SAN FRANCISCO — Victor Kislyi, the chief executive of World of Tanks publisher Wargaming, pointed to his free-to-play gaming empire on a map. World of Tanks has been such a huge success as a free-to-play online tank battle game on the PC that the company has been able to hire 3,000 employees. That’s about double the number of workers that the Cyprus-based company had a year ago.

And Wargaming is moving beyond World of Tanks with last November’s launch of World of Warplanes and the pending launch of its World of Tanks: Blitz mobile game, which will compete with a horde of tank-wannabes on iOS. That game, which began its closed beta test today, has been tough to design because it makes the switch from traditional game controls to touchscreen controls. The company also plans to upgrade World of Tanks with all-new graphics during 2014.

Kislyi said the company is focused on making the highest quality games and that is one reason why it is being very careful with its first mobile game. It won’t be easy, as the company has had to keep its hundreds of employees safe in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, which has been rocked by a revolution in recent weeks. Kislyi said the employees are save and back to work with minimal disruptions.

We caught up with Kislyi at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco last week. Here is an edited transcript of our talk. We are also expecting Kislyi to speak at our GamesBeat 2014 event in San Francisco on Sept. 15 and Sept. 16 this fall.

World of Tanks Blitz

Above: World of Tanks: Blitz

Image Credit: Wargaming

GamesBeat: What’s wrong? You guys don’t have the biggest booth here yet.

Victor Kislyi: We’re trying to re-evaluate our place in the industry and the image of the things we do – how we look inside and outside. Last year, yeah, we had parties, but we had them for a good reason. This year, we thought, “This isn’t about throwing parties or having the biggest booth.”

Our business is about satisfying those millions of ordinary people who play our games. They spend hundreds if not thousands of hours. Their control over us is pretty simple. If we do something wrong with our games, they just don’t play them.

So, celebrations are good, but it’s a fast-changing world. It’s a competitive industry. We have to put more focus into what we do. We have a lot of initiatives now. We’re quite stretched, even with 3,000 people in 16 offices. The number of products we have going out into beta is increasing. It’s not just World of Tanks for the PC anymore. We have World of Tanks: Blitz. We have the Xbox version out. World of Warplanes went out last November. We have Generals and Warships, plus what [longtime strategy and RPG designer] Chris Taylor’s doing in Seattle. That’s all a lot of work.

It’s no longer time to think about our initial success. We have to think about how to keep up that success, over and over again.

GamesBeat: Can I make a joke?

Kislyi: Sure.

GamesBeat: You’ve got 3,000 people. How come you can’t finish one mobile game yet?

Kislyi: We can jump in to one battle to show you how the graphics look right now. In the meantime, I’m telling you, this is a full-scale massively multiplayer online game in this tiny little thing here. This isn’t something that happens every day. We’ve put in a lot of effort. It’s been in development around three years with its own team.

When you look at the level of detail, it’s almost as good as the PC game. We give you all the infrastructure – clans, upgrades, free-to-play stuff, the persistent world. We give it to you on a free-to-play basis on mobile. You can enjoy that not only in the comfort of your office or your couch with the Xbox. The only change is that the maps are a little smaller, and we have 7-on-7 battles instead of 15-on-15. That suits the mobile gameplay style, though. You can play through a battle when you’re waiting at the airport or any time you have a few minutes.

World of Tanks Blitz

Above: World of Tanks: Blitz

Image Credit: Wargaming

GamesBeat: What’s changed in the past year since you last showed it to us?

Kislyi: The graphics quality is changed – we’ve added four to five times as many polygons and new effects like volumetric explosions — and it’s an MMO now. It’s not just a single-player game with some nice-looking tanks. It’s a whole MMO infrastructure. We had to rebalance the experience points and all the other numbers, because the pace here is different from the PC. Balancing a game like World of Tanks is a challenging task, and you have to do it, because if it’s not balanced, it’ll kill the game.

It’s not just a tank moving and shooting. We have a lot of screens and filters. We have to rebuild the models and redesign the maps. It’s a polished product. It’s almost ready for release. The only thing is the controls. A tank moves and shoots how it moves and shoots. We can’t change that. You need to be able to move here, rotate the turret here, and zoom in and out for aiming. But you don’t have a mouse here. That’s why we had to a lot of focus testing and experimenting and prototyping for those areas – moving, shooting, zooming. It’s quite challenging. This hasn’t been done well on mobile yet.

This, what you see now, has a little “secret sauce” in the form of auto-aiming assistance. It’s not 100 percent auto-aim. If you touch it specifically, this frame will follow the tank, but it gives you quick access to your final aiming. That allows you to do what World of Tanks is so famous for, this game of skill around aiming and shooting – hitting the right part of a tank, shooting on the move, you can do all that here.

Philosophically, I think, it’s a bit ahead of its time. We all know that most popular mobile games are more one-click style games. They have much simpler touch mechanics. This was much more difficult.

GamesBeat: Are you trying to get it to work on a smartphone as well?

Kislyi: It works on smartphones. It’s just that right now we’re working on the interface. I believe that gaming here will follow a classical progression. First, games will be very simple. They look a bit ridiculous now, really, like the games we played 20 years ago. But gamers will grow more and more demanding. Games are becoming more sophisticated. I don’t think mobile games will avoid following that progression.

GamesBeat: Is this your own engine?

Kislyi: Yes. BigWorld is behind the server technology and the graphics technology is in-house. It took some time. What you saw a year ago didn’t have this level of detail — things like the snow, the buildings in the background, the level of destruction. We have the same kind of Havok physics now that we have on the PC, down to each brick, and a lot of other unprecedented things in here. We have 80 tanks, eight maps, all the parameters are balanced.

We just have to make sure, with the closed beta we announced today, that the market at large gets it from the beginning. That either happens or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t happen, we’ll see what we can do about it. But I hope it will go well, because we’ve spent a lot of time experimenting and prototyping and testing with people.

The scale is definitely smaller. We have 7-on-7 battles, a shorter time limit, smaller maps, and only one base in the middle. Everyone rushes for that spot. But if we start getting millions of players and they demand different options, we’ll do updates like we did with the PC game. We’ve done 22 or 23 updates there so far, and those have been quite significant. People will want different things, and we’ll be glad to provide new content to them for the next 10 or 20 years.

GamesBeat: We’ve seen a lot of less ambitious tank games come out on mobile. Everyone has the same idea. They want to be the World of Tanks on mobile.

World of Tanks

Above: World of Tanks

Image Credit: Wargaming

Kislyi: If you type “tanks” into the App Store, you’ll see quite a lot of icons, and there are some awfully stupid things behind them. But people will download that stuff just to see what’s going on.

To give you an idea of how the original game is still doing, a month ago, we had 1.1 million [concurrent users] in Russia. That’s about 2 percent of the male population in Russia playing at the same time, with a four and a half-year-old game. The game isn’t dying. It’s growing on every front.

GamesBeat: How do you allocate those 3,000 people you have? How many are on Tanks, and how many are on new projects?

Kislyi: Approximately 10 percent are in administration and that kind of thing. Forty-five percent are in development, and 45 percent are in publishing. In Minsk we have 1,500, and in Kiev something like 250. They’re mostly working on Generals and Warplanes. St. Petersburg is the World of Warships team. They’re about 200. Paris has about 120 publishing people, maybe 150. In Berlin we have a German marketing team of five or six people. In Chicago we have more than 100 people now at what used to be Day 1. San Francisco is 120-something doing publishing. Seattle has 60 people. Chris Taylor is prototyping and doing some experiments with our next big thing. A small part of Day 1 is in Baltimore, about 12 people. In Sydney we have 80 people now, doing more and more of the BigWorld stuff that’s important to so many projects now. Then we have relatively small teams doing global operations in places like Thailand, Taiwan, the Philippines. That’s 50 or so all in all.

GamesBeat: Do you have any thoughts on how to do well in Asia? Do you think your style of military games will catch on there?

Kislyi: We’re cash-positive there, I believe. There’s not many Western companies that have stormed into the Asian market and conquered it in a day. That just doesn’t happen. It’s a different culture, a different economy, a different legal system, different tastes. We’re a very cosmopolitan studio, though, and that helps us.

There were challenges on the ground. But you always have to keep moving to get to your destination. You have to start hiring people and doing stuff, or you’ll never learn what to do. We made our share of mistakes. But a lot of those issues we’ve managed to polish off and bypass now.

World of Warships

Above: World of Warships

Image Credit: Wargaming

GamesBeat: Have you faced any disruption in Kiev because of the political situation?

Kislyi: There was that week where there was shooting and stuff. Our office isn’t far from the center of the city. We stopped working for a couple of days, for obvious security reasons. Now we’re all back on track, though. Certainly, we don’t like to see this kind of thing happening, but we’re not involved in politics. We make games. World of Warplanes is back on track.

We definitely have a plan B and a plan C in case anything even worse happens. We did relocate some people right away, and we have plans to relocate pretty much everyone in the worst-case scenario.

GamesBeat: Did you delay your event there? I think you had something scheduled.

Kislyi: We had an internal development event that we’re moving to Cyprus now. But that’s normal. That’s life.

GamesBeat: It’s interesting to see how deliberate the pace is. You guys are very disciplined. You’re taking your time. It’s different from a lot of other mobile companies. I don’t see a lot of consistency yet in how mobile game companies operate. Some are out to publish, publish, publish. They get games done with 10 people. This is a rare case in the industry, still.

Kislyi: We’re making a very big investment. I think we’ve invested more than in the initial World of Tanks here, or something comparable. That’s even considering the assets we got for free. It’s a very investment-heavy project for us. It’s not easy to make what you’re looking at here.

GamesBeat: Strategically, though, is it worth it? The whole industry seems to be shifting its weight toward mobile. There’s an expectation that online and mobile could be 60 percent of the business in four years.

Kislyi: Again, let me repeat myself. This is very risky. It could go wrong in so many ways, because it’s not an Angry Birds. It’s not a simple, intuitive, quick kind of game. But I think this is the future. Sooner or later it will come around, and we’re the first in line to do a big, sophisticated online game on mobile.

World of Warplanes

Above: World of Warplanes

Image Credit: Wargaming
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