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"War games are not about killing, they are about strategy, like chess"

—— Victor Kislyi

Victor Kislyi

Wargaming CEO and the creator of World of Tanks
Victor Kislyi

The Empire of War Games

Victor Kislyi is a co-founder and the CEO of Wargaming.net. He has dedicated to video making industry more than 15 years as he founded Wargaming in 1998 after graduating from the Belarussian State University. Under his helm Wargaming went from a small independent studio to a multinational award-winning company. Victor has been voted the Person of the Year 2012 by GamesIndustry International. In April 2014 he received European Games Personality Award.

Hobby: Chess
Favourite games: Red Alerts, Commands & Conquer series, Warcraft, Panzer General, Master of Orion, and Total War series

There were hundreds of movies about revolution and wars

Victor, in his 6, with his young brother

"In Soviet Union, when I was young, military was very popular topic," Victor said. The 1917 Revolution and World War II were the most common topics in the movies at that time. "Other than the Russian 1917 revolution and World War II, the most favorite film for everybody was The Three Musketeers," he added. Victor remembered it was at his 6.

At that age, he also played toy soldiers, like almost every boy around the world. Later on, his toy soldier games got rules, dice, and sandbox.

Then at 7, Victor started playing chess and he played it "professionally". In the next 7 years, he didn't stop playing the game that he thought was probably the most classic and the most difficult strategy game on the planet. "In order to win, you have to think a lot. You have to think one move ahead, two moves ahead, and three moves ahead. You have to think about your strategy and tactics. You have to think very hard."

"You play against a real person across the table. It is not just calculations but also psychology," he said.

"My favorite class was geography. In geography, you can learn things about the world"

In Soviet Union, the reality was people were thinking about building the bright future, according to Victor. The subjects in the school included Russian, English, history, geography, mathematics, physics (not in the first grade), and chemistry, etc. There were also physics training like sports, running, throwing grenades, shooting, etc.

"My favorite class was geography. In geography, you can learn things about the world, about the nature, animals, education, and economy of Africa, America, China, Austria and Australia. This was very interesting and I was always dreaming about traveling around the world."

Students that went to the university didn't have to serve the army in Soviet Union. Victor didn't serve the army but he did have a military training day every week. There would be no other classes on that day. In addition to running and shooting program, there was artillery training. So "You have to do a lot of calculations. Artillery was complicated and it's not just pressing one bottom."

"Technically speaking I was a lieutenant (or something like that) in rocket artillery, a reserved officer," he added.

Victor's first game: I was King

Victor's father is a scientist who had a laboratory with a computer for scientific calculations. The first games Victor played was a text game called I Was King where he was ruling the kingdom. "So I would be putting [commands] in by typing, like give my people food like 100, and your people are happy; start war with a neighbor, and your people are unhappy."

"How can these pieces of plastics and metals be so smart?" That's the first impression Victor had on his first few computer games. "You know, the computers played against you. You struck them and they struck back. I was amazed," he recalled the situation at that time. "I realized it's going to be the future."

His parents bought him a book about BASIC

Victor making games with his friend

"During the time from 1989 to 1990, the computers had color screens. You could see the soldiers in screen, and it was getting better and better all the time. So my parents bought me a book about BASIC," he told us. "When I read the book, the first thing I did was I purchased a note book and I was writing program for a kingdom game by myself, with my pen." It was very simple game but you can say it's the first ever game Victor developed. The first big game he played was Civilization. "You can play the whole world, and it won my heart," he mentioned, "from the moment I saw Civilization, I was not thinking anything else." It was around his last year in high school and the first year in the university.

There was a British home computer called ZX Spectrum at that time and Belarus people were making their own ZX Spectrum based on the original version, according to Victor. "But some boys like me, we are lucky because our parents had big computer to work on science like engineering and physics."

Due to the large piracy market in the country, Victor was able to play any game

When Victor graduated from the university, Soviet Union no longer existed. Because of piracy, we could play any game. All [pirate] games are available [for free or for a very cheap price]: Civilization, Starcraft, Warcraft, etc. Every game we had was free. That's how I felt more and more in love with the computer games." He's a hardcore strategy game player and Red Alerts, Commands & Conquer series, Warcraft, Panzer General, Master of Orion, and Total War series are on the list of his favorite games.

Like most kids, Victor's parents were against video game. "They were saying 'what's this?', just go to do some study, do some works and don't play video games".

Victor and his Wargaming team

If you are curious, Victor's major in the university was physics, specifically lasers. But Victor's favorite was video game, especially strategy games. So he started to make board games with his friends that played with pen and papers. He was making pen and paper games for fun at the beginning while he was doing part time jobs like washing dishes and making pokers.

At the third year in the university, Victor began to make PC games. "There was no company at that time, but it was like three or four people, friends, and my brothers. We made computer games for fun." The first PC game they developed was a game based on another tabletop game but they didn't monetize it and it's not in the market. In Victor's opinion, the game had no market at that time. Most people who played this game were his friends, and it was a very simple but smart game though.

Eventually, Victor started his own company

Chinese bulls in DBA Online

"In the game industry, at the beginning, it's not about the company, it's about the game." "After the first game (the tabletop inspired game mentioned above), we realized that it was fun but nobody bought it. Let’s make another game. That’s how we started the company." Victor believes that there should be the games first and then the company comes naturally.

One of the earliest games that Victor's company developed was DBA Online, a historical chess like game. The development was started in 1998 and it had about 5 Chinese armies. The team acquired the information of these Chinese armies from books.

"I had a friend in 1998 who was a big fan of all Chinese history. He had a lot of very rare books about this. Rare means those books had only 100 copies. Those books were not for everyone, only for study. We had a friend who did this, who studied Chinese armies. We had Korean, Japanese, Greek, Roman, everything." The spirit of creating historical and realism games rooted in Wargaming in the very early years. "So there was all kind of research, it was very authentic, very true. For example, in Ming dynasty, Chinese troops had bulls. They released animals to smash the enemy’s lines." DBA Online is about history, 100% history, according to Victor.

DBA Online was a subscription based online game that charged $10 per month

Imagine an online chess game in last century that charged $10 monthly fee. We were surprised and the fact was the game was doing not bad. "Every month we had like and an average of three thousand dollars [income]," Victor told us. "We didn’t know [about the market]. 10 is a good number. You have to start somewhere. It was before World of Warcraft."

Wargaming didn't really do a scientific and comprehensive market research when they developed DBA Online. "In those days, you know, in 2000, everyone was doing innovation," Victor said, "There was no one market that we could be sure about. Everyone, not only us, every other companies would make a new game, putting t into the market to see if it is good or not."

The birth of World of Tanks

In 2008, Wargaming was thinking about creating a game. "We didn't know what exactly the game was, but we knew it had to be an online game." The reason why they were so sure about online game was they witnessed the power of piracy — Victor knew it since he was still in the university.

At that time, there was World of Warcraft, Lineage, Everquest, Chinese games, and Korean games. "98% were fantasy. So let’s make something different," he said, "we did not have Batman in our childhood. No superman. No fantasy. We had revolution, World War 2. You know, we were in a more historical world." "Our expertise was military-based games. After DBA Online, we had Massive Assault, Order of War, and Galactic Assault. We made strategy games one after another. Many of those games had tanks. What can we do well? Tanks. Let's make an MMO about tanks."

We doubted World of Tanks was really an MMO. Victor said "I don't agree that this is not a world. Today we have 80 million players. This is a big world. But the thing is, yes, there are battles, please don't forget clan wars. You play for purposes like clan wars, for example." "Today we have about 400 different tanks in the game. It’s the whole world of tanks. In a fantasy MMO, how many classes you have in a game? Maybe 10 at most."

You might ask if Wargaming was going to make a tank game, why they didn't try Sci-fi? They did. There were several games after DBA Online were Sci-fi. Before they started creating World of Tanks, they did market research. "There are people who love tanks all around the world. So we decided to focus on those people in the beginning."

"And now everyone is playing tanks. So we focus on gameplay: new maps, new gameplay modes like historical battles, capture-the- flag, clan wars, east wars. There're a lot of things you can do in a computer game."

Among the 3,000 Wargaming employees, 50% is programmers and artists while the other half is customer support

Speaking of creating new games, Victor said "you may have 100 new ideas. The reality is a game, say World of Tanks or World of Warplanes, it's difficult to make. It takes perhaps 20 or 30 million dollars and three or maybe four years to develop, and it needs 100 people or 200 people." "Today, Wargaming is company with more than 3000 people. We have good business, we earn money, but we invest money back into our business. We have 16 offices around the world. Out of the 3,000 people, approximate 50% is programmers and artists, but 1,500 are customer support, and marketing has maybe 50 people."

Studying tanks, managing people, entering the market

Being a historical game, you have to be very serious on the tanks. Wargaming studied everything about tanks, from the thickness of the armor to the weight of a tank. "We study everything 100%. [Take Chinese tanks as an example], we studied with Kongzhong Co. and with Chinese tank museum."

The toughest thing he had to deal with in the developing process of World of Tanks was managing people. "Big games are made by people, and you have to bring together very talented and very different people: historians, artists, programmers, engineers, financial people, working everyday as one team and one family for many many years," Victor noted. "Believe it or not, it was like people sitting around the table, shouting in each other, tossing paper balls at each other. It's about talking and discussing and it's a very creative process," he added.

Before World of Tanks, there was no such type of MMO in the market, which made it hard for World of Tanks to enter market in the beginning. "Everyone in the industry said a tank RPG or a MMO about tanks was impossible because players wouldn't associate themselves with a machine," Victor explained, "but today we can see people love tanks and we have not only in Russia but also around the world the tank culture."

They got motivated by the success of World of Warcraft but never thought of making a WoW-like game

By 2008, WoW had over 11 million subscribers and Wargaming saw it. Victor said "WoW showed us that 10 million people can play one game around the world. This is good." He knew that only with high quality that a game can achieve such success. "We understood that if we wanted to make a successful online game, we had to make it good in every aspect."

Wargaming partners with Japanese anime Girls und Panzer

WoW inspired many MMORPGs in the following years but for Victor, he never thought of making a game like WoW. It would neither be a fantasy game nor an open world game. "We wanted to create a different game for people like us, people who have job and don't have much time to play. So that's why we have fast battles. 5 minutes in, du du du du, over, out. We wanted to make short section, and we wanted 100% action — no running, no crafting, just battle."

Victor himself doesn't play World of Warcraft but he loves to watch his employees playing the game. "Almost all employees in Wargaming played WoW and now many of them play LoL," he said, "I will stand behind them and watch and ask what it is and show me this and show me that. I want our employees to play more game and get inspiration and get idea. Play every game and I think it's good."

Wargaming didn't expect such a huge success when they released World of Tanks in the market. Victor admitted that "we were thinking that we would appeal to very small group of historical people." Now with 80 million players worldwide, Victor thinks that it's the expanding tank culture that makes the game popular in the globe.

War games are never about killing the enemies

For many who are not very familiar with war games and World of Tanks, they would put forward a question: are war games all about killing the enemy? Victor referred to chess again and said "remember we are Wargaming and we make strategy games. It's like chess, if you think about chess, it's also a war game because in chess you also kill, but chess is not promoting killing."

Strategy games are teaching you things. Victor referred to Civilization again. "I studied physics [in the university] not business or MBA. But my MBA was Civilization. I played civilization for almost 20 years and this was my business study. This game was teaching me how to manage complex empire: science, money, exploration, religion, and war. This is very similar to how you run your company."

In our eyes, Victor is the lord of war but he would like people view him as an artist and a gamer. He would call himself a happy person. He said he's happy to be in an industry with great creativity, he's happy that Wargaming is expanding gaming together with other game companies, and he's happy to have a good family.