“In Mother Russia, you don’t drive tank! Tank drive you!” Okay, so Mr. Kislyi didn’t say that (would have been awesome), but the CEO of the immensely successful Wargaming.net did give us a great interview at PAX Australia 2013. PC gamers, heck, all gamers know of the site, the service, the community and of course, the game – World of Tanks. Read on below for our mammoth interview, where we discuss literally all things Wargaming, from its beginnings to its increasingly bright future.
World of Tanks has become such a mammoth success. I just can’t imagine the effect that has had on the company and your life personally…
Well, let me just give you some pure numbers about the company. This year we are celebrating our 15th year anniversary. When we started making WoT, we were 60 people in 2008, and now we are 1,800 people. We have 15 offices around the world, so a bunch of developer and publisher offices in Eastern Europe, Paris for Western Europe, San Francisco for North America and some development in Chicago and Seattle – in Seattle there’s Chris Taylor and the recently acquired Gas Powered Games.
We also have publishing offices in Tokyo, South Korea and Singapore – covering Southeast Asia – and we have a good partner in China and an office in Sydney. Well, there’s like London and Cyprus doing some administrative, finance and taxation kinda stuff. So the sun does not set on Wargaming. As for Sydney, have you heard of a middleware company called BigWorld?
Yes, I have.
We were using them for all the tanks, warplanes [for World of Warplanes] and then the warships for World of Warships, so we eventually went to buy them. So that was a $45 million deal and now they are a part of our team, integrated with our engineers…they are our engineers now, and that helps us to make games faster; new games and updates to existing games. Looking at WoT specifically, it is a tremendous success and it’s our only currently commercial running game and has around 65 millions users around the world. And it is growing.
You have to have publishing centres in the territories where you would like to publish. So like Russia, Western Europe, America and Southeast Asia and Korea are covered. Tokyo will open their game operations soon. And we’ve made our first step of adding Australia and New Zealand to the family of the Wargaming universe. We had noticed that there are over 300,000 registered Australian players, most of them registered on the American servers, on the east coast, which is very painful for them to do. So with this PAX presence we have demonstrated that from now on, we are serious. Yes, we could have done it probably a little bit earlier, but it takes time and now it’s the time to do it here.
It’s great to hear and see this support for the Australian player base, and I’m sure with that will come more dedicated servers and largely improved experiences for those players?
Yes. It’s not easy; usually we come into a region and there’s quite a sophisticated amount of things to do, but there is no way back. And you can see on the ground floor [hopefully you fine readers may catch them in a couple of the photos] we have those guys in official t-shirts – they’re one of the Australian clans, so we have clans here now.
That’s good that things are moving quickly then considering all that was just explained about the process. I don’t think people realise – and I was certainly in that same boat – exactly how much work goes into the product and service.
And of course now we have these other projects. Out of the 1,800, possibly 1,200 are WoT related. And we had a dilemma about a year-year and a half ago with the new projects – and now the reality also confirms – that it would be suicide and not a very wise move to engage the same team in these new projects, so that is why we did some shopping and purchased a couple of companies in Eastern Europe and gave them World of Warplanes and World of Warships, and of course our supervision, technology and experience exchanges, but they go to separate teams: one of them is in Kiev, Ukraine and the other in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Also we have a small team of around 40 people doing [World of Tanks] Blitz. It’s pretty much just like WoT but a little bit smaller and for the mobile. The Xbox 360 Edition is made in Chicago and Chris Taylor in Seattle is working on something big and legendary, but it’s just too early to talk about. And also, we have to in the entertainment business, and high-tech business, always have something in the pipeline, to experiment and to define your future. So that’s why we have a couple of other products, prototypes, ideas…not necessarily all of them will survive, but we will right now allocate certain resources to find what we will do in the future.
However – and this is pretty much a good situation to be in – WoT is really, really far away from its saturation. We can see that it will still be growing for the next couple of years for sure, and then when the growth stabilises, it will be running for another ten years. Because people stick to it a lot and there’s still a lot of people to whom we have not extended our hand in terms of marketing, PR and physical presence.
And of course, the expansion onto the mobile and Xbox 360 platforms will only help to accelerate that growth of the game.
Well, technically speaking those are slightly different markets. The 360 Edition – this is primarily for North American, UK and in a manner of respect the Australian market where people just have different playing habits. Absolutely, because those people that have Xbox at home don’t play too much on PC. Maybe they don’t even have a gaming PC. Here [referring to Blitz on the iPad beside me] is the same; this is a new wave of entertainment and nobody yet has figured out the sustainable, long-term way to do that forever. But this is a nice first try, with good assets and technology. You’ll have a very similar experience to the PC, but just that you can do that on the go.
What was the motivation to expand into the mobile market? It sounds like a silly question, but I’m just wondering whether you saw something in particular that was so promising that it had to be made, or was it something that had to be done considering it is the trend right now and direction the industry is going towards?
Nobody can deny the pros of this platform; it’s almost like ‘we have to do something’. But again, before it happens, you can not guarantee success theoretically beforehand. So that’s why, instead of trying to find the theoretical solution – whether it’s viable or not – we’d rather just make it and put it on the market. Okay, so first it goes through alpha tests, and closed betas, open betas…so only real people can give you definite answers and only after they’ve played the product. Not just some prototype, but after the open beta, which is pretty much final quality.
So what were some of the specific challenges involved with getting a version of this on mobile?
Well it’s a small device, and you have to render all the 3D stuff with the models of the tanks, the lighting, the shaders, and also this one is PvP. So, right now you’re playing against the bot for demonstration, but this game will be approximately 7-on-7 with other players, sometimes from different countries or even different continents. It’s the same BigWorld engine used behind it too. And with the iPad it’s a little easier, because there’s one standard and one mini. With Google – and of course we’re doing this for Google as well – it’s more difficult because there’s a lot of vendors, screen resolutions and technical specifications, but we’ll get there…we are a big company with lots of resources, so we’ll get there.
Awesome. Jumping to World of Warplanes, that is in open beta right now in Russia, Europe and America. So have you been getting some good feedback from it already and how is its progress? Has the new team been learning a lot from the process?
Yeah, there’s always some balancing, some tweaking and polishing. This phase usually goes for a couple of months; from 2-4, so presumably somewhere around September, maybe October, we will launch, and then it takes some time to launch it in this part of the world.
You mentioned earlier that you’ve got separate teams on the upcoming titles and you share resources and such between them all. Have the Warplanes and Warships teams been learning from the World of Tanks guys directly, being helped along in creating a similar experience? Or is the fact that they are coming into this fresh breeding new game ideas entirely?
Yes and yes. It’s like show-business and Hollywood; you just have to put a lot of effort into every aspect. Some things which you can copy, you copy. Some things which you want to copy, but don’t fit, you have to make them from scratch. Some things you have to modify, but that’s why we have hundreds of people there everyday. We have a technological group which is comparing technologies and versions and it’s a lot of work. People wake up in the morning, go to work – technical specialists – earn their salary, go back home in the evening, sometimes late at night, go to bed and wake up and go back to work and do this all over again. Some of them are working even at night at home. It’s a lot of work, but we have a good management team to just make this process happen non-stop everyday.
With the Xbox 360 Edition, is there anything you can tell us about this release that might be unique, for players of the PC original or those unfamiliar with the franchise?
What’s important to know is that it’s not a port, it’s a special edition. We had this company in Chicago – Day One [Studios]- who we purchased approximately a year and a half ago so they were working in top secret, but as you might have heard, I made a big announcement from the stage at the Microsoft conference in Los Angeles. The game is faster. Of course you have tremendous changes to the interface and the way you do text and icons so they are more visible and recognizable from the couch. Some things – especially the levelling up – are a little simplified in order to help avoid table browsing, but to a reasonable extent.
And somehow, the game happens to be more dynamic, and maybe that’s just because Day One is good at making console games. I have to confess that I myself am not a console gamer. But everyone knows the most crazy people playing Call of Duty or any fast-paced action game are on the console and they just kill. So that’s why we need the analogous controls, and we simplified just a couple of small things to make it more accessible and so those games go faster.
Was there any pressure or inclination to integrate Kinect into the experience?
No. First for launch is the pad. With these games, at the time of release, there is no physical way you can have everything. You just have to have a viable, playable, bug-free, enjoyable version. And after you release, then the work starts and the millions of players come and play and they have problems, or don’t have problems, but they tell you on the forums or email you what to do. Then for the next many years, you keep improving and enhancing this non-stop. So what’s going to be happening two years from now, nobody knows.
I know this may be a question for a much later date with so many other, more immediate things on your mind, but do you see this brand continuing to expand in terms of game releases and variations of the titular theme, or do you see something radically different as a potential experiment down the line?
First of all, we do Wargaming.net as a service. So one login with security that gives you access to all of your games that we make. I don’t believe we will publish other people’s games basically. We have a lot of games on our hands to entertain you for the rest of your life. You will be able to freely transfer gold, but also we will be allowing you to transfer experience points; that’s a very interesting tweak that I don’t feel like anyone is doing. So imagine that you have been playing WoT for 3 years and you have like 100 machines – like myself – you can earn those xp points in WoT and then transfer them in the form of free xp in ‘Warplanes’ and use them for levelling up planes if you don’t want to spend too much time levelling from zero.
Also, our main monetisation point is the premium account – which doesn’t give you any battlefield experience, but it just gives you 50% more experience and credits after you finish each battle. So it just allows a working professional like myself to level up on a strategic scale faster. And it will be zero premium account cost for ‘Warplanes’ and any future games if you have a premium account for WoT.
Of course the majority of users never pay in these free-to-play games anyway, but we still value them, we still need their time, involvement, friends, participation in clans and tournament, Twitter and Facebook posts, YouTube videos…they’re a very important part of our ecosystem. However, if you already gave us $10, we have this saying: “Wargaming does not milk the unmilkable”. We are strong believers in support that if you are a paying user, we love you, and there’s no way we are going to do this.
This actually makes me wonder – were you profitable right from the get-go?
Yes, we were really, really lucky to have Mother Russia besides us because the tank topic in Russia is like sacred because there were dozens of thousands of them running around our towns, cities and lands, so that’s why there’s literally a tank monument in every town in Russia on the western side of the country, and in Belarus and the Ukraine. So Russia took off and exploded immediately the first day. It just literally exploded like Facebook.
There’s always the technicalities of the process, so after a month or two, we were highly profitable. But, instead of buying ferraris and islands, we started very wisely reinvesting the money back into the growth of the company and the service; new territories and additions like maps, tanks, better graphics, etc. So yeah, those profits are going in the right direction, even as we speak – increasing the quality.
I know I’m going back further now [the reverse order interviewer!], but was that culture and historical presence and importance what influenced or wholly inspired the conceptualisation of World of Tanks?
Believe it or not…we had been making games for almost 15 years before that: turn-based strategy, real-time strategy – most of them retail-based, single-player products. We realised that this industry is going nowhere; the industry of physical retail, subscription, first pay-then play…it’s not going to work. YouTube is free, Google is free, etc., so that is why we had to have a lot of courage and guts to pretty much burn all the bridges with our past experiences, this past style of products. So we starting making this free-to-play online, which was unheard of in the west pretty much.
For five years we were knocking on doors, of course promoting our own game, but also promoting the concept of free-to-play for the west because the perception was awful. You would knock on the door of some big media outlet in San Francisco and they were like “free-to-play? Nah, we’re not even touching that.” So the way to convince them was just demonstrate that free does not mean cheap. It does not mean low quality.
Free means…whatever it meant before and what it means in Asia, we brought a new meaning to that. It has to be AAA, top notch quality on all aspects from graphics to textures to connectivity and the talent behind it. And also the way we handle community, customer support and PR: come to a new territory and talk to the media, bring the players in to do tournaments and e-Sports, surveys and all that.
Being a mainly console guy, that subscription-based model was something that really put me off experiencing many PC titles that were booming in our generation, especially with the likes of World of Warcraft. But then when you looked at F2P, that negative perception did the same for everyone else…was the topic of the game ever hard to sell?
You know in China, there’s 400 predominantly fantasy games coming out every year. And some of them make their way to the western markets through publishers, who just do languages localisations, a few twists and whatever they can pull off with the Chinese developers and that’s it. I’m not blaming the Chinese because you know, China is a special country with their own culture and most of those games are devoted to the history of China and Korea and that kinda stuff. But the west is a different market and requires different stuff. First of all we started with a realistic topic looking at its heritage. Those tanks are not some fantasy creature; you can go to museums and pretty much touch the Tiger, the T-28, the StuG III and our grandads were fighting the war…
Yeah, exactly. I have to say by the way, a belated thank you for being here as well because I know you’ve been running around like crazy and getting in at 4am and…
That’s our work! You know I’ve been on WoT myself, but for the last month and a half I’ve switched to World of Warplanes because this is a very critical phase. I’ve pretty much gotten sucked in. But before that I would be playing at least one hour every day. I have 11,000 battles in WoT. Some people have 100,000 battles, but for a CEO 11,000 is a lot!…
Well that brings up another belief amongst people, and it’s been justified in the past, that many CEOs might just be financing or running a company, but are actually approaching it purely as a business venture and don’t get involved in their own product or process…
Oh yeah, you know I can rant for hours and hours, but the short version is this: can you just imagine…people might be a little bit jealous of my role now, because I used to be just a gamer in my highschool and university years. I’m a physicist, so laser physics…but in the 90s, all we did was of course play, with the first computers, everything from Abrams [Battle Tank] to Civilization, Warcraft, Starcraft, Total Annihilation and Master of Orion a lot. And then I wisely chose a career of not being a physicist.
We would always get together as friends and say “they could improve this!” and you would write emails – well there were no emails – but letters to the companies and then you realise that they are not getting these letters and will not do what you want, so the only way out is to make your own game. And see right now it’s a good business with good revenue and profits. I still enjoy playing games, and of course I play others’ games, but I don’t have too much. Mostly I spend time playing my own games, and it’s a good business and it’s worldwide with almost 2,000 people, so I’m pretty much one of the happiest people on Earth. I’m making games, and enjoying these games and that’s how I pay the bills. It’s a great place to be. And I get to talk about my games all around the world!
That’s a nice perk, but I’m sure you don’t have too much time to actually sight-see and experience the local culture of each place?
I can’t wait until I go to Brazil! This is actually my first time in Australia, otherwise I would never probably come to Australia [not because he dislikes it, just in terms of opportunity]. PAX is important as I can talk pretty much for the first time to Australian press, and Monday I go to Sydney to see our office here. And then by the end of this year I will get to go to Brazil, for work! [Laughter] What, there’s a crazy big game show!?
But no, I don’t get much time to explore. After this there’s some event in Eastern Europe, then the Tokyo Game Show and D.I.C.E. Europe, GDC Austin – well, not in Austin, it’s going to be in Los Angeles now – and then G-Star in Korea. In January there’s going to be D.I.C.E. in Las Vegas – I have to go to Las Vegas for work – then GDC in San Francisco, the Taipei Game Show…oh I forgot there’s two big Russian Game Shows, and then E3 and after that there’s Gamescom. It’s pretty much…
A never-ending cycle – the whole schedule just starts again. Talk about jet lag, I just don’t know how you do it! Well I mean it’s a passion for your business really…
I’m a big revenue chunk of the coffee market, worldwide! [Laughter]. You know, let me just finish on this. In probably 5 years from now there will be no PC or Mobile or whatever. Probably all of our gaming or calculating work devices will be nano-tech or whatever, and we’ll be transmitting our project onto anywhere, like 3D fill-in-the-room holographics. But the one key that remains will be the experience. So technology will allow us to miniaturise and have it in your pocket always. Right now, it’s not yet the case. Maybe we’ll achieve this through cloud gaming or streaming, so having calculations happen on the server side so you don’t care about the size of the data centre and internet can be so quick that you can stream HD pictures in a snap of the fingers.
From that moment, it’s all about gameplay experience. So we’ve been doing battle experiences for about 15 years; we enjoy that, we know how to do that and we’re growing based on that and will continue to do that. We have big muscle now behind us. Before we had just a few of us and all that devotion, and that remains. But out of a small bunch of Eastern European friends, now out of 1,800 people we have lots of nationalities…it’s very exciting to be this multinational and multicultural organisation.
It’s definitely an exciting time. I really want to thank you for your time out of that extremely busy schedule. This was really informative in terms of coming to discover just how much work goes into this always-on machine that is Wargaming.
No, thank you very much! It was my pleasure.
If you are a PC gamer and you haven’t given World of Tanks a look, we may have to revoke your gamer card. Also, check out the mobile instalment World of Tanks: Blitz, which does not have a finalised release date as of yet. And you can participate in the World of Warplanes open beta right now! The alpha for World of Warships will be coming soon.