If you’re like me, you’ve lost track of time during the lockdown. I’ve been playing games and detaching from reality when necessary. That’s why I was surprised to learn that Wargaming is celebrating the 10th anniversary of World of Tanks this year. How time flies! It feels like World of Tanks has been around for what seems like most of our online lives.

During the pandemic, World of Tanks has seen a surge, and Wargaming has done its best to make us fall in love with massive online tank battles from the World War II era all over again, staging in-game events that have lasted for weeks. And August 12 was the big day. I interviewed Wargaming CEO Victor Kislyi about the anniversary and how the company labored for years before coming upon the right free-to-play game. It’s racked up more than 160 million registered players in the past 10 years.

It’s rare for a single game to have such staying power and to support a company. But mostly on the revenues from World of Tanks, the Cyprus-based Wargaming has amassed a staff of more than 5,000 employees, including many in the company’s largest studio and original headquarters in Minsk in Belarus. The team has patched the game with fresh content more than 100 times.

It makes sense a company with Eastern European roots, where the collective memory of massive tank battles is the strongest, discovered how to turn tanks into an online hobby for gamers. World of Tanks has more than 600 armored vehicles from 11 nations. Flush with cash from the success of World of Tanks, Wargaming expanded rapidly, hiring thousands of developers to issue updates for the game and to work on World of Warplanes, World of Warships, and smaller side projects like the Master of Orion reboot. I talked with Kislyi about all of this.

This is part one of a two-part interview. This is an edited transcript.

The early years

Above: Victor Kislyi, CEO of Wargaming, loves military tanks.

Image Credit: Wargaming

GamesBeat: What was your life like before World of Tanks?

Victor Kislyi: Well, I was born in the Soviet Union. I had a very good education in a normal school. Physics, mathematics, chemistry, all that stuff. From age 7 to 14, I was playing chess competitively. In the Soviet Union it was kind of a religion. Not literally, but I went to a chess school from when I was 7, and I don’t regret a moment of it. I studied English, finished school, and then I entered university for physics, five years of physics. In 1995 I visited the United States for the first time. I went to New Hampshire on an exchange program and worked in a sort of socially oriented place where I washed dishes, cleaned bathrooms, made beds, worked in the kitchen. I was there with people from 20 different countries.

All through this time I was playing games — Civilization, SimCity, Red Alert, Dune II, Warcraft, StarCraft. I decided to make games in 1995, and in 1996 we made our first game, my brother and I and one other person. Since then I’ve only been doing games. The first one known to the Western world would be Massive Assault, a couple of installments of Massive Assault. Each time our games would be a little better, but not yet to a world-class standard. Before World of Tanks our biggest success was Order of War, which was published in the west by Square Enix. It was a real-time strategy game, Company of Heroes-meets-Total War.

After that, through some strategic thinking and looking at the industry, we realized that MMOs were the way to go. Single-player boxed games were no longer something we could pull off. We made World of Tanks in, give or take, 18 or 24 months, depending on how you count the technology development.

GamesBeat: How many games had you made before that?

Kislyi: We’d acquired a small studio in Minsk that was also making strategy games. Like us, no big names. I tend to think of World of Tanks as No. 13. I’m not a superstitious person.

Above: World of Tanks as it looked in 2013.

Image Credit: Wargaming

GamesBeat: Where did you pick up this appreciation for history?

Kislyi: Somebody said that if you don’t learn history, you repeat its mistakes. There are all kinds of quotes from famous people about how good it is to learn history rather than not learn history. In the Soviet Union, although it was a bit biased as you might imagine, history was a big subject we studied from the first grade. The history of the revolution, the history of World War II, what we called the Great Patriotic War, the history of the war against Napoleon, when he invaded in 1812.

Like many boys, I was fascinated by military history, that aspect of history. But war and civil history are always interconnected. Wars and colonization and politics always play together. Apart from World War II movies, which we had a lot of, my first serious movie that really made me a history buff was Spartacus. When I was 7, I saw the one with Kirk Douglas. It was dubbed very well in Russian and officially shown in the Soviet Union. And then The Vikings, the American movie. But almost every solid historical movie, I probably watched it, all the famous ones.

History is a science, keep that in mind. When you study history enthusiastically, you’re exposed to dozens, hundreds, thousands of effects, and each of them has its causes and effects. Usually they’re all interrelated with each other. You train your brain as you see how kings and emperors and prime ministers did politics, how they won and lost wars, how they built countries and empires. It’s kind of like chess, but with real people, real countries. It was always fascinating.

How it took off

GamesBeat: Why did World of Tanks take off? What were the right conditions for it to succeed?

Kislyi: We first launched in Russia, as you know. Then half a year later, we moved into Europe, and later into the United States and China. Obviously, World War II is the greatest conflict of all time, in terms of numbers. There are still people who were alive who fought the war or lived through those times. Tanks were one of the great technological breakthroughs — planes, ships, and tanks, which were produced in great numbers in the Soviet Union and America and England and Germany. So that’s one thing.

After 10 years, though, I look back and think — it’s not just because history buffs came to play this game. There aren’t 160 million history buffs, not to that extent, on this planet. That brings us to the game itself. Now I view World of Tanks, and World of Warships for that matter, all the successful games from Wargaming, as good computer games. Yes, they’re MMOs in the sense that there’s no single-player campaign. They’re PvP, where you can fight against real people. You have real people on your side as well, on your team. You have short battle sessions. You have a fair and transparent progression system. The monetization is very light — premium accounts, premium tanks, some cosmetics.

It’s very well-built on the technological level. Knock on wood, but World of Tanks has never been hacked, because of the Bigworld technology we licensed and later acquired with the parent company proved to be literally bulletproof. Plus, our engineers made it even better and scaled it to the huge numbers we still have and hope to have for the next 10 years. It’s been an enjoyable experience.

You can think about World of Tanks as something like Counter-Strike with tanks. They’re slower, of course. We specifically targeted players who were 35 and older.

Will Wright got it right

GamesBeat: It’s like Will Wright said: It’s a first-person shooter for old people.

Kislyi: I don’t know if we should use the world “old.” I’m old, right. But mature people. Let’s draw a simple portrait. He’s a family man, a man with commitment, who has work and kids, who has to put bread on the table. He doesn’t have as much time to put in endless hours on a fantasy-RPG. He likes short battle sessions that are very fair and balanced. For the last 10 years, our main challenge has been the balance of the tanks. Every time we introduce new maps, new tanks, new nations, it disturbs the balance of the earlier maps and tanks, so we have to be very scientific. We have specialists in statistics working 24/7 on that kind of thing.

Above: World of Tanks Blitz brings the PC action to mobile.

Image Credit: Wargaming

GamesBeat: Over time, have you developed much of an audience among women?

Kislyi: Frankly speaking, no. I’m not ashamed or afraid of that. This game appeals to men. It’s not that we did that specifically. But there are games or products or movies or books that women tend to enjoy more. I don’t think it’s sexist to point out Candy Crush Saga. If you look at the statistics, it’s predominantly played by women. In our case, going back to tanks, military history, World War II, machinery, engineering — you’re doing what men used to do in the jungles, hunting other guys with bows and arrows and spears. It is what it is. We appeal to a male audience.

How it took off

GamesBeat: How important was free-to-play for this to take off?

Kislyi: Tremendously. We started with the experience of Korean and Chinese games. Some of them, mostly browser games, were already popular in Russia. But those were — I don’t want to say low quality, but they were simple browser games.

I’ve talked a lot about the free-to-play concept. Free is good. That’s certainly one of the biggest factors in our success. You download the game to your PC, and now to your iPad or your console, and you can play for free. If you’re a schoolboy and you don’t have money, okay, you play as much as you want. Anything that matters in the game is accessible for free. You can still be good at the game. Schoolkids kill me all the time.

If you want to make your life a little easier or progress faster, you can buy a premium account for $10 a month. Premium tanks, which you can buy for real money, are no better than their cousins you get from leveling up the tech trees. We don’t sell Tier 10 tanks for money, so for the best tanks you have to progress yourself. I wouldn’t call it grinding. There are games with much more grinding than World of Tanks. You progress from Tier 1 to Tier 10, developing your skills and experience, and you open those tanks one after another. After 10 years, many people like myself have dozens of Tier 10 tanks in the garage. It’s not about hunting for the next tier of tank anymore. It’s about having a good time with your hobby.

We managed to introduce, in many respects — maybe along with League of Legends — the Western style of free-to-play monetization. It’s much more humane, much more fair, than the traditional [South] Korean and Chinese styles of monetization. Although now that we’re played almost everywhere in the world, if you look at different markets, Chinese and [South] Korean players now are also used to a more fair kind of monetization. Free-to-play has progressed significantly all around the world. In some mobile games, it’s still a bit aggressive, you might say?

If you’re a really enthusiastic World of Tanks player, you might have ended up spending a couple of thousand dollars over 10 years. But that’s after 10 years. That’s not so much to spend on a hobby for 10 years.

GamesBeat: How big was the team who built the original game? I recall it was pretty large for a Russian studio at the time.

Kislyi: On launch day we had approximately 120 people altogether. We had maybe a dozen administrative people, and the rest were engineers and artists and game designers and project managers. Of course then we grew and started up other projects, but originally World of Tanks was 120 people.

We had licensed the Bigworld technology out of Australia for a lot of money. It was probably the first gaming cloud, which allowed us to stack a huge number of physical servers and all the routers and other equipment. Bigworld allowed us to do the load balancing on the server side, with lots of improvements from our engineers. In effect, it was a cloud, where we could have an unlimited number of players. Our record is something like 1.1 million concurrent users, people playing at the same time.

Above: In 2013, Will Wright asked how Wargaming’s Victor Kislyi made World of Tanks so engaging. Answer: By making tank battles fit in a 15-minute session.

Image Credit: Michael O'Donnell/VentureBeat

GamesBeat: What else helped you succeed? Were there any key updates you did that made the game much more successful?

Kislyi: I think I’m in a position now — most of us who made the game were gamers ourselves, obviously. Wargaming didn’t publish its own games before World of Tanks. But we immediately started building our own publishing organization. We didn’t take this game to a publisher. Those of us who made the game, and our gaming friends, became the first publishing organization. We were all answering the phones, chatting with players, meeting the players. We started from the grassroots with our publishing organization.

For this kind of game, that means community management, customer support, events, meeting with players, doing competitions, going to museums. It’s not about technology, about programming and building the game itself. It’s about operations and service, about pricing policy, about events and bundles, what you sell and what you give away for free. I think we can look back now and say that we were true to our players. Especially starting in Russia, where in many spheres of life, truth and fairness is key if you want to be successful with your product.

In Russia, the community can be kind of toxic. Its activities are usually grounded in something you did wrong. We learned very quickly that if you make a mistake, if you try to squeeze players for money, if you try to do something that’s not right, you immediately get backlash on the forums. People let you know they’re unhappy. You’ll see it in the statistics.

We made a couple of technical mistakes, and maybe one or two ideological mistakes. A couple of times over the last 10 years we’ve made some screwups, and we saw backlash. When we’ve promised something and not delivered it, that’s a big no-no. When you promise something you have to do it.

[Updated 12:18 p.m. on 8/18/20 with corrected user number].