When Victor Kislyi was a young boy in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus, his father took him to see a theatrical revival of the Kirk Douglas epic Spartacus. “I was fascinated by the dangerously beautiful battles,” he says. “The legions of Roman soldiers attacked in formations, and the rebellious slave army rolled giant flaming logs at them. I thought to myself, ‘If I was Spartacus, I would do it differently! I would move here, I would attack there.’ I became fascinated with history. And not, like, ‘economical Marxist historical production forces’ or whatever – military history.”
Around the same time, Kislyi’s father enrolled him in chess school. He soon became the top-ranked player in his nation’s capitol city of Minsk. His love of chess led him to complex military strategy games. He became so obsessed with them that he drew a map of a battlefield on the linoleum in his family’s government-provided apartment, and used bits of paper and watermelon seeds to represent troops and cavalry. (His parents were furious, because he used permanent ink.) Soon, he was attempting to make his own games on the best computer he could get his hands on – a reverse-engineered knock-off of the popular ZX Spectrum.
Two decades later, Kislyi’s twin obsessions with military history and strategy games have made him a billionaire. His company Wargaming.net has a highly lucrative line of accessible, historically accurate MMO combat games. It isn’t just the largest game publisher to emerge from the former Eastern Bloc – it’s one of the most popular and profitable publishers in the world.
Wargaming.net’s line of “freemium” PC titles – World of Tanks, World of Warplanes and World of Warships – have 150 million registered players who purchase over four million in-game items every day. The most expensive are authentic recreations of vintage military hardware: A rocket-powered Japanese J8M interceptor aircraft for $54.99, a 1930s Leningrad-class Soviet destroyer for $25.99 or a WWII-era British Black Prince tank that never made it past the prototype phase for $10.49.
Wargaming.net is most popular near its country of origin, in Russia and the former Soviet nations. In that region, such is the ubiquity of its games that the company runs joint promotion campaigns with Burger King in roughly the same way that a fast food chain might crossbrand with a new Pixar movie in America. Wargaming recently inked a deal with a cosmetics manufacturer to release an Axe-like line of men’s grooming products in Russia that will feature World of Tanks branding. Kislyi says that many Russians will slap a Wargaming bumpersticker on their car to convey the same sort of message that an American might try to convey with a Harley Davidson bumper sticker – it’s a way to broadcast what it is you like to do when you aren’t stuck in traffic.
“If you’re 18 or 20 years old and used to playing ‘Call of Duty,’ your dad will kick your ass the first time you play him.”
And now, after conquering the former Eastern bloc nations, Wargaming.net is consolidating its grip on the West. Console ports of its biggest games are already popular in America, as is its mobile phone game World of Tanks Blitz. It’s still relatively niche here, but growing steadily, and making inroads with players that other publishers have ignored. “Our audience is generally older,” says Jay Cohen, the general manager of Wargaming America. “Fathers introduce the game to their sons. And if you’re 18 or 20 years old and used to playing Call of Duty, your dad will kick your ass the first time you play him.”
The secret to the game’s success is that developers knew when to be rigorously authentic, and when to streamline the combat experience. “Real battles could take days, and tanks can fire at things that are two miles away,” says Kislyi. “We had to contract the time frame and compress the distances, and simplify the controls to work on a mouse and keyboard.”
The gameplay in all of Wargaming.net’s titles is still heavily strategic; Kislyi dubs it “chess on steroids.” But matches are designed to play out in 10 to 15 minutes, and players are firing at each other over much shorter distances. Each player guides a single vehicle into combat, and there are no supply chains or innocent civilians to worry about.
But there’s no skimping on the authenticity of the tanks, planes and warships themselves. The items that the company hopes to sell players in the game are meticulous recreations of the real thing. Wargaming has 4,000 employees, and two dozen of them are historians. They circle the globe, scouring national archives and blueprints in private collections to make sure that the models in the game are as accurate as possible.
Nicholas Moran, director of militaria relations at Wargaming America, is one of those historians. In addition to visiting archives and forging partnerships with military museums, he and his fellow historians will clamber around on surviving examples of the vehicles to check the measurements. “I slap an ultrasonic thickness gauge on a tank, and realize that the history books were wrong – the armor is 10 centimeters thick, not 12,” he says. “Then the team will go in and change that in the game.”
These details truly matter to many players. Moran says that Wargaming.net’s audience are far more likely to be fans of military history who have stumbled upon a fun game than they are to be gamers who have stumbled upon an interest in military history. In another era, many of them might have built scale models of warships and bombers in their spare time. Now, they can buy virtual versions of the vehicles for ten or twenty bucks, and steer them into combat in a virtual world.
Unsurprisingly, many of these military history buffs are themselves current or former military. “We have a much higher percentage of veterans in our player population than you’d find on the street,” says Moran. “Something like six percent of the general population have served in the military, including the coast guard. But in our game, it’s more like 40 percent.”
Moran will soon be traveling to the Swedish Tank Museum just outside Stockholm. Wargaming.net’s historians will gather data for a new line of tanks that will be available to players later this year. But while they’re in Sweden, they will also create a lot of video content that will appear online alongside the launch of the new tanks.
Moran has a YouTube series called “The Chieftain’s Hatch,” in which he literally walks players through the nitty-gritty details of real pieces of military hardware. “I get inside a tank, and tell you this is what that button does,” he says. “Not many people really care that this is how you disengage the hydraulic elevation and set it to manual elevation in an M4 Sherman tank. But if you do want to know, you come to our brand and we will tell you.”
In addition to standard community manager-style content most games offer, with tutorials and strategy tips, Wargaming.net spends a lot on creating the sort of content that the History Channel used to make before it ditched WWII documentaries for reality shows about pawnshops and aliens. There’s Naval Legends, a series that shines the light on classic warships, from the USS Texas to the Yamato. Another series called Head Over Keels recounts epic battles and daring rescues using computer animation and graphic novel-style imagery.
The company is even experimenting with non-documentary content. On the International Day of Peace, Wargaming.net released a short dramatic film with elaborate sets and special effects. It intercuts scenes of a WWII Japanese bomber pilot attacking a warship scenes of an American soldier aboard that warship, and scenes of both of their families waiting anxiously at home. It all plays out over readings from a work by Soviet war poet Konstantin Simonov. One YouTube commenter wrote, “I’m 43 years old, 6-foot-3-inches, 290 pounds, ex-Navy, and that damned thing made me cry.”
Wargaming.net is also pouring resources into rescuing pieces of military history. They sponsored the recovery of the last remaining Dornier Do 17 light bomber, and the restoration of the last Maus superheavy tanker. The company even sent a team to Burma to research a claim that several rare Spitfire warbirds were buried there.
Moran says that outreach to fans involves sponsoring a lot of events at military museums, though they’re encountering some resistance. “The chief of research at the Panzer museum in Munster Germany referred to us as ‘the enemy,'” says Moran. The German researcher felt that their game doesn’t show players the true cost of war, but eventually conceded that partnering with Wargaming.net was the best way to convey the full picture to a new audience.
Given the military bent of the player base, some can get wrapped up in patriotic fervor, arguing in forums about the superiority of their nation’s vehicles. Moran insists that many players gravitate to acquiring the best and coolest vehicles regardless of their country of origin, but he notes that different nations play on separate servers, which effectively prevents national rivalries from playing out in the game.
The only place that players from different nations face off is at the annual Wargaming.net League grand finals. (The company is making a big push into eSports.) At last year’s competition in Warsaw, Poland, World of Tanks players from around the world faced off for a $300,000 prize purse. The finale was a nail-biter, with team Natus Vincere (“Born to Win” in Latin) coming from behind after a member of the rival clan known as the HellRaisers, Yuri “applewow” Ilyin, became lodged in a crevasse on a mountainside. Every player in the finals were from former Soviet nations where the game is most popular: Ukraine, Latvia, Russia and Belarus. Western Europe and the Americas still have some work to do.
Managing nationalist rivalries among players is tricky enough. But with 16 offices all around the world, there are cultural differences among the staff to adjust to as well. “Here in California, we’re all smiles in meetings; our manner is very emotional and instinctual,” says Cohen. “Our counterparts are very analytical, and they love to debate – vigorously. They go right to the point, and since English is a second language, things can come off as really blunt. But then when the meeting is done, the contentiousness immediately evaporates, they’re like ‘Let’s grab a coffee and a smoke.'”
Real-world events can also intrude. Cohen insists that there’s been no problems between Wargaming America and other offices, even with things heating up between the US and Russia again. “But Perestroika was not that long ago for the people in Belarus and Russia; they remember that really well,” he says. “Oh, and you wanna talk about a potentially awkward situation? Last year, while all that stuff was going down in Crimea, we had a studio in Kiev, Ukraine and another studio in Moscow.”
Running a multinational game company while real live tanks were rolling in was tough. “This was a – what do you call this kind of test? – this was the moment of truth for us,” says Kislyi. “There was tension, but we maintained internal peace. We are called Wargaming, but we are the most peaceful people. We race around killing each other, but that’s only on the virtual battlefield.”