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.