One of the more interesting and unexpected occurrences at E3 this year was the surprise appearance of Wargaming CEO Victor Kislyi at Microsoft's press event. Kislyi announced the imminent arrival of Wargming's smash free-to-play hit World of Tanks on the Xbox 360, as a free download through Xbox Live. It's the first time World of Tanks has appeared on a console, and the first major free-to-play game to appear on Xbox Live.
World of Tanks has become a stunning success, with over 60 million players registered worldwide. Wargaming has grown, too, and now has 1,600 employees, with 15 offices around the world (recently opening a Tokyo office). The company's World of Warplanes has just entered open beta, and World of Warships is on the way as well. The Xbox 360, and potentially other consoles, represents new territory for Wargaming to conquer. The [a]list daily caught up with Victor Kislyi to ask him about this surprising announcement.
Why bring World of Tanks to the Xbox 360? It's basically the same answer bank robber Willie Sutton gave in the 1930's, when asked by a reporter why he robbed banks. “Because that's where the money is,” he replied, albeit apocryphally. Kislyi provides the modern game industry version: “In North America and the UK, that's the way people play games,” Kislyi said. “Microsoft and Sony combined have an installed user base of more than 100 million, and those are gamers. They're not checking email on Xbox or PlayStation. It's a culture. You have to come to them.”
So Kislyi is coming to them, adapting World of Tanks to play on the Xbox 360. The result is an impressive AAA game that plays well on the Xbox 360 and has all the appeal of the PC versions. “The core game has all the depth and complexity that the PC version has,” noted executive producer and creative director TJ Wagner. “It's running on the same server versions. The changes we made were all about playing it from ten feet away - simplifying the UI, navigating it from the controllers, combining the tank upgrades into packages.”
The biggest hurdle that Wargaming had to overcome was not a technical one at all. Wargaming had to convince Microsoft to change its business policies and procedures. “This is a risky thing for us and for Microsoft,” said Kislyi. “If you look at this objectively this is probably the first big project to come into Xbox free-to-play. Because Microsoft is a huge corporation... they have rules, they still sell boxes, there are dozens of aspects we are working with them to overcome. They have to change; they understand this.”
Microsoft traditionally can take weeks or months to approve changes or patches to be rolled out through Xbox Live, yet Wargaming is used to releasing patches and new data for World of Tanks every week. How can those two very different processes be reconciled? “That is one of the risk factors,” Kislyi acknowledged. “We've been working with Microsoft already for lots of time. It's about the teamwork. Their rules and policies are changing, and they now understand if they don't change they will probably lag behind. It's not easy, it's not fast.”
Free-to win is the concept that Kislyi is using, rather than free-to-play. “We allow you to earn those things you could previously only buy for gold. It will take you a little longer,” Kislyi said. “Our point with the unified premium account is that the fewer restrictions for people to enjoy your product, the better. That's the whole beauty and magic of free-to-play, or what we now call free-to-win. It sounds funny that Wargaming comes up with a new word. But it takes courage and guts to do that. Big companies would be 'free-to-play, how do we allow anything for free?' Golden bullets, you used to have to pay money to get, now you can grind for it. It's risky. But it's working. There is no way back. If you announce golden bullets for in-game money, you can not go back. Well, you can, but it would be very painful.”
Characteristically, Wargaming's marketing plan for World of Tanks on the Xbox 360 is simple and straightforward. “With Microsoft we have a marketing plan,” Kislyi said. “We do interviews, we do press, the press is very excited about this. Dozens if not hundreds of different interviews and hands-ons. We're going to repeat our successful tactics on the PC with eSports, championships, prize money, special events like Liberty Day or Victory Day. There's going to be a lot of excitement around this game.”
Wargaming may eventually bring World of Tanks to the Xbox One, but Kislyi isn't concentrating on that. “Well, first they have to come out,” he laughed. “We're very open with Microsoft about this. We see no reason why not, but they have to get the user base. For free-to-play you need critical mass.” Once the Xbox One has a user base in the millions, then Kislyi will be more interested in the possibilities for World of Tanks. By that time, too, Wargaming should have plenty of information about how well World of Tanks does on the Xbox 360.
If Kislyi has any expectations as to how World of Tanks is going to do on the Xbox, he's keeping them to himself. “As I mentioned, this is risky both for us and for Microsoft,” Kislyi said. “The best way to find out is to launch, to work hard, to throw our best people on it, to convince Microsoft to throw their best people on it, and see how it goes. The user base is 48 million for Xbox Live; it's a good number. All connected, playing actively. So let's see how they love Tanks, how they feel about our free-to-win model.”
The free-to-play model may be a necessary game type for next-gen consoles to really be competitive with all of the options on PCs and mobile. That doesn't mean every game should be or will be free-to-play, but the availability of high-quality free-to-play options will provide consoles with another reason for people to play on them. Whether free-to-play starts to drive out other business models (as it has done with MMORPGs on PCs) or it settles down to become another type of payment option alongside of premium paid games is not clear.
However it turns out in the end, World of Tanks is already changing the way Microsoft does business. It's not just the camel's nose in the tent. The camel has moved in, grabbed a beer from the fridge, settled on the couch and started to play on your Xbox 360. “At the end of the day we're talking about the service,” Kislyi said. “It's a game, but around it there are hundreds of people making you happier every day, every month, every year.” It will be fascinating to see what sort of reception awaits World of Tanks on the Xbox 360, and how much of the procedural changes it brings affect Microsoft's policies for all games.