It's funny how much can change in three years. Until E3 2010, few of us had ever heard of Wargaming; today the company's a monster publisher/developer whose flagship MMO, World of Tanks, boasts seventy million players. It's a Cinderella-esque story of success that makes the word “meteoric” sound like understatement, but like most “overnight” successes, Wargaming's road to prosperity was longer than you'd think.
The online giant started much like other runaway trains do: slowly. Fifteen years ago, Belarusian brothers Victor and Eugene Kislyi were just a couple of strategy-game-loving young guys writing fan letters to Sid Meier. Obsessed with historical, turn-based, multiplayer games, upon reaching college age, they ignored the usual vocational avenues and decided to make their own game. Today, that doesn't sound like such a risky prospect, but in 1996—especially in Belarus—it was unheard of. Fortunately, the brothers had three important things going for them: dedication, parental (read “financial”) support, and a circle of enthusiastic friends with a talent for computer programming. As Victor Kislyi remembers it:
“We used our own personal savings to bring the first title into development. Being so young and passionate about video games, we didn’t think twice when it came to supporting our dreams financially. The team didn’t have a secure financial situation during those times, so we were experimenting, prototyping and learning while making these bold moves.”
Influenced by games like Dune II, Warcraft and Civilization, the team leveraged this youthful fortitude and set out to make their first multiplayer strategy game. The result of their efforts, the turn-based Iron Age, was played via email like a game of correspondence chess. It didn't exactly take the world by storm. The game's entire player base consisted of six people. You heard that right—six. As depressing as that must have been, the Kislyis took the setback in stride and began work in 1998 on their second project, an online version of historical tabletop wargame De Bellis Antiquitatis. Still operating within an extremely niche genre, the team's DBA Online of 2000 met with modest success but failed to attract the numbers investors expect for a mainstream video game.
Around that time, this committed but casual group of guys assumed a more formal identity and began calling themselves Wargaming (Victor Kislyi says there's really no hard date for the company's inception but that's his best guess.). In an attempt to attract more players, the new company changed tactics with its next project, swapping the historical for the fantastical. 2002's more commercially-oriented Massive Assault attempted to bring turn-based strategy to the masses by slapping a sci-fi veneer over Wargaming's existing mechanics. Critical response was mixed. Some reviewers touted the game's efforts to “dress up” a generally plain-looking genre while others complained about its difficulty. In the end, Wargaming once again misunderstood what it took to please a broad audience.
Despite this, they received enough popular encouragement to extend the Massive Assault franchise, and over the next seven years, released Massive Assault Network (2004), Massive Assault Network 2 (2006) and Massive Assault: Phantom Renaissance (2009). Rather than attempting to make giant evolutionary leaps through these games, they augmented the first Massive Assault with subtle things like improved graphics, matchmaking, chat systems and rankings. This strategy continued to garner solid, but not stellar, reviews. Within this time frame, Wargaming also got the itch to begin yet another new project and in the interest of that, made its first acquisition in 2007—Eastern European developer, Arise Studio.
Arise was the perfect counterpart to Wargaming since it was made up of like-minded people who loved and made war games. Arise also brought something new to the table: experience with real-time strategy games. Together, Arise and Wargaming began work on Operation Bagration and in 2008, made the ambitious RTS a reality. For Wargaming, Operation Bagration was more personal than their other projects and served as a tribute to the Belarusian people. The team proved this by faithfully recreating historic battle locations and showing the game to World War II veterans who were gratifyingly impressed. The project even drew the attention of the Belarusian government, who took enough interest in the game to offer the developers historic advice and critique. On a larger scale, Operation Bagration impressed players and game-makers with its massive battles, and at the 2008 Russian Game Developers Conference, won Best Strategy Game of the Year.
Its first RTS having been recognized as a success, Wargaming sought to collaborate yet again, this time with Square Enix. In 2009, the two firms made Order of War, a cinematic, real-time-strategy game set in the final months of World War II. Though deemed too easy by hardcore strategy players, it offered Western-oriented (translation: more streamlined) game mechanics and more graphic bells and whistles than any of Wargaming's previous titles. Once again, Wargaming was recognized for its efforts by the Russian Game Developers Conference, but Order of War failed to overcome what had by then become a characteristically lukewarm reception from the Western press.
The company's Golden Ticket to mass appeal came in 2010, seemingly unbidden. Wargaming's sudden, phenomenal success reads like your typical myth-making anecdote; in 2010 the company ignored its pedigree, hoping to finally crack the mass market. They began work on a fantasy MMO with the intent of competing with companies like Blizzard and Mythic Entertainment. In retrospect, the idea's obviously nuts, but during that World of Warcraft-dominated time it seemed the thing to do. Fortunately, before too much developer time and money were squandered, Victor Kislyi remembered the company's original vision:
“We started our company with a clear vision of the types of video games we would like to make. Even though we had a few bumpy rides in the beginning, and the likelihood of success was vague, our very first title did not fail to spark interest among the community, and to this day DBA Online still has many devoted fans.”
As a result of this revelation, Wargaming did a quick 180 and quickly converted their abortive fantasy idea into a much more personally satisfying military MMO. The problem was, how to learn from previous games' failings and arrive at a solid, commercially-acceptable MMO concept? It wasn't easy, and the project very nearly went off the rails again. “When strategizing about our first MMO title, our biggest challenge was in selecting a proper setting for our game,” Victor Kislyi explains. “Initially, World of Tanks was balancing on the edge of becoming another science fiction RPG with armies of creatures and oceans of mana. This idea went pretty far before it was ultimately shrugged off, and the team moved onto tanks.”
This fateful decision marked the turning point for Wargaming. World of Tanks tapped into the Wargaming team's authentic fanaticism for military history and gamers responded accordingly. The game was released in 2010 and took off like the proverbial rocket. It was awarded the Best MMO by the Russian Game Developers Conference (Wargaming itself received a Best Developer award that year) and in 2011 took E3, the U.S.'s preeminent game conference, by storm and set a Guinness World Record for most concurrent players (Back then the number was 90,311; the initial record was later broken when World of Tanks exceeded more than 500,000 concurrent players).
At long last, Wargaming had done it; they'd created a game with some serious mass appeal. This was because compared to the company's previous games, World of Tanks was straightforward enough to invite not just hardcore strategy gamers, but also casual gamers, competitive gamers, action fans and military history buffs. Its free-to-play, fast-match play appealed to European and American audiences alike and later on, to South Korean gamers as well. World of Tanks made its South Korean debut during the fall of 2012 at South Korean game convention G-Star. Response to the game was overwhelming. (I attended G-Star 2012 and I can personally attest, the response of attendees was astounding. This is perhaps not that surprising considering South Korea's a country of highly competitive gamers that treats professional gamers like rock stars.)
Since then,Wargaming's seen a whirlwind of activity and growth. In addition to learning what it takes to go from a small development studio to a mega-publisher in three short years, it's branched out into mobile development, opened offices in multiple countries, and celebrated its fifteen-year anniversary. Working with developer Dava, Wargaming's at work on World of Tanks Blitz, a mobile title due for release next year, that offers a more portable version of the original game. Its in-house team is also creating World of Tanks: Generals, a free-to-play collectible card game, and Day 1 Studios is working to bring console gamers into the World of Tanks fold by creating an Xbox 360 version of the game. Perhaps most exciting of all, Wargaming has partnered with digital entertainment company KongZhong Corporation to bring Wargaming's massive MMO to mainland China.
With all this, Wargaming has a lot to celebrate and in August, the company staged a huge, Vegas-scale party at the legendary Stalin Line. Incredibly, the the lion's share of the company's 2,200 employees were flown from around the world to attend the event, which appropriately enough, featured tank rides and an air show. (Again, I was there. Tank rides = awesome.)
Though Wargaming's first twelve years weren't all smooth sailing, the last three have been beyond belief and as to the future well, there's just no stopping them. Last week the company—in conjunction with Kyiv developer Persha Studio—launched World of Warplanes, the second of what's to become a Wargaming triumvirate. (The game's a historical flight sim that does for dogfights what Tanks does for tank battles.) Fans should keep busy becoming ace pilots at least until the third title, World of Warships, arrives (the date has yet to be determined). If not, they can watch professional World of Tanks players duke it out this weekend in the 2013 World Cyber Games. Barring that, they can enjoy speculating on the Wargaming forums about the new, yet-to-be-announced project the company's working on with Gas Powered Games.
Since 1996, Wargaming has gone from a handful of guys working from their apartments to thousands of employees working in offices in places like France, Australia, Ukraine and the U.S. This kind of success hardly seems sustainable in a gaming landscape that's constantly-changing, but Victor Kislyi is characteristically optimistic:
“We will try our hardest to make the next 15 years as bright as the previous ones were. Fortunately, the company has all that it takes to continue progressing well into the future; a skilled and devoted team, a backlog of experience, and a strong desire to deliver high-profile online games.”
Wargaming's story is truly remarkable, even if you're not into military MMOs. The company's fifteen year history shows that the road to success is often indirect and littered with obstacles. Moreover, it demonstrates the tenacity it takes to continue when success does not come overnight. When asked how Wargaming now is different from Wargaming in 1996, Victor Kislyi said, “The differences between then and now are enormous.” That may be so; after all, both the Kislyi brothers and their friends are older (and wealthier) than they were back then. Still, despite the guys' success, their enthusiasm is just as it was years ago when they were stalking Sid Meier. It's good to know some things never change.