Andrei Yarantsau: Recipe for Success from Wargaming. Part I
In this first issue of Company Insights, Andrei Yarantsau, VP of Global Operations, explains some of the history behind Wargaming’s decision to pursue game development in the MMO space, as well as provides some insight on why Wargaming titles have proven so successful.
With the game racking up more than 18 million users in less than a year, World of Tanks was not only a huge gaming industry success, but also one that helped solidify the success of the free-to-play genre. Did the game’s success come as a total surprise to everyone?
I’d say the success of World of Tanks came from years of hard work and the combined learning from a few dozen projects that came before it. We’ve been through a lot since the company was started in 1998. We experimented with different game genres and settings, and what we learned from those projects helped us start work on World of Tanks with a great blueprint on how to make that game be as good as it possibly could. The industry was definitely moving into the era of global gaming and the idea of massively multiplayer online gaming was regarded as the “next big thing,” an untapped genre that had huge potential.. We saw the opportunity and we went for it. Admittedly, we took a pretty big risk entering a gaming realm that was completely new and foreign to us.
So, you made the right choice at the right time?
I think there’s much more to it than simply making the right decision at the right time. We had an overall idea for the game, including a well-designed and fleshed out concept. But ideas alone don’t necessarily correlate to success. The art is in implementing these ideas, evolving them, and finally turning them into a truly unique gaming experience. Our road to success was a hard one, though, and we had to start basically from the ground. We’ve gained a ton of experience working on World of Tanks. Our servers and database were upgraded to handle the growing game community and ensure that our servers were running at peak efficiency and never overloaded. We also established customer support services with a priority-based ticket system and player relationship management system to ensure submitted tickets were received, responded to, and resolved quickly and fairly. Work on an MMO, though, is something that is always happening and evolving, even after launch. Activities start as soon as the game is announced and continue beyond the release date. MMO games are about developing a community around your project, and hopefully, one that sticks around and plays the game for a long time after its release. How do you make a game where you can consolidate a community and give the players what they want? Our response is that you give people a game that’s continually updated with strong content and keeps them wanting more.
Before World of Tanks, Wargaming primarily made RTS and TBS games. What were the reasons behind the move to MMOs?
After ten years of developing RTS and TBS titles that were critically acclaimed, but also were a part of a genre that never really seemed to grow larger, we got the feeling that we are possibly moving in the wrong direction. As such we decided to follow the market. Players’ interest in games were becoming more globally oriented, while traditional PC gaming was pretty much standing still. People wanted to play with friends or people they knew, no matter where in the world they might be. The community was getting tired of the same concepts being reused and rehashed with a new graphics engine and a different art style. And, finally, players were being inundated with MMOs that seemed to be based on fantasy. In the absence of radical new ideas, the crown goes to whoever can give their product the most depth, polish and shine. We took a risk, focused all of our efforts into making an MMO action game about WWII warfare, and hit the mark with it!
Did it go smoothly? Were there any challenges you faced?
You’d be surprised to learn how many different things go into delivering an MMO title! As I already mentioned, the work starts long before the release and only intensifies after the game is launched. A lot of effort went into ensuring World of Tanks had high-quality graphics, but also had accessible and fun gameplay to complement that. World of Tanks was our first MMO title and one of the biggest challenges was providing the rapidly growing population of players with an exceptional gaming experience. We had to drastically increase our server capacity after launching the open beta in Europe and North America, as we never expected so many people to join the game.
As you said earlier, the game itself is only one aspect of success; it also requires serious support and maintenance...
Absolutely! And it’s where we ran into a new set of challenges. When World of Tanks went live we had to build a skilled team of professionals — technicians and maintenance crews — to keep the game running smoothly. At Wargaming we have people that are entirely dedicated to providing timely customer support for each region and time-zone, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There are teams that handle changes, conduct upgrades and hot fixes all with the goal of avoiding interrupting your game time or keeping it to a small weekly window. Our game designers and architects plan out new systems and new services to enrich the gameplay. The total number of people involved is probably bigger than you can imagine! We started as a fairly small company, with our headquarters in Minsk, Belarus and a staff of about 150. Right now, we have about 1000 employees around the globe.
Wargaming is known not only for its games, but also for building reliable, stable and well-maintained gaming services. We are extremely proud of that reputation, but it’s a hard work to maintain such a high level of responsibility. When we enter a new market we do our best to ensure that the online experience is optimized for that region’s internet capabilities. We launch data centers, hire locals to run full-scale community and customer support service, and so on...
World of Tanks is about 15 minute PvP sessions. How do you manage to make people play non-stop for hours?
The simple answer is that the game is fun and fairly easy to play. Plus, it gives players the opportunity to get better the more they play. The game also offers tons of depth and an increasingly customized gaming experience. It combines aspects of RPG and FPS games, wraps them in an attractive package that will appeal to history buffs, and offers that entire experience absolutely for free. The basics of the game are pretty easy to grasp. The controls are simple, and never get in the way of the gaming experience. On the other hand, it has multiple variables that make every game a unique experience.
So far you can play using four nationalities — USA, USSR, Germany, or France. Each nation features several types of armored vehicles: light, medium, and heavy tanks, tank destroyers and self-propelled guns, organized into 10 different tiers. Each tank has its vulnerabilities, strengths and limitations, as well as its individual performance on various terrains. There are over 30 maps in the game, too, each of which requires specific tactics depending on the vehicle type you’re using. The more you learn about the game and the more you play, the better you’ll become at it. It’s a kind of investment — you spend time playing and get experience and resources, which in turn allows you to upgrade your vehicles, purchase new ones, and in the end, perform better. In that sense, the game provides some powerful motivation to play and become better.
Do you believe that there’s a recipe for the ultimate MMO game? Or, do you have thoughts on what you think would be needed to create something like that?
There is really no secret! I can certainly speak to the ingredients that are needed for a successful MMO title. They fall into two groups: those that have to do with the game concept and those that have do to with the game’s maintenance and support.
First of all, you need to deliver a consistent and in-depth gaming experience. Secondly, you should ensure the game is well-balanced. Individual elements, such as in-game research, vehicle upgrades, crew training, and so on, should be organized in a logical way that is easily accessible and understandable to the player. Thirdly, regular updates are crucial. You should listen to your game community, be open to their opinions, acknowledge their feedback, and shape the game in line with their wishes.
And last but not least, the game has to run smoothly. You need to make sure to establish a reliable performance measurement system as well as a sustainable customer support system to make sure every player experience is as ideal as possible. When you take all of those different features into account, you’ll see that success is really about blending them all together.