Nathan Lawrence travels to Minsk, the home of Wargaming.net, to help celebrate a 15-year anniversary, have hands-on with World of Warplanes and get to the bottom of the Belarusian company’s meteoric rise from indie to triple-A.
It’s well into the night of the third and final day of our trip around the globe to Minsk, and Victor Kislyi, CEO of Wargaming.net, is dancing to The Offspring’s ‘What Happened to You’ amid a crowd of hundreds. This crowd is comprised of fellow critics from around the globe, but it’s predominantly made up of the friends, family and workers of the 16 global Wargaming offices. This celebration, we’re told, is an annual event, and it’s not uncommon for Victor to fly out hundreds of employees to help celebrate another year and, in more recent times, more than likely to bask in the glory of another million subscribers to the insanely popular World of Tanks.
This year, though, a 15-year anniversary means it’s time for something special. A crowd of thousands has packed into the Stalin Line Historical and Cultural Complex – a government-owned ex-military base converted into an outdoors museum – a crowd which comprises 85 per cent of Wargaming’s staff. The unlucky 15 per cent that didn’t make the party are in critical positions that are required to keep World of Tanks up and running and World of Warplanes in development. There are tank rides, activities, prizes, laser shows, fireworks, stunt-plane flyovers and plenty of live music headlined by the aforementioned American punk band.
To balance out World of Warplanes announcements and hands-on time, the day before the culminating party was all about celebrating Wargaming’s past. The majority of our time was spent performing seemingly random activities for what can only be described as the creation of personalised high-calibre home videos. One moment our group was adorned in medieval apparel, fighting faux battles and bellowing war cries; the next, we were Soviet soldiers charging down a hill and throwing grenades at invisible approaching Nazis – all events harking back to previous Wargaming titles. Yes, it’s fair to say that Wargaming is a company that’s become so popular, so fast, it’s forgotten that massive income is supposed to negate the fun of a small-scale-development mentality.
While Wargaming is a name that’s now synonymous with its various ‘World of’ games, it hasn’t always been this way. At a press panel, Victor spoke fondly about the small group of high-school friends whose game-development roots started with the desire to improve on the likes of Warcraft and Civilization. Its first efforts at game design were turn-based titles, with the inverse thematic movements of Chris Taylor’s shift from Total Annihilation sci-fi to the fantasy realms of Dungeon Siege. A modest team of 30 people released DBA Online in 2000, and Massive Assault in 2003 (along with several expansions over the coming years) to moderate success. In 2009, it switched to real-time strategy with Order of War, which was published by Square Enix, and marked the last Wargaming release before World of Tanks appeared on the scene to change Wargaming’s future forever.
Before creating World of Tanks, Victor foresaw the retail model wasn’t going to survive into the future, and gambled it all on a free-to-play digital model, along with a move away from single-player into massively multiplayer online. Wargaming poured every last resource into World of Tanks after the major publishers all turned down the opportunity to back the game. General manager of Wargaming.net SEA, Jasper Nicolas, claims the publishers had rejected the game on the grounds that they didn’t believe players would enjoy a game where they couldn’t connect with a human avatar. Tanks, it seems, were not what people wanted to play with.
Undeterred, Wargaming ran out of money just as it launched World of Tanks for the Russian market. With no funds for marketing and a free-to-play model, there was a dangerously low guarantee of return. Thousands of people joined every day, though, through word of mouth and social media, allowing the Wargaming team to release in other regions and expand to around 120 employees. Three years later, Wargaming has grown to 2000-odd employees, with 16 offices around the world, including a QA department in Sydney, Australia, whose enthusiastic staff we bumped into several times during our trip, all of whom boast decades of shared experience.
Tanks might fly
With two Guinness World Records for most simultaneous players online on a single server, and 65-million registered World of Tanks users, it’s no wonder that Wargaming is performing the due diligence on World of Warplanes to ensure it has the best possible chance of meeting the 30,000-foot high expectations of the World of Tanks subscribers. While, in some respects, World of Warplanes plays like a flying version of World of Tanks, particularly in regards to the adapted single-mode gameplay formula, it once again presents an example of Wargaming’s willingness to mix things up and take risks. For instance, as Jasper pointed out, Wargaming has been advertising World of Warplanes for over a year now. It has only recently announced Warplanes will be released around the world on the 25th and 26th of September.
Reportedly, the major hurdle was one of realism. During the closed-beta phase, the vast majority of the feedback stated the flight controls were too realistic, with participants asking for a streamlined configuration. World of Warplanes has been in open beta since July 2013 in the North American server cluster, and through that Wargaming has remained true to its policy of regular (sometimes hefty) updates. It’s an internal Wargaming policy to create post-release patches once every four-to-eight weeks, with the intention of releasing major content updates every six months. For World of Tanks, this took the form of a visual overhaul in 2012 and, more recently, much-needed improvements to the realism of the physics engine, in order to deter tactics such as tank snipers balanced precariously on the edges of cliffs.
Among other features, the control options for World of Warplanes now reflect the feedback given during earlier test phases. Players now have the option of using a gamepad, keyboard only, keyboard & mouse combo or joystick (with the optional hardcore addition of rudder pedals for manually controlling yaw). Sergei Ilushin, senior producer on World of Warplanes, pointed out that these different control schemes do not necessitate different servers or modes, despite what appeared to be a glaring competitive edge for veteran pilots wielding joystick and rudder pedals. While the various gamepad, keyboard and mouse options are incredibly easy to pick up and play, the semi-automatic roll and fully automatic yaw features of mouse-assisted flying remove crucial plane control during dogfights. Lining up an enemy is as simple as pointing and tracking with the mouse or gamepad stick, but joystick jockeys definitely have the advantage when it comes to finetuning manoeuvrability, which allows for greater control and, thus, a competitive edge in the hands of a skilled pilot.