World of Tanks, upon first glance, has no business being called an MMO. It's more akin to a Massively Online Battle Arena (or MOBA), not so different from the Battlefield gaming series. Having spent more than a few hours invested in Battlefield 2142 in my day (still one of my favourite gaming experiences), I did take a look at World of Tanks at GDC and have my interest piqued. The game essentially boils down to its two gameplay modes. One was affectionately referred to as “Counter-Strike with Tanks”, which is more or less their flagship for the game. It's also exactly what it sounds like. You select your chosen tank, do any repairs that are needed, add a few tidbits and upgrades to your tank, and then you enter into your queue to start your team battle.
I was fortunate enough to observe a few Counter-Strike matches and I must say, from a MOBA standpoint, it looks very appealing. Each of the tanks holds a different role, structured under the surprisingly popular rock, paper, scissors balance method. Small tanks scout, medium sized and large tanks provide heavy fire power, artillery can provide deadly strikes at long distances. Teams are built to balance, so a game will not launch until the teams are evenly matched. Even in Closed Beta, I was impressed by how quickly a balanced game was achieved and you were launched into the game. Overall, the experience of “Counter-Strike With Tanks” was very entertaining and, if you're a fan of the Battlefield series, or of tanks in a big bad way, then World of Tanks, immediately, is something you're going to want to check out when it does launch.
However. If you're anything like me, you're thinking right out of the gate, 'Okay, how is this an MMO?'. It's a valid concern and I don't blame you for thinking it. But I haven't yet touched on the second gameplay mode. It's been referred to as their Meta Game, but is perhaps more succinctly referred to as “Clan Wars”. This is where I start to see the MMO definition. Is it traditional? Heck no! But that's what makes it really interesting. You're not walking across the plains, controlling an avatar, using special abilities and worrying about your mana. I digress.
Clan Wars is handled, predominantly, through your browser. Now, I know half of you have probably already tuned me out here as soon as I said 'browser', but hear me out. You establish your clan and you are given 'chips' (think a casino) representative of the players in your Clan. Now, as the leader of your clan, you log in to this section of the World of Tanks website and suddenly, things start looking a little bit like a board game. What I was shown was a RISK-like map of Europe and Russia, decorated in colours of all sort. The colours indicate the Clan who currently holds sway over that particular territory. So, as a new Clan, you would land in one of the starting points and then you would be established. One clan equals a maximum of 100 people, and different clans can team-up, or align themselves, with other clans, melding their colours together in an attempt to become the sole territory holder.
From there, if your Clan colour is blue, for example, and the territory next to you is green, you can attempt to take it from the occupying Clan. One chip (as mentioned above) is one chip, so your clan leader (or his/her deputy) would move X amount of chips to a location. So if I moved 15 of my 100 chips from one territory to the neighbours territory, the opposing team is sent an email notification of a battle that will be happening, for that territory, that night at, say, 8PM. When everyone shows up for the party, you choose your chip representatives (in this case, 15) and move them into the battle with you, which is when you engage in a Counter-Strike battle. Clan Wars, unlike the Counter-Strike gameplay mode, does not balance out the teams before it begins. It becomes a game of successful planning and strategy, and resources and supply.
The Clan structure is quite obviously for the hard-core player. You have to be incredibly passionate and incredibly dedicated to your clan for the game to have the ability to drop everything that you're doing that evening to engage in a battle with your rival clans. Your Clan leader can't just be a buffoon who slacks off, but has to actively be logging into this browser based map (available on any computer and does not use flash: good news, iOS users!) to play the strategic game. The territories you hold actually earn you real currency, in game. Let me go on a brief tangent: silver is the in-game currency that you can earn through Counter-Strike and can be used in the micro-transaction Item Shop. Gold is the game's equivalent of real-world currency where you can purchase (with real money) other items in the micro-transaction item shop. You can earn, through Clan Wars by holding these territories, real-life-cash. for use in the game of course (obviously they won't be cutting your a cheque every month).
What really intrigues me about this gameplay method isn't necessarily what goes into the game itself, but rather what the players and Clan Members go through and endure outside of the confines of the 3D gaming environment. Like in RISK, alliances are made and broken, not between yourself and your friend sitting beside you, but between your clan and a clan, say, halfway across the world. These players take part in out-of-game meetings, over Skype, through Email, through the game's forums or even face-to-face. There is wheeling and dealing that happens behind the scenes the likes of which I've never been privy to.
They will be instituting a league based system into their Clan Wars gameplay, allowing for Junior, Medium and Advanced type of structure. They will be expanding the map beyond just Europe and Russia. There is still a lot of work on the horizon for the Clan Wars team, but it's always refreshing to see a team that excited and that confident in their product, particularly when it is a quality product.
While it strays vastly from the traditional MMO, World of Tanks is just another example of how the industry is ever-changing. That isn't to say that traditional games don't have a place, of course they do. But why can't a video game genre push the envelope so far that it broadens the definition thereof? With World of Tanks, if you really are into the game, or if you have longed for a very long time to play through the battles of a game of RISK with tanks rather than dice rolls, then World of Tanks is absolutely something you should check out. It may not be the MMO we've all come to expect, but the precedent that it sets is rather exciting. I, personally, can't wait to start blowing people up on the battlefield (re: can't wait to start getting blown up).