After more than two years of development, Wargaming.net finally launched its World of Tanks Blitz World War II tank-combat game on Apple’s smartphones and tablets. The title is a crucial one for Wargaming as it chases hardcore gamers as they migrate to mobile devices.
The company spent a lot of time refining how to translate its popular keyboard-and-mouse PC game, which has attracted more than 85 million players, to the smaller touch screens of tablets and smartphones. The title runs on iPad 2 and up or iPhone 4S and up. Wargaming rolled out the title previously to Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland in May. It received an average rating of 4.5 out of 5 in reviews on the App Store. Gamers played an average of 70 minutes in the game.
While the PC version has more than 200 tanks, the mobile game has 90 tanks from Russia, Germany, and the U.S. The graphics are a big step up from other kinds of mobile games, but we’ll see if they are good enough for fans of the PC version. You can take the iOS game and, via Apple TV, display it on a big screen TV at 1080p resolution, or high-definition. Players can fight each other in synchronous 7-on-7 matches, which is very hard to do on mobile devices. Over time, you can unlock more vehicles in the free-to-play game, but you can also spend money to accelerate your progress.
It will be worth watching to see if the mobile version is as successful as the PC title, which has done so well that Wargaming has been able to hire more than 3,000 employees. We caught up with Rob Carroll, the producer of the game for Wargaming America, at the company’s launch event on Thursday. Here’s an edited version of our interview.
GamesBeat: You launched Blitz last night. How long has it been in the making?
Rob Carroll: We’ve been in development with this game for about two years. We’ve had a soft launch in Europe for the last month or so, making sure that everything runs smoothly. Players enjoyed it over there, so it’s ready for the world market.
GamesBeat: It’s very different from other mobile games. They tend to take a lot less time and smaller teams to make.
Carroll: We’re on par with a lot of triple-A titles out there. Our team isn’t all that massive. We’re fortunately able to use a lot of technology that we use for our web games – server technology, a lot of the art and style of the game. For the mobile game, though, we built a lot of things from the ground up. We built the controls, the experience, to play on a tablet or a smartphone. We didn’t want to necessarily make a port of the PC game. This is a mobile game from the ground up.
GamesBeat: Did you have to create the graphics engine from scratch? Was anything reusable?
Carroll: We used our own internal technology there. But all the server side, the backend stuff, is part of our Bigworld technology. That’s what we use on the PC and Xbox titles. The synchronous connectivity we were able to bring right over to mobile. The graphics and the player experience, we built those for mobile exclusively.
GamesBeat: What was the hardest thing about this? Normal mobile games take perhaps six months, nine months to make. People don’t take as much time to polish as you have.
Carroll: It wasn’t necessarily about the polish. It was more about the synchronous play style. We can have seven on seven synchronous matches in our game right now. We have a very high concurrent player capability. In North America alone right now, we have more than 3,000 people playing concurrently, and we can take on a lot more than that. What we wanted to be sure of with this title is that it’s truly [a massively multiplayer online] experience. It’s not as if you’re playing against bots or in an asynchronous experience. You play against real people in real-time, having an experience that’s on par with the PC version.
GamesBeat: How many choices of tanks do people have right now? How many maps?
Carroll: Currently, we have 90 tanks from three countries – the United States, Germany, and Russia. We’ll be adding more of those as we go on, but we think that’s a good place to start. We have eight custom maps for mobile. In general, the play experience is faster. The maps are smaller. We expect each map to be a five- or six-minute battle. That’s what we’ve seen in the early results of player experiences.
It’s in line with the way people play mobile games. We’ve seen people play for upwards of an hour, but that might be over several sessions. They come in, play a battle or two, and then go about whatever else they were doing. Maybe they were watching TV and the commercials come on. This game fits perfectly in there.
GamesBeat: The touch-screen controls seem to be the tough part of designing this experience. It’s easier to conceive on the PC.
Carroll: The keyboard and mouse is definitely easier. You get more sensitivity and accuracy there. We built the controls to be fully customizable, so the user can move the interface around however they want. If they don’t want a dual-stick style, they could move both buttons to one side. If they’re left-handed, they can move their consumables over to the other side. They can place the controls in whatever way feels comfortable for them.
GamesBeat: Right off the bat, it seemed like if I placed it flat on a table, it was easier for me to maneuver. Do you have any recommendations along those lines?
Carroll: None at all. It’s about whatever feels comfortable for you. Personally, I like playing on my iPhone better than the tablet. It feels more comfortable in my hands. It’s out there to be played however a user wants to. We don’t want to dictate how to play the game. We just want to throw a great game out there for people to play.
GamesBeat: What are some of the subtleties of the touch controls? What did you find over the course of testing that people liked or didn’t like or happened to prefer about particular ways to play?
Carroll: Originally, we didn’t have the customization in the controls. We set out a control scheme and that was the way the game was meant to be played. But we found that allowing people to change it to how they wanted to play it was important. Particularly if you’re a lefty or something like that. The control experience is going to be very different depending on your dominant hand. A lot of people wanted to swap things around. It made it feel better to our testers and players.
GamesBeat: Do you find that people pay attention to that and go to the trouble to move things around?
Carroll: Maybe not so much in the initial play experience. But the more advanced and experienced players who’ve been in there for a while and are looking to optimize their gameplay and be more competitive, those are the folks we see diving into the customization a lot more.
GamesBeat: Do you know enough yet to tell whether a player who’s good at the PC version will wind up being good at this version as well?
Carroll: We haven’t really looked at cross-platform play styles. That’s probably something we’ll be able to figure out down the road with some of our data. The game just came out worldwide yesterday, so we’re still waiting for more figures there.
GamesBeat: Are you expecting to see a lot of tournaments or e-sports activity around this version?
Carroll: We don’t have any plans for that immediately. eSports is really important to Wargaming, though. We’re going to head in that direction. We haven’t seen a lot of mobile eSports out there. There might be some new ground we’ll be treading on.
GamesBeat: Was this just the work of one studio, or did several contribute?
Carroll: The development was done by our internal team in Minsk, but it’s a global launch. We have offices in Paris, Tokyo, here in Emeryville. Everyone works on the marketing and community relations.
GamesBeat: As we get better and better tablets, what could improve here about the experience? Apple’s showed off its new Metal API for graphics. Is that going to be a factor in the future?
Carroll: We’ll keep up with advances in technology. We’re very interested in this idea of broadcasting to TV that Apple and Google are talking about. That’s going to be very interesting to us, where you could sit on the couch with your tablet or phone and play on your TV. That’s going to be the next frontier we’ll look to move into.
GamesBeat: Could you play this at 1080p resolution on a TV?
Carroll: Downstairs, we have some of the devices broadcasting to Apple TV, yeah.
GamesBeat: Can people play against worldwide opponents here, or is the matchmaking more regional?
Carroll: We separate people by region, based on the [intellectual property] when they log in. A user can choose to change their server, but if someone in the U.S. is playing in Russia or the EU, you do start to run into latency issues. Mobile players will only play against mobile players, of course. They don’t compete against PC players.
GamesBeat: Operating tanks is not really intuitive. You have to figure out a couple of things moving at once – the turret moves one way while the tank moves another. How do you simplify that for someone who isn’t used to controlling a game that way?
Carroll: We did a lot of testing around usability and the new player experience, making sure that we showed people the basics and got them in there playing within five minutes. That was very important. As far as making it a bit easier for the mobile device, we have a lock-on mechanic on the mobile version where, when your reticle gets close to an enemy, it’ll snap to that target. That gives you that accuracy within the general area of the enemy tank.
You can still refine where you’re shooting, because a lot of our experienced players know that you have to shoot at particular angles and particular weak points on a tank. Otherwise the shot ricochets off. But we bring them quickly within that area of the enemy tank, and then they can customize from there. It makes the gameplay a bit quicker and easier to handle with the mobile interface.
GamesBeat: Where does most of the skill come in? Is it getting your tank into the right firing position?
Carroll: The skill is really in not getting blown up. You can drive out there and stop your tank and aim dead-on at an opponent, but in that time, most likely all of your opponents are going to shoot you. The skill comes in being able to keep moving, find cover, and get those shots on your enemies in between. There’s a lot of strategy involved. If you just drive down the street, you’re probably going to get blown up.
GamesBeat: How much progression is there in the game right now? How long might it take to get the whole garage of tanks?
Carroll: We have all 10 tiers from our PC tech tree in the mobile game. As players gain experience and play the game, they get credits and XP that they can spend to advance up that tech tree. One of our big mantras here is that the game is free to play, but it’s not about paying to win. A user can go in and buy a premium tank, a really high-end tank, but competing with that against a tank on a similar tier where the user has leveled up through experience and gameplay, those two tanks will be on par with each other. The premium tanks give a player who doesn’t have the time to level up the ability to still play competitively. The idea of coming in, playing the game, getting experience getting better, that’s where the fun is.
GamesBeat: What will players notice about the level of realism in your tanks and landscapes?
Carroll: The tanks themselves, we spend a tremendous amount of time making those as realistic as possible. We work with a lot of military experts to make sure that the components and different details of the tanks are accurate. Beyond that, the terrain and a lot of the buildings are destructible. We work with Speedtree to create a lot of realistic foliage. It’s not photorealistic yet, but it’s definitely on par with the PC version.
We’re seeing, with a lot of the mobile devices right now, their graphics capabilities are coming in line with high-end PCs. We’re able to make these games very graphically intensive. Compared to other games out there on the market, we compete with any other triple-A developers as far as the level of artwork.
GamesBeat: If you had a PC player with a mouse, an Xbox player with a controller, and a mobile player with a touch screen, what would come out of that competition?
Carroll: The PC player would win, I think. We’ve tested that out in the past. That’s part of the reason our Xbox title doesn’t play against the PC game. There’s just a lot more fine tuning and quick twitching you can do with the mouse. PC players are a bit more accurate than what we see with a controller or a tablet. We segment them out so there’s not that level of advantage.
GamesBeat: Do you think some people would play with those controllers that have been developed to attach to mobile devices?
Carroll: We’ll have support for that coming down the road, yeah.
GamesBeat: Would that create an advantage for players who have that level of control?
Carroll: A touch-screen player who’s good with the interface is probably going to be as good as somebody with a controller. I don’t think there’s a huge advantage to having a controller. Again, it’s about how the user wants to play the game.
GamesBeat: I figure it’s good to finally have the game out. Have people been particularly impatient with you?
Carroll: I wouldn’t say they’ve been impatient. They ask about it a lot. They want to know when it’s coming out. For us, it was just a matter of, when the game was ready we were going to launch it. We have a great relationship with Apple. They’ve given us some great attention today. We were picked as editor’s choice for the week. It’s been two years in the making, and we feel it’s finally ready. There’s always new stuff to add. We probably have a year worth of content in the road map right now. We’ll be iterating and adding new tanks and new stuff as we go. And we’ll have Android to show soon.