Wargaming has traditionally launched its games from east to west. And it’s latest title Caliber – a PvE and PvP tactical third-person shooter – is another example of that approach, with the special forces-based title testing its flashbangs in the post-soviet CIS region before coming to the US and western Europe later.
But CEO Victor Kislyi now accepts that such a strategy isn’t necessarily the best approach for those latter markets, telling us it’s a matter of cultural sensibilities.
The talkative boss of Wargaming explains that he’s had little choice to consider the east-west cultural divide for most of his life. Born in Belarus, he explains his ongoing bewilderment at the attractions of WWE-styled American wrestling with its “big guys in golden bikinis” (something we can agree on) and his dislike of the tortured time-travel plot devices of the recent Avengers movie (something we can’t). Going broader, he has a grudging respect for basketball, “not as good as football” though, and cheers us with his appreciation of the BBC’s Yes Minister, calling it “quality entertainment.”
In short, he’s very aware that some (even unlikely) cultural exports can succeed across the phantom of the iron curtain while others, often inexplicably, do not resonate. The safest bet then is to make the game in the region that it’s intended for.
“I thought: OK, we were probably doing something wrong all these years, let the people who have done it before do it for us.”
“If we want to make a western game, we have to be in the west, the whole studio – no Russian manager, no Russian studio. It has to be all western from scratch,” he tells us, which brings us around to Wargaming’s fledgling UK studio, based in Guildford.
Speaking on the studio’s unannounced title, he admits: “I was a little sceptical seeing the first sketches, but then I thought: OK, we were probably doing something wrong all these years, let the people who have done it before do it for us.”
And Kislyi is impressed by the team that studio head Sean Decker has assembled to work on the title. “The whole team is loaded for western tastes. The reason why I mentioned WWE or The Avengers, is the game will have elements that maybe I don’t fully grasp, but that’s not a problem, that’s actually good.”
Having said that, Wargaming isn’t about to dive into some untried genre, with Kislyi dropping the biggest hints yet as to the nature of the upcoming game. “Free-to-play, battle, militarily-themed,” he summarises, adding that “it’s going to have conflict, some violence, shooting.”
And while the company isn’t following its usual geographical approach, it’s sticking to a rigorous and scientific process for rolling out its next title.
“Of course there will be testing of everything. Everything we do will be scientifically tested, that’s how you do things. Tested not in the east but in the US and western Europe, on people who watch those cartoons, who watch these sport programmes, these TV stars, that we just don’t know.”
THE GREAT FIRE OF GUILDFORD
Wargaming’s ambitions in the UK are impressive. Guildford has long been a great place to set up a new studio but only if you have the backing to hire and retain the best talent in a competitive and relatively expensive part of the country. It’s a place to build a talented, veteran team, rather than a plucky upstart.
The UK was chosen over the US for its mix of nationalities, Kislyi tells us: “Britain is even better [than the US] in terms of the variety of talent. Greeks, Swedes, Germans, as well as US talent too. We’re close to Heathrow so you’re one flight away from pretty much anywhere in the world – direct flights to everywhere.”
The studio was partly formed out of the acquisition of Edge Case Games, but has expanded rapidly since then and will continue to grow with some 30 positions open at present. It’s also had something of an enforced clean slate of late, following a fire which destroyed the old Edge Case office.
Keith Anderson, Wargaming UK’s publishing director, tells the story.
“[In early August], Sunday night about one o’clock, we start getting some calls that our studio is on fire. And it turns out that some homeless guy started a fire on the canal, on the river that backs onto our studio, it caught onto the bushes, and they burnt up the back of our building.
“The firemen came along and literally ripped down the back of our building to stop the fire, which went up into the roof, into the timbers. Our server room is now visible, it’s covered in water, so basically they exposed our server room and covered everything in water.
“The studio was completely doused in smoke, the electrics were done. The front door was bashed down, and they cut holes in all our walls to make sure the fire wasn’t still smouldering inside.”
A pretty complete destruction of the studio then, though thankfully no one was hurt in the fire. And the wider Wargaming organisation quickly got the team up and running in a temporary new office space, pending a move to a new permanent home.
“Our support team did an amazing job,” Anderson continues. “Within two weeks we were in a new building, we’ve got 50 people set up, we’re back up and running, because our Wargaming Sydney team started running builds for us, so we’re playtesting again based on builds they’re running off their servers.
“To commemorate the event we printed special T-shirts for the studio team – the great fire of Guildford. On the back it says: ‘Nobody does burn down like we do’. And congrats to the team, for making what could be a calamity and turning it around!”
The team does have plans to move into a fantastic new space in the coming months. We’ve seen photos and it’s very impressive, but that’s all we’re allowed to say for now, Kislyi tells us: “There were cheaper options, but this time I said: ‘Hey let’s have the best place to work in Guildford’. And it will be the best place to work in Guildford.”
Kislyi is upbeat about the fire as well, seeing it as something of a good omen: “I think this is a sign from the heavens: get out of this old barn and move on with your lives,” he smiles. He explains the Wargaming office in Minsk was flooded out when they did the alpha for World of Tanks and that game worked out well in the end.
GROWING THE WARGAMING BRAND
The new office will be just the most visible part of Wargaming’s ambitions. Or as Kisyli puts it: “The UK project is going to be big, we’ll not settle for ‘let’s try’, it’s going to be super-duper-triple-A,” he exclaims.
Studio head Decker has an impressive track record, with stints as senior vice president at CCP and six years at DICE, where he ended up as general manager of the studio.
Kislyi notes that despite his success, Decker is still hungry, saying: “He’s not going to retire in the foreseeable future, he wants a big thing. His job is not to invent the game and come up with creative ideas. He builds the team, brings in the right people, and it’s going to be a dream team.
“We’re not rushing,” Kislyi is keen to impress upon us, with the game a long way from being shown publicly. There’s plenty of time for the new, and growing, team to make its marks on the franchise, as Anderson explains for us in more detail: “We’re really trying to do stuff a bit different, not for the sake of being different, but for the sake of looking for other opportunities to grow the Wargaming brand. It’s a totally new IP, a totally new way of looking at how we’re going to be doing this.
“It’s very seldom in a games industry person’s career that they get to start on a new project, from scratch, fully funded, and build it.”
“And I think that’s the exciting bit, with the blessing of Victor and the Wargaming leadership, to go and forge a new path for ourselves. And then with leaders like Sean Decker and Paul Barnett [creative director], we’ve really got every opportunity to go out there and create something pretty spectacular, something pretty fresh.
“And this is also why we think we’re a really exciting studio to join, because it’s very seldom in a games industry person’s career that they get to start on a new project, from scratch, fully funded, and build it.”
To that end, Wargaming can afford to be somewhat picky about who it chooses for its new team, with Kislyi impressed with Decker’s clear approach to people management.
“I wish I had more of this. [Sean] would rather not hire a person, or would fire a person, if they’re not the right fit, so he started from a company culture and common goal: we’re going for the big thing you’re either on the bus, or off the bus.
“It’s easy to say, it’s in every business book, but it’s very difficult to do this in real life. But he has amazing style and he’s doing it, which makes me very very happy. I was impressed at the speed he moved. He announced to everyone: ‘We need you to be at the best of your capacities, we don’t have space for passengers’.
“He was very clear: ‘We need this, this, this from these positions’, he knows his stuff. He started hiring, and opening positions, using his network to bring in the best of the best people. He’s not in a rush, we understand that it’s going to take some time, so he’s doing his filtering, hiring and firing according to his standards, which are very high.”
The studio has already announced it’s working with Unreal, rather than Wargaming’s in-house engine that powers all its biggest hits to date. And although the venture represents a fresh beginning, Wargaming isn’t going to reinvent the wheel, literally-speaking, in order to achieve its goals.
“Unreal was not designed to handle vehicles, so that’s why we have been porting in physics and all the things we have in Tanks, that you don’t have in Unreal. So we have Unreal loaded with World of Tanks stuff, technologically speaking,” Kislyi tells us, revealing another small piece of the unseen title, with “vehicular physics” and “visibility” systems being two things that the company has plugged into Unreal for the team.
Moving away from Guildford, Wargaming is also exploring other genres and technologies. In Kiev (Ukraine), it’s working with the 125-strong Frag Lab on an unannounced title.
“It’s going to be FPS,” says Kislyi. “Many of those guys were doing Warface before that, so they know how to do FPS, they are using Amazon technology [Lumberyard], because they know how to use it historically. We don’t give anybody any details now, but it’s going to be super-duper-triple-A FPS and again they have the mandate to make it right.”
And moving back to Unreal, there’s the recently released Pagan Online, an action-RPG that represents the company’s first big step into the premium game market, with the title being sold on Steam. It’s notable for its wide range of control schemes (point-and-click, controller or WASD), in what is often a somewhat staid space, and the breadth of its content.
“It’s an experiment, we don’t intervene much with their production, we just give them publishing guidelines. It’s not free-to-play, it’s not the biggest shot we’ve made, but let’s try this one,” Kislyi says on the game.
A bigger shot, or rather a fusillade of gunfire, comes in the form of Caliber, which (as we noted at the start) is now going through the more typical Wargaming gestation period. It’s currently in closed beta in the CIS region and you can currently sign up for an EU beta that is yet to be dated.
“As an approach, it works, it serves a purpose. First we do CIS-Russia. They are more forgiving, we have a stronger community, and so on. Those things that need to be polished, some of them we don’t know until it has a critical mass of real players, balancing, etc. We do it in Russia. There are some things that you can never learn before you launch. The first month or two will tell us how much work is needed to bring to the west,” Kislyi tells us.
“This one we hope will be successful in the west because it’s a very universal topic. It’s special forces, you can’t be humorous or have impressionist graphics, cel-shading or whatever. This is photorealistic, running on low-tier computers, because the guys in our target audience are not necessarily super-duper, Alienware-equipped guys.”
We suggest that third-person shooters are a somewhat more crowded market than tank games, but Kislyi feels Caliber has its own space: “The world has been taken by storm by third-person, Fortnite for example. I tried The Division 2 for comparison [with Caliber], it’s not a bad game, in fact it’s a very good game, it’s third-person, but the pacing is far apart, to have clear differentiation. And Caliber’s free-to-play.”
His own family dynamics have in part led Kislyi to love Caliber. He explains that his son had bumped him out of their Fortnite games for his lack of skills: “Fortnite I was honestly playing, playing, playing and then he stopped inviting me! I’m kinda there but I’m also taking up a space.”
So the pair are now playing Caliber together instead: “I’m playing Medic or Heavy, and he’s playing Sniper or Assault. It’s a good father-son game.
“Right now, in Fortnite, my son is not the best player – sorry son! And he plays less and less because he gets killed. It’s a very unforgiving environment. So listen Fortnite kids, Caliber, coming soon!”