At Gamescom 2014, we had the lucky chance to sit down with Victor Kislyi, CEO of Wargaming, to discuss the company's beginnings, its present success and its future endeavours.
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bit-tech: Hi Victor. It was recently the four year anniversary of the commercial launch of World of Tanks [see our original review here]. For those who might not know, give us a brief overview of what World of Tanks is?
World of Tanks is a free to play massively multiplayer online game. Its concept is very simple; you have 15 guys, each with his own tank and another team with 15 guys, A 2x2km battlefield and you just fight. And the fact that the game is free to play means you don't have to go to the shop, spend 50 Euros and then realise this game is not what you like.
bit-tech: How did the free to play model that World of Tanks uses come about?
So this idea originated in Asia, for example Korea and China. It is a dominating business model for computer games there but four or five years ago the west was like “this free stuff, we probably don't want to touch it”. But I think we, together with Riot Games, which is the creator of League of Legends, played a crucial role in actually explaining that free to play can be cool, and can be quality, both by our own example and also by touring the western world and knocking on the doors of the media. Free was associated with cheap and low quality, but we demonstrated that a cool free game could be made in the west and in spite of being free it could be AAA quality. And now if you go around it seems like half the games are free to play.
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bit-tech: How have the four years since the World of Tanks release been for Wargaming?
A very exciting four years. Wargaming was making games even before that for about eleven years but, of course, the success and our name came from World of Tanks. After four years, we have some impressive numbers with just one game: more than 90 million registered users for World of Tanks, which is quite big, and this February we had established our own new record of 1.1 million people playing online at the same time, which is something like 2 percent of the Russian male population. We've had loads of respectful awards from the industry, specialist media and player voted awards like the Golden Joysticks. We got that a couple of times. Those are all good things.
bit-tech: How have you responded to the success?
We're moderately optimistic, and also taking our success with humility. Nobody knows what's going to happen tomorrow and you have to keep your gunpowder dry. This kind of business is unlike the boxed business, where once the game goes to the shops, that's it, your work is done, Maybe you do a patch or two and after that you make a new game. But with any MMO, and especially a free to play MMO, when you release, then if the game does not die immediately and if there's any signs of growth, you have to bring more developers and artists to do updates. Today, World of Tanks, in spite of being already four years old, is being updated literally every 2 months, and has had 25-ish updates.
bit-tech: Presumably these are fairly big updates each time?
Yes, because your players don't want Mickey Mouse updates, they want big ones. You can't just get away with just new tanks and maps, which are easier to do. They want new gameplay modes, better physics, better graphics. They want lots of cool new things and when you have thousands and millions of players, they generate a lot of new ideas and requirements. We have no way out. That's why we're growing, we're building our production capacity. Yes, we have special tools like forums, community managers and moderators to communicate with the players and collect info about what they want. Sometimes there are things that we cannot do for technological or ideological reasons, which we then have to explain to them.
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bit-tech: When you say ideological, can you give an example?
Historical accuracy. Lets say players want something which is so out of the historical context that the game has. Because it's World War II we have to preserve certain things. People asking for pink tanks, OK. There's gonna be no pink tanks. Because, no. “I've paid a lot of money, but I want my tank to be pink.” No.
bit-tech: With these four years passed, give us a snapshot of Wargaming as it stands today.
We are 3,500 people. We have 16 offices around the world: Sydney, Singapore, Tokyo, Seoul, and our corporate headquarters in Cyprus. Then we have Paris and Berlin handling European and German operations including marketing and PR. The San Francisco office covers North America. Then there are development studios in eastern Europe: Minsk, Kiev, St. Petersburg. We have Chicago, Seattle and Austin development centres in America. We absolutely had to have some development capacity in the west because we realised that, realistically, in order to make entertainment products for the western audience, you need to have western developers.
bit-tech: What resulted from your move to the west and your acquisitions there?
We released World of Tanks: Xbox 360 Edition in February. It's a successful game. The biggest limit there is the install base of about 70 million [Xbox Live] Gold subscribers, and that's it. We cannot grow bigger than that. The Chicago studio [formerly Day 1 studios, now Wargaming West] used our server side technolgy, they used the very successful free to win monetisation style and of course the graphical essence of the tanks and terrains. But the game is totally different, it's a 100 percent console title which you play sitting on couch 10ft away from your TV. Everything is in the Xbox and console style. They did a great job.
Click to enlarge - World of Tanks: Xbox 360 Edition
Then a month and a half ago we released World of Tanks Blitz [see our review here
], which is actually the whole World of Tanks that you can carry in your pocket. I think this is one of, if not the most, technologically advanced games of all time for mobile devices. It's amazing how much we could squeeze in in terms of quality graphics and dynamic content in such small devices.
bit-tech: We've seen the Android version being demoed here at Gamescom. When can we expect it?
We need a couple more months to test the huge variety of devices with different screen sizes and everything.
bit-tech: How does Blitz differ from the original PC version?
For Blitz, we have smaller teams, like 7v7, and of course the map is a little smaller. It takes 5 seconds to start the battle before you're playing and shooting, and the game limit is just 5 minutes. It's fun – I'm playing it now. I have somewhere around 1,000 battles. Maybe you're waiting for a taxi, or your wife to dress up for dinner. You just launch it and you know that in 5 minutes it will be over. Of course the controls here are a little tricky because [the iPhone/iPad] was not designed for moving, shooting, rotating, zooming in and out but through experience it's possible. You can imagine the amount of technology in here. It's not very easy to replicate. If you go to the App Store and type “tanks”, you see maybe 150 games about tanks. But there's only one.
Click to enlarge - World of Tanks Blitz
bit-tech: How is Blitz monetized?
The same. We use our philosophical principle of free to win. Typically today if you look at the top grossing [iOS games] there are some... well known companies with well known games which use the so-called “whale economy”, where they try to squeeze as much money from you as quickly as possible there's a mantra that the lifetime value of a mobile user is short. But it depends on what kind of games you make. With this one, maybe it's a little bit ahead of its time. With this game, we want to stay true to our players. We think it's time to move away from those one click games with sweets and multipliers. OK, Angry Birds I respect, it's a really cool game, but I think it's more for kids. It's time for serious stuff: MMO, immersive, connected worlds with deep history or storyline. It's time.
We are one of the first to make this big and very expensive move and it means we don't want to squeeze money out of you. We want you to start enjoying this for free and do so for a long time. We want you to bring your friends, to form a clan, to play in e-sports tournaments and you will monetise it statistically. Out of our 90 million players, a certain percentage, from time to time, pays us for some things which do not affect your battleground performance, they just makes your overall progression a little faster. That's the concept. We believe we would just lie to ourselves and to our users if we did the typical mobile, whale, milking and squeezing philosophy. So that's why we stay true to our free to win philosophy. Play for free as much as you want, bring your friends, and if you think it's worth it... a movie ticket size payment will not kill you.
bit-tech: Can you be more specific about the percentage of players that pay?
It depends. For different territories it's different and of course not all of those 90 million keep playing for four years so companies calculate these numbers differently, but a lot of them will have this formula which is very indicative. Out of active players, approximately 25 percent are paying users, because you know, the game is good.