Wargaming is celebrating the 10th anniversary of World of Tanks this year. The game has racked up more than 200 million registered players in the past 10 years, but it hasn’t all been easy for Wargaming CEO Victor Kislyi.
Yesterday, we ran part one of our interview with Kislyi about the early days of the World War II tank battle simulator and the things that went right. But Kislyi was quite open about the mistakes that the company made and how it wasn’t easy to come up with follow-up hits like World of Warships. In part two of our interview, Kislyi talked about tackling the mistakes head-on and growing to more than 5,000 employees.
World of Tanks now has more than 600 armored vehicles from 11 nations, and it has become like a hobby for players. That’s why the free-to-play game keeps making money more than a decade after its launch. We talked about this as well as the future of World of Tanks and Wargaming in the second part of our interview.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview. Here is part one of our two-part interview.
Mistakes and managing success
GamesBeat: What was key to the runaway success of World of Tanks?
Kislyi: I’ve said this a lot today, but after 10 years, I can safely say that World of Tanks is a hobby. It’s like fishing or watching football. Is football repetitive? Yes. Is fishing repetitive? Yes. Is World of Tanks repetitive? Frankly, yes. When you look at these types of hobbies, the rules of the game are very simple, usually. Very understandable. Whether it’s fishing or football or World of Tanks or other good games, that simplicity allows many people to join in and get into it quickly and easily. But then there has to be some magic sauce in the game design. In World of Tanks I think it’s the progression and the way tanks fight.
I don’t remember how many updates we’ve made since the game launched. I think it’s about 100 patches, big updates. Each update is like a minigame in itself. Some of them are the size of a big game.
GamesBeat: Over 10 years, what would you say was your biggest mistake, and how did you fix it?
Kislyi: Well, two big mistakes. 9.0 was — a technological mistake slipped through QA. On weaker machines — World of Tanks will run on a calculator, literally. It runs on 5- or 6-year-old computers in Russia or China. Now that we’re everywhere in the world, our audience isn’t necessarily made up of gamers. Many of them, World of Tanks is the only game they play. They don’t buy gaming PCs. They have a computer they use for doing their tax returns and browsing the web.
There was one technical bug that slipped under the radar of our QA, and when we released the patch, something like 20 percent of our players had a tremendous drop in FPS, which made the game impossible to play. It was a big hit for us. They were very angry. It happened right before Victory Day in Russia, so we took a big hit in terms of audience, and of course, money follows the audience.
The other was what we called Rubicon. It was where we promised this super new mode, and we promised it by a certain time, but we didn’t manage to make the mode itself. The rules of the mode weren’t good enough, let’s put it that way. We thought it would be an innovative new experience, but it happened that it just wasn’t enjoyable when real players started playing it. In that case, we stopped it. We went to the players and honestly told them — I made the video saying, “We’re sorry we promised you this.” We had this amazing trailer with the Eiffel Tower, this postapocalyptic kind of theme. But it just wasn’t good. We decided to stop it, and we announced to the players, “Sorry, it’s not coming out. We’ll fix it. We don’t know how much time it will take.”
We scrapped it and started again from scratch. Instead of releasing what we had and inevitably getting a negative response, we stood up in front of the players and said, “We screwed up. We’re going to fix it. Give us some time.” We immediately invited all the major Russian bloggers and media to headquarters and gave them an explanation. They were streaming and blogging right from my office. We invited all the top European influencers to talk to not just me, but to the designers and developers. We had a day of non-stop interviews. Then I went to San Francisco, and at the American office invited American players and influencers and gave them the same story. We explained why it happened — we were a little bit too arrogant here, a little bit too optimistic there, and that’s why we have to cancel this. We didn’t want to give them something that wasn’t good.
And, you know, they forgave us, kind of. Of course it didn’t go unnoticed in our numbers. But the overall sentiment was, OK, at least we were transparent and true to our players. We were able to recover.
GamesBeat: How hard was it to come up with a second hit game after World of Tanks was so successful?
Kislyi: It’s like inventing the second bicycle. If you look at a lot of other big companies in free-to-play right now, they have the one super-hit game that everybody knows, but the second game doesn’t come easy. If you look at Riot, League of Legends, a legendary game, no question. Their next thing is kind of big, but we have to wait a while to see how sustainable it’s going to be. And Valorant is coming out just now, after how many years? It’s not easy. Some companies, like Supercell, have had hits a little more frequently. But inventing another bicycle when you already have one isn’t easy.
In our case it was World of Warships. And in the meantime we’ve brought World of Tanks to mobile, World of Tanks to console, Warships to console. And it’s not as if we don’t want to make another hit game. We do, just like everyone else. But it’s so hard. Look at James Cameron. He makes a super-hit movie every seven years. When Avatar 2 comes out it’ll be, what, 13 years?
A massive company
GamesBeat: How do you decide what’s the right number of people for a company to have once you become so successful? How many do you have now?
Kislyi: We’re close to 5,000. When we first talked six or seven years ago, every time I would very proudly announce that we were at 2,000 now, or 2,500 now. I was very, very proud.
GamesBeat: I remember joking with you a lot about how you had 2,500 people and only one game.
Kislyi: From a business standpoint, I can’t say right now that we’re at the ideal size. Myself and the leadership team, we’ve had many people coming through Wargaming. People come and people go. We do teamwork exercises. We’ve gone to Stanford. We’ve worked with consultants and educated ourselves about leadership and teamwork. It’s hard for any company, whether it’s an oil company or a car company or a game company — companies grow. Managers hire managers. Managers hire assistants. Sometimes people don’t have things to do, so they invent new projects to justify their existence. Not all of them, don’t get me wrong. But there’s enough of that human nature in 2,000 people that you can go from there to 3,000 people, and not every one of those extra thousand are of the same quality and in the right place compared to the first 120 people. The first 120 people were like the Navy SEALs and Spetsnaz combined. They were the best on the planet. I can say that now.
That’s why, as a big company, we have a responsibility. As I’ve said before, World of Tanks doesn’t just belong to us. If this game were to go away, we’d make millions of people very unhappy. World of Tanks, Warships, Blitz, the console games, they don’t belong just to us. We have to keep them going, in the same way that football or chess keep going. They belong to humanity. As cultural phenomena, those games belong to the people who play them and enjoy them. World of Tanks is something similar.
A couple of times we’ve had some unexpected down time, when we have technical problems — our biggest was about 12 or 15 hours — people get very angry. They go to the forums and to Reddit and they tell the world what they think about us, because we’re depriving them of this hobby, of this pastime. World of Tanks and World of Warships, the games we have in operation now, can’t be sustained by 200 people, or even 1,000 people. There’s a critical mass you have to have, in the same way that Call of Duty can’t be made by 25 people.
My job is to watchdog the efficiency of everything. It’s not just about wasting money on people who don’t contribute. The more people you have, the more communication you have to handle, the more bureaucratic the organization becomes. A signal that used to go from A to B has to go through extra layers. In any company, not just a gaming company, but any big company that makes something significant and important, the CEO and the leadership have to always worry about the number of people and their effectiveness.
But I’ve gotten used to it. I don’t like bureaucracy. I don’t like management. I don’t like to be administrative. But my position requires that I pay a lot of attention to that kind of boring stuff. If leadership doesn’t pay attention to that stuff, we’re going to have another set of problems. It’s the logic of a big company. I do think that 5,000 people is too many for what we have now.
World of Warships
GamesBeat: What made World of Warships succeed while World of Warplanes didn’t?
Kislyi: I don’t think it’s far from the truth to say that the three-dimensional fighting and the very high speed of the game — as humans, we’re not made for flight. We don’t have the tools. Our eyes and brains aren’t engineered by Mother Nature, through evolution, for flying and that kind of very fast movement and rapid turning and shooting. Moving on a 2D plane, with a little bit of elevation, jumping and hiding and shooting, we’re good at that, going back to our time in the jungle, our time on the savannah.
World War II dogfights with a keyboard and mouse — it’s not something that everyone enjoys. Only very specially trained crazy people become military pilots. We know that not everybody can be a pilot, let alone a military pilot.
In the end, it didn’t work out. I could think of more elegant reasoning. I might even say we had bad luck. But we just didn’t manage — somehow we couldn’t pull off a hobby-style dogfighting game. In terms of presentation and historical accuracy, it was the same as World of Tanks. We had iconic airplanes, iconic pilots, iconic battles. We had the Messerschmitts and Mustangs and Spitfires. But as a computer game, where you want to spend 10 minutes to let off steam and have fun, though, the amount of effort your brain had to make was more than the fun you got back. We realized we hadn’t pulled it off.
Obviously, the game is still running. We don’t promote it and push it and market it on every lamppost, but there are a couple of hundred thousand people who play it, the diehards. We’re not shutting it down. It’s slightly profitable. It’s not through the roof. It used to actually burn money, but we managed to streamline and optimize the team and our approach so that those players who love the game can still play it. We’re just not pushing it aggressively.
GamesBeat: How did you come to think about games like Orion, these very small games that you could quickly publish?
Kislyi: Master of Orion was a very simple thing. It was accidental. There was an auction in New York. Atari was selling off its properties, and Master of Orion was this legendary franchise that you and I and many of our developers played when we were kids. It’s like Civilization in space. It was one of the grandfathers of the whole 4X genre. We picked up the license because it’s a legendary name. My thought was, let’s make this to a 21st-century level with new graphics and all the bells and whistles. We upgraded the rules a bit, of course.
It was mostly about giving back to the community. I never intended to earn money from it. It’s a boxed game in the era of free-to-play. Strategy is a marginalized niche. There are some companies like Paradox that do a great job with 4X strategy like Europa Universalis, but that’s what they’ve been doing for the last 20 years. We’re not like that.
GamesBeat: Is there an opportunity there, like what Take-Two does with Private Division, or EA with EA Partners, where you have a big company, but there’s an indie game publishing opportunity?
Kislyi: I know what you’re talking about. We used to be that kind of indie publisher back in the day. We would have loved for EA Partners to pick us up. Square Enix kind of picked us up in that way with Order of War. They gave us a world stage presence for that game. But the business of Wargaming right now — we make World of Tanks for the PC, for consoles, for mobile. We finally have cross-play for the console. We make World of Warships. We make that kind of game. We make shooting, strategic, smart, competitive PvP experiences for older men. Maybe we have an element of PvE in special modes, but this is what we do. This is what we’re best at. We have the best tank game and the best warship game in the world. We’re going to keep doing this.
It’s like movies or music. You can’t compose every song, and you can’t make every movie. Usually, you specialize in a genre. You make horror or adventure or comedy. We chose our way. After 10 years of World of Tanks, six years of Blitz, six years of World of Warships, we’ve managed to create a couple of good hobbies. What is a hobby today? It’s a couple of hours a week or a month where you’re allowed to spend time on something which doesn’t make money. We’re not saving kids in Africa. We’re not fighting climate change. We collect stamps. We make origami.
GamesBeat: You’re causing climate change with all of your servers.
Kislyi: No, no! Our servers are so efficient that the footprint is minimal. But everyone in your life understands that you need something where you’re not earning money, not putting bread on the table. But it’s good that you have it, a little bit of escapism, a little bit of a switch in your mindset from your life outside because that’s not always pleasant. It’s legitimized. When a man goes fishing, his wife knows, OK, he’s going out for a couple of hours.
For years I went fishing with my father, and we’d just let the fish go back in the pond. We weren’t bringing food home. But we had a lot of fun. We bonded. We were out in nature. We developed patience. When you catch a fish, it feels good. I don’t know why.
GamesBeat: We haven’t talked much about the present, but I did have a few questions about that subject. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. We have, in the U.S., the Black Lives Matter marches. We have the #MeToo movement. How do you feel like this time right now and whether it’s going to change Wargaming in some way?
Kislyi: Obviously, the world in 2020 — this year is going in all the history books. Maybe month by month. There will be history Ph.Ds specializing in every month. It’s tragic, what’s happening with all the things you mentioned. We all wish this wasn’t happening.
The pandemic, our whole country of Belarus was hit. Not on day one, but it eventually came here. We bought $2.5 million worth of masks and ventilators and spread it to hospitals around the country through the Ministry of Health. At Wargaming we can’t save the whole world, but we did what we could and more.
Our employees, their health and safety is a key priority to us. Before the country started announcing lockdowns, in late January and the beginning of February, we sent our people home. A couple of our administrative people, our CFO and our HR office, came up with the best practices we could use in the areas where we exist and operate. We briefly practiced sending 10 percent or 20 percent of our people home, and then I sent down the order. All 5,000 Wargaming employees, before the official lockdowns, went home.
As you can imagine, our IT and security guys were working literally day and night, providing PCs and VPNs and secure access to servers. Boom, overnight, all of our people were at home and all of our offices, all 5,000 spaces, were empty, apart from a very few people who literally have to press buttons in server rooms.
Out of 5,000 people in Singapore, Australia, America, Russia, Belarus, Czech Republic, England, France, and Cyprus, we have less than two dozen COVID cases among our people, and none of them happened in the office. They were immediately detected, and nobody has died. Everyone has recovered. As a company, we’ve provided very good guidance and proactive help to all of our employees. Again, I’m knocking on wood now, but sending people home — it was scary to send 5,000 people home. Even I was afraid that work might stop. But nothing stopped.
GamesBeat: How are you celebrating this anniversary?
Kislyi: It’s for the players. I’m a very positive person. When something very bad is happening, like now, maybe I’m a little sad, but in general I’m a very positive person. I play games. I play World of Tanks. Civilization has helped me through the pandemic. I’ve spent dozens of hours playing Civilization VI. That’s my hobby. But really, it’s for the players.
Russia declared its lockdown, so all of our Russian players, and then most of our European and American players, boom, lockdown. They’re sitting in their apartments. We all know what the psychological impact of lockdown has been like. You can’t go out or see your friends or lead a normal life. We hope that, regardless of the 10-year anniversary, our games have helped people stay a little more sane than they would have been without us. We offer a little bit of escapism in even normal life, but in this case — if you can’t go outside, at least you can play World of Tanks. We’ve provided some discounts and community support and things like that.
Miraculously, and I’m very proud — from a business point of view, 5,000 people, from Singapore and Sydney and Tokyo and Seoul, all the way to the west coast in Seattle–we’ve all had to stay home. I couldn’t leave home. Microsoft Teams, thank you very much. But we switched to working from home extremely effectively. It might be a little easier for me and the other people at my level, because we’re talking heads in team meetings.
We still have systems to run. But nothing broke. We didn’t delay a single patch. We successfully launched our open beta test in China. We’ve upgraded the game, and we’re working with a new partner, even while totally locked down and working from home.
Our engineers, artists, and designers, accountants, everybody is working from home for five months, and we didn’t see a drop in productivity. I just realized myself that I stopped having useless meetings. Every meeting has a purpose now. I used to have so many meetings that didn’t matter to the company, to the games, to the happiness of our players. So in some sense our productivity has even increased. Of course, this can’t last forever. But I’m grateful to Wargaming’s people, from administration to junior programmers. They’ve been extremely disciplined. We’ve gotten through at least this first phase, these five months of lockdown, without losses.
GamesBeat: Is the number of people playing way up during the pandemic?
Kislyi: Of course. Netflix, movies, every kind of electronic entertainment has gone up. But we don’t base our business on a global tragedy. It’s gone up, and it’ll go back down at some point. We see bigger numbers, but I’m not clapping my hands about that. Deep inside, I feel a bit — I’m not ashamed, but I wish this hadn’t happened, regardless of numbers.
GamesBeat: In the years ahead, what do you have planned for your players?
Kislyi: We’ll just keep supporting their hobby. It’s very simple. Fishing, football, baseball, watching a good movie, any other hobby you can think of, we’re that kind of hobby. Football, the rules won’t change in the next 10 year or 20 years, but people will still enjoy playing football and watching football. The rules are very simple. It’s easy to pick up and hard to master. That’s what we’re going to do.
We’ll keep creating the game, and we’ll keep creating the ecosystem around it. Competitive gaming, museums, meeting with the players, special events, new modes, that’s it. Sometimes we talk about how we always have to have something new. Well, yes and no. If we have a bicycle, we don’t invent badminton. If we have the kind of hobby that makes people happy for 10 years — if World of Tanks didn’t make me happy, I wouldn’t play it, and neither would those millions of players. We’re giving those people, as the pandemic has shown, a couple of hours of happiness each day, or each week. It’s fair and transparent. It doesn’t hit you in the wallet. That’s what we do.
World of Tanks let you participate in something smart and sophisticated if you want to. You can just casually run around and blow stuff up, and it goes all the way up to clan wars where it’s like playing in the world cup of chess. It’s hard to play at that level, but if you can win the clan war season, you should feel pretty good about yourself. You deserve. That’s what we provide to people. And it has to be of the highest quality. That’s it.
Right now I’m focused on narrowing down the games we make. We’re making all kinds of tanks and ships, and we’re working on all kinds of platforms, but we’re simplifying a little bit. We have a lot of experiments, a lot of R&D going on, and when it’s time to announce something we’ll announce it. If something’s not working out, we’ll just kill it quietly and you’ll never learn about it. From time to time we might put something like Valorant or Overwatch on the table. Hits happen. I’m not saying we’ll never do another game. We’re working on that. But Tanks has been making people happy for 10 years. I’m very proud of that, and we’ll keep doing it, with more and more quality.
The quality of our work, in all aspects — technology, game design, content — has to go up every year. That’s what we’re doing. That’s what all 5,000 people are doing.
GamesBeat: You had a lot of events planned for this year, and more coming up. It looks like there’s still a lot of celebration happening, just inside the game.
Kislyi: I’ve lost track of the celebrations. For me, World of Tanks, it’s like playing a game of Ping-Pong. I like Ping-Pong very much. I grab a guy who’s about at my level, we go back and forth for 10 minutes, we sweat a little, we do some trick shots. That’s how I choose to play Tanks. I don’t participate in marathons myself. For the people who do, we have things coming for Halloween, for New Year’s.
The important thing to understand, though, is that it’s not about me anymore. We have hundreds of Wargaming people who’ve been in the company for five, six, seven, eight years doing Tanks and Warships. We have specially trained people who are extremely passionate World of Tanks fans in the first place, and Wargaming employees at the same time, who monitor the game 24/7, look at the statistics, talk on the forums, hear from the players. They know the players. I don’t know everything our players want, to be very honest with you. But in each big region, we have people who speak English, German, Polish, Russian — we have community, PR, player-facing employees who know what the players want, who have non-stop communication with them.
For the last three or four years since the Rubicon debacle — right after that, we had a couple of patches where it was like, let’s just do something and get the patch out. But now all the patches are meaningful mini-games that serve a purpose. Whether it’s back to school or Halloween or the New Year or Victory Day or the Chinese New Year, plus all the events — our people know how to entertain. They’re showmen. They know what the players in every region want. Our road maps and all our events are very much synchronized with the expectations of our players.
For the last three years, this unity of what we do and what our players want has been — it’s not easy to achieve. It’s taken years. But I’m proud to say that we’re that close. That’s a hobby.