This article originally appeared in issue 243 of PC Gamer UK.
And that was the end of chess.” Viktor Kislyi, CEO of Wargaming. net, is describing the day his boyhood pastime died, in 1996, when IBM's Deep Blue supercomputer defeated Garry Kasparov.
Kislyi had been playing chess for seven years. He had competed in regional championships in his home city of Minsk while trying to master “the mother, father, grandfather, grandmother of all games,” as he describes it.
“And then the world champion Kasparov lost to pretty much a calculator the size of your cellphone,” he says. “It's a very beautiful game, don't get me wrong, but the world of civilisation had to move on.”
My cellphone is currently recording our conversation on the top floor of a tall office tower in Minsk. Several hundred Wargaming.net employees occupy six floors of the building, and the company has plans to expand to three more before the year is out. The staggering success of World of Tanks has kicked expansion plans into overdrive. Wargaming.net are bigger than they have ever been, but it took more than a decade of hard lessons before they struck gold.
Kislyi is more than happy to reminisce about their humble origins. For him, Kasparov's defeat was the starting shot, the first sign that computers were the future. It wasn't long before he and his brother were making their first game.
It was called Iron Age, a turn-based strategy game influenced by Risk and Civilization. Players could forge secret alliances and command individual units to take territory on a hexagonal grid. The brothers set up a server that would take each player's move, convert it, and send it on to other players in the game as an email attachment. Kislyi describes it as “probably the smallest MMO ever.”
Only four people played Iron Age, including Viktor and his brother. It took two years to build, made no money, and faded fast. “That game lost 50% of its players,” Kislyi recalls. “My brother and the German guy stopped playing.”
The fourth player, Peter, did keep playing. Years later he would join the company as one of the main creative forces behind World of Tanks.
After that, Kislyi took time out from university and travelled across the Atlantic to wash dishes, make beds and “touch the American dream.” There, an acquaintance of one of the Iron Age players put him in touch with the miniature wargaming community in the US. It was the start of a relationship that would shape the company over the course of the next decade, and eventually become an important factor in World of Tank's success.
Throughout Kislyi's formative years, wargaming proved to be a satisfying alternative to chess. He recalls his first experience with tabletop gaming when, aged ten, he sketched a battlefield on the linoleum floor of his family's new apartment. “I drew a river, I drew a hill, I did a couple of roads and bridges. I cut little square pieces representing soldiers. I remember that watermelon seeds were cavalry.” He used the board to battle his brother, inventing simple rules as he went along. Kislyi discovered a shared passion among wargamers and history enthusiasts based all over the world, in the US, New Zealand, Australia, the UK and Russia. Their love of strategy and penchant for intricate historical accuracy became a part of Wargaming.net's historical titles, and formed the bedrock of their first profitable game, De Bellis Antiquitatis.
DBA provided a digital alternative to the turn-based tabletop game of the same name. Back in Minsk, Kislyi recruited a few friends to help put the game together. Working from bedrooms and university dormitories, it took half a dozen programmers, artists and web designers two years to finish, but earned a following of thousands when it launched in 2000. It was Kislyi's first taste of success.
“That community who played the tabletop game, they pretty much switched to online big time,” says Kislyi. Players could pay a subscription fee to gain access to all 220 carefully modelled armies, and could set up international multiplayer games to play enthusiasts across the world. Improved server software meant they no longer needed to send out individual emails for every completed turn. Wargaming.net was small but profitable, and starting to amass some technical experience. The monthly subscription money provided enough support for the team to expand again. Soon, they were twelve strong, and eager to break into the mainstream.
It wasn't easy. Viktor remembers the dilemma the studio faced after the release of DBA. Hardcore military strategy had too small a following to keep the company growing, but they didn't want to abandon the complexity and depth of the turn-based strategy they loved. “Everybody likes the words 'mass market', but how do you do that?” asks Kislyi. “If you do it too mass market, appealing to everyone, there is no distinction for anyone. If you do it too niche, too hardcore, then just a small bunch of people play it.”
Wargaming.net's solution? Giant robots. Historical accuracy went out the window. Traditional units of war were replaced with tanks, battleships, giant walkers and futuristic artillery. The result was the 2003 turn-based strategy, Massive Assault. It combined the scale and hexagonal grids of Iron Age with a more marketable farfuture setting and offered the studio their first experience developing in a 3D engine. They never looked back.
Massive Assault gave the studio its first taste of critical acclaim and things got serious fast. Seasoned strategy publishers Matrix Games carried boxed copies in the US and Europe. Kislyi started attending events like E3 and GDC, and the studio started doing deals with advertisers and publishers. Massive Assault was Wargaming.net's introduction to the industry machine. They adapted quickly, learning tough lessons about the intricacies of publisher negotiations, contracts and advertising deals.
Armed with business experience, and a new-found sense of pragmatism, Wargaming.net turned their attention to a bigger problem. Audience interest in turn-based strategy games was dwindling. They followed up on Massive Assault with Massive Assault Network, Massive Assault: Domination and Massive Assault Network 2 before adapting Russian novel, Prisoners of Power into Galactic Assault in 2006, but the profits weren't as high as the company needed them to be.
At this stage, Wargaming.net consisted of around 35 members working out of a rented apartment in Minsk. They propped up long, dry development periods with the occasional publisher advance and contract work, developing accounting software and databases on the side to stay afloat. PC sales charts were full of big new titles like Medieval II: Total War and Company of Heroes. It was time for Wargaming. net to pull off their next big switch-up. They spent the next three years developing Order of War.
It would be Wargaming.net's first and last real-time strategy title.
Viktor Kislyi still buzzes with excitement when he talks about Order of War. He refers back to the linoleum battlefield of his youth. “Those watermelon seeds in hundreds were always on my mind,” he says, “so I wanted to do things massive on the battlefield. In Order of War you see hundreds and up to thousands of infantry, tanks, planes moving across the battlefields.”
“We made literally a Normandy invasion scene to rival Steven Spielberg's opening scene from Saving Private Ryan, you know, for number of troops. And it definitely outnumbered Company of Heroes.”
Kislyi brings up Company of Heroes several times. The studio had changed tack and spent years developing a new series from scratch in an unfamiliar genre, only to crash up against the best World War II RTS ever made. Order of War offered battles on a scale that Company of Heroes couldn't match, but Relic's RTS had already had a couple of years to establish itself, and Wargaming.net struggled to persuade players to even take a look at their game.
“What we learned, and it was a bitter, bitter lesson, was community. Company of Heroes, without even probably knowing about our existence, flicked us on the nose.”
It's a sore point for Kislyi, but would turn out to be an important lesson for Wargaming.net. They realised that passionate players were a powerful asset. They could give insightful feedback on a game, they could defend it on forums, attack competitors and spread the word across the internet. They were testers, bug fixers, warriors and evangelists. Building a following during development would become a priority for Wargaming.net during work on World of Tanks.
Order of War didn't sell well, but sales were down for everyone. The market was changing. Digital distribution services like Steam were well established, and retail sales were fading fast. For Kislyi, 2007 was the year that the boxed PC games market died. He doesn't miss it. Not even a little bit. He frames game stores as anachronistic relics rooted in the habits of centuries of human trade, rendered irrelevant by the onset of the digital age. “Every aspect of boxed business is bad,” he says. “It's a new world, those days are gone.” Wargaming.net had a new rule. “No more boxes.”
Falling retail sales wasn't the only indication that the market was on the move. Chinese and Korean free-toplay titles were migrating westwards through Russia. From their HQ in Belarus, Wargaming.net had strong ties to the Russian market and, thanks to Massive Assault, were a known name among Russian gamers. The studio had 80 employees with more than a decade of experience in game development and server infrastructure. The turn-based strategy audience had moved on to faster strategy titles with bigger budgets and Wargaming.net's first RTS had faltered. It was time for another switch-up. Their next game would be an MMO.
The game that would eventually become World of Tanks existed for four months as a “fantasy arena style battle game.” World of Warcraft's extraordinary success had convinced many developers and publishers that only a fantasy setting could work in MMOs. Things could have turned out very differently if not for the intervention of an old friend of Wargaming.net, Peter, one of the only four people in the world who played the Kislyi brothers' very first game, Iron Age. He introduced Viktor to Navy Field, an ageing 2D isometric tactical warship game with a devoted following in Russia. Viktor was inspired. “It was historical, it was authentic, and most importantly it had that free-to-play model.”
Everything came together in a meeting of old friends and colleagues in an apartment in Moscow. Viktor and Peter were there, along with the man that would become the lead producer of World of Tanks, Sergei Burkatovsky. Before taking the lift to the top floor of Wargaming.net towers to meet Kislyi, I spoke to Burkatovsky about that vital evening.
“We started brainstorming and understood that the market was oversaturated with these MMO fantasy titles,” he said. We understood that we knew nothing about fantasy games, but having released Order of War, we accumulated lots of expert guys at doing tanks. So this is how the idea came about.
“Why should we do something with a thing that we don't know anything about? We should make an MMO with the tanks we know everything about.”
It was a simple revelation, but the game that emerged from that meeting would be huge. Wargaming. net now had their big idea, an online free-to-play arena shooter that was accessible but tough. They would pack it with the sumptuous historical detail that Order of War fans enjoyed and apply the tactical nous learned building Iron Age and DBA to each tank's inner workings. Every vehicle would have its own strengths and weaknesses inspired by historical design. Every shell impact would take into account the qualities of the barrel that fired it, and the style, thickness and plane of the armour it struck. It would have depth and big, satisfying explosions. It would be easy to learn and difficult to master, like chess, except better, because it would be full of tanks.
Certain that they were on to something, Wargaming.net travelled the world trying to sell the idea to publishers, but were met with uncertainty and, as Sergei explained, outright incredulity.
“They were literally laughing at us. One of the top managers of the biggest Russian company told us that it would never, ever be any kind of success, and it would fail big time, just because the person playing an MMO cannot associate himself or herself with the tank. It is not possible.”
Viktor finds this point especially amusing. “We were pretty much lucky because boys, we now know scientifically and can prove that, like tanks in pretty much the same manner across the world."
Wargaming.net decided to bypass publishers altogether and press on alone. They began in Russia, a nation shaped by the vast tank battles of the Eastern Front. Wargaming.net got in touch with historical societies and wargaming enthusiasts, returning to the same circles that Kislyi had mingled with a decade earlier while making DBA. They were determined to build the sort of community that had made Company of Heroes unbeatable. They succeeded.
Word of mouth spread fast and soon Wargaming.net found themselves swamped by thousands of players. Their technical engineers were working night shifts, powering up emergency servers to keep up with demand. They invested heavily in server infrastructure and community support, keen to retain the player base they had amassed so quickly. They made regular updates. They added new tanks, new maps and communicated closely with fans on forums.
In January last year, World of Tanks' Russian server took a Guinness World Record for hosting the highest number of consecutive players in an MMO. Wargaming.net didn't stop there. They opened offices in Europe and released World of Tanks in China. In April of this year, World of Tanks broke its own Guinness World Record, registering more than 105,000 players online at the same time. Kislyi estimates that around 13 million people have signed up to try World of Tanks worldwide. Kislyi isn't about to relax, but that's understandable. Wargaming.net haven't stood still for 12 years. World of Tanks is just the beginning of a trilogy of titles. World of Warplanes is well into development, and World of Battleships lurks on the horizon. Wargaming.net are building a world of war, and Kislyi is as excited and confident as ever about their chances in the years to come. “We can do miracles with the people we have,” he says. “It's very exciting