Wargaming: CEO Victor Kislyi talks WoT player retention

It's had some rocky times but Wargaming is still thriving and upcoming launches look highly promising. We talk to CEO Victor Kislyi about the more "disciplined and well-structured" company.

Years before Battlegrounds was making headlines, World of Tanks (WoT) was one of the earliest games to smash through the 1m concurrent players mark. Wargaming is now a more diverse company, having added both Warships and Warplanes to its core roster of titles with mixed success, expanded WoT to Xbox and PlayStation and added a strong mobile title in WoT: Blitz. It’s soon to expand again, too, with the upcoming Total War Arena, in partnership with Creative Assembly. 

We sit down with CEO and co-founder Victor Kislyi to discuss how the company’s now managing its wider spread of titles, while retaining players and acquiring new ones.

We first ask if WoT is still the company’s dominant title – Kislyi doesn’t share figures, but confirms it is, adding: “For us, it doesn’t matter which of our games you play. Even if you play other people’s games, we are fine. As long as you are a gamer, we will get you, you will come to us one day.”

He may believe it’s inevitable that many gamers – overwhelmingly male ones as Kislyi points out on more than one occasion – will be drawn to his game by their love of tanks, but Wargaming still takes player acquisition and retention as seriously as anyone in the industry. 

"If a man sticks with our game for ten weeks, then he stays almost forever."

Victor Kislyi, Wargaming

 

“This is our biggest challenge still, despite all of our success. Statistically, there are a lot of players who love tanks – what man does not love tanks?” he asks us, to which we admit having visited The Tank Museum in Dorset more than once.

Attracting players and retaining them are two sides of the same coin, of course, with Kislyi telling us: “If a man sticks with our game for ten weeks, then he stays almost forever. This is psychological, it takes a man ten weeks to understand whether he loves this thing or not.”

That said, even after many years of ongoing support, improving the experience beyond those initial ten weeks is still key.

 “We have to attack it from various angles, first of all the tutorial, and in [version] 9.20 we’ll have a very well done tutorial, which we did not have before,” Kislyi says.

But his efforts go much further than that, with the just-launched WoT War Stories – the game’s first attempt at a solo campaign mode that is exclusive to console versions of the game. It’s based around a series of alternative history scenarios, such as German tanks landing on British soil.

“Most of the games are story-based and have a little bit of multiplayer. Here, it’s the other way around. The base of World of Tanks is PvP, that’s what attracts millions of players from around the world. But you play PvP everyday and you know how to play it, you have played tens of thousands of battles, you know it inside out, it’s like breathing, like walking. Now with these skills, you go into the story. I think it’s a nice twist.”

We ask about just how long-term an investment content like this is for the game? “We invest money into the entertainment of people joining today, but the money that gets into our bank account is from investment a year ago or two years ago. We are not in the beginning of the cycle, we are in a never-ending cycle. We invest today in players, which we’ll monetise – not all of them, but some of them – two years from now. But that’s fine, if you have the muscle to do this – players are happy, we’re happy.”

And why is it exclusive to console? “These campaigns are an especially good way to attract a western audience,” he replies, with the Russian market saturated and largely PC-based anyway. “In the west, we still have huge potential, and so that’s why these campaigns will be a good addition.”

Free-to-play can mean a big churn in players, so Wargaming’s ability to retain gamers is key, Kislyi continues: “This is the everyday activity of our business intelligence department, looking at the big data. When you have around 180m registrations across your games, you have to utilise that data. There’s no one answer, every day people look at this cohort analysis, this churn rate, this winback campaign, where do we channel our advertising efforts, our PR efforts?”

We then ask what metrics he judges their success upon: “Many people measure it with money, but we found that very cynical. So yes, daily or monthly active users, but even more importantly core users.

“We have a stable franchise. We are a cultural phenomenon, at least in some countries. It’s a curse and a blessing, this stability – you have to fuel it with new updates that are exciting, though the base will stay there.

“Our slogan is: we deliver. The word ‘deliver’ means not just development or publish, ‘deliver’ means all of it, starting from the concept, prototype and testing, alpha and betas, releasing them, releasing updates, pushing them, advertising them. This is delivery.”

MOBILE BLITZKRIEG

Moving away from the PC and console side of the business, we ask about the structure of its mobile efforts: “That’s actually a very relevant question,” Kislyi says. “At Wargaming, we have different mobile initiatives spread out here and there. It crystallized in Blitz being relatively successful. It’s not top three, but it’s a many millions of dollars a year franchise. Which is just on mobile platforms. 80m mobile users isn’t little, and it’s growing every day,” he explains.

“Mobile is now a very separate division,” he tells us, admitting that maybe it should have been sooner. 

“No matter what you do with PC and console, those are huge projects with history and legacy, and a little bit of extra bureaucracy, and so they will always be a little slower. Whereas with mobile, you have to be extremely agile when it comes to mobile projects: prototyping, releasing, updating and killing. If something is not working, you just have to kill it.” 

We wonder if the company is using Blitz as a gateway to draw players into its PC title?

“This is not a direct stream,” Kislyi says. “Our mobile games are products in their own right. Blitz is a full-blown, 3D, action-packed, tactical, strategic MMO. Some people never go to WoT – it’s longer. You have to have a more expensive computer, and maybe you don’t have a computer. My son plays only Blitz. Some companies may use this method, but not us. We want to make mobile games that people play for the sake of this game. Not for the sake of being transferred to PC.”

That said, he does admit that there are holistic benefits in terms of “brand awareness and buzz.”

“We do not ignore traditional user acquisition channels, like advertising,” he adds. “In some countries, there are even TV adverts. But we’re happy to be in the place where we have a lot of word of mouth – and World of Tanks Blitz organic traffic is good. We’ve spent very little on advertising and we have 80m registered users. 

After a being hit by a number of wider issues over recent years, the company now looks to be stable again, as Kislyi explains: 

“We have survived a couple of big crisis, banking crisis in Cyprus [where the company is based]; Russia and Ukraine; the ruble falling down; the Swiss franc losing 20 per cent; that was a lot of stuff. And somehow we survived, though at some points it was very scary.” 

He points out there’s a lot more to business than just making the game and talking to the press: “It’s about what we do every day to build the company, like an army or a family. As well as family feelings and passion, you have to be disciplined and well-structured. You have to find this balance between creativity and a little craziness, but structure and discipline when it comes to financial stuff and compliance.

“I think that right now we have a good balance between those things – [we’re] extremely stable and on a good trajectory to keep repeating our success with new games. It does not come easy, but we are on the right track,” he adds. “Wargaming is staying here for many decades to come.”

Which brings us briefly to Total War Arena, which we’ll cover more fully in a future issue. Kislyi tells us that, back in 2010, Wargaming was very purist about its aims, but now it has branched out a little more.

“Arena is not a tank game, but it is a military strategy game,” he says. “[Creative Assembly] spent a decade and a half building this franchise, but they obviously lack a free-to-play MMO experience and so we joined forces and saved ourselves five years. It’s a good example of what we can do.”

We ask if the company is actively pursuing more such partnerships? “Externally, yes, but also internally, if someone comes through our door and says, ‘Hey, I have this idea’ and shows a prototype of something that is not tanks, then we consider it.”

Coming back around to Battlegrounds, big player counts are certainly in vogue at present, and World of Tanks is about to launch its take on the trend. A new mode called Grand Battles is about to double its player numbers in the game – a 60-player fight, across huge maps, with thirty tanks on each side. 

Kislyi is enthusiastic about the new mode, saying: “If you ask me one thing that I want right now, I want to play this.” If the community share anything like his enthusiasm for the game, even seven years on, then Wargaming is almost certainly here to stay.