We meet the brains behind the free to play sensation that's taken over online gaming.
You could say Wargaming.net’s Victor Kislyi is more like a general than a chief executive. After all, he commands an army of over 1,700 employees spanning five continents, and he’s always got warfare on his mind, plotting his domination of the online gaming scene, one battlefield at a time.
Kislyi’s no soldier though. He's the brains behind World of Tanks, one of the world's most popular multiplayer games, with over 60 million players - and more on the way thanks to planned mobile and Xbox 360 versions of the military fragfest, as well as avian and nautical sequels in shape of World of Warplanes and World of Warships.
We meet Kislyi, dressed down in a white polo on a hot day on the south coast, at the unveiling of a Wargaming.net sponsored Education Centre at the Tank Museum in Bovington, Dorset, home to a classic collection of warfare vehicles from all over the world, as well as the annual Tankfest, a celebration of all things tank. The perfect location for showcasing the game, in other words, and a place the man himself is fond of thanks to his enthusiasm for military history.
Wargaming.net was founded in Belarus way back in 1998 by Kislyi and a group of military strategy enthusiasts, and over the following decade released eight strategy war games straight to retail. They were modest successes, but nothing on the international scale of World of Tanks, which lets players face off in a massive, relentless World War deathmatch, tanko-a-tanko. Think something with the scope of World of Warcraft, but replace all the questing with explosions, and you’re not far off.
Kislyi says that when World of Tanks first launched in 2010, people dubbed it Counter-Strike with tanks. And that comparison isn’t far off - it’s a tactical, team-based online game where you take on the role of a tank in a 15 vs 15 battleground. There are various classes of tanks from all over the world recreated, each faithful to their real world equivalent, and you have to work together as a team to take on the battlefield and strike down the opposing team.
The success of the game is staggering: in just two short years, Wargaming.net’s revenue ballooned to €217.9 million (£187m) in 2012 - not bad for a game that’s free to download. The reason for the stratospheric growth? Kislyi, who speaks excellent if blunt English, tells Red Bull UK that it's all down to the audience: "We selected a different audience, typically guys and older guys. We're making a photo-realistic game and older guys appreciate real things. We chose this niche which no one else was doing, which was older gamers who may have used to play at university. They don't have much time, but they have plenty of disposable income."
"One thing that helped ensure its success was short battle sessions. One battle is five to seven minutes, that's it. You go to battle and blow stuff up, and once that battle is over, you'd jump into another battle within a couple of seconds.”
“It's action packed,” he emphasises with a laugh. “In other games, you spend 45 minutes building a base and collecting resources, and then there's just fighting at the end - with World of Tanks, you jump into the battle right away."
After a decade of selling discs to stores, Kislyi’s switch to a freemium model - you can buy better tanks if you haven’t got the patience to earn one with experience in battle - was a bold one, especially on PC rather than mobile [http://www.redbull.com/uk/en/stories/1331598654011/the-candy-crush-rivals-that-wont-break-the-bank], but as he tells us, online is king as "retail sales of games are going nowhere."
The success of the game has seen a stream of copycats such as War Thunder or the Chinese-made Project Tank, but they don’t bother Kislyi. In fact, he embraces them: "We can see many others companies are trying to copy our concepts and build their own games similar to World of Tanks. We're happy to see competition, that these companies are trying to copy us, as that means we're a success."
Competition in the market also forces Kislyi and his 1,700-strong team - with offices in Belarus, France, Germany, USA, Cyprus, Ukraine, South Korea, Singapore, Australia, and Japan - not to sit on their laurels. "We have to be agile, fast, better. It forces us to keep our players happy and not take a back seat,” he says.
Authenticity is key, however, and the studio still finds time to painstakingly render each vehicle in World of Tanks, right down to the tiniest detail, from barrel length to tread markings. Kislyi says he has more than a few “tank buffs” on the payroll.
"They sometimes spend days and weeks in a museum like this, going through the archives and searching the internet. They'll head in and measure the dimensions of actual tanks. We have really crazy passionate tank people working for us. We also have veterans, people who fought in Iraq, lots of Russian veterans, as well as around two dozen actual professional historians."
While the game has a massive user base, only a certain percentage of that huge community are what you would call actual tank enthusiasts, Kislyi says, but he still wants to reward those passionate fans, revealing that the company is working on a special simulation mode just for them.
"Out of 60 million players on the game, from all over the world, we can say that there are only around one million enthusiasts...there's a much smaller amount of people interested in that. World of Tanks is very democratic. In one game for example, you'd find a team mixed with a variety of different tanks from different nations, so it's more about competition rather than re-enacting,” he says.
“The main game is 15 vs. 15 on a generic battlefield. It's like playing football, or Counter-Strike. While we're planning on a historical mode for history buffs, that will take a little bit more time."
Speaking of Counter-Strike, Kislyi’s plan is to take over the eSports realm next. “We literally stormed right into eSports - and the game is perfect for it,” he says. The game was picked as one of the titles for the 2013 World Cyber Games, and Kislyi says it’s for good reason: “It's team based, it's very spectacular, it's very fair and well balanced.”
Community’s clearly important is important for Kislyi, who spends much of the time in the air, travelling to events, conventions and meet-ups across the globe. At Bovington, amidst the re-enactments, display tanks, war memorabilia on sale and actual tanks roaring away outside, Kislyi and his team of reps spent the entire weekend engaging with fans, answering any questions they had and posing for photos.
"This game links developers and the community,” he says. “We have these links at every possible occasion, from museums around the world, at the bigger trade shows, or just a meet in a pub. In Germany last year, we went to a big beer house and 400 people came. We drank beer, we talked tanks, and we shared our passion. For me, this is important, as it gives you more energy and more insight into what your players feel about your game."
Kislyi also attends events like this to give back. "We based our success on military history, on the accuracy, on the communities around military history. Like historical societies, veteran organisations and places like this. And now, it's time to pay back to society. Initiatives like this Education Centre, for example. We are doing this more and more, and we feel good about it, while museums and veteran organisations are happy, so, it's win-win."
Wargaming.net isn’t coasting with success on the PC, either. There's an Xbox 360 version on the way that's currently in beta, as well as a mobile version of the game for iOS and Android devices called World of Tanks Blitz. Wargaming also has two fully fledged online games on the way: first up is World of Warplanes which takes the fast-paced gameplay into the skies, while World of Warships is set on the wide open waters. There’s even an online collectible card game titled World of Tanks Generals.
Kislyi says that when each game launches however, it's just the beginning. "These games, when they ship, that’s when the real work starts for the next 10 to 20 years. Each game is nothing in comparison to what the game will look like a year or two later. World of Tanks is a good demonstration of that concept."
Indeed. Sixty million players around the world can't be wrong, and that number looks set to rise with World of Tanks on Xbox 360, announced at E3 just last month.That might seem like a strange move with the next-gen Xbox One right round the corner, but as Kislyi tells us, it's all about the current player base.
"Right now, Xbox Live has over 47 million users. That's a pretty good audience for this free-to-play game. And as you understand, in order for the game to make sense, we need a big user base. It might take Microsoft some time to get their first million owners, but when Xbox One comes out and hits critical mass, we'll think about it...But 47 million active players on the Xbox 360? That's a good start."
Kislyi and his team have many plates spinning at the same time with all of their projects, but what about taking the next “World of” games to console?
"Before we even think about taking Warships and Warplanes to console, we need to see how our recent endeavour on the Xbox 360 performs. The beginning was very risky for both us and Microsoft, as no one has done it before, but if World of Tanks 360 goes well, nothing prevents us from going in the same direction with Warplanes and Warships."
Remember that. If Kislyi’s battle plan works out, it might just happen, and you heard it here first. As he says when we wrap up, “this is a huge blue ocean of opportunity.” We can’t wait to see what’s next.