When Wargaming announced in 2013 that they'd be bringing World of Tanks to the Xbox, it was taken by many as being a herald of a new dawn for free to play on console in the West - a market which had so far stubbornly resisted its overwhelming market forces. Already a huge success on PC, with a well engaged audience, both time and cash rich, World of Tanks had the combination of marketing nous and core credibility to change the minds of a console generation.
Two and a half years later and there have been many notable additions to the free-to-play stable, on both Xbox and PlayStation, but World of Tanks remains one of the most popular and well received by critics, with the recent Xbox One edition reckoned by many to be the best available. Now, founder Victor Kislyi has announced onstage at TGS that the shooter will be coming to PS4 too, expanding the company's ambitions to yet another audience.
We spoke to Marketing and Communications Director for Europe Keith Anderson, whose career involves stints at EA, Lionhead and Wizards of the Coast, for an update on the company's plans as it prepares to launch World of Warships and bring its guns to bear on Sony's platform.
Being given the keys to Wargaming's European Empire is no small deal - does it represent the biggest market for the company as a whole?
"Well, it depends what you're looking at. We're the number two region globally, for World of Tanks. We're the number two region globally for consoles. Obviously, if you look at numbers for World of Tanks, the further east you go, into the CIS region in particular, which is the homeland of World of Tanks, you see the numbers significantly increase there. Obviously America's got a very, very strong console market. But we think Europe performs very well in both those areas, and what we're really excited about is the growth we're seeing right now for World of Warships in Europe. We definitely feel we're leading the way through open beta, and we expect very big things for launch. We've obviously got some very keen naval enthusiasts in Europe, and they're certainly showing it in World of Warships.
"We want to make sure that if you're a war gaming enthusiast, if you love the kind of games we make, you'll definitely love World of Warships. We want to give lapsed players, players who have stopped playing Tanks for a while now, the opportunity to come back and start something new. It'll feel familiar to them, and at the same time it provides a completely different strategic take on- with nova warfare, with controlling these huge, colossal, mega warships. It's a very different experience to Tanks but it's a phenomenally good war gaming experience.
"Then what we're also looking at is opportunities to bring new players into the WarGaming family, and there's many countries that didn't have strong tank battalions during World War II, but had great navies, and we're seeing uptake from these players. There's something about images of the big ships from World War II that is just so iconic. The Warspite, the Bismarck, the Tirpitz, that's attracting a new audience in too, so we're really excited about that."
That's an interesting point, attracting new players because they feel it's more relevant to them, coming from a country that was more involved in naval warfare than aircraft or tanks. Do you see much regional loyalty like that? Do you see German players predominantly using German Tanks, or American players predominantly using American hardware?
"We do see regional loyalty, especially when it comes to premium vehicles. We do notice that players absolutely like to invest in vessels or Tanks from their country. But that said, when players start playing the game and progressing, we do notice that they start progressing across other trees. It's great to see the diversity of game play, and different player styles that some of the different nations and trees give you.
"For World of Warships, in particular, we did start off with the American and Japanese Navies, because we wanted to invest in growth regions for World of Warships. Tanks does amazingly strong for us in Europe and CIS, but we saw a massive opportunity to engage an Asian audience with World of Warships, and that's working out very well for us. Likewise, the Pacific engagement with American fleet were massive and iconic in American history, and we're seeing American players respond very well to World of Warships on that front too."
The logical conclusion to these three strands of development; Tanks, Warplanes and Warships, would seem to be a single online universe where they're all combined. Is that something that's been discussed?
"It's definitely something that's been discussed and thought about. It's not being done now, and the primary reason for that is because the games play very differently. For World of Tanks, a map is 8x8 kilometers. For World of Warplanes, a map is 16x16. And for World of Warships, it's 32x32. So, just the sheer dimensions of the game create a diversity of game play and a difference in mechanics that makes it very hard to respect the game play of each of these different fields of combat and bring them together in a single game. So, the guys have definitely thought about it, but as of yet we haven't got a solution to it. So for now, the answer would be no, it's not on the table. I can just say that we're absolutely focused on making the best game in each of these fields that we can, and we think we're doing that absolutely with the launch of World of Warships. But it's definitely something that's been thought about."
Europe is a tricky market, particularly when you're running an MMO or working in free to play. On top of the usual fragmentation and localisation issues, you have higher user acquisition costs and lower ARPU rates, at least on mobile. Have your experiences reflected that?
"Well, we've just gone onto console, obviously, and that's a very different market in terms of spending than PC. We're on mobile, with World of Tanks, and starting off from some of the first comments you made there about Europe, we find that we have very healthy ARPU rates across Europe. World of Tanks as a game has been great for four years now. When we started WarGaming, before my time four years ago, you talk to the veterans of the company from back then, and the company has always been chasing the growth of World of Tanks. Our game, our game play has really appealed to its audience, and we've been very fortunate to be able to grow from the core outwards. So you bring a great game to the market, you support the community that's behind your game, you make sure that they've got every reason to stay on board and keep playing, and we've seen our fans now persist over the years. That means that our ARPUs are very, very healthy. In addition, that gives us a lot of foundation to go and invest very heavily, to make sure that we keep on growing. And that's what we're doing right now, across Tanks, across Warships.
"A few years back, we were one game on one platform. Now, we're on multiple platforms, we've got multiple games in our portfolio, we've just announced things like WarGaming Labs. So, we're in a very healthy position"
"So, for us Europe's a very, very healthy market, it's a vibrant market. We're stabilizing right now. So we're finding that as our audience matures, we're able to find ways that are great for them to enjoy the game more, and that encourages them to spend more in the game. Because they're really enjoying it, and they're loving the experience. What we're definitely not doing is resting on our laurels. We're driving growth very aggressively. We've engaged in two TV campaigns across Europe already this year, in twenty countries and in seven languages. We've got a massive Q4 TV campaign for Tanks planned. We're working with YouTube Gaming right now, and investing very heavily in their new channel. And that's not to say we're not investing in the other channels at the same time, like Twitch, for instance. We are. It's just that we're always looking for new areas to grow, we're looking for new areas to acquire new audiences.
"I think that shows in our strategy as well going to more platforms. A few years back, we were one game on one platform. Now, we're on multiple platforms, we've got multiple games in our portfolio, we've just announced things like WarGaming Labs. So, we're in a very healthy position of being able to stabilize our core products, but absolutely being able to still push for growth, and push for acquisition, in a free to play market that we feel we understand very well. Ultimately we're able to deliver a quality product to our players, and they love it, and they reward us for that. I don't think you can ask for more."
Talking about growing markets, you mentioned reaching new people. I imagine that demographics for Wargaming titles have been fairly predictable, along the lines of an awful lot of games of this type: largely male, 18-45. I presume that's probably true going forward. Is that something that you're going to try to expand, have you got any plans to try and engage different demographics? Do you think that's a worthwhile thing, or is it going to be just throwing good money after bad?
"No, broadening a demographic is always a great thing to do, because obviously you're going to gain new audiences, but often you have to modify your game for that audience. And when we look at our demographics, we know who the heartland of our player is, which you're right, it's a largely male player. But what we're looking to do is grow our audience across platforms. So, when we look to move to platforms like the Xbox, obviously we change our game and make our game native to that platform, and we grow our audience there.
"The same with moving blitz to console. One of the interesting things about having a game that's now been running for multiple years, is we start to see our audience evolve. So we're having discussions internally to say, "How do we get fathers and sons playing together, and how do we make this a rewarding experience for them?" Because we're seeing a lot of our older gamers- and we do have quite a lot of older audience in World of Tanks, we've got three key audiences, our younger, more first person shooter oriented gamer, our middle aged, stable gamer, and our senior, military historian enthusiasts. We're seeing a lot of our older gamers starting to play with their kids, and this is a great thing to see.
"So, we're looking at a lot of options of, how do we target new audiences with our brands, not just with the same brand, how do we take it to different platforms and give them an experience that's relevant to their platform and grow it that way. I think one of the things that we won't be looking to do very soon is World of Dancing Unicorns..."
Although that would be amazing.
"We know where our heartland is, for our current portfolio. But what we are really looking forward to is growing WarGaming Labs. What this does, it allows us to look at the other ideas for games that people have out there, and take our truly global publishing platform and help new games, new ideas, new developers bring their products to market. And these might be games targeting new audiences that we haven't thought about, because it's not in our DNA. One of the things about the growth of WarGaming is, we're one of the only truly global publishers out there right now. We've grown our own publishing platform through CIS, through Asia, through Europe, through North America. We know free to play WarGaming started its roots in box product. We've got professionals that have worked at some of the biggest and best gaming companies in the world. We certainly think that with WarGaming Labs we can absolutely look at new growth opportunities, new games, and absolutely new potential audiences, with this kind of project."
I think Masters of Orion is an interesting shift in that direction, actually. It's a known name, it's a first step outside of that comfort zone in some respects. Was that motivated by a desire to just diversify the catalog, in terms of business model and what you're offering? Is that a way to stabilize the business, or was there any particular emotional attachment to that IP?
"I think one of the things that we won't be looking to do very soon is World of Dancing Unicorns...""
"I reckon that there has been the strategy in mind that we're looking to grow into different areas. But I think the real truth of Master of Orion is, it's one of Victor's favorite games. Wargaming did start off very much in the strategy genre, and I know that Victor was inspired in his younger years, by Master of Orion. I think that when Atari collapsed, it was the ideal opportunity for him to step in and save the franchise, and get a studio that he liked to make a game that he loved. Honestly, I think it's a project of passion, but I think it's also a great fit for us, and it's a great way for us to start off an initiative like Wargaming Labs."
You seem to have a very successful ongoing partnership with Microsoft. In terms of the new generation of consoles, it's closed some of the gap now, but PS4 is still certainly the most successful console in the generation at the moment. Is your contract with Microsoft an exclusive lifetime contract? Can we ever expect to see the brand spreading onto other machines, or is it just going to be Microsoft all the way forward?
"So, in answer to your question, we're very proud to announce that we are coming to Playstation 4. Victor will be on stage at the Tokyo game show, so by the time the embargo lifts, he'll have gotten on stage with Sony, and will have announced World of Tanks on Playstation 4. As always, we will be adapting the game to meet the platform. So, in addition to making the most outstanding visuals on Playstation 4, we'll have platforming exclusive features, including complete dual shock controller integration.
"World of Tanks on Playstation 4 will be free to play to all PSN account holders. So you will not require a Playstation Plus account to play World of Tanks"
"It's a pretty awesome announcement for us to make, we're very excited to do it. It shows our commitment to bringing our games to multiple platforms, to audiences wherever they're going to be. In addition to that, World of Tanks on Playstation 4 will be free to play to all PSN account holders. So you will not require a Playstation Plus account to play World of Tanks.
"We're doing exceptionally good business on the Xbox, on both the 360 and the Xbox One, but for us it's really exciting to be engaging with Sony, to bring the game to the PS4. We will be having a few very good deals for PlayStation players when we make the announcement, they get a free premium tank with PS4 exclusive camo, they'll get premium time if they're a PlayStation plus holder when the game launches, all that kind of thing. Then for an exclusive limited time, we'll also have two new maps on the PlayStation, which players on the PlayStation will be able to jump into and play first. So we're very excited about this new partnership with Sony."
That seems like a real commitment to consoles as a future line of business. Does that mean we'll see Warships follow suit?
"We've got no other news to share, at this stage, about our products. I'll just go back and reiterate what I said before. We are committed to bringing our great games to as many players across as many platforms as possible where it makes sense to do so. And when we bring games to these platforms, we ensure that we bring a unique experience to that platform. So we're committed to that, I think we've showed that for Tanks on the One and the PS4. But we've go no other big news on our other products. I think we're really focusing right now is getting the PC launch of World of Warships underway. It's actions stations, it's full steam ahead. We've got a lot to do still on PC for world of Warships, but we won't be closing the door on any new opportunities for any of our products."