Victor Kislyi’s plan is to dominate the world of gaming with free-to-play titles. The chief executive of Wargaming.net says his company has more than 55 million registered players for its World of Tanks online tank combat game, and it is setting new records for the numbers of concurrent users in its game. That’s enough to get the Cyprus-based company a lot of attention in the West, as the executives at traditional game companies are trying to figure out how to compete with Wargaming.
Now the company is launching World of Tanks: Blitz, a mobile version of its popular online multiplayer tank game. Kislyi showed the title off at the recent Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. In an interview at the GDC, he acknowledged that the company still had to perfect the controls of the touchscreen game for tablets and smartphones.
But Kislyi is used to taking his time. His company is 15 years old, but it only began its shift to free-to-play games in 2008. With the October 2010 launch of World of Tanks, the company started blasting its way into the ranks of the most profitable online game companies. The company built its audience in Eastern Europe and went worldwide in 2011. Now it is moving into mobile and developing World of Warplanes and World of Warships. And it has expanded to more than 1,500 people, or roughly half the size of Zynga.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview with Kislyi.
GamesBeat: It’s a little hard to control your mobile game. I’m going to have to master that.
Victor Kislyi: Well, we all have to face the fact that there’s a generation of people that have never used computers for everything. They’ve used a digital device to do their homework, do their jobs, watch movies, send e-mails, use Facebook. They got used to this. They play shooting games with it. I’ll never trade away a mouse, myself, unless I’m in a taxi or waiting at the airport or something. Some people will only play it that way. You just have to try.
GamesBeat: It sounds like you’ve spent a lot of time trying to get the controls right. Is that very difficult?
Kislyi: This is our first playable. We’re going to improve them a bit more. There’s going to be the whole cycle of focus-testing and changes. Believe it or not, I can’t play this with a console controller. I just don’t know how to do it, but some people are great at shooting games with them. It’s just a matter of how accustomed you become.
GamesBeat: Was there a time when you thought mobile was not a good market to go into? Did that change very quickly, or change because of how the industry has changed?
Kislyi: A lot will depend on the initiative. Look at Clash of Clans or Angry Birds. There was no Clash of Clans before. Boom, out of nowhere, the installed base is huge. It’s not going to be coming down any time soon. There will be more devices like this, more powerful, brighter screens, better computing power, everything.
GamesBeat: So they’re moving the technology of mobile into your territory of AAA online games.
Kislyi: Yeah. That’s good for us. What we do is about gameplay experiences. The monetization is part of that blend of experience. What kind of metal and plastic device is involved doesn’t really matter, philosophically. Yes, we’re PC-only right now, but maybe five years from now there will be only one gaming device, something the size of your voice recorder here, and it plays all your movies and your games via Bluetooth to a huge plasma screen. What will be left to us? The experience. The visuals. The way the story unfolds. Why you fight and how you’re fighting.
Mobile games are becoming more complex and more sophisticated. Take Kabam for an example. They’re mid-core now.
GamesBeat: How would you classify this? Is this a mid-core title, a hardcore title? Would you spend five minutes in this kind of game, as opposed to hours in the PC games?
Kislyi: This is the first game of this kind, a massively multiplayer, graphically intensive, historically accurate World of Tanks-style game. It has long-tail progression. It’s not about making a couple of clicks per day and waiting for a cooldown. There’s no cooldown here. We’re taking a risk with this. It’s experimental. There’s no proven formula for making World of Tanks on the iPad. Somebody has to do that, and that’s us. There will be lots of tests and further experimentation and prototyping — hopefully not too much — and we’ll see. At this point, we can’t predict the result. It’s just about making it and testing it.
GamesBeat: You’ve announced this. What time frame are you thinking about?
Kislyi: We’re at an early stage. The announcement went over well. It’s been a good morale boost for the development team. We quietly got started about a year ago with a small team in Minsk, practically across the street from us. They’re mobile only, about 25 people, with about five years behind them. They were making lots of different mobile games, but of course not nearly as successful as World of Tanks and not as cool as this. We didn’t announce the acquisition because it was essentially just a handshake and, “Come over to this side of the street. Let’s make something big together.”
They’ve been secretly working on this for about a year, and this is what they’ve got. Of course, the acquisition of BigWorld helped us save half a year of development on network code. BigWorld’s technology platform is behind this on the server side
GamesBeat: Is that why you bought BigWorld?
Kislyi: Inside the company there was a lot of opposition to that, because it was so much money out of pocket. But I couldn’t be a happier businessman a year after the acquisition. Now we can go over to Chris Taylor’s studio in Seattle or a studio in Chicago and immediately hand them BigWorld, just to experiment on. We don’t even know what game they’ll be making, but we can say, “Here’s BigWorld. Go nuts. Let your engineers see how it works.” We can do internal projects using it, like this one. Technically we can still license it, too. We don’t advertise or push the licensing, but in the first place it was a licensable technology. Maybe some big partner can come to us because we have something they don’t have.
GamesBeat: How did you get Chris Taylor on board?
Kislyi: I admired his games for the longest time. We met each other and signed each other’s game boxes a while ago. Then we saw that some big moves impacted him and we started talking. We want him to design a great game for us, doing what he does best with the proper resources behind him. I am very excited about this.
GamesBeat: Do you think this will turn into a series of games?
Kislyi: We’ll see how that goes. It probably will.
GamesBeat: You have to beat Puzzle and Dragons first.
Kislyi: [laughs] They’re making, what, $50 million, $75 million a month in Japan? This is something different. It’s a different market. Like with World of Tanks, we’re not out to beat anyone. We’re creating our own niche and we invite everyone else to join us. We took a few people from Counter-Strike, maybe, or Infinity Blade or some shooting game. But we want to create a new niche. That’s what we did with Tanks. Presumably we’ll do it again with Warplanes and Warships. Here, we’re not fighting against Puzzle and Dragons or Supercell. We’re offering realistic tank combat with cool visuals and 3D and teamwork and PvP and progression and free-to-play. We’re not carving it out of someone else’s market.
GamesBeat: Is there some way to connect the play of this to PC?
Kislyi: We’re not considering that now. First, we’re concentrating on an enjoyable combat experience on the iPad and Android. If the game isn’t any good, it doesn’t matter if it’s connected or not.
GamesBeat: Can you play iOS versus Android?
Kislyi: Yes. That’s thanks to BigWorld. Everything’s on one server. Maybe in the future we’ll connect them. For the PC games, we’ll have a unified account. Wargaming.net will be your one destination for historical military online battle games. It’ll give you access to all three games – Warplanes, Tanks, and Warships. You’ll have gold which you can use in any game. More important, you can take all your free experience and transfer it to use in another game. Imagine I have 120 tanks in my garage after two and a half years. Maybe I don’t need yet another tank. I’d rather save my experience, and then when World of Warplanes comes out, I can transfer that experience to buy some top German and Russian machines in that game. When all three games are launched, we can encourage people to try them all that way.
Right now we’re very cautious about connecting across platforms, though. Time frames and attention spans may be very different. Using experience as a common currency only makes sense across games where time has the same value. Let’s say you play an hour a day and you make it up to level 10 in three weeks. That pace will be approximately the same in Tanks, Warplanes, and Warships. Here it might be much faster. So we have to finish it, test it in beta, and see how it goes. It’s within our power to unite these games, but we have to make sure that it makes sense.
GamesBeat: Right now, is there any worry that the PC gamers will leave you in favor of mobile?
Kislyi: We don’t care. You can’t fool them. Part of our parallel strategy is to give a variety of entertainment to our guys. “Here’s something new you can try, something more than PC. Are you happy with it?” “Yes, do it.” We’re not trying to fool anyone. We are for full transparency of ideas, strategic plans, delivery, and products.
GamesBeat: So they’d only leave if they had a good experience to go to, right?
Kislyi: Yeah. Or maybe it’ll just be separated by their commuting schedule or whatever. At home, if you have a good PC, why would you play the mobile game? You’ll stick to your powerful $5,000 laptop.
Kislyi: First, so far the user base is still bigger than anything. Second, though, it’s hard for me to predict the future. Third, now we have the capacity to have analytic people who are watching and reading blogs and following predictions. It won’t happen overnight. If the PC goes into decline, there will be signs.
This is one of the reasons we started doing this, though. We have to be prepared. We have to have a foot on that platform — and maybe some other platforms as well – to be well entrenched and ready to start an offensive if the situation requires.
GamesBeat: What’s the state of progress for World of Warplanes?
Kislyi: It’s brilliant right now. Everyone who plays it loves it. We deliberately and honestly announced a couple of months ago that we’re having some challenges with the controls. We needed a couple of extra months to research and fix that. That’s what we did. We did about two and a half prototypes – one inside view, one outside view, half of one combined.
A hardcore simulation control panel with lots of buttons and every little detail is nice, but it takes an hour to take off. There’s only 10,000 people playing that kind of game worldwide. We’ve done the research. Then there’s the cartoonish arcade games, with a World War II plane flying around like a UFO. We don’t believe our history buffs – serious guys who appreciate at least a glimpse of reality – want that either.
Our challenge was to find something in the middle. I can say now that Wargaming is famous for solving seemingly unsolvable problems. People said, “How could you manage the tank? It’s not easy to drive a tank.” But here, it is, because of the fantastic control scheme and the camera movement and all that. Now we’re doing focus tests and getting much better results than before. There’s a lot of polish remaining, but then we’re good to go. I can’t give you any dates because they don’t exist. It’ll be when we’re ready. But we’ll definitely not be artificially delaying this.
GamesBeat: I wonder whether you’re worried at all about Cyprus right now, given its banking crisis?
Kislyi: There was a lot of outcry in the media. I should say it’s more like propaganda. It was everywhere. I think 99 percent of Americans don’t even know where Cyprus is, and all of a sudden it seemed like it was that important. It’s a geopolitical hassle, as I see it, but Wargaming is not only in Cyprus. We have 1,500 employees in 14 offices around the world. We’re very well-established and organized when it comes to our business structure and IP ownership and banking and taxation. We didn’t feel a great deal of turbulence.
GamesBeat: So you won’t be losing any personal money or the corporation’s money?
Kislyi: I was here while it was all happening, so I don’t personally have a full picture. But our administration and financial management people worked professionally to handle the situation.
Kislyi: No, I didn’t. Tell me about it.
GamesBeat: There’s been a lot of talk this year about fairness to women in the industry and in games. A lot of people don’t like the booth babes at E3 and so forth. There was a Twitter session a little while ago called “#1ReasonToBe,” and they had a panel on it yesterday that had some very moving talks by women game developers about how to make the industry more inclusive. Last night, then, the IGDA had a party and teamed up with Yetizen, another game incubator. They had dancers just like you had at your party, and women were saying, “This is our membership group. Why do they have to do this to entertain us?” Anyway, a couple of people have resigned from the group over it. Brenda Romero resigned. She was the head of the women’s group within the IGDA.
Kislyi: I hope they’re complaining about us too, right?
GamesBeat: I haven’t heard yet, but I’d wondered if you had heard.
Kislyi: Why are there complaints about the IGDA party and not a single one about us? Come on!
Arthur Pratapopau: Next time we have a party, I’ll make sure they complain about us.
Kislyi: Are you a feminist, Arthur?
Pratapopau: No, I’m not.
Kislyi: That’s a joke.
GamesBeat: Anyway. That’s a long story, but I wondered if you got some feedback.
Kislyi: What can I say? We have tanks!
Kislyi: It’s an experimental American plane. World of Warplanes, like World of Tanks, has all the possible and imaginable aircraft, including some only-on-paper prototypes and variations. Our players are history buffs. They asked for everything from World War II. Especially the stuff from the Pacific, it will be like paradise for them. We’re not inventing anything. Everything is based on reality, either production machines or prototypes or blueprints.
GamesBeat: Who do you see as the competition these days? Is something like League of Legends your competition?
Kislyi: League of Legends may be a competitor for media attention. Who gets what world record? They have this amount of players. We have that amount of players. They have this CCU. We have that CCU. Our worldwide CCU, if you combine peak CCUs in Russia, America, China, and Korea, comes to 1.3 million. That’s a good CCU to have. Anyway, when it comes to media attention they’re natural competition.
Apart from that, I don’t believe their players are World of Tanks players. They like that kind of 45-minute twitchy match. World of Tanks is more for older players who aren’t that agile or that quick on the clicking. They appreciate a slower, more thoughtful, more strategic game with more historically accurate visuals. We’ve been around together for a couple of years now. We don’t see any big migrations from us to them or in the other direction. They have their niche of millions worldwide, and we have our own niche, which is 55 million registered users. We’re pretty happy to be there.