We recently had the opportunity to interview the War Thunder team for the game’s seventh anniversary. And fortunately, Creative Director Kirill Yudintsev was there with the goods.
Our discussion ranges from the success of War Thunder, to some of the challenges encountered along the way, plans for support, player feedback, short term and long term plans, esports prospects, economy, and never before seen exclusive images of new vehicles. We thank Kirill and the team for their time and responses, and hope you find this new information helpful!
MMORPG: Did you expect War Thunder to remain on the top of Steam’s most played games chart for 7 years straight?
We were aiming to create a great online game and we worked hard to achieve this. That’s actually the only recipe for success in the gaming industry AFAIK.
Speaking about the Steam version in particular, I’d say that we never expected anything. We launched the Steam version because some of our PC players asked us to do this.
Just to clarify our position, I’d like to share with you some numbers. We care a lot about our Steam community, but frankly speaking it isn’t even 15% of our worldwide PC audience and never was. More than half of these Steam players have discovered the game outside that platform. Steam version popularity varies from country to country but does not exceed 35% anywhere and is much lower overall. The majority of our PC players use our own launcher.
Anyway, though Steam as a “platform” (it is not an actual platform in fact) is not that popular amongst our players, War Thunder turned out to be one of the top games there and that’s good. Even players that left negative comments on Steam, usually played the game for hundreds or even thousands of hours before they stumbled on the experience they did not like, i.e. a new mode or high-level content with new types of vehicles. The reason is that such a huge game provides a lot of different experiences that are meant for different types of gamers.
MMORPG: What do you contribute that too?
The reason why people do play the game a lot is simple: War Thunder is the only game on the market that can fulfill the various wishes of military vehicle fans at once and in one place. Yes, there are other standalone games about World War 2 era tanks or about modern jets or about one specific helicopter. We have made these types of games before. But War Thunder is the only game that encompasses all of these gameplay experiences. It allows you to jump from a tank to a fighter jet in one gameplay session. It gives you the opportunity to follow the history of tank building starting from the early 1930’s into the XXI century, from World War II to the Cold War and beyond. This is very cool and unique.
MMORPG: How long do you plan to support War Thunder?
Games as a service, like War Thunder, are supported whilst there are people playing it. Right now, interest in War Thunder is only growing, millions of new players are coming to War Thunder and old players remain with us or return to the game to see new content and new features. For example, many people that enjoyed World War II era planes and tanks return to try naval forces or helicopters or modern jets and tanks. Obviously, we need to do more new features and content to stay on top.
There are also new gaming platforms coming in the near future and we are planning to make War Thunder available on them as well.
Basically, we have some development plans for the next 2-3 years. There is not much sense in planning for a longer period of time. The reason is that we do these plans based on player feedback, so we need to check how they’ll like the features that are in production right now.
MMORPG: What are the biggest successes that you have seen for War Thunder? Updates, new features, platform launches, whatever. Looking to see what things were more successful that you initially imagined.
The biggest successes are obviously the new types of combat vehicles that bring with them completely new gameplay experiences. This is the main reason why players come to the game or return to it. The most recent examples of a huge success are modern tanks and jets. The greatest one was probably the initial launch of ground forces in 2014 that brought millions of new players to the game.
The user generated content initiative was also far more successful than we initially thought. Basically, people create new skins and even new vehicles on their own and earn money for that by selling them. Some of our 1st of April events, i.e. the submarines event, were also far more popular that we ever envisioned.
MMORPG: What would you say are the game’s biggest failures and more importantly, what did you learn from these failures that ultimately improved the overall game?
It was probably wrong to start our Naval forces with only smaller ships, like torpedo boats and submarine chasers – the mosquito fleet. Some of our players didn’t like this idea. The reason is that when we’re talking about military vehicles and ships, people usually want to try something famous. They prefer vehicles they read about in history books or in the news. Of course, all the famous ships are usually the bigger ones, like the Yamato battleship. So, we’ve introduced destroyers, cruisers and are slowly approaching the battlecruiser-sized vessels to make sure that players will get what they want.
One of the reasons why we started with smaller ships was that we thought that our players would be bored with very slow battles between larger ships and would prefer faster-paced mosquito fleet battles. In the end we discovered that some of our fans do like their naval battles slow and realistic, so we’re giving them that now, and those who prefer fast-paced naval action have it too - and all this without compromises and creating reinvented vessel-classes.
There are also lots of challenges to meet in the future. The game grows and grows, so it becomes more difficult for new players to get to what they want in the game in particular. The same applies to new game modes.
MMORPG: How does player feedback from features and updates help inform future development in the game? How important is it for the team to incorporate good feedback into making War Thunder?
Since the official release of War Thunder player feedback has been the foundation that we base our development plans on. It is basically the most important thing for us. It is also hard to work with - we have a very big game in terms of player game styles and game modes.
War Thunder is bigger in any aspect (vehicles, game modes, controls, military combat simulation, cross-platform gameplay, locations) than any other multiplayer game on the market. And it is bigger by an order of magnitude. We have 1500+ vehicles - and this is not just different skins - we have tanks, wheeled vehicles, planes, jets, helicopters, ships with the simulation of most of the physical aspects of them - armor, ammo, missiles, rockets, bullets of all the various types, crew, radars, etc. These differences are not just numbers - lots of them require special code to simulate.
We also have different realism modes. We have 100+ locations, each is ~1000 square kilometers (some of them are 4000+ square kilometers or more), and there are several missions played on them (and missions are also significantly different sometimes). There are also dynamic daytime and random weather conditions.
And all of needs to run on very different hardware, from low-spec netbooks to top spec modern gaming PC and consoles. I’m pointing out the scale just to show you how it is difficult to work with feedback - because each player sees and plays only a small part of the game.
This makes War Thunder completely outstanding and unique in online multiplayer games, where most titles have one game mode with one general core-game scheme and one meta-game.
Many of the changes you see in the game were based on player feedback dealing with balancing or progression. But there are major changes as well. For example, in April 2017 we temporarily introduced several modern era tanks and helicopters just for the April Fools event. There were no such vehicles in the game at that time at all, so they really stood out. The feedback was extremely positive, so we decided to move forward and gradually add helicopters and modern tanks into the game and now they are an important part of it.
MMORPG: What do you plan to bring to War Thunder in 2020?
There will be several completely new tech trees, including Swedish ground forces, Chinese and Italian helicopters and the Italian navy. We can even announce and show you the work in progress versions of several specific vehicles, like the Swedish Ikv 72 self-propelled gun [Editor's Note: The response originally incorrectly stated Swedish lkv 91. We have corrected it to Swedish lkv 72], the Italian Trento heavy cruiser and the Saetta-class gunboat. They are not in the game yet, so these are the screenshots from our dev tools. Players will also get newer jets and bigger ships, including battlecruisers. We cannot disclose the specific dates or the release order of all these updates (basically because they are in development and plans may change because everything really depends on feedback of players), but you can see the scope of the vehicle line-up we’re working on. And these are just a few examples, we have a lot of more cool stuff in the works.
It is a bit easier to talk about vehicles than about other changes, like UI\UX improvements, new graphical and audio features, or new gameplay types - just because the latter can take much more time than initially expected (for example upgrading to new audio engine that was done in 1.91 took more than a year in development!) or can be even closed before releasing to public or after open-dev tests by players feedback.
MMORPG: What are your long-term future plans for War Thunder?
Though we already have 1500+ vehicles in War Thunder, we are still a long way from covering all the interesting examples of military hardware produced in XX and XXI centuries. What we’re trying to do is to put all of them into the game if it makes sense gameplay-wise. Right now, we are doing a lot of research and internal experiments to understand how and what to add next.
We think that what will be most noticeable will be changes to Naval forces battles that we are planning to do next year. We’re also working on improving the World War mode and other gameplay experiences based on feedback from our players.
The release of War Thunder on the new platforms could be big news for some of our players, though we cannot specify the timing or the list of those platforms due to NDAs.
MMORPG: Gaijin has tried its hand at eSports, what did you learn? And are you still exploring eSports?
It would be very difficult to give you a short answer, this topic probably deserves a whole separate article to cover. We have experimented a lot and learned a lot of lessons. We are still learning and we’re planning to try new things, so stay tuned for news of that.
MMORPG: Can you talk about War Thunder’s marketplace/in-game economy? How did you come up with the concept and has it evolved as planned?
War Thunder, like other free2play games, allows players to unlock new content for free by playing a lot or to unlock it a bit faster with a premium account. There are also some premium-only vehicles. That is more or less the industry standard. Our Marketplace is the feature that allows die-hard fans to sell the in-game content they earned while playing and use that internal currency to buy new content, including premium-only content. This gives both non-paying and paying users much more flexibility and allows each one of them to play at their own pace, have fun and be happy.
MMORPG: User generated content seems to have been a big hit. Are players earning real money from it? And, where do you see it going in the future? Player created maps? What?
Yes, players do earn real money by creating content for War Thunder. There are several aircraft made completely from scratch by our players and officially added to the game, which is fantastic. We pay a fixed amount of money for a full vehicle model and anyone can try to do it using our publicly available SDK. The most popular type of user-generated content, though, is a vehicle skin. These skins are uploaded to our UGC service (live.warthunder.com) regularly by the users. We check them and add new high-quality user-made skins into the game with each Content Update. After this, we share the revenue we get from these skins with their creators.
MMORPG: You have land, sea and air vehicles, is there a chance you would consider adding infantry? If not, why?
War Thunder is all about military vehicles simulation. Infantry would be tough to implement and balance properly without significantly changing War Thunder that our players already know and love. That’s why we have another, infantry-focused military action game in the pipeline, which is called Enlisted. We will have more details about Enlisted in the near future.
MMORPG: What do you think Infantry could bring to the table if you decided to go that route?
Obviously, secondary armament, like machine guns, and anti-personnel munitions would become more useful. Other than that, it’s hard to guess as the balance would be completely different with a lot of unknown variables and it would be a different game. That’s pretty much the reason we’re not going to add infantry to War Thunder.
MMORPG: What have the developers learned the most about player behavior over the years that War Thunder has been released into the wild? Is there anything players have done that has surprised the team?
Our community never stops surprising us. War Thunder players are super creative. They love military vehicles and military history, so they express this love not only in the game or on other media like Reddit, but in real life as well. We’ve already mentioned that some of them are creating content for War Thunder, but there are fans doing amazing stuff offline – like building paper models of War Thunder tanks.
The most exciting thing our players regularly do is that they show War Thunder to their grandparents that actually flew the real aircraft and operated the real armor represented in the game. Sometimes they even use a VR headset and the full-fledged simulator setup to help veterans feel those machines. This kind of activity is extremely good for everyone: it helps young people reconnect with their senior relatives and it helps veterans to feel young again. It also improves the perception of the whole video game industry in the modern society that is still a bit afraid of these new kinds of entertainment.
MMORPG: Do you envision a time in the future where players can create their own joint armies or countries and battle against other armies? What I mean is, could I bring my air force, you bring your ground force and someone else bring their naval fleet and we join up in the same battle against other players?
We have something like that in World War mode where some of the players command armies on a map and other command specific vehicles during the battles between those armies. In this case people who are good as pilots, usually use aircraft, while good tankers take ground vehicles. This mode is divided into seasons, the first one was available this summer and the next one will be available very soon, so there might be more features that you might like.
MMORPG: Pretend you were to release War Thunder in today’s current industry landscape, would you still use Steam? And how vital do you think the Steam release has been to the success of War Thunder?
No, we would probably not. We are not making much money there or getting a lot of new users from it. According to our data, more players of War Thunder switch to the Steam version, than new players were brought by Steam to War Thunder. It was also impossible to effectively attract people directly to the Steam page, as we can’t track leads. So, supporting Steam as a “platform” is not particularly beneficial to us. Currently we do it only for those users who have been with us for a long time and prefer to use this platform, we do try to support loyal players as much as we can. It used to be better back in the days.
We hope that this will change someday. But currently it looks like Valve is much more interested in working with big publishers of premium games and is not very interested in supporting free2play titles with games as a service model. There are almost no mandatory marketing tools. There are plenty of cool services, such as match-making, leaderboards, CDN, cloud saves, achievements, authorization, etc. - that do have a lot value for premium/single player or multiplayer games, but not much for cross-platform online games, and yet Valve still takes a significant revenue share for such games as well.
This is something we are not happy with. Valve’s platform can be useful for players and there are millions of happy users there, but Valve’s policies, services and tools basically work well for premium games only. They are focused on big titles from big publishers and/or small independent game developers of premium games. Features like matchmaking, cloud storage, achievements, CDN for updates, authorization, etc., can be very useful, but make no sense for a cross platform online game, as we had to create all these features in-house anyway having launched the game on PC on our site a year before we could do it on Steam (those days, Valve actually limited access to their store).
As a free-to-play game that attracts users with performance marketing we need tools that simply do not exist on Steam. So, for us (and basically any cross-platform online free-to-play game) this is a “platform” (the real platform is PC after all) where you have to give a significant share of revenue for just launching your game from the Steam launcher.
As for how important the launch on Steam was, well, that store had attracted some players to the game and still does. But numbers speak for themselves - they first day we launched the game on Steam, we got around ten thousand of players simultaneously online according to Steam stats - while not more than one thousand players growth in total peak number. While it was still noticeable, it turns out that it was mostly our already existing audience started using Steam launcher.
MMORPG: How has the response been on console since it was released? Have you seen greater numbers there versus Steam? And how has the console development helped improve the PC release, and vice versa?
Yes, we have more new players enjoying the game on consoles than on Steam. The policies there are hard in some ways (especially cross-play policies) and there are also very limited marketing tools, but there are probably more potential players for our game - and with comparable consistent fixed hardware (which is actually better than an average PC).
Usually porting a game to another platform improves overall code quality. The main challenge for the console version of WT is UI. It is not easy to maintain UI and UX of a huge game with a diverse range of gameplay modes like WT good on all platforms. But this usually makes it better for all players in the end. Still much work to do here and we’re committed to it.