LOS ANGELES — Victor Kislyi is a gamer at heart. That’s why the chief executive of Wargaming acquired the rights to the old sci-fi galaxy conquest title Master of Orion. Kislyi said he grew up with the game, and he wanted younger generations to experience the same joy that he did as a child playing it.
The single-player game is a departure for Wargaming, which has become a huge publisher by focusing on massively multiplayer online games such as World of Tanks, World of Warplanes, and World of Warships. The latter is just about to launch into an open beta test after years of development. We caught up with Kislyi and Master of Orion developer Chris Keeling in an interview at the Electronic Entertainment Expo industry trade show in Los Angeles.
We enjoy talking to Kislyi because he’s frank and funny. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: Was Master of Orion a favorite of yours?
Victor Kislyi: Isn’t that obvious? When I was a kid there was Civilization, there was SimCity, and there was Master of Orion.
We’re an MMO company. Master of Orion is not going to be an MMO. It’s a classic 4X strategy game. We got the license at auction. We had no choice. We absolutely had to get it. We’re reproducing it in its classic, beautiful way. The graphics are upgraded to the 21st century, because my son won’t play a 320-by-240 [resolution] game. We don’t even have devices to display that. But we’re giving back to the community. I want kids who weren’t even born to 20 years ago to touch the classics.
GamesBeat: I wondered how you felt like it fit in. Your customers are gamers. They love anything that’s a great game, right?
Kislyi: Not necessarily. World of Tanks players are our main customer base. To anyone who’s a fan of empire-building, who’s a fan of smart games where you make decisions at a slower pace—you win or lose this game by making hundreds or thousands of decisions about warfare, science, diplomacy, exploration. This is not World of Tanks. I love these games, though. I’m excited and proud of this.
GamesBeat: Does it also make sense to diversify, to have your thousands of people go to work on different things?
Kislyi: I’d love to think so, but the answer is probably no. Look, it was simple. Atari. Auction. Master of Orion. Oh, my god. We gotta get it. What do we do next? Let’s just go get it! There was some talk about what we’d do with it afterward, and we decided to bring back something classic.
GamesBeat: Why not just buy Atari?
Kislyi: Well, we were only interested in this one part.
GamesBeat: What’s left after World of Warships? Do you have another World coming?
Kislyi: After Warships launches, presumably some time this year—we have open beta by the end of this month. Then some time before the end of the year, we’ll launch. As with World of Tanks, there will be five, 10, 15, 20 years of upgrades. We learned a lot of lessons from World of Tanks. We keep doing World of Tanks as we speak. World of Warships, we’re definitely going the same way — upgrades, new units, new maps, new modes, maybe esports if it makes sense, better graphics, better physics, better performance, perks. There’s a lot of stuff you can do with naval warfare. We’re almost there.
GamesBeat: My favorite question is always, what took you so long to make World of Warships?
Kislyi: I have a good answer for that. World of Warships is a different game. We’ve had this conversation before about Warplanes. We’re still doing some things about that, but we’re not talking about it. You’d think this was like Tanks on the water. No. It’s not just a slower version of Tanks. You might think a battleship or aircraft carrier is moving slower than a tank, but given the amount of weaponry — torpedos, big guns, dive bombers, smokescreens — there’s a lot of maneuvering. You avoid torpedos. You launch torpedos. You ram. You shoot. You run away. It’s a different game.
There’s no one measured formula after World of Tanks that we can repeat and repeat. The game, technologically, was almost ready for open beta a year ago. With Tanks we were lucky that most everything worked perfectly from the first attempt. With World of Warships, something wasn’t there a year ago. The alpha players were playing, but the stickiness, the retention, wasn’t there. Something was not enjoyable.
That was probably because of too much historical accuracy. We have this dilemma all the time. It’s a 15-minute battle, which is much shorter than actual naval battles. We have to find a compromise, tweaking the shooting ranges, the way you aim, the way you launch torpedos, the speed of the ships, the penetration. The maps have the spirit of particular places, but they’re not exact replications. It took one year to remake pretty much all the game mechanics. A year ago the game wasn’t enjoyable. Now it is.
We give players an unusual number of ways to customize here. A small example, you may notice the camouflage on the ship, and also the flags flying there. I’ve earned those through my achievements in the game. Those achievements in turn give me access to different abilities. I have some flags that will let me earn credits more quickly or deal more damage, depending on how I want to build myself out.
Since March, we’ve had almost half a million closed beta testers. The average playing time is two hours, 11 battles, per day. People stick and grind and level up and fight. They want more. We make games for players. The good news is that we have alpha, friends and family, and the closed beta to see the reality. Do they like what we give them or not?
It would be stupid, if they don’t like something in our core mechanics, to just release it anyway. That’s a road to nowhere. So we took some time to redo the gameplay mechanics, and of course add new ships. It worked. The development business isn’t a picnic. Sometimes it takes extra effort to make things right.
Here you can see the Iowa, which is parked down the road in Long Beach, so you can go and double check to see we got it right. It’s ready. There are no critical bugs. We have two full nations, the Americans and Japanese. We’ve been polishing and polishing. It’s a good game and we’re getting fantastic feedback. We hope to release by the end of this year.
It’s a big thing on Twitch already. I’ve seen a lot of streams. People have made their streams very cinematic. They not only know how to play, but also how to show it so it looks almost like a movie.
GamesBeat: Do you have a window to do more single-player games now that you’re finishing Warships?
Kislyi: Let’s not forget the DNA of Wargaming for the last 18 years. We made smart turn-based strategy games. I grew up playing those games. I started making those games. We love strategy. We love military conflict. We love entertaining products that force you to think and act, to strategize. We’ll see how we come out with this reboot. We enjoy making this, but it has to be perfect. You’ll see how much effort we’ve put into it. It’s classic 4X strategy with a 21st-century level of everything.
Chris Keeling: I’m sure you’re familiar with the 4X game concept — expand, explore, exploit, exterminate. Master of Orion was the granddaddy of all those games.
You can see that there’s a lot of settings. You can pick and choose how you want to play the game. Your decisions are critical. Everything you do matters. Each race has its own introductory video based on its lineage, its culture and history. We show their home planet and their ships.
Kislyi: We managed to preserve the art and design style of the original game, but not in 8-bit color.
Keeling: You have an adviser to help you through the beginning of the game and give feedback and suggestions.
Kislyi: We put a lot of effort into voice-overs for pretty much everything. All 10 races have animation, voice-over, all of it.
Keeling: Each character has about 100 lines, way more than any other Master of Orion game. Here’s your home system, Altair. You can zoom out and see the galaxy. Right now we haven’t explored, so we can’t see much. There are a lot of decisions to be made – where to go, who to talk to. Every galaxy is different, because we have so many different seeds and combinations.
There’s a lot of ways to win. You may remember in the original that you could only win by being elected to leadership of the galactic council or by military conquest. We’ve added technology and economy victories to improve the opportunities for the player and the challenges they’ll have to face. Technology is one way to win that I’ll show you. We’ll start with researching advanced fusion tech. This gives you the fusion drive and the fusion bomb. You can miniaturize your nuclear bombs to carry more on a ship.
Then we’ll go back to our home planet and see what we can build. To assist our research, we’ll build a research lab. This will reduce the time it takes to perform research. To build it more quickly, we’ll grab a guy, put him down here, and make him work a little harder on production instead of research. As you can see, the four concepts are here. You’re managing your population, your resources, your production, and your development.
Now we’ll continue to expand by establishing colonies on new planets. We’ll exploit those resources and exterminate other species as needed to continue our domination of the galaxy. That’s it.
GamesBeat: Exterminating billions of lives.
Kislyi: This is a computer game. We don’t have the Force. And like in any good empire-building game, you may choose a peaceful way of living as well.
Keeling: Unlike in the original games, you can choose to win by technology or economy. You can have a peaceful victory if you can at least defend yourself from pirates and other attacks.
GamesBeat: Are you changing it up in many other ways?
Kislyi: This is a fully classic game. That was the idea. We have to make it right. I want kids to play this game who weren’t born in 1998 or whatever.
Keeling: A number of the series’ originators have been involved with this. The music is by the original Master of Orion composer. We have several members of the original dev team consulting with us to make sure we stay on point and capture the spirit of the game. We have to take into account the last 20 years of 4X game development, but we’re sticking to the original storyline, the original 10 races and so on.
GamesBeat: Are you working with a very small team?
Kislyi: Small for us. We partnered with NGD Studios, which is based in Argentina. The founder and CEO and some of them happen to be die-hard fans, so they contacted us right after the news. We visited them and we clicked. We put in all the support Wargaming could provide in terms of money. We have muscle and those guys have passion. Plus we have our own turn-based DNA. They’re a normal-sized studio, like Wargaming about eight years ago.
GamesBeat: You’re interested in VR as well.
Kislyi: Everybody’s talking VR. From time to time we try each new installment. It’s getting smaller, getting more precise, looking at Oculus as an example. The phone solutions, like from Samsung, look cool. For free-to-play MMOs, the installed base isn’t enough, of course, but it’s picking up. Once there’s a viable consumer base, we’ll be there.
We made a technology prototype for World of Tanks and it works. It’s just not mass market yet.
GamesBeat: And you have World of Tanks coming to Xbox One.
Kislyi: Yes, we recently announced it. Work has been going on for some time. The best news is that Xbox One players and 360 players will be playing in the same battles. If you have a 360 account with your achievements and tanks, as long as you us the same Xbox Live account, you can just carry on. You don’t have to level up and spend time doing the same things again. It took us a lot of technological effort, but our Chicago guys worked closely with Microsoft and we did it, including voice communication. We partnered with Vevox to let 360 players talk to Xbox One players.
It’s pretty much the same game. The graphics are just all HD — more explosions, more polygons. One thing we’re adding to both versions at the Xbox One launch, though, is PvE mode. Players will be able to play with any tank in their inventory against AI of a similar tier. You can practice with your tanks without having to worry about 29 other humans in your match. It’ll allow players to get more familiar with World of Tanks game concepts before they get in the online PvP modes.
PvE will have its own economy. You can level up to a lower tier by playing PvE alone if that’s what you prefer. Ultimately we want to drive you to PvP, so it’s still primarily a trainer mode. But it’s a first for World of Tanks. We’re excited to continue to expand on it.
The Xbox One client is its own client. The servers are all the same, so you can play together, but every asset – every tank, every map – has been built from scratch in HD for the Xbox One. A typical tank is roughly 50,000 polygons. Every detail is modeled, not just textured. We have a cultural system that allows us to draw tens of thousands of cultural. HDR skies. Physically-based rendering.
GamesBeat: The base is small, but I guess you found with 360 that these people spend more money. Console players are more active spenders.
Kislyi: In North America, yes. It’s a smaller player base for sure, but right now we’re the most successful free-to-play game on any console. We didn’t want to walk away from our 360 players. We made it so they could play together and keep that community alive. We’ve done 50 content updates since launch, many of them player requests. We’re very close to our community, very active with them.
One cool thing about having such a big family of games is that we’re able to share ideas and new features between products. We developed a system to teach you how to earn XP in game. That was designed for new players, but it turned out to be hugely popular with experienced players as well. We’re adding it to Warships right now.
You see down here, over the course of battle things get destroyed. We can take that smoke and build it up and really change the feel of the battlefield. It looks like a war actually went on out there. You can do enough destruction to create your own cover.
GamesBeat: We can have arguments about whether the Xbox One game or the PC game looks better now.
Kislyi: Those have already started. It would depend on the size of your screen, really. As a company we try to give you the maximum without jeopardizing performance. It’s a never-ending battle. This style of game is meant to run for 10 or 20 years, so each update, apart from obvious new maps, new tanks, new modes, has all these tweaks to the technology. A little better here, a little better there. It’s going on until the end of time. That’s what we have to do.
GamesBeat: The Call of Duty guys shifted their allegiance from Xbox to Sony. They moved to a larger installed base. Do you feel any motivation to switch like that, depending on which console becomes more successful?
Kislyi: We’re not console makers. We’re about happy players. We need to deliver to the players. In our case this is middle-aged guys, right? That’s why we went to 360 in an experimental push in the first place, and Blitz on the tablet. We’re going there. Never say never. It’s just that historically we shook hands with Microsoft first. We did well on 360 and now we’ll release this one. The date is fixed – July 28.
You’ve known us for many years. We never sit and wait. We’re always doing something. If the opportunity is right, we’ll grab it and bring our world to new players.
GamesBeat: Business is going well, then? It looks like a good year for the game industry.
Kislyi: We can be proud of what we’re doing. We’re walking the talk. We’re investing heavily in new things. For old games, like World of Tanks, this new domination mode introduces respawn, flag capturing. It’s big for esports. This year was the start of something big there. The Warsaw Grand Final was much better than our previous one, and it’ll be smaller than what we’ll have a year from now. We just keep going, finding new opportunities and bringing more fun to players around the world.