry, no gaming together.
Offensive Combat's low barrier to entry gives it great potential for viral growth. It's as frictionless as possible, so the limits will be set by how much fun it is. Perhaps in keeping with the idea of keeping barriers low, there's no complicated back story or massive single-player game to get through. The setting is just pure multiplayer online combat. Do you really need a reason?
The game's name has a double meaning, for the design is deliberately taking some of the elements of first-person shooters that publishers often try to minimize and elevating them to center stage. That's the trash-talking and the taunting. You have dozens of taunts to choose from, ranging for victory dances to teabagging to obscene gestures to farting on your fallen enemy. Of course you can buy special taunts... and successfully executing a taunt gives you a benefit in the game.
Offensive Combat lets you customize your character's visuals to create millions of possible combinations. Again, it's highly individual and irreverent - you can be a perfectly serious modern warrior, or you can be a giant gun-toting banana with robot arms and a lizard head. Chris Archer feels that just seeing some of these designs will encourage other players to go gunning for them.
It's not just graphics and taunts, though. You can customize your weapons with a wide variety of special features. There's a variety of maps to choose from, and more will be added all the time. You can earn both money and experience on the battlefield, and use those to buy items in the store. Of course, you'll be able to spend real money on virtual items and powerups... and U4iA's hope is that the frenetic killing matches with widespread taunting will give you an extra incentive to to get that special weapon or that special taunt so you can really stick it to the guy who did the chicken dance over your corpse in the last game session.
Right now the game is in closed beta, with a widespread open bet starting sometime later this summer. Judging from the responses of the assembled members of the press, it looks like Offensive Combat is going to be popular.
The advent of browser-based gaming good enough to threaten consoles has been predicted for years, but it looks like we're finally seeing it. As if transitioning to a new console generation wasn't difficult enough, now the PC could finally be a very competitive threat. Games like Offensive Combat and Dungeon Rampage, and multiplayer synchronous arcade games from Zynga, are reaching graphic levels comparable to consoles, and they are free-to-play. That business model has almost finished its conquest of MMOs and mobile and social games, and now it's gunning for console games. Sony Online Entertainment is making all of its MMOs on the PS3 free-to-play. Dust 514 will be a high-quality console shooter that's free-to-play.
The next logical step is to avoid the need to spend hundreds of dollars on a console in order to play these games. Just use the PC you already have... or, someday, the tablet. Will these games cut into the market for $60 console games? Just how many gamers can a game like Offensive Combat attract, anyway? We'll find out later this year if the audience can be comparable in size to the millions who might play a hit console title. It's shaping up to be a very interesting Christmas, with more places to play more different games than ever before.