Victor Kislyi, the chief executive of World of Tanks online game publisher Wargaming, says we live in interesting times. There’s so much change happening in gaming, with the rise of esports, the launch of virtual reality and augmented reality platforms, and the growing power of YouTubers and Twitch livestreamers.
That’s a lot of things to stay on top of when you’re running a company that has more than 4,000 employees. Wargaming has become a complex organization akin to a massive simulation game. But it has shown that it can launch both big games and small. The Cyprus-based company put enormous effort into massively multiplayer online games such as World of Tanks, World of Warplanes, World of Warships, and World of Tanks: Blitz (on mobile). But it has also been able to launch smaller titles, like Master of Orion, a remake of the classic sci-fi game that Kislyi grew up playing.
“We’re a huge company with lots of resources, lots of people, lots of offices,” Kislyi said in an interview with GamesBeat. “Bureaucracy slows things down. We have to get leaner and more effective. There’s no way around it.”
I caught up with Kislyi in a freewheeling conversation at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco last week. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: What’s been on your mind lately?
Victor Kislyi: We live in interesting times. You’d think the rise of League of Legends, Clash of Clans, World of Tanks would be a time of change. Now we have change happening literally every day, though. Before, every couple of years, E3 or GDC would be like a rubber stamp. Nothing was happening apart from a couple of big traditional game announcements — a new Call of Duty. Today you go from booth to booth and see VR, AR, Kamcord, new business models, mobile killing it.
A lot of the things we have today will be irrelevant tomorrow. The biggest thing happening now in media is video bloggers. Kids and teenagers with no professional education in TV just sit in their flats and talk and play games. They have hundreds of thousands or millions of followers, and those followers follow what they say. You have to figure out what to do with that.
GamesBeat: Can you communicate directly to them?
Kislyi: Yes, but the traditional etiquette of media relationships doesn’t apply. Those guys, sometimes they’re just hooligans, you know? They use language you normally don’t see on TV and so on.
Meanwhile, let me talk a bit about ourselves. Having all these things change so fast around us, the organization has to be constructed and tailored in a way such that it’s dynamically responding, or ready to respond, to all those changes. You don’t know what the changes will be a month from now. The organization still has to be ready.
The major value a game company can never forget is its players. We’re religiously pushing the happiness of the player. This is what we do. We make players happy. That’s our goal. Of course, it takes time to make everyone happy, but that’s what we want to do.
It sounds very simple, but to do this — a company like Wargaming is like a huge empire in Civilization or Master of Orion. You have a couple of big cities, which are your studios. Some of them are bigger, some are smaller, in more distant, resource-poor regions. You build your buildings and your army and your fleet so that it functions semi-automatically. You have to customize the company in a way that its elements are very clear, with very clear responsibilities to the business. But you also have to learn about what’s going on and anticipate what will happen soon. You have to be ready to react.
Some of this is classic business style — teamwork, leadership, all that stuff. You also need some imagination. The products we’re seeing today, the methods of discovery, things like Snapchat, they’re new.
GamesBeat: So Wargaming is a sort of big, complex simulation now.
Kislyi: Of course we’d like to be smaller, leaner, and meaner, but at this kind of scale, that’s not easy. Organization is what’s on my mind. We know our direction as far as how to make games. But building the organization that will make one or two of those legendary games each year and release them to players — we want to do this until the end of time.
A one-time success, sure, you have that and you’re happy. Soon World of Tanks will be in operation for six years, and we’re seeing no decline. That’s a good business to have. But you have to tailor what you’re doing very specifically.
GamesBeat: There’s always interesting platform news. Microsoft has announced that you can play multiplayer across consoles now.
Kislyi: Well, the technology isn’t confirmed yet. It’s not as if Sony came up and kissed them on stage. But Microsoft’s willingness to do that — if it happens, the critical mass doubles. Right now we have more players on Xbox historically, but PlayStation is picking up for us. It boils down to the happiness of the player, again. That’s derived from freedom of choice. People want to play Tanks on whatever platform they have. It’s our job to provide them the freedom to do that — free to play and freedom of platform.
If Sony and Microsoft can shake hands on this, that’s great. We did something similar with 360 and Xbox One, but obviously that’s all on Microsoft.
GamesBeat: There’s a more contentious issue between Epic Games and Microsoft going on, over the openness of Windows 10. Does that show up on your radar?
Kislyi: Google and Apple and Windows 10 form one ecosystem for our Blitz players. Monetization-wise, each one is separate, but players can play together, which is great. The Chinese walls between big companies are stupid. They just deprive people of freedom for no reason.
GamesBeat: Do you think some of that will get solved to your satisfaction?
Kislyi: We hope we’ve set a good example breaking through with a big free-to-play game on console. We’re always talking to people like Phil Spencer, trying to educate them in a friendly about where free-to-play is going, about the fast updates this new generation of games requires. They’re understanding this more and more.
GamesBeat: Is VR getting you excited at all?
Kislyi: Every conference is talking about VR and AR. DICE Europe had a fantastic roundtable with Mike Capps. Everyone’s talking about it. Everyone’s mantra is, okay, let’s wait for the devices to get smaller. That’ll happen eventually. The installed base, as soon as it’s there, we’ll be there with games.
Philosophically, we derived an understanding that VR will take over the world not through gaming, but through other applications. Travel, art galleries, education, concerts, that kind of thing. That’ll push the hardware toward a mass market. Then games will be able to attack that user base. There will be more and more applications, including games, with more and more requirements for fidelity. That will push a new wave of hardware.
Right now the hardware is on the edge. Companies like us — we might make something for it, but we’re not pushing the limits of it, because there’s no commercial advantage yet. When more applications come in, that will push the next wave — more powerful, cheaper, lighter. Right now the hardware is being built for its own sake, to be the first. Soon there will be clear goals for the next generation of VR devices.
GamesBeat: Is there a sweet spot for VR right now between mobile, console, and PC? An ideal price point and barrier to entry?
Kislyi: I’m not a big expert on the pricing of physical goods. My opinion doesn’t mean a lot. But I know we’ll reach that point. Cardboard will introduce people, I think, and then once you’re a fan you buy something more expensive. All the consoles will be getting VR capacity naturally, too.
Every stage of gaming, going back to the old mainframes with punch cards that gave way to text you typed in, has seemed like the end of the world. Then the graphical interface comes around, and the mouse. It’s always evolving. Blitz, on the iPad, you can control with a touch screen. Manufacturers will get there.
GamesBeat: What do you think the next big platform might be for Tanks?
Kislyi: We’re pretty much settled. We have PlayStation, Xbox, PC, mobile devices. We don’t see anything as big those to plan for. We’re working on the Wii, on Android, on set-top boxes and smart TV. That push might happen in Asia. Pretty soon there may be as many smart TVs in China as there are people in America. They’re not very powerful yet, but they’re connected. Sooner or later they’ll be equipped with controllers, and there we are.
GamesBeat: Do you see any interesting games out right now?
Kislyi: I’m waiting for Civilization VI, myself. That’s my all-time favorite. Clash Royale, frankly speaking — this is my personal opinion. I have a lot of respect for Supercell. But personally I don’t get it. I’m not saying it’s a bad game. It’s at the top of the charts. It’s a nice combination of genres. I’m happy for what Supercell keeps pushing. It’s PvP and it’s more tactical, which is more in our direction. They’re moving toward something more hardcore in that sense.
I wish them luck. They’re a good inspiration. They’re expanding the number of daily mobile gamers on the planet, which is good news for us. I’m happy for them in the same way I was happy for Zynga. They turned housewives into gamers. Supercell and Machine Zone and King are doing the same thing on mobile.
GamesBeat: How was Orion for you guys?
Kislyi: We stayed the course. As I’ve said many times, we’re giving back to the community. This isn’t our typical free-to-play online game. It’s a classic ‘90s thing. We made it as close to the spirit of the classics as possible, but with a modern look and feel and the voice-over from Mark Hamill and so on. We put in a lot of effort. It was done in Argentina, but with huge input from Wargaming’s best veterans, including myself.
Steam Early Access exceeded all of our expectations after three weeks of sales. If our Early Access looks like this — the whole point of Early Access, that’s a warning that it’s not finished. People have jumped on the game and started streaming it and sending us requests. We’re taking community feedback and incorporating it. There will be a big release sometime soon. Everyone at Wargaming is excited and very proud. It looks like we’ll make money on it, which is good.
GamesBeat: Have Steam Machines shown up on your radar at all?
Kislyi: Are they even out yet? We know about it, but they’re not a priority. We’re not working on anything specific there. We’ll soon have Blitz on the Macintosh, on Macbooks.
GamesBeat: You have 4,000 people in the company now.
Kislyi: This isn’t the first time I’ve said this, but coming back to organization, everything has to be studied and scrutinized. We’re a huge company with lots of resources, lots of people, lots of offices. Bureaucracy slows things down. We have to get leaner and more effective. There’s no way around it. Believe it or not, in a month, 60 of our top managers are going to Stanford for LCOR, this joint Stanford-Harvard week-long course where the best professors teach you how to pivot your organization in times of change. We’re constantly trying to improve ourselves on all levels, including people.
GamesBeat: Do you look back on any big pivots that you’ve made?
Kislyi: When we spoke three years ago, we were talking about the seemingly accidental success of one game. Now we’re talking about 16 offices around the world, all viable platforms covered, all geographies covered with operational offices, Esports — so many things have happened. If you snapshot Wargaming through even your materials, comparing three years ago to today, it’s two different worlds. By definition there were a couple of pivots. Not necessarily dramatic announcements, but it’s happening in certain areas of the company where it’s needed.
Of course, that doesn’t always happen as fast as you want it to. Platforms, new games — World of Warplanes, we can’t call that a success. World of Warships is in between. It could be better, but it’s good. Blitz is doing great. It’s a revelation for myself and for Wargaming and for Google and Apple as well. The top five are the top five, but we’re catching up. We’re looking very good.
Personally I think is the future — full-scale, photorealistic, immersive worlds, MMO battle arenas. It’ll be big on mobile. Maybe not with housewives, but guys will be playing more and more sophisticated games on tablets. That’s where Blitz is spearheading.
GamesBeat: I saw [Total Annihilation creator and Wargaming developer] Chris Taylor last night. He told me one word [about what he is working on]. It’s “enormous.”
Kislyi: There’s a lot of resources there. As with any new game, it’s not easy. There are so many aspects to take into account — game design, technology, people, graphics, technology again and again. It’s a boiling pot now.
GamesBeat: Are you still adding more people like that? More talent leaders?
Kislyi: We’ve been expanding. You’ve witnessed that. But we really grew too big. In three years we went from 1,000 to 4,000. That’s pretty fast. Now our focus is on streamlining and optimization of what we have. If we don’t do that, we’ll be in trouble.
If an opportunity comes along – a good guy, a good studio, some common interest or technology — we’ll shake hands. But right now everyone’s busy in their own place. We’ll do some business development partnerships, maybe some prototypes with different studios. But nothing significantly big so far.
GamesBeat: You won’t have an E3 booth this year. Is there something else you’d like to have there?
Kislyi: I was talking about video blogging becoming very big. As a company, we have to be about our players. When we were growing, we started throwing parties and all that. We’re fun people. We like parties. Gaming people like parties. This is show business. You need to show off a bit. But maybe we overdid it.
In recent times, the last few months, we understood that there’s no excuse for forgetting about your players, even for a day. There’s no excuse for not thinking about now ways to make your players happy and so on. Chris is one of the drivers of this direction. We’ll be communicating with players more and more. More physical meetings with our players, inviting players to Gamescom or PAX or our grand finals in Warsaw that’s just around the corner. We need to reach out to our players.
The industry knows us. When it comes to networking and business development, we don’t need to throw extravagant parties. People like Chris are thinking right now about the community direction. Relating with both the media and the community, they’re becoming the same thing. In a proactive way we need to think about what’s right today, not yesterday.
GamesBeat: What do you think about how Esports are evolving? Activision’s named a head of Esports. Peter Moore is in the same role for EA. ESPN is getting involved.
Kislyi: It’s good. It’s an inevitably upward trajectory now. Twitch and Kamcord and ESPN — these are all good sign. It’s been a bit like the wild west. Not every move companies are making is the right one. We might not be making all the right moves. But the Esports avalanche is coming no matter what. We’re not yet perfect, but every year we’ll learn more and more.
The secret is this: Esports should be as close as possible to the normal game. Our previous rule set — 42 points to seven tanks — was something that, in a normal game, didn’t exist. It was very artificial. Now we’ve changed the rules to make Esports as much like the real game I play every evening. That’s important.
Plus there’s all the show business elements — cameras, broadcasting, commentators, prize money. We’re moving in that direction. We’re not skyrocketing. But all the numbers show growth, growth, growth for Esports.
GamesBeat: It feels strange that there are things like Esports startups. If the game companies create their games in the way you’re talking about, you wouldn’t necessarily need them.
Kislyi: Evolution will put everything in place. Some will fade into the past. Some will come up with new ideas and become leaders. Everything is changing so fast. We just visited the Kamcord office to chat with their CEO. So many things are happening there. They’re coming up with new monetization models, new partnerships, and it’s all changing fast. It’s much faster than three or four years ago.
GamesBeat: Any other things we should talk about? We missed you at our conference this year.
Kislyi: I’m not my own man when it comes to scheduling. You know that. But no, everything is fine. Change is just accelerating — not only in gaming, but in everything around it. We use VR and AR, for example, not in the game, but for side applications. We made a VR 360 World War II battle re-enactment. You see soldiers and tanks, and as you rotate your mouse around, you’re there on the tank. We also made a virtual tour of HMS Cavalier, the warship. You can walk inside the ship and have a full 360 view.
We’ll have more experiments with VR, like replays for Esports battles. We’ll be showcasing some things in Warsaw. We have demonstrations here on the show floor, too. CastAR is doing something for us. If you use your imagination, there are so many things you can do with that eventually. We’re trying little things here and there. We always want to know what’s going on.
GamesBeat: Do you have anything else resembling Orion that you’d hope to do?
Kislyi: We always have some prototypes going on. We have an R&D department where we put all the crazy people in one place, with some very organized people on top to make sure it doesn’t explode. The magic is happening there. With enough creativity and enough control around it so it doesn’t destroy itself — who knows? Between Clash of Clans and Clash Royale, that’s been quite a lot of time. It takes time. Prototypes, testing, queuing….
GamesBeat: Does it surprise you to hear that Supercell killed 14 games before Clash Royale?
Kislyi: Yeah, it’s amazing. But that’s the way.
GamesBeat: Is there a particular old wargame you wanted to see remade?
Kislyi: I have a lot of them. It’s the name of the company, right? Warlords, a very old PC game. Panzer General. Heroes of Might and Magic. That’s not really dead, because Ubisoft had Heroes V, but I haven’t heard anything recently. Master of Magic. Laser Squad. That’s a very old ZX Spectrum game, a little bit like X-Com. The classic war games, if you put them on a big screen with nice graphics and nice voice-over and nice effects, you can play it with your kids. My son won’t willingly play something like Warlords or Panzer General, the visuals there. Not even Master of Orion 2.
GamesBeat: It was interesting hear that Battlefield might go all the way back to World War I. Is that a period of history where you can make fun games?
Kislyi: That’s the period when tanks happened. We’re going to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first tank this year. Every big conflict is interesting from a military history standpoint — Napoleon, Asia, Greece, people study all that. World War I is the first big global conflict. It’s perhaps too trench-focused, too many machineguns turning people to mincemeat, too cruel, too static at some points. We’ll see. At the end of the day, who’d think tanks could make for a six-year-long MMO experience?
If they do it well, maybe people will flock to World War I. I don’t have any very specific comments. It’s in their hands.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting how wars have cycled through the game industry. Everyone was making a World War II shooter for a while. Then everyone got tired of them and went on to modern wars.
Kislyi: There are always trends in show business. Maybe steampunk is next.
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