Stay on top of all our E3 2013 coverage here.
LOS ANGELES — Victor Kislyi had the distinction of walking out on the stage at Microsoft’s press conference at the Electronic Entertainment Expo show this week. And it was a tank that got him there.
Kislyi is the chief executive of Wargaming.net, and he runs the company that built World of Tanks, a free-to-play online tank battle game. World of Tanks has more than 60 million registered players, and it’s coming to the Xbox 360 game console from Microsoft. To celebrate, Wargaming threw a giant party at E3 with thousands of guests.
And now the company’s World of Warplanes game will enter its open beta test on July 2. And it’s testing World of Warships, another massively multiplayer online game where players battle with each other in World War II-era naval duels.
Here’s a transcript of our interview with Kislyi.
GamesBeat: You got to go up on stage with Microsoft. That must have been an interesting adventure. How did that happen?
Victor Kislyi: The Chicago studio, we shook hands on this a little more than a year ago. They’ve been working on this project for quite a bit – a year and a half, let’s say. The project was looking good, and Microsoft was happy. But the reason is easy. North America, the U.K., most of France, Spain, and Italy: They play on consoles. We can’t make millions of people go and buy $1,500 PCs, even if they really love tanks. In America you play 10 feet away from the screen. We have to go there, where the consumer is.
It’s looking good. Did you have a chance to see it?
GamesBeat: Yeah, I played it at the Microsoft showcase.
Kislyi: What happened is, as you may have noticed, it’s a console game. It’s not a PC port. Of course it uses the same concept – tanks, 15-on-15 multiplayer, random battles – but the controller experience, the user interface, the little magnets and dirty tricks they use for shooting games on consoles, they’re all here. These guys have been making console games for 10 or 12 years. We didn’t interfere with them. We just discussed monetization and how we can tailor that for here. The leveling up and the monetization are a little bit simplified. On a PC screen, you can have lots of numbers. Here you upgrade in packages.
The maps are similar for 15-on-15. They’re beautiful maps. The tech tree is the same, because this is canonical. It exists for pretty much all platforms. For consoles, also, we usually have more spectacular explosions.
GamesBeat: For the 360, did you have to change monetization in some way, or could you just drop it in?
Kislyi: We simplified things a little bit. It’s not about getting more or less money, because we’ll get as much money as statistics will allow. We’ll not try to squeeze out more than you can afford. It’s about the whole concept of leveling up, which is in modules. Monetization is a part of leveling up. In general, it’s a little faster and more dynamic, but the concept is the same. Unfortunately for us, and I’m very open about this, Microsoft cannot drop this Gold membership requirement for playing online games. That’s the rule for everyone.
GamesBeat: It’s $50, and then it’s free-to-play.
Kislyi: But that’s the platform service. It’s like cable TV or your ISP. We can’t change Microsoft overnight. But the beauty of it is that it looks like, in comparison with all those horrible stories I heard before, our teams are working very closely with Microsoft’s team. It’s very risky for them and for us. The stakes are high. For us it’s a new console with Microsoft behind it, and for them it’s the first big attempt at free-to-play on a console. You must have noticed this during the conference. They see it as a front-runner. We were on the stage within the first four minutes.
GamesBeat: As far as the timing on it, you announced 360. Do you also have next-generation work going on?
Kislyi: No, no. Right now, we’re not doing anything for Xbox One. First of all, they haven’t released it yet. Second, even after they release, for free-to-play online you have to have a critical mass of players. Forty-eight million Xbox Live members is a much juicier number than the million or two players that usually buy a console in the first year. Consoles start slow.
GamesBeat: So it makes sense to be late in the cycle.
Kislyi: First we’ll see how it goes on the 360. Forty-eight million Xbox Live members, that’s a good platform. Let’s see if we don’t screw this up.
GamesBeat: You have a date now for World of Warplanes, right?
Kislyi: World of Warplanes is the very beginning of July. We say July 2, but it could be the July 3 or July 4. That’s going to be the open beta. We had some problems with the controls, an ideological problem. How do we preserve the authenticity and the photorealistic visuals, but give controls for people who don’t necessarily fly fighter jets or play a lot of simulation games? We did prototypes and we experimented a lot, and now it works. What’s left is just adding bells and whistles. There’s a tale of the tape here, a comparison between your plane and enemy planes. You can click on it and see that their firepower is bigger, so there are tips and suggestions regarding horizontal or vertical speed maneuvers and things like that.
GamesBeat: I saw this around GDC. Did you do anything significantly different between then and now?
Kislyi: We added lots of things, like crew skills that can affect the gameplay. We have pilots and gunners that you can level up. They have perks. We also have a lot of different consumables. It’s in line with the World of Tanks model. We’re adding some things like that in time for release, and we’re still polishing the gameplay itself and the rendering system. We re-created the greenery from scratch, and now we’re working heavily on optimizing the build and getting ready for open beta.
GamesBeat: How much will be ready by the time of the open beta? How many maps or types of airplanes?
Kislyi: Content-wise, there might be some additions, but it seems like we’ve pretty much stabilized. We have two new maps in this build that are pretty interesting. While we were delayed working on conceptual issues with the controls, we had enough time for more content. With this game, content is not the problem. We have hundreds of planes to come after the release. Whatever number of planes we’ll have at the release, it doesn’t really matter. We’ll have enough for you to grind for a couple of months, and then we’ll add more and more. Like in Tanks, there’s no lack of tanks or lack of maps. We can make maps and planes. That’s easy. Controls, balance, new gameplay modes, e-sports support — those are challenging tasks.
Did you hear that we announced the single premium account? I’m personally very proud of this. It was my idea, and I pushed it through all the layers of our 1,600-strong company. You pay for one in World of Tanks, and you have it for all three games when Battleships comes out. We don’t charge you for a second or third premium account. Not even a discount. The typical American sales approach would be “buy two get one free” or something like that. We say no. You spend your time, and that’s a big investment. The premium account is something that allows you to save time across the long-term progression. We work hard. We pay programmers and pay rent and pay for servers. But we don’t want to charge you $30 for three games at the same time. I think that’s cool.
GamesBeat: The interesting question is that you’ve built this great audience, but it’s anybody’s guess as to how long these games last. The only thing that maybe knocks it out is if a better game comes along and people move to that.
Kislyi: We have obvious success. We have huge numbers and all the statistical analysis and blah, blah, blah. What I love about our company, myself, though, and the culture within our company is that we don’t sit on our butts. We’re hungry to make this gaming world better. There are so many things we haven’t done yet, and inside the company we’re very critical. People can come up and criticize me for doing this or not doing that.
GamesBeat: Like your parties are too small.
Kislyi: That’s one example. Or your presentation wasn’t good, or you need to shave before you go on stage. But we have to be perfect. Let me put it like this, to give you a more concrete answer. Russia is an example of saturation. There are so many people there playing World of Tanks. In every school, if you ask a schoolboy, he’ll say, “Of course I play World of Tanks.” Any police department or fire department, if you ask someone, he’s been playing with his friends. Russia has a peak concurrent users (CCU) at 800,000 now, 800,000 players at the same time. That’s a benchmark. I don’t think infectious diseases spread that fast. You couldn’t ask for more than that. In September, we’ll make one more attempt to reach a million CCU in Russia, but that’s a good example of saturation.
America, Europe, Korea: They’re so far away from that saturation point. That was the main reason, by the way, why we went Xbox for America, because Americans play on the console. This is a blue ocean. There’s a lot of space for us, or anyone else who is smart and productive, to grab a lot of turf, even without big competition.
We don’t compete with League of Legends. We were drinking with [Riots Games cofounder] Brandon Beck two days ago at Microsoft’s dinner. He confirmed that they don’t see people leaving League of Legends for World of Tanks. We know that World of Tanks people don’t go play League of Legends, even though both games are huge. He has problems with DOTA 2, obviously, and our competitors are things like Call of Duty, Counter-Strike, Crossfire in China, or this War Thunder in Russia, but I think we overcame their numbers already, so they have no chance.
GamesBeat: Do you have a billion-dollar game yet, or do you think you’re going to get there in the foreseeable future?
Kislyi: I think we’ll be hitting a billion in revenue—the cumulative Tanks revenue will be more than a billion. Not yet, but it will be. It’s close. Frankly, though, I don’t care, because I know that we’re far from saturation. My goal is to get similar saturation numbers in the U.S. and the U.K. Germany’s good.
GamesBeat: When are you going to do World of Infantry?
Kislyi: Right now, we’re not planning on it. What I can tell you is that we finally, with Chris Taylor and Gas Powered Games—it always takes some time to integrate, brainstorm, go to visit each other, shake hands, do some drinking and some thinking. He will start very soon on a very big project. He’s not going to be fixing models for World of Tanks. We’re not in a position to say anything meaningful to the media right now, but that’s going to be our fourth big project.
Our hands are full now with Tanks, ‘Planes, and ‘Ships. The Xbox version is a different game. World of Tanks Blitz, the mobile game, we’ve nailed all the technological issues, That was probably the bottleneck. The controls are almost there. Then it’s just the bells and whistles. I can’t give you the date, but it will definitely be released before the end of this year. They’re polishing and doing internal tests.
That’s the science of our games. We don’t just hope that it will be good. The rule is that you don’t release the game until your focus tests demonstrate that people hit a certain conversion rate and the churn rate is low. It’s not a big presentation to the big boss and I say, “Yeah, release it.” It’s science. It’s now rocket science. Everything is being checked in the lab for sustainability, churn rate, and conversion rate.
GamesBeat: How do you manage the community at this stage?
Kislyi: We have the best of the best people. We have 15 offices. Approximately 800 people are publishing people. They’re customer support and community management, plus a little bit of PR and e-sports. They go to work every day and draw a salary. They’re getting training from their seniors about the rules and the forums and the ethical norms. There are certain marketing messages we give to the community. We have anger management specialists, literally. It’s hard work every day.
We have a lot of people on the ground – Koreans in Seoul, Japanese in Tokyo. We just announced the new Japanese office. We’ll have Japanese people supporting the Japanese market. In Singapore we have Thai people, Filipino people, Malaysian people, Singaporean people, and people on the ground in all those countries doing support. Same for the Americans and Europeans. In Paris we have 120 people, approximately – Czech people, Polish people, Dutch people, Scandinavian people, Spanish people, Italian people. If you go to our Paris office there are maybe all of five French people there. The rest are multilingual Europeans.
GamesBeat: Does something like live streaming make sense to integrate into the game at some point? Like Twitch?
Kislyi: We’re thinking about that. We believe that streaming is a good thing, having it right inside the game client, so we’re thinking in that direction. We don’t have any official decisions, but it’s in our field of view.
You have to understand, we can’t create everything instantly. It takes work and polishing and integration. We have a huge list, both for Tanks and for Warplanes. The game’s going to be around for the next 10 years. I don’t even say five now. It’s going to be the next 10 years. There will always be something to do.
Right now, our biggest focus – apart from graphics and everything – is e-sports. World of Tanks is a huge e-sports bonanza. It’s fair. It’s competitive. It’s spectacular. It’s team-based. It has tanks. It’s all you could wish for in an e-sports game. For this, the budget is like $2.5 million. That’s not too much, but it’s a good beginning. Next year it will be bigger.
Again, though, e-sports isn’t simple. It’s not as if you just wave the money around and people show up. It’s hard work for our community managers, organizing the regional championships and coming to the finals. It’s like maintaining FIFA – the actual worldwide football league. But everything that helps World of Tanks be more tweetable, more streamable, we’ll be doing it. It’s just a bullet point on a to-do list that takes a certain amount of time to realize.
GamesBeat: EVE Online had the interesting idea of doing Dust 514 in the world of EVE Online, doing two different games together. Is that appealing in some way?
Kislyi: Right now, we’re still dealing with other challenges. Let’s deliver Warplanes and make sure that it’s a cool, hit dogfighting game. It has its own merits. Let’s see how it goes then. Same for Warships. After that, we’ll be thinking about how to combine them. I’ll be honest with you. Within this year, we don’t have any plans to combine the three. It’s not possible technologically in such a short term.
But we’ll be combining it on the clan war map. We’re developing the clan wars more aggressively now. Air squadrons will be fighting over Moscow before the tank battles. If my squadron wins, my tank team has, say, two airstrikes or recon or some other bells and whistles that they earn for their battle. A victory at sea might mean a coastal barrage or some help in the landing zone or an advantage in the economic lines. Certain things will make for meaningful coordination between clans for ‘Planes, ‘Ships, and Tanks.
GamesBeat 2014 — VentureBeat’s sixth annual event on disruption in the video game market — is coming up on Sept 15-16 in San Francisco. Purchase one of the first 50 tickets and save $400!