“It’s show business, the games business. Not every game is successful” – catching up with Wargaming CEO Victor Kislyi aboard HMS Belfast

After a long hiatus MCV/DEVELOP is at an actual press event. Sensible precautions are in place, but this is a real gathering of press, in person, with food and a bar and all the usual niceties.

The sheer novelty of once again doing the job in-person, almost overshadows our surroundings. Almost. For we’re spending the day with the run of the immense HMS Belfast, London’s own resident light cruiser, that’s light at a mere 11,550 tons.

The ship is having a major refit for its grand reopening, of which a part is a highly appropriate gaming room below decks.

Through a partnership with the Belfast’s owners, Imperial War Museums, Wargaming’s World of Warships is literally taking to the water,. With a ‘command centre’ aboard HMS Belfast, allowing visitors to play the game, and take control of the Belfast’s virtual incarnation. It’s a perfect match and the execution of the room itself is superb.

While we’re visiting the ship we also get an overdue catchup with CEO Victor Kislyi (above, right). We usually chat to the Wargaming boss amidst the din of Gamescom, so the Belfast makes a very appropriate and very relaxing change of setting.

The last year has not been relaxing of course. With approaching 5,000 employees around the world, Wargaming has had its hands full with the pandemic. But Kislyi is proud of the company’s response.

NAVIGATING COVID

“For the leadership of Wargaming, let’s say 50 people who are in managerial leadership positions, amazing people, this pandemic was a great stress test, for Wargaming, for our culture, for our unity. We did not lose anyone, we have cases of course, but very very few,” Kislyi explains. 

The company moved quickly across its globally-distributed locations, Kislyi tells us. “We were pre-emptive, we moved to working from home before government direction.”

And it maintained its output, in the main. “We did not deviate from our live products’ roadmaps. And for the new things in development, it probably could have been a little better for creativeness and brainstorming, to be in one room with a whiteboard,” but he explains that the team took to working from home “like adults.”

Those “new things in development” obviously include Guildford’s DPS Games, working on an unannounced project. “So we were about to unleash the power of Guildford. And then the pandemic…” Kislyi tells us. And he reveals that the team there now numbers 180, a considerable upgrade from our last visit.

And while DPS are making a phased return to the office, caution is still the watchword. “Just last week, somebody got COVID, not [development staff], but in the cafeteria, and boom, all the people back home – testing, testing, testing.”

Like any company running big live service games, Wargaming saw an uplift in its engagement figures, says Kislyi. “But we don’t want to base our business on the tragedy of humankind, so we don’t price this pandemic into our business plans, we want things to go back to normal.” And the company plans to invest the windfall into “better technology, graphics, community management and marketing” in order to improve and grow its games.

We enjoyed the Belfast in actual life, as a digital recreation and in the form of a cake, all in one day

VIRTUAL CONSERVATION

World of Warships has been doing a lot of growing since its launch six years ago, says Kislyi. As a part of that, the HMS Belfast command centre is just the latest in a line of supportive partnerships that Wargaming has made with the handful of WWII museum ships still maintained around the world.

The company has also commissioned a series of high-quality documentary programmes, Naval Legends, to tell the stories of some of its most high-profile battleships, to date its piece on the Japanese Yamato has clock up 13m views on Youtube.

Warships, as with its older sibling Tanks, is now managed within its own vertical, Kislyi explains: “For the last four years, leadership made this transformation from so-called functional, where we have global development, global publishing etc, into product. So World of Warships is its own business.”

“All the live games we have grew so big, so that I cannot physically get my nose into each and every one. For World of Tanks, 24/7 I was there. So it’s up to the World of Warships team to figure out their audience. They have their own events, they have their own collaborations.”

And Warships has proven to be a more popular title in western markets. “Some games are stronger in Eastern Europe, World of Warships for that matter is much stronger in Europe and America than Tanks,” he explains. A fact that is matched by the positioning of museum ships around the world, with the US and Europe being clear clusters.

PRIVATE ARMADA

While press events, and physical installations like the command centre, have gone on the backburner during the pandemic, the games industry has seen a huge swell in consolidation. Notably, though, Wargaming remains in private hands and neither bought nor divested itself of anything of note. So what’s Kislyi’s take on it all?

“For me and my leadership team, the last 11 years we might say, was *an interesting endeavour*, with ups and downs, huge victories, mistakes, sad moments, defeats and failures… So we stopped buying companies.”

“We are as private as we were in the beginning.” says Kislyi. “So we’re not here for stock market price. We’re not here to exit, we generate enough revenue for shareholders to be happy, we ensure our employees at the end of each financial year get, very well deserved, not small, bonuses. We’re not here to sell, we’re not here for quick exit.

On the other side he says: “We acquired a bunch of studios before, but not anymore.” It’s most recent move was the creation of Wargaming Guildford, now DPS Games. “Guildford, you might say it’s built from scratch. Yes, there was Edge Case Games, but it was like 25 people.” A foundation to build something new upon, rather than a straight buy.

“DPS Games in Guilford has their own identity, still part of Wargaming family, they have autonomy. I visit them just to kiss the baby, cut the ribbon!”

It’s run by Sean Decker, a Battlefield franchise veteran of DICE and EA. “It’s all carefully cherry-picked people who share our values. Currently working on super duper secret Unreal-based project by the way.” Kislyi leans into the microphone with a smile to pitch that the studio is very much hiring.

“They know what they’re doing, all western talent. Of course, based on the success, data and techniques, from World of Tanks and Warships, but only to the extent they want to take it.

“Right now, it’s not about buying. We don’t want to buy anyone frankly speaking. We have enough, let’s say a good ten development studios. Five or six powerhouses, which in the last couple of years, have crystallised their own vision,” he says in reference back to the company’s more vertical approach. 

World of Warships is a good example. Warships PC, Warships console – Warships Legends for Xbox, Playstation… Switch I guess,” he teases, as it’s not announced yet. “Toasters and microwaves are the only devices where we don’t play! 

“Each of our franchises or powerhouses is not in one location but uses distributed development, which is not because of pandemic, although it pushed us harder. But really because there’s no
one city which can contain enough talent for such huge franchises.”

A part of the World of Warships’ command centre on the Belfast

IT’S BALTIC OUT THERE

Wargaming instead is looking to organic expansion, with its latest outpost opening in April. “We recently opened Vilnius, Lithuania, I would say it’s the next silicon valley of Europe, for this type of game development. It’s very nice, it’s like the Nordics but with sunshine. It has forests, lakes, the birds are singing, the grass is green, as opposed to Lapland!”

Wargaming Vilnius is an expansion of its MS-1 team, working alongside Minsk and Moscow on World of Tanks: Blitz among others.

“Then we have Prague, we have Austin, we have Singapore, we have Sydney,” Kysli continues his tour of nice places to live and work on planet earth. “Sydney was was such a good acquisition back in 2012, when we purchased Big World. Since then, of course, they are running the engine technology.

“But they also made so many prototypes, they helped to migrate, for example, Legends would never have happened on the console but for Sydney. Those tech guys are just cutting edge, right now we’re giving them more and more game responsibilities.”

Of course, with any big live game operator, everyone is always asking when we might see the next big thing for Wargaming. Kislyi is pragmatic about it. 

“We have been investing very heavily, not everything is successful. It’s show business, the games business. Not every game is successful, look at Blizzard, look at Riot, it takes years and years to come up with next big one.” So is he concerned about it?

“Of course I always worry. This is competitive, we are playing in that league, which brings you some fierce competition. Not that anybody wants to kill us directly. But by releasing the next big thing, they take space, our ad budget goes up. But after many years we learn to find our decent, respectable place in this big fish pool.”

And with HMS Belfast, Wargaming has certainly got a good-sized chunk of one of the biggest fish in the Thames at the very least.

About Seth Barton

Seth Barton is the editor of MCV – which covers every aspect of the industry: development, publishing, marketing and much more. Before that Seth toiled in games retail at Electronics Boutique, studied film at university, published console and PC games for the BBC, and spent many years working in tech journalism. Living in South East London, he divides his little free time between board games, video games, beer and family. You can find him tweeting @sethbarton1.

Check Also

N64 and Mega Drive games are coming to a new Nintendo Switch online ‘expansion pack.’

The new tier, exhaustingly titled Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack, was announced during last night's Nintendo Direct, and will feature N64 and Mega Drive games as part of the subscription service.