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Disclosure: The organizers of Slush 2014 paid my way to Helsinki. Our coverage remains objective.
HELSINKI — Wargaming.net got its start as a small wargame maker in 1998. Now it has shipped more than 15 games, including the gargantuan hit World of Tanks, an online tank battler that more than 100 million people have played.
That’s a stunning result for Cyprus-based Wargaming, led by founder Victor Kislyi. The company has grown to more than 3,500 employees in studios around the world. The empire now includes World of Warplanes, launched last year, and the upcoming World of Warships. After four years of trial-and-error, Wargaming also shipped its World of Tanks: Blitz. This mobile game has been downloaded more than 8 million times. That’s not bad, but Kislyi wants to do better. He wants to create happiness for millions of players, and he’s nowhere near done with that task.
I caught up with Kislyi on stage at the Slush 2014 tech conference in Helsinki last week. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Victor Kislyi: We gambled with this. We invested a lot of money and time and effort. It’s paying off so far. In show business you have to take risks. This is our particular gamble on mobile.
GamesBeat: What’s your more global view of the gaming business and the boom we’re going through now?
Kislyi: If you’re thinking about this, it’s evolutionary. If you watch National Geographic, you see the lions. The little lions play with each other, fight with each other. The cat brings a mouse to her kittens to play with. Playing, for big animals, is essential. That’s how we learn to hunt, or to run away from something that hunts us.
Everyone is a gamer. Even if you’re not a video gamer, you play with snowballs, or hide and seek, or board games, or cards. We’re all gamers. It’s just only now that we have this fantastic technology in our pockets or on our desktops or in our laps or in our TVs. No matter how big or small your living room is, the screen is there. Only recently, a decade or so, has everyone — housewives, older people, the youngest generation — gotten access to some kind of screen with a controller. That’s why it’s going to be growing nonstop. If you see numbers about gaming on different platforms, it’s all growing, and mobile is leading the pack.
GamesBeat: When you were starting 18 years ago, you were making World War II games, tank games, the same as you’re making today. But now, 100 million people are playing. What’s changed?
Kislyi: For me personally, and a bunch of people who started with me, it’s passion. I’m lucky to be where I am. I was playing those war games fanatically – Panzer General, Total Annihilation, Civilization, military strategy and tactics, building empires. Then I got to have this job, this business, making those games I loved. It makes good money. I’m busy every day. So it’s about passion. I had it 18 years ago and I have it now. If you’re passionate, the business will be good.
GamesBeat: What do you think about the value of the games business to people? We’ve seen all these billion-dollar deals. With 3,500 employees, you’re larger than Zynga now, which has a $3 billion market capitalization.
Kislyi: Wargaming is a private company. We don’t have any outside investors. We’re not going for an IPO. We don’t have plans to sell to any big Asian whatever. We believe that what we do — we create happiness for dozens of millions of players. I play World of Tanks and Blitz like crazy. Creating this kind of happiness, being consistent, providing the best quality of new products and improving the service for old products, this is what drives Wargaming.
I don’t know what would happen if we IPO’d and I took a lot of money and went on vacation to some island. So far we’re good as we are. I’m afraid to lose this passion – not only my personal passion, but that of the other hundreds and thousands of people who work for Wargaming. I can’t give you a number for what Wargaming is worth. We’re not selling.
GamesBeat: You have some interesting people working with you, like Gas Powered Games’ Chris Taylor. Tell me about some of your studio heads, these very seasoned console and PC gaming veterans.
Kislyi: To be the head of a game studio, you have to be a little bit, or quite a bit crazy. I’m a little bit crazy, in a good sense, passionate. Chris Taylor is crazy, in a good sense. We have to come up with new games. We have to come up with mind-blowing ideas for new concepts. For this, yes, you have to be a businessman. You have to be organized and anticipate anything. But you have to be a little crazy to come up with something that nobody has come up with before.
Chris Taylor is a perfect fit for our company. He’s working on something big and exciting. We already have it play testing internally and it’s looking good, but it’s too early to tell.
GamesBeat: What’s your view of the future of gaming?
Kislyi: It will never stop, for the foreseeable future. Dozens of years, 15 years for sure, there will be this or that kind of gaming. Definitely, mobile is the answer. Devices are getting smaller and smaller, yet the screens you can project to are getting bigger and bigger, in the living room. Everything is getting connected to the point where you can play any game through any device, including your refrigerator. Just press a couple of buttons on the touch screen. So gaming will never stop. As game developers, it’s up to us to come up with fantastic new ideas and execute well.
GamesBeat: What do you think about virtual reality?
Kislyi: If you’re asking about the Oculus Rift, we all understand that today’s units are too bulky as yet. But many things were bulky 50 years ago that we can’t live without now. I wish them well, all the possible success they can find with the miniaturization of their device. Sooner or later, whatever this device winds up looking like, it’ll be something for the mass market. Today you can’t say that, but soon it will be. That’ll give us an opportunity to create more exciting worlds for players to immerse themselves.
That’s the kind of risk I was talking about. They’re taking a risk, and I hope they win.
GamesBeat: Could you call it Virtual World of Tanks?
Kislyi: Most of today’s games are 3D by definition. For us, as soon as 100 million people have these virtual reality devices, you can just switch one button to render into these goggles. We don’t have to come up with anything very new. But as for future games — a small device with a touch screen and tilt gave us, as players, so many fantastic new ideas about how to play. Virtual reality is probably going to have bigger technological and gameplay impact. It’s going to be the Wild West. As soon as they go mass market for real, it will be an opportunity for guys like us.
GamesBeat: How well is your franchise spreading outward with Warplanes and Warships?
Kislyi: Warplanes launched about one year ago. We can’t say it’s a total success today. It’s breaking even. The numbers are nowhere near World of Tanks. We could say that World of Tanks is the biggest competitor for Warplanes, which is partially true, but the reality is that we made a couple of mistakes.
The most difficult part is 3D dogfighting. As humans we walk around on the ground. We don’t fly. That’s hard to get your head around. But this is a lousy excuse. There are some things we should have done better. Right now we’re analyzing and coming up with new, let’s say, versions for our player base. It’s growing slightly.
World of Tanks Xbox is doing great for the 360. The amount of people who can play is limited by the number of global Xbox Live subscriptions, which is 18 million or 20 million or something like that. Blitz, as I said, is doing well with 8.5 million players. We have a couple of other games like World of Warships at different stages that are looking good, and then some other projects we can’t talk about right now.
GamesBeat: Are you finding with a lot of these games that the further you get away from realistic warfare, the further you go into fantasy, the better the result you see, or the bigger crowd?
Kislyi: I’m a very passionate World War II buff myself. There’s a fantastic tank museum a couple of hours’ train ride from Helsinki. I visited there four years ago. They have an amazing collection. But in the beginning, yes, World of Tanks was a more historically accurate simulation. Today, we understand that those millions of people want to have fun. This is our everyday life today.
When fun and historical accuracy run into a contradiction, we favor fun. If there’s a way to make it less realistic and more fun – faster, more dynamic, more explosions – we do that. We do a few dirty tricks to conceal the fact that our tanks go almost 100 miles per hour. The ships in Warships travel faster and turn faster than they really would. Naval battles in World War II could take a day or two or three. Most players can’t spend that much time sitting by their computer.
GamesBeat: Do you have any other comments?
Kislyi: I’d like to extend my admiration to the Finnish game and mobile industry. As I said, we’re here for inspiration. We’re a bit late to the party, because we were busy on the PC and Xbox. But you guys give to the world and to us and fantastic example of being lean, mean, fast, creative, everything positive. We’ll come up with something else exciting in the mobile area soon, but we’re not going to be copying anything that’s already successful. We want to make something new.
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