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Facebook: "A fantastic core option for gamers"

U4iA Games CEO Dusty Welch talks about the future of Facebook gaming and leveraging the core with its new title Offensive Combat

Facebook games have become a major market, with over 250 million Facebook members playing games regularly (out of Facebook's 1 billion members). Those games have largely been casual ones, with the easy gameplay of FarmVille characterizing how people regard Facebook games. That's all going to change if Facebook and startup U4iA (pronounced 'euphoria') Games are successful. The first-person shooter Offensive Combat from U4iA Games brings 60 fps first-person shooter action to Facebook, and it's aiming directly at hardcore gamers.

U4iA Games CEO and co-founder Dusty Welch spoke exclusively with GamesIndustry International about the game and leveraging a core audience on Facebook. Welch and his team come from the console game world, working on titles such as Call of Duty, Guitar Hero and Skylanders; they have deep experience with console gaming and hardcore gamers. Looking at the burgeoning market for games on Facebook, in browsers, and on mobile platforms, Welch saw a lack of hardcore games. Hence U4iA Games' mission, to bring console-quality hardcore gaming to browsers, Facebook and mobile platforms.

Offensive Combat (available here) allows players to arm their character with elements from more than 30 video game archetypes, including modern soldiers, space marines, robots and more. The game includes a robust skill tree and an extensive weapon customization system. A growing list of multiplayer game types and nine playable maps are available now, with new content being added regularly. The game is free-to-play, and for a limited time, gamers can invite their friends and receive in-game coins for themselves and a buddy.

"We've quietly done a very soft launch on Facebook in the last three weeks, and it's gone incredibly well. We're the spearpoint here for what Facebook wants to focus on, which is to bring hardcore gaming to their platform," said Welch. So far Offensive Combat has grown to over 500,000 users, after a closed beta last summer and being in open beta for the last few months on browsers. Putting the game on Facebook brings many advantages, according to Welch.

"Facebook has done a nice job building up their platform to be developer-friendly, to be code-friendly from an integration standpoint," Welch noted. "Facebook is also working with Unity, so there's a 'triangle of love' between my company, Facebook and Unity to ensure that the technologies are all compatible and are cutting edge for the Facebook platform."

The visual quality and the fluid responsiveness of the game are key factors in convincing hardcore gamers that this is a game worthy of their attention, and Welch is convinced Offensive Combat meets that test. "I think people are going to be very surprised by how well a console-quality shooter like Offensive Combat plays right in the browser through Facebook. It's really seamless," Welch said.

"We're the spearpoint here for what Facebook wants to focus on, which is to bring hardcore gaming to their platform"

Is this game a step in making Facebook a new console? "My opinion is it does," said Welch. "It legitimizes Facebook as a true gaming platform. If you can play a console-quality, eSport-competitive game like ours but play it for free in a browser, that's groundbreaking."

Welch is very aware of how different this game is from the general nature of Facebook games. "When you think of the games that have been on Facebook to date, they're very casual, very social in nature; they harken back to Sid Meier twenty years ago making strategy games. The Zynga portfolio has been very much the Sid Meier portfolio of twenty years ago," said Welch. "Now Facebook, who is desirous of moving their platform forward, has a showpiece in Offensive Combat to help usher in their growth initiative which is to grow the midcore and core player base. It makes Facebook a fantastic core option for gamers."

While Offensive Combat is available on its own web site through a browser, Welch saw working with Facebook as an important extension for the game. "To me it was very important to find a way to connect you with your friends very quickly. That's why we wanted to bring the game to the Facebook platform," said Welch. The game operates seamlessly across Facebook and the browser; players can enter multiplayer action from either place.

While U4iA sees a big opportunity in Facebook, the increasing importance of mobile is clear, and U4iA is planning on taking advantage of that too. "We believe and have a vision that mobile has a significant future, if not the future of the gaming business, including the hardcore business," said Welch. "I can envision a future very shortly where we're able to usher in core gaming on those platforms."

For now, the future of Facebook as a gaming platform seems to be wide open. If a fast-paced FPS game performs well on the platform, there should be no technical barriers to any genre of game. Zynga has already announced its intention of reaching midcore and hardcore gamers, and other companies like Kabam and Kixeye have already been doing very well serving that hardcore customer base. While Facebook games may not approach the top quality of console titles like Halo 4, neither do they require the purchase of console hardware costing hundreds of dollars, and a game that costs $60.

The success of games like Offensive Combat will no doubt be watched closely by console makers, especially as Microsoft and Sony are finalizing plans for the next generation of console systems. A wide array of free-to-play, good quality hardcore games on Facebook might make the concept of buying an expensive new console less appealing. Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo will have to respond to this new competitive threat by ensuring their consoles offer plenty of value and unique, compelling experiences.

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Steve Peterson

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Steve Peterson has been in the game business for 30 years now as a designer (co-designer of the Champions RPG among others), a marketer (for various software companies) and a lecturer. Follow him on Twitter @20thLevel.