World of Tanks turns 10 years old in August. It's been a long ride for players and especially the staff at Wargaming, which has grown from a small developer in Eastern Europe to a megapower in the gaming industry, with thousands of employees located all around the world. Or, to put it in terms WoT players might understand, Wargaming has gone from Tier I to Tier X.
Just like in the game, it took a lot of time and a lot of work to grind up those ranks, and we posed a series of questions to Wargaming about that journey. Our responses came from Global Publishing Director Max Chuvalov, who's been with the company since 2010, overseeing business partnerships, community activities, and more. He's been on the front lines of battle since World of Tanks' beta and had a lot to tell us about World of Tanks epic, decade-long mission to bring its brand of heavy metal warfare into homes across the world.
MMOBomb: How was the initial player and press feedback to World of Tanks? The numbers were obviously great, but were there any particular comments or reviews you remember from that time that really resonate with you?
Max Chuvalov: When we first showed a game prototype to players and the press at KRI (a game developer conference in Moscow), those in games media were really skeptical. They just thought the game would fail to launch, because it would be impossible for a person to form a bond with a tank. They believed that games needed relatable characters that the player could see themselves as (an elf, an orc, etc.) to be successful. But by the game’s full release, we knew we’d prove them wrong. The numbers proved that we had a hit on our hands. One of the quotes that comes to mind was from the title from The New York Times review: “No Blood, No Gore, Just Megatons of Steel!”
There was also a funny story about a player who’d left a review about the game; he was frustrated that there was not enough variety in the game. As it turns out, he’d played 12,500 battles in one tank: the MS-1, a Tier I vehicle. He’d not realized that there were other tanks and nations to research.
MMOBomb: I remember first meeting Wargaming CEO Victor Kislyi and asking him if the game would really have significant appeal. (Yes, I was a little skeptical.) He simply responded with something along the lines of "Of course! It's tanks!" While you no doubt had hopes the game would do well, have you been surprised at how huge it's become?
Chuvalov: Honestly, we couldn’t even imagine how big it would become. As I said before, we knew we had a success on our hands even before the game had been fully released, but if someone would have said a decade ago that we’d have 100,000 peak concurrent players globally, 160 million registered users around the globe, and a Guinness World Record (the most players simultaneously logged onto an MMO server – 91,311 players), we’d probably thought they were crazy.
We’d always envisioned it being a niche game because it was all about military vehicles. At the time, World War II RTSes weren’t mainstream; games like Blitzkrieg, Counter Action, etc. never hit the heights of fantasy titles (Dune, StarCraft, Commander & Conquer). Our game was something for vehicle enthusiasts and history aficionados who were into tanks. We knew and understood this audience; we recognized it would be small, but we’d be able to have all of it. But the game blew everyone’s expectations out of the water.
But we did become victims of our success somewhat, and suddenly had a big challenge in front of us: We had to make sure that we kept ourselves on track. Many companies before us have fallen after hitting such great heights. One of our key issues was making sure that we had enough resources and the infrastructure to support a game played by millions. Other games have been buried by problems like this and never made it back to their glory days.
Honestly speaking, we carried the servers so much during the first few years after release, lots of improvements were made promptly that allowed the community and online functionality to grow so more players could enjoy it. And in the past, we had server limitations and restrictions due to the number of users and had to solve these issues very quickly.
MMOBomb: When World of Tanks launched, there was nothing like it on the market. Since then, we've seen several other games, notably War Thunder and Armored Warfare, enter the market and try to capture some of that audience. What do you think has helped World of Tanks stay fresh and relevant in the face of this competition?
Chuvalov: Obviously, we are constantly working on the game. We aren’t about releasing a piece of DLC every year and not supporting the players in-between; our approach is to release something new every month or two, whether it’s a new mode, tank branch, nation, map, special event, etc. This is what keeps players interested. We have 2,000 people working on the game and we currently have a year’s worth of ideas to be implemented and we won’t stop until we’ve released it all.
But as that year’s worth of content is released, we’ll be coming up with even more ideas. This keeps the game fresh and what’s coming out now is what’s been in development for maybe three months, or maybe a year. Our desire is to improve and refine the game and to flesh out the ideas we’ve introduced. And to put it in perspective, over the space of a decade, we’ve released more than 100 updates. Of course, some updates are bigger than others, but it means the game is constantly being updated.
However, in terms of competition, we’ve managed to be our biggest competitor in a way. Throughout the history of World of Tanks, it hasn’t generally been our competitors who have caused us issues, it’s actually been the mistakes we've made ourselves. In a sense, we’ve been our own worst enemy. But we have a barometer for every update, change and new addition we make: our players and their feedback. Really, it’s not our competitors who make us strive for the best, but our community.
MMOBomb: I've always been impressed with Wargaming's tendency to leverage its properties with tie-ins involving real-world military organizations or media properties, such as music or movies. When did the idea for doing this sort of thing first come about, and were you at all surprised at how successful it's been? And is there anyone in particular you'd love to work with?
Chuvalov: With more than 600 vehicles on show, we are, in fact, the largest virtual tank museum in the world. But we’ve also been working with real-world museums ever since the game released. To us, it was obvious that a game about tanks should work together with the military museums as they know these vehicles as well as we do, maybe even better. These museums help us by providing us with lots of highly detailed information about the tanks and give us access to the real vehicles, which we can 3D scan.
We have also worked closely with different military organizations. A great example of this is World of Tanks Salute, a program that gives special discounts to active U.S. and Canadian Military Servicemen and Women, Veterans, and Military Families. So, cooperating with military museums and organizations just seems very natural to us as we have a shared passion.
On the topic of the business development partnerships, we have several goals we consider: to bring our players joy, make them laugh, shock them, add some emotion to the game, and of course, attract new players. Thanks to such partnerships, it’s possible to reach an audience who may not have considered your game through a celebrity or brand. But our ideas aren’t rushed; we deliberate over them, working out who’s best for our product. We carefully work out a plan, we then analyze what we should promote (whether it’s a branch, a specific tank, an update or anything else).
Each campaign needs to be handled differently. For example, we collaborated with Dolph Lundgren and he became the tank ambassador for the Swedish tech tree as he’s a rather famous Swede and was part of the '90s action movies our players know and love. Music is one of our audience’s greatest interests and so we’ve also worked with some of the industry’s biggest names: power metallers Sabaton, punk rock outfit The Offspring, and legendary video game composer, Akira Yamaoka. Each collaboration was handled individually as each had its own goals to achieve.
With a brand as big as World of Tanks, almost everyone wants to work and collaborate with us. And for those who need some convincing, we have some big weapons in our arsenal that can be rather persuasive (laughs).
MMOBomb: The original game started with tech trees for just three nations, completely realistic historical vehicles, and a limited physics engine. Since then, you've added lots of new nations, experimental vehicles, and much more advanced physics and graphics. Is there any single improvement you look at over the last 10 years that you think was the most important to add to the game?
Chuvalov: With Update 8.0, we introduced probably the most important feature to the game: realistic physics. It completely changed the gameplay for the better. Before this significant milestone, tanks didn’t fall off and slide down cliffs, ramming wasn’t possible, every vehicle appeared to be nailed to the ground. Now you can use the terrain and every aspect of any map to the fullest, bringing more life into the game. It’s impossible to imagine how the game would be today without these realistic physics.
MMOBomb: On a similar note, is there anything that's been added to the game that you initially thought would be impossible, or nearly so?
Chuvalov: The idea of releasing a huge update that would move the game to a new engine, significantly improve the game’s graphics, introduce new technology, see reworked maps in HD, and effectively rework the entire game, would be ambitious to say the very least. It’d be like in a Formula 1 race where instead of a regular pit stop, the entire chassis, engine, wheels, and driving mechanisms were changed. But we’re not ones to back away from a challenge and we proved that with Update 1.0.
Having released over two years ago and comprising of two to three years of delicate work and tinkering, Update 1.0 changed the game completely overnight. And don’t forget, this was a game that was always available, no matter the time, for almost eight years. This wasn’t a sequel or second iteration of the game, this was an update which introduced improvements to the current game. Over 30 maps were remade from scratch, things were built and rebuilt from the ground up, new foundations were laid. It was an unbelievable experience for us. When I think about it now, it just seems unreal.
MMOBomb: What's it like working on the game now as opposed to how it was in its early days? While there have been a lot of impressive tech changes, that can either make things easier by giving programmers more tools or harder by forcing parts to fit together that weren't designed to do so. How has that gone for you?
Chuvalov: Compared to how it was before, everything looks much more organized now. And, it seems, we finally know what we’re doing. It used to be like we were on a unicycle, juggling lit torches, while someone threw knives at the target behind us. That’s how crazy it was. Now we’re juggling regular balls, with our feet firmly on terra firma and no knives in sight. And instead of going back trying to balance on a unicycle, we’re simply heading in the right direction.
But let’s be serious for a second, there are obviously some quite large challenges related to legacy code and the limitations of engines. Going back to the previous question, we couldn’t have made the changes we did without moving to a new graphics engine. But that also meant having to rewrite everything from scratch because we weren’t able to implement such changes in the current system as the technical base no longer allowed it.
Looking back, I remember that the matchmaker was handled by one programmer. Of course, this is no longer true, but at the time he, and only he, knew how it all worked. So when he left, he took all this knowledge with him. The whole team had to then recreate it and learn how the system worked. We’re lucky it all worked out in the end (laughs).
Obviously with having such a long-lasting game can be both a blessing and a curse. One such curse is legacy code as I touched on earlier. We have to correct these pieces, rewrite them, update them -- only then can we improve the system even further. Originally there was a reason that we could only give vehicles a top speed of 72km/h, it was all down to the server logic. It was only after time and a rewrite of the server logic could we make vehicles that were capable of going faster than 72km/h.
MMOBomb: I know there must have been a ton of great moments from the last 10 years, but does any one particular event really stand out to you as your favorite?
Chuvalov: One story that comes to mind was shortly after the release of World of Tanks. Players had issues logging into the game during peak hours. The number of players was growing and showed no signs of stopping. It was a seriously urgent matter. We knew additional servers were needed. At the time, all our servers were located in Germany, and it turned out that our technical specialists couldn’t get the appropriate visas to go. Only one system admin and two PR managers managed to get visas. They were tasked with deploying the additional servers, all under the remote guidance of their colleagues in Minsk.
MMOBomb: The Berlin map you just added looks outstanding, and it looks like you guys did a lot of work to make it as accurate as possible. Do you think you'll be adding more super-realistic historical maps in the future?
Chuvalov: We’re bringing back a map called Pearl River with the next update launching in August. Set in Asia and not based on a real-life locale, it was in the game before Update 1.0 but had been removed while it was being reworked.
We face enormous difficulties when we make maps based on real-life locations. Berlin, which you see in the game now, is far from the first version we created, because while we had already made part of the city and the suburbs, as well as the city landscapes like the Reichstag, we also have to consider the gameplay. While we would love maps to be near copies of their real-life counterparts, it’s just not possible sometimes to keep a battle location both realistic and balanced or enjoyable. We had similar difficulties when it came to Minsk, Kharkov, Stalingrad, and Paris. In the future, we will most likely add new realistic maps, because our developers love the challenge and our players seem to like playing on them, but there are no concrete plans just yet.
MMOBomb: Can you briefly walk us through the process of adding a tank to the game? What steps does that require, from historical research to implementation, to testing, to live? And how long does that take, going from concept to live game?
Chuvalov: Adding a new tank to the game can be divided into two parts: graphics and balance.
On one hand, we need to collect references, 3D scan the vehicle if we can, sketch it out, model and polyshade it and more. On the other, we need to make sure it’s balanced when compared to the other 600+ vehicles in the game; we don’t want it to be overpowered or underwhelming. Additionally, you, as a developer, want the tank branch you’re working on to be interesting and have something that stands out, maybe something that leads the way to unique gameplay elements (like Swedes with Siege Mode or Italians with their autoreloaders).
All in all, this is a very difficult task: the number of real-world tanks from the Golden Age of armored warfare isn’t getting any bigger, and we also need to find vehicles with unique features that will work with the current gameplay but brings something new to the table. Therefore, the graphical production of the tank can sometimes prove the easiest part, but that’s not to say it’s not very hard work.
Once we’ve settled on the new tanks, decided on their branch and understood how they all work, how they’ll be balanced and why our players and game need them, everything else is a matter of technology in principle.
For those who’d like the journey from the drawing board to in-game steel in more detail, I’ll delve further into the process.
MMOBomb: And from there, it's on to glory on the battlefield! Thanks so much to Wargaming and Max for taking the time to answer our questions!
About the Author
Jason Winter is a veteran gaming journalist, he brings a wide range of experience to MMOBomb, including two years with Beckett Media where he served as the editor of the leading gaming magazine Massive Online Gamer. He has also written professionally for several gaming websites.More Stories by Jason Winter