Wargaming.net CEO Victor Kislyi doesn't like to hide behind PR departments and press releases. Inviting the Wargaming community and us hacks down to Tankfest 2012, he proudly showed off World Of Tanks to all and sundry, taking notes about fan feedback and suggestions within the cavernous halls of Bovington Tank Museum. Over thirty million players have now signed up to World Of Tanks, making it one of the most successful online games on the market as it continues to evolve through regular updates.
Amidst the rolling thunder of several dozen armoured vehicles, I sat down with Kislyi to discuss the newly-announced Update 7.5, British Tanks, the secret of creating a Free To Play success and the future of Wargaming.net. Please beware: this interview may be pictured by some gratuitous photos from Tankfest.
Jonathan Lester (Dealspwn): World Of Tanks has just surpassed thirty million registrations. That is a huge deal for any online game, let alone a Free To Play title. When you started up Wargaming.net and eventually made World Of Tanks, did you ever think that it would be such a huge success?
Victor Kislyi (Wargaming.net CEO): First of all, Wargaming was started around fifteen years ago, when we were making those smaller games. Most were those retail distribution boxes, and at that moment, you'd be happy if you sold 100,000 copies. That makes your day, right? Dreaming of just a million sold boxes, that's something only top games can do on the PC, right? So that's one of the reasons we decided to move away from the retail singleplayer PC gaming industry. We burned all the bridges, put all the money, manpower and threw the hours that we had into that one project. Of course, the numbers we projected were much, much more modest. Everyone including ourselves believed that if we had one hundred thousand players in Russia, that would be cool, if you hit one million players worldwide, that would be a huge, unheard-of success!
Yeah, we were pleasantly surprised with our massive growth rate, but it does not come on its own. You have to work hard with new instalments, new maps, new tanks, new gaming modes, improved graphics, improved physics, service community... to sustain this thirty million, you have to have almost a thousand people on the ground. In Eueope we have 65 people, in America there are 65. In China, we have a partner, so they handle the community and customer support. It's a hard job to grow those numbers and sustain them.
Dealspwn: So, fifteen years ago, what gave you the idea to set up a niche company? How difficult was it going from a startup company to an F2P giant?
Victor Kislyi: Phew! In the rockin' nineties, computer gaming was pretty much new entertainment, all geeks - I was one of those. Everyone was playing pretty much every game that was released. We played it all on Sinclair, on Atari, on early PC computers. And everyone was dreaming about making games, everyone was thinking, "I can improve this one." Making games is a really really hard business, and many of the early enthusiastic startups went nowhere, so people got day jobs and just became lawyers and doctors and engineers and physicists.
Persistence! Myself, a bunch of my college friends and my brother were very persistent. We made our first game, and only four people played it. Two years, out, we made our next game. A little more people play your game and you make a little revenue. Alright, the next one is going to be a hit! And we made a dozen games before World Of Tanks. Each one was a little better than the previous one, but still not an international hit title.
Dealspwn: Free to play and online games live or die depending on the strength of their player base, and World Of Tanks has attracted one of the largest and most loyal fanbases around. Why do you think that your players have become so devoted and continue to stick with you?
Victor Kislyi: In the first place, we chose a niche topic, where the die-hard tankers are very devoted. They can talk about tanks, they can read about tanks, they can write about tanks, they can watch movies about tanks. Even if we have a night out, we talk about tanks! But that is not enough to justify thirty million registrations.
So the secret is this. First, you pick up a niche topic and do it right; cater to that niche community who will stay pretty much forever. They'll stay, evangelise the game, talk about the game and brief the players. They talk to you about what they want, and you listen to that - you do that - and only after that you start to bring in those mass market elements. Wargaming already had a veteran team of people, maybe sixty when we started World Of Tanks, technology, good artists, good database managers, good PR people for God's sake! Some elements of adversising and promotion. So you combine all of those mass production values on one focal point. You work hard to get finances for that venture. You keep going and don't give up. We had another three years of development before we earned our first penny.
In those first three years, what do you do? You do speeches, you gather together, you dream about how cool it will be when it's out - all without generating any money. So it's a combination of a niche and production quality.
Dealspwn: A fair few World Of Tanks players have turned up today to ask questions and make suggestions. Just how important is community and player feedback to how World Of Tanks has evolved?
Victor Kislyi: I've taken a couple of notes from players today, thank God that they were pretty much minor requests - usually they are a little more aggressive. This means that we're doing things right! What we do, myself and a team of community guys, we travel across the world non-stop, from San Francisco to Los Angeles to Koln, to Moscow, to Kiev, to Minsk and China. To Poland. To Italy. To France. Whenever we have a chance, we meet the players. Either it's a big trade show, or we just go and do it. I myself have met about a thousand players. You just go, even if it's about twenty people. You might think that twenty is little, no. You sit with them in a pub, drink beer for two to three hours, and you talk. The opinion they bring is important because they have people supporting them, they go and write about it on the forums and they follow up with emails.
There is no way around listening to your players. How else do you see that? Not listening to your players? No! We would be going nowhere, so you have to do that. Of course, physical meetings aren't the only way. We have hundreds of community support people who are sitting at their computers around the clock, reading the forums, answering, discussing, it's a non-stop mass production-style feedback gathering. People gather it, categorise it and bring it to the production pipeline. It's an industrial process we have now.
Dealspwn: You can't pay to win in World Of Tanks, which is a strategy that some Free To Play games annoyingly take. How did you manage to balance this open, free approach with making money?
Victor Kislyi: I am now in a position to say that the Free To Play model, if you want to do it right, it's a rocket science. There is no way you can turn an MMO or a singleplayer game with multiplayer elements into Free To Play by just dropping the subscription and casually adding the virtual item shop. No. It doesn't work like this!
You have to design your free to play game from ground zero level, day one. Your designer has to be thinking free to play when he grabs a pen and starts writing. I mean, we have dozens of people who concentrate on statistical analysis, creative concepts, and they never stop. We always on the edge between being too free and going bankrupt, and between being too greedy, being play to win and generating maybe a couple of thousand dollars from select players - and then going downhill as the rest of the pack will not join the game, realise that it's play to win and never come back. So this is rocket science.
Dealspwn: Out of interest, what's the average player spend in World Of Tanks?
Victor Kislyi: We have a distinction between non-paying users, who are about 75%, and the paying users who are approximately 25% of the player base, which is the highest in the industry. It differs from territory to territory, but you can safely say that if you spend money in World Of Tanks, it's usually around the price of three movie tickets.
So this is something that an adult man with a job and a family can afford, and even a schoolboy can afford three movie tickets with his pocket money.
Dealspwn: This interview will be going live shortly after you've announced Update 7.5. What's new?
Victor Kislyi: The major part of this update is a lot of new tier X tanks. The balancing of the game right now is that we probably lack Tier X medium tanks, tank destroyers and artillery. The American tank tree was lacking Tier X heavies. So the Americans will get two heavies, I guess, of top tier. The Russians will get a Tank Destroyer and the Germans will get a Tank Destroyer. It's pretty much a balancing package.
Dealspwn: Do you have a particular favourite tank that'll be introduced in Update 7.5?
Victor Kislyi: I've been playing World Of Tanks for two years now, and I'm a good artillery guy. I like the heavies. I probably won't grab an American one, I won't go for the heavy. Whatever free experience I have, I will spend on the German Jagdtiger e100. Recently, I've started playing as an American T-95, which gives me the great scope, the great beauty of being a tank destroyer. The French level IX tank destroyer came out, the AMX 50 Foch, and I loved it. But that's a very special tank destroyer, it runs very fast and shoots very quickly. I assume the German King Tiger Level X is going to be very slow, but I have to see the gun! I can appreciate the gun!
I don't have German tank destroyers yet, so I'll probably level up the German tank destroyer level X and see how that rolls.
Dealspwn: Great stuff! You told us earlier that British tanks will finally be coming to World Of Tanks this Autumn. We're very excited about this.
Victor Kislyi: Let me put it like this: I am not an expert with British tanks. What I know is that in this Bovington Tank Museum, there's an A39 Tortoise Tank Destroyer. Last year, it was moving - I was literally ten metres away from it and the ground trembled, you can feel the ground tremble.
So let me categorise the British tanks in general. They're not particularly strong on, let's say, speed of firepower. They're very much a little bit of this, a little bit of that, but they have very thick armour. They're very heavily armoured. So of course, that comes with slow speed. Our designers believe that British tanks will bring a new twist to the gameplay - you'll be a little slower, but you'll be much harder to hit.
And of course, when it comes to British tanks, if they were the slowest on Earth, I think British people will still want to go with them because they're your history.
Dealspwn: I will be! How long do you think that World Of Tanks will last. Can it last forever?
Victor Kislyi: Let me say ten years because nobody really knows what happens, even in a year. But a big sample of other successful MMOs - like World Of Warcraft and a couple of successful Korean games like NAVYFIELD (that was the inspiration for World Of Tanks pretty much) - it lasted for eight years? The game was, let's be honest, not too high production values. World Of Tanks is being elaborated on all the time, hundreds of people are working on it every day, every weekend and month.
Realistically, minimum five years. That's minimum minimum. Even if we stopped doing things today or tomorrow and just kept the service running, the game would still go on for a couple of years. But since it generates good money and we keep investing in it heavily, it could last another five, seven, ten years? Wait and see!
Dealspwn: Since we're down at Tankfest and the Bovington Tank Museum, the main focus has naturally been on... well, tanks. But you've also got two new games on the horizon. We were impressed with World Of Warplanes beta at E3, and since we've already run a detailed preview, we only have one major question: when will we be able to fly Spitfires, Hurricanes and British planes?
Victor Kislyi: We realised how important it is to have British stuff in our games. Right now the plan is very shortly after launch it will be added. So far, the production chain concentrates on Russian - you know, we have to do Russia, it's our homeland - and American planes because the US is a huge market and it's a warplane culture. The Americans have to have an enemy... so here come the Germans! Unlike the World Of Tanks launch where every new tank or every new nation took a long time (money-wise and stuff), right now we're putting tremendous resources behind World Of Warplanes. So the Brits are coming very shortly after launch.
Dealspwn: Outstanding. That will be followed up with World Of Battleships in 2013 - how is that shaping up?
Victor Kislyi: We already have Navyfield as an example showing that a slow battleship game can be interesting. There's a perfect rock paper scissors triangle for battleships, cruisers, carriers and torpedo boats - all of them are different sizes. Small battleships, German Pocket battleships and then things like the Yamato... huge things. Battle-wise, it's clear. There will be a rock paper scissors combination.
Dealspwn: Speaking of the Rock Paper Scissors triangle, do you have any plans to eventually merge tanks, warplanes and battleships into a single game?
Victor Kislyi: Right now we don't have any plans for bringing air, ground and naval into one battlefield. We don't have that plan yet. However, we're going to have this World War II saga; a trilogy if you will. Wargaming.net will be a one entry point account service, you'll have access to all your games, all your achievements, your medals, tournaments, clan wars with your friends. The beauty of it is that free experience points which you gain in WoT, you'll be able to transfer to Warplanes and use it there. I have maybe 85 or 87 tanks now, so probably before buying tank number 88, I'll save my points. When Warplanes comes out, I'll immediately level up to the Tier X Me 262 jet fighter. I'll pick one
What we can say for sure is that unification will come in the Clan Wars. So let's say we're fighting for Paris. The tank battle happens, my clan fights in a battle with your clan. Whoever wins the World Of Warplanes dogfight for the upcoming tank battle will have an advantage, perhaps two air strikes from off-map, bomber strikes to a designated point or a recon flight, because I dominated the skies. Battleships will obviously cut economic routes on a ground scale, and will give fire support. If I win a naval battle and the next map is a coastal territory, my battleships will give off-map fire support.
Dealspwn: We love the sound of that. At E3, you announced that Wargaming.net will become a proper online service... which kind of reminds us of that other online service with ".net" in the title...
Victor Kislyi: That was our inspiration.
Dealspwn: So do you plan to offer a similar service to Battle.net?
Victor Kislyi: We are surely on our way to becoming a premier global online game company. Not just any online game company: it's going to be military-based, very competitive, so PvP for male audiences mostly. It will be very competitive on the extreme end. But it will also be a tool for a working guy to come home, unload the burdens of the day, problems of work and in life, blow some stuff up and let off steam. He'll kill some time, maybe communicate with his brother or son while they're playing. So on the one hand it's a casual time-killer blowing stuff up, but if you want to get competitive, there's no exact line. You can go as competitive as you want at the end of the day.
And, very importantly, it's global. Right now we have offices in ten different countries, which is pretty much around the globe.
Dealspwn: So can you take Battle.net? Are you aiming to become number one?
Victor Kislyi: Hmm. Probably, it's much better to actually become number one and let everyone see that by themselves, rather than claiming beforehand! It's a tough business which requires a lot of money, resources, people and luck - don't forget, there are still huge Chinese companies that dominate much of China itself, it's like half of the online market of the world. It's a tough environment.
World Of Tanks is free to download and play. World Of Warplanes will enter open beta this summer and potentially release later in 2012, followed by World Of Battleships in 2013.