The Sydney-based studio is responsible for BigWorld Tech, the engine which powers the legendary World of Tanks.
The team’s first appearance was GDC in 2003, showing of Citizen Zero, a title which was going to be the first big MMO for home consoles, which CEO Stephen Wang describes as ‘World of Warcraft with run and gun gameplay’. To stream huge numbers of assets into the game, the team created BigWorld Tech off the back of VC funding, developing it in parallel with the game itself.
Xbox Live was yet to launch, and Microsoft was gung ho for online being the future of home console entertainment, so seeing the potential for the game, they scooped it up as a first party title.
"I still remember going on a roadshow with Microsoft and doing some focus group testing with an independent company," says Wang. "They wanted to address the idea of monetization, and argued quite a bit about how they should even ask the question. At this point, players were used to paying for the game and that was it. With the initial purchase, subscription model, Xbox Live subscription and the cost of their ISP, players in the focus groups were confused and thought they were paying for the game four times over."
"It’s one of those things where you realise that there is just so much that comes into a successful idea, and the timing of it is as much a factor as anything. So suddenly, we were in this awkward position where Xbox 360 was now the focus, Xbox Live was growing steadily but numbers were lower than Microsoft had expected, and we had to re-pitch the product for the new platform and that meant we were sitting in this funny place of being put up against the likes of Bungie for the new console launch."
Citizen Zero was cancelled.
BigWorld Tech, meanwhile, had come a long way, so the team decided to shift focus and try their hand at middleware licensing.
Wang reasoned that by hedging their bets and getting a handful of MMOs using their title which each had a hundred thousand or so players, they could make enough money off licensing fees and royalties to keep their heads above water, but was met with the stark reality that MMOs either sink or swim – there was no middle ground like there was in boxed product.
Where MMOs were taking off in abundance, however, was China.
"We were in the right place at the right time," remembers Wang. "I remember going to the big Chinese game show (China Joy) which was their equivalent of E3. And it’s like walking into a giant online games show, because everything is online. The reason is that they can pirate the hell out of the content, but they still have to connect to the servers, therefore subscriptions, microtransactions, anything like that we can actually get the players to pay for the game became the way to make money in China."
"So enter BigWorld Tech – were arrived at just the right time, we were big and mature enough that we made a lot of inroads. There were a lot of huge internet portal style companies emerging over there, and with lax laws, trust was a huge part of getting new business, and word travelled fast."
BigWorld Tech became used by well over 100 games, most notably by companies like UserJoy, NetEase (now a multi-billion dollar NASDAQ-listed company) and eventually, Wargaming.
World of Tanks finally released, at first just in Russia, in August 2010 after an extensive period in beta.
"We were quite jaded," says Wang solemnly. "We saw things going well with World of Tanks but we were thinking ‘Yeah, how long is this gonna last before it plummets like a stone?’ There could certainly be a chance of that and there are definitely examples to the contrary (Counterstrike comes to mind), but it’s more the exception than the rule."
"So let’s not fool ourselves and think that this is going to be that. It could be, but we really don’t know, either through playing it or from the target market. We saw the numbers growing, but we’d seen it before with UserJoy – the numbers would grow and grow and then all of a sudden they’d start to drop off and nine months later they were down to a little trickle of fanatical people."
The acquisition of BigWorld by Wargaming happened in 2012 for $45 million. The team had fluctuated throughout the 2000s from 20 to 70 heads, but it was this purchase which would see the numbers really peak. The studio now sits at around 100 and counting, making it one of Australia’s largest developers, and backed by the ongoing success of World of Tanks, the company, now fully owned by Wargaming and re-branded Wargaming.net / BigWorld is looking nowhere but forwards.
"My journey through that part of it was really to discover why Tanks is the phenomenon that it is," Wang continues. "It’s another one of those games which stands out as a bit of a perfect storm – a whole bunch of things just coincided at the right time for them."
"The rise of internet penetration, the emergence of the free to play model which Wargaming played a major part in defining, and the subject matter of Tanks – something the Eastern European countries in particular are very passionate about. The game itself is of course also a great game – it’s easy to get into but there is a lot of detail in the depth like armour penetration stats and the best tactics to use, that appeal to the less “arcady” taste of that region , it was just timed right in every way that Citizen Zero wasn’t."
Now, Wang is part of the Wargaming family and speaks highly of the new team. He fondly remembers being awestruck by the decadence of the parties the team went to, with famous Russian fighter pilots performing air shows for them personally in Minsk.
"The rolling out of tanks has a significance in Europe which, as much as we might read about it, we’ll never really understand," he confesses. "When I went over there to Wargaming’s 15th birthday party, I had it explained to me that literally ‘everyone in Minsk is a survivor’, and that each and every person there has a story of their grandparents or parents somehow making it through the war in a city where only 4 or 5 pre-war buildings still stand."
The team in Australia is now dedicated to making sure that anyone using BigWorld Tech is getting the most out of the engine, but is no longer attending trade shows and actively seeking new licensees.
Wang sees this as a welcome relief, concluding that "this gives us time to focus on the next stages for the engine."