World of Tanks was one of this year's great surprises. The name conjured up images of an MMO world where tanks handed out quests, sold gear and killed ten wolves, but what we got was a glorious deathmatch shooter with a deep and complex RPG unlock system. People made fun of it, but World of Tanks now has a massive five million registered players. And with World of Warplanes, Wargaming.net are planning to take it to the skies.
World of Warplanes might seem the next logical step from World of Tanks, but it's more than a straight conversion. “An aeroplane is more difficult than a tank to control, obviously,” acknowledges Victor Kislyi, the CEO of Wargaming.net. “There are many more drivers than pilots on this planet. That's where we put a lot of good people; trying out different controls, different twists in the flight model itself. If you look at the cockpit of any plane, you see a lot of controllers. We don't want people to be having to switch on all of those.”
So what makes Warplanes different?
“More dynamic, more manoeuvres, less camping,” he says. “Aeroplanes everybody knows, you are in 3D, you have to be moving all the time, like a shark.”
One of the frustrations of World of Tanks is that sometimes your team will decide to sit back and snipe at the enemy, meaning more aggressive players don't have any support moving forwards. The constant movement of World of Warplanes enforces a very different style, unlike any other shooter.
Many of the basic concepts are similar to World of Tanks. You have a hangar full of different planes and winning battles will earn money and experience to upgrade your planes and unlock new ones. It's a simple system, but an astonishingly compulsive one. When you first get a new vehicle, you start chasing upgrades to make it reach its full potential. But when you get there you realise you're tantalisingly close to the next one. There's always something to look forward to.
That effect will be boosted by cross compatibility between the two games. “Let's have mutually acceptable gold, why not?” Victor enthuses. “It's just dollars, or pounds, right? If you have the reserve of gold in your World of Tanks account, you're going to want to try Warplanes, why don't you use that money in World of Warplanes? There's nothing against it.” There's even the promise to move experience points between games. Victor tells us: “You can take one month's experience in Tanks, and because you already have level 10 tanks, you can have those experience points from day one, put it into aeroplanes, and you'll have a level 9 something right away.”
Matches are still 15 on 15, and you can still win by wiping out the enemy. One big difference will be in the alternate win conditions; World of Tanks relied on a control point system, which makes little sense in the sky. Instead each team will have a ground base, with hangars and anti aircraft guns, that the opposing team need to take out to secure victory. Seeing your base exist as an actual object with its own defences, rather than an arbitrary circle on the ground, is a big change, and should lead to a very different style of game.
The game will launch with US, German and Soviet planes represented. Sadly fans of Spitfires will have to wait. The British are the first planned post-launch addition, followed by the Japanese. It's a disappointment for me – I could understand British armour being left out initially in World of Tanks, but the RAF, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz are some of the most iconic images of World War II, and it's a shame we'll have to wait for them to be properly represented.
There will be three broad classes of warplane to choose from: single engine fighters are the iconic dogfighter, light and quick to turn, they engage enemies closely and destroy them before they can react; heavy fighters turn slower but they hit hard if they catch you head on; and strafing aircraft, who focus on dealing out damage to ground targets. The last one is particularly intriguing, suggesting a much greater emphasis on taking out the opposing base.
World of Tanks never had anything like that, and as such games were often decided by eliminating the opposition, with capturing their base only being thought of when there were few players left on the field. By having a class dedicated to the base game, World of Warplanes should pressure their pilots to make earlier, riskier assaults, making games more interesting.
Like World of Tanks, World of Warplanes stretches either side of WWII. Starting planes will be small 1930s biplanes, while the highest levels will be represented by the early jet planes of the 1950s. Wargaming.net will be doing their research on this one: “It has to be historically realistic in terms of models, engines, internal components and relative parameters of different aeroplanes and different nations. Of course, it has to be well balanced, but the gameplay, the flight mode, the controls, they have to be somewhere in the middle, in that sweet spot, so that normal people can play.”
Meeting with the team, it was clear that they had a passion for military history. They know their planes like they know their tanks, but they aren't afraid to fudge things a little in the name of fun and balance. For that reason, World of Warplanes will be removing takeoffs and landings, the most frustrating and disaster ridden part of any flight sim game. Players will get dropped straight into the world, ready to dogfight from the off, with no need to ever touch the floor.
The key is balancing accessibility and simulation, says Victor: “Not too hardcore so that it takes you 30 minutes to take off, and then you crash land after a successful mission.”
Instead the game is all about the aerial combat itself, not the bits before and after. All that said, Wargaming.net are currently debating whether to let players try to land their planes at the end of the match for an experience bonus.
Like World of Tanks, the controls will be as simple as the developers can make them, but complex calculations will take place underneath to determine the success of every shot. Hardcore flight sim fans will be free to use a joystick if they want, but it won't be necessary to play the game effectively.
While the fantasy of flying a Spitfire is one everyone can get excited about, flight sims have for some time been considered a very niche genre with a small but dedicated audience. So why try it? “Our players want it,” says Victor. “I play World of Tanks under my own name with the Wargaming.net tag, so they know it's me. And they're like, “Wow! Victor! Why don't you make planes?”
Why the new game so soon? “Let's be realistic, there will be some lifetime limit. World of Tanks will be tanks today, tanks tomorrow... maybe in six months they'll be bored of tanks.”
It's a surprisingly pessimistic approach, considering how successful and frequently updated World of Tanks has been. Victor clarifies: “We'll keep making World of Tanks... it's going nowhere. It'll be there five, seven, ten years, always getting new tanks, new maps, new modes, graphical updates and everything like that.”
They don't want to take their success for granted. “We believe [in] the best service, including increasing the quality, new content, new maps, new tanks, new modes, satellite games. We have to keep working hard with increasing capacity. Right now we have 500 people developing and supporting World of Tanks and those two other games.”
Wargaming.net has invested most of its revenues from World of Tanks back into the company “We don't drive Ferraris, we don't buy castles in France,” says Victor. “The money goes back into new engineers, more opportunities in marketing, so we are upping the position of the game as we speak.”
Victor is very much aware how lucky his team have been to achieve what they did. “We paid our dues, of course, to the gaming community and so the karmic authority thought, 'OK, they've made the mistakes they could have made, they've been serving the community for 12 years so let them have this time'.”
Lessons have been learnt from the first game, too. The number of people playing World of Tanks caught Wargaming.net by surprise, forcing a long beta period. Victor assures us they're trying for a shorter turnover with the World of Warplanes beta, starting this December.
There are technological improvements too, with BigWorld assisting on an upgraded version of the World of Tanks engine to launch with the game. “I've done a lot of games before,” says Victor. “I've done a lot of engines before that, and the engine that World of Tanks has behind it is unique. It's a combination of BigWorld's cool, new load-balancing and server-side technology, with lots of twists from our side and [the] server side.”
We asked Victor if there were ever plans for planes and tanks to fight alongside each other in the same arena, but he says it won't be happening, unfortunately. The playstyles are just too different, not to mention the fact that World of Warplanes' maps are significantly larger than any of those seen in World of Tanks – many of them 15 kilometres or more.
Instead, the Clan Wars metagame, in which rival guilds battle for territory over a turn-based map, will link the two. Planes will fight for air superiority of a region while tanks attempt to control the ground, success in both counting towards your larger goals. Wargaming.net are tight lipped on how exactly this will work, but it seems an interesting way to make sure the two games interact without fundamentally changing how the already successful World of Tanks plays.
It's going to be a busy time for Wargaming.net; at Gamescom they also announced World of Battleships, the naval component of the series. It'll be developed at the same time as World of Warplanes, but taking a very different approach: bigger, slower, and with more powerful guns.
World of Battleships, like World of Warplanes, is aiming for a shared currency, and the idea of seamlessly switching experience and gold between three different kinds of warfare is exciting.
How much further can their 'World of' series go? “Even a six-year-old boy can come up with a list of obvious continuations,” says Victor. “There would be World of Tanks, maybe World War 1, but of course battleships, of course helicopters, of course warplanes, of course modern jet planes, of course big walking robots,” he says. “It's not about having the ideas – everyone has those ideas. The key is to find the appropriate development team, or grow it, expand it, put a lot of money in so the game is quality, and then also wrap it up in community and support layers to service it right. Any of those games are possible, and would be a success, if they're done right.”
So could we see World of Mechs? Victor just laughs.