Design Tactics: Building Worlds of Warfare

Wargaming is on the front lines of MMO development with the hit game World of Tanks. Chris Keeling gives us some insight into their strategy.

Since its launch in 2011, World of Tanks has secured over 85 million players worldwide. With its blend of military strategy, vehicle customization, and fast action PvP, it appeals to hardcore military enthusiasts and casual players alike. 

Building a game like World of Tanks has many of the same obstacles as a typical MMO, but also includes some unique development hurdles. Get In Media spoke to Chris Keeling take a closer look at how Wargaming has risen to meet those challenges.

Get In Media: Can you tell us briefly about your position within
Chris Keeling: As director of product vision, my job is to make sure our internal and external studios have all of the design and production support they need; mostly in the Western Hemisphere, but working jointly with our eastern studios on several facets of development. This includes research assistance, UX testing, level and map design support, transmedia development, studio and pitch evaluation, game economy balancing, and process management. My team reports directly to our headquarters in Cyprus and handles external game projects directly to reduce the impact on development in our internal studios. We’re spinning up some truly amazing new products that will be announced over the next year or two on multiple platforms, and I am happy to be able to play a role in the design and production of these games.

GIM: How important was historical accuracy in the design process of the tanks and battlefields of World of Tanks?
CK: While there is an impressive amount of historical accuracy in World of Tanks, we still want to ensure that our players are having the most enjoyable experience possible. Accuracy implies more of a simulation, and World of Tanks is too much fun to be a simulation. We wanted to provide the feel of being there, the awesome power of the tanks, the constant knife-edge struggle for supremacy in battles centered around deserted villages, hills, and even rock formations. By modeling the tanks and their damage models with as much historical accuracy as we could find, we’ve not only shown that we know what the real tanks are all about and how they work, but we’ve provided that essential link to the realities of historical warfare that let players bond with their machines. Many of the maps are based on historical battlefields as well, but of course we have had to make some small changes to keep the game fun.

GIM: What are some of the notable sacrifices made to that realism for the sake of better gameplay?
CK: Well, first of all, you’re fighting in mixed company—where else would you find pre-WWII German tanks and postwar French tanks fighting alongside wartime Soviet tanks? There were no real battles like this, but the variety of tanks lends itself better to game balance and matchmaking. The battlefields have been reduced in size to make matches more active and stay within the 15-minute time limit, and we’ve also had to make some changes to the tanks, especially when estimating some of the factors on tanks that only made it to prototype drawings and never saw combat. Plus, having to get your crew out of the tank to spend an hour changing a track when it breaks wouldn’t have been any fun, so repairs are much faster. To compensate for this we have recently added historical battles, which limit players to the actual models of the specific tanks that participated in each battle, organized by nationality. This is a very interesting gameplay mode, and currently my favorite.

GIM: The lore of World of Tanks seems more like an equipment manual. Did the team need to consult with military experts to get accurate representations of the vehicles?
CK: We have a lot of military advisors. I have a team of several researchers here in Austin currently spending much of their time finding accurate blueprints of World War II ships for our World of Warships team, and we have over a dozen in Eastern Europe who specialize in tanks and planes, plus each studio has its own historical specialists to help guide research and validate accuracy. We comb archives and museums to make sure we get the models correct, and we even measure armor thicknesses and record engine, gunfire, and track audio to get the sounds right. On top of that, we have our own military experts in some of our offices—not to mention a community of millions of interested players—who will quickly tell us when we get something wrong.

GIM: What are some unique challenges to a game that relies so heavily on historical content?
CK: We have to be very careful about balancing the authenticity of the game with the gameplay, like I said earlier. While most players just don’t go to the nuts and bolts level of detail that we do, there are many who are real experts in the field who are playing our games. These are the ones who will inform us if a bolt or a headlight is out of place. Getting those features accurate while balancing them with the arcade-style gameplay is the challenge, and from the amount of players we have, I think we’ve found the right balance.

GIM: What do you think the realism of the game adds to its playability?
CK: When you’re in the game, you’re focused on that next hill, the nearest building, or a good place to hide in case you get hurt. The feel of the threat when a heavy tank lumbers over the hill or you suddenly spot a tank destroyer that has you in their sights elevates your adrenaline. The raw power of your tank can be relied on to keep you safe, but there’s always a tank out there with a bigger gun, or thicker armor, or who is spotting for the enemy artillery. The depth of this mixture of rock-paper-scissors mechanics with moment-to-moment critical decisions in one-on-one combat makes the game feel real right up until your tank erupts in flames, giving an immediate and very tactile association with the actual risks and dangers of historical tanks in combat that comes through every match.

GIM: World of Tanks has spawned two more games, World of Warplanes and World of Warships. What lessons were learned during the development of World of Tanks that benefited these new games?
CK: We’re still learning—these games push the fast-paced combat action vehicle game genre in opposite directions, exploring new ways to think and play, and focusing on different kinds of players. For example, World of Warplanes plays a lot faster than World of Tanks. You can’t stop for a breather behind a rock to chat with your teammates; if you stop at all, gravity takes over and your plan starts to fall! There’s little cover—clouds up high and mountains and buildings down low, but not much in between. You’re constantly looking for trouble, and this lends itself to fast-action players who prefer shooter-type games. World of Warships, on the other hand, is much slower in pace, requires a lot more player cooperation and strategy, and thus we expect it will be more popular among strategy gamers and probably an older audience than we’re addressing with World of Warplanes. Of course, we’ve done a lot of growing since World of Tanks came out, so things like improvements in balance, economy, art, accounts, servers, and engine are all ongoing, and driver conflicts have long since been sorted out.

GIM: World of Tanks has a record-breaking population. Do you think part of that is because the game appeals to more than one genre of player?
CK: Over 85 million accounts and growing, and we’ve managed to have over 1.1 million players in Russia on our World of Tanks servers at the same moment. That’s pretty phenomenal. While much of our appeal is cultural, there are lots of ways to find the fun in playing. Whether you collect tanks or achievements, tinker with your tank configurations, customize your favorites with camo and decals, zip around the field scouting in light tanks, plod into battle in thick-skinned heavies, or support by fire from a self-propelled artillery piece, there’s a place. Our games fall under the free-to-play business model, so anyone can try whatever they want. Even if you’re not the best player out there, battling is fun, and those occasional winning streaks are all the more rewarding.

GIM: World of Tanks seems to strike a good balance between RPG, MMO, and military strategy. What are some things the design team does to ensure it continues to appeal to such a wide audience?
CK: We’re constantly rebalancing to make sure everything is fair and adding new content, like more tanks, maps, and game modes. We also look closely at critical feedback, both from within the community and through playtests and UX studies, to see what we can make better. Outside of the game itself, our publishing teams come up with contests, missions, and sales to engage different players and provide more ways to interact with the core gameplay. Plus, we’ve added two platforms, with dedicated versions of World of Tanks for the Xbox 360 and tablets. We can always do more, and we will continue to do as much as we can to keep expanding and improving all of our games.


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