GDC 2011: World of Tanks' clan wars showcase player and developer passion

MMO devs rarely play their own games, right? That's the conventional player wisdom, anyway, and it's commonly found on forums, guild chats, and vent channels after a particularly painful nerf. Apparently the devs at Wargaming.net didn't get that memo, though, as our GDC sit-down with Victor Kislyi illustrated.

Kislyi is the driving force behind World of Tanks, the World War II-based action MMO currently shattering industry concurrent user records as its Russian beta steamrolls the free-to-play competition.

Not only does Kislyi play his own game, but he plays (and discusses) it with such passion that you can't help but root for the scrappy title and the team from Belarus that is bringing it to life. Join us after the cut to see what Kislyi had to say about the upcoming clan wars implementation as well as player politics.

Not only do the devs from Wargaming.net play World of Tanks, but apparently they play it with such skill that some beta testers questioned whether everything was on the up and up. Kislyi relates an anecdote in which the devs, using an assortment of undergeared rank 9 tanks (10 is the game's current max), managed to capture and hold their hometown of Minsk against a superior player force. Due to accusations of impropreity, Kislyi and his fellow devs regretfully opted to surrender Minsk and forego further forays into the game's white-knuckle clan wars in order to prevent additional hard feelings.

If it all sounds a bit intense, it is, and there's a certain competitive fire (tinged with a bit of good ol' fashioned nationalism) that permeates the World of Tanks Russian beta. Passion oozes from the pores of the game's devs and many of its players, and much of the emotion manifests itself in the recently released clan wars mechanic.

"Clan wars is the gem, the beauty, of the game," Kislyi says, and it's part strategy game (with both micro- and macro-management aspects) and part action-MMO. Kislyi makes comparisons with the Total War series as well as Sid Meier's genre-defining Civilization titles when referencing World of Tanks' clan wars map and illustrating how massive player alliances can fight for control over various portions of the game's Russian and European fronts. And when Kislyi says massive, he actually means massive, as the current beta routinely features upwards of 30,000 players simultaneously duking it out. Apart from EVE Online, Kislyi notes, the "massive" label is a misnomer when applied to other MMOs.

Since the Russian beta debuted, World of Tanks' concurrent user numbers have increased every day, with 125,000 peak users just yesterday. In Russia, the game is "bigger than World of Warcraft, Perfect World, Lineage II, and any other game, browser or client-based, money-wise, people-wise, CCU (concurrent user)-wise, or anything-wise," Kislyi says.

Those 125,000 people are broken down into 100-member clans, all of them scrapping for control of the European map. The clan wars rules are intentionally straightforward and somewhat simplistic, as Wargaming.net is aiming to give players the tools and the territory and then get out of their way.

Much like the corp politics of EVE, the clan intrigue is intended to serve as a sort of meta-game, with backstabbing, alliances, and the rise and fall of empires occuring outside the game as well as on the extensive battle maps. "Most of this [meta]-game is already happening behind the scenes; [players] don't use the software to actually communicate but rather Skype, email, etc., and the stakes are high," Kislyi says. The clan wars map is also browser-based, the better to be viewed at any time (and anywhere) by a dedicated playerbase that desires to keep tabs on the game even when not logged in.

The popularity of clan wars and the initial inability of the European map to meet the overwhelming player demand caught Wargaming.net a bit off guard, Kislyi says. As a result, the dev team is looking to implement additional fronts including Siberian Russia, North Africa, and eventually, America, the Middle East, and other locations around the globe. Thirty-thousand clan members are all trying to fight simultaneously, Kislyi enthuses, but many of them are having to wait since the map territories simply aren't big enough yet.

The game is rapidly expanding beyond Wargaming.net's original plans, and the devs couldn't be happier about that fact. "We no longer control this game, this meta-game. We gave them a few simple rules, and from that time on, they're doing the history. Thirty-thousand players are fighting almost every day," Kislyi says.

Map wipes

We asked about the possibility of map wipes and whether there were any safeguards in place in the event of a single all-powerful clan dominating the region. Wargaming.net does reserve the right to start fresh, and Kislyi was quick to point out that World of Tanks is still a beta build, but he also sounds confident that player politics will rule the day and ultimately prevent large-scale domination by a single group. History, as well as other games, has taught us as much, he said, before he intimated that the devs will also ensure that the clan wars map is never truly stabilized in terms of player control.

Territorial release plan

We were also curious about Wargaming.net's plans for the official release, and more specifically, whether everyone from various regions around the world will be playing together. Kislyi said that the first version of clan wars will likely be exclusive to the European version of the game and will carry a beta tag similar to the current Russian version.

We also asked about community interaction, specifically how (or whether) Wargaming.net is planning on fostering a tight-knit American community to match that of the Russian beta (where developer and clan leader interaction is commonplace). Kislyi says that the American and European game infrastructure is a bit behind at the moment simply due to time constraints.

"It's not a game; it's a service," Kislyi explains. "We would be stupid if we did not [foster community] in America and Europe. It's lagging behind time-wise simply because Belarus is our homeland."

Speaking of homelands, and given the emphasis on clans, backstabbing, and national pride, we were curious as to whether any of the in-game politics (and the hard feelings that already exist between several beta clans) stemmed from real-life political and social conflicts. Kislyi pointed out the fact that World of Tanks takes great care to populate its teams with members from all nationalities (meaning you won't be fighting random battles against entirely German or Russian groups). Wargaming.net's mod team also "ruthlessly and strictly crushes references to historical and current politics" in the game and on the forums (i.e., any mention of neo-Nazis will likely earn you a swift exit).

At the end of the day, the focus is on the game, the action, and the strategy for most players, and that's just the way Kislyi likes it. "It's a 15-year old dream," he says. "And finally it's here, it's on, and it's perfect."
This article was originally published on Massively.