This very moment, all around the world, there are 800,000 mostly male gamers pretending to be American or Soviet or maybe German tank commanders in a bloody firefight filled with rockets, explosions and towering plumes of smoke. They are a fraction of the hordes of gamers—24 million and counting—who are flocking to World of Tanks, the online video game that’s turning the whole industry upside down.
Wargaming.net, the company in Minsk, Belarus, that created World of Tanks, has accomplished this feat in two ways: First, it created a so-called massively multi-player online, or MMO, game that enables hundreds of thousands—or even millions—to log on simultaneously. (In February, according to Wargaming, World of Tanks broke the Guinness World Record for most players online simultaneously on one server.) Second, unlike most MMO’s, which have a fantasy-world or medieval theme, World of Tanks targets a specific audience—World War II enthusiasts and military-hardware aficionados.
“Who needs another elf game if there are already 500 on the market,” says Viktor Kislyi, Wargaming’s chief executive officer. “We decided to go niche. You cannot go more niche than World War II.”
Kislyi adds that World of Tanks is less time-consuming than other MMO’s. (The average battle runs about seven minutes.) This lets people with busy schedules—for example, adults—play.
“We moved away from the traditional, hardcore MMO RPG spirit,” Kislyi says, referring to the role-playing games that have dominated the gaming business in recent years. “In those games, you were supposed to go and kill some dragon or smaller animals, and literally fight for three or four hours to get some special diamond. Our game world opened up a new sub-genre.”
The genius of the monetizing scheme behind World of Tanks is that it costs nothing to play. Wargaming makes money when gamers buy extras. For example, it costs 20¢ to outfit one’s tank with “desert camouflage.” Hundreds of thousands of these micro-transactions take place every day. Wargaming expects that figure to jump into the millions in the not-too-distant future. Kislyi estimates that as much as 70 percent of all the people who play his game will never pay a cent.
Wargaming.net has a ways to go before it can start competing with such gaming companies as Farmville creator Zynga (which has a user base of 250 million) and Angry Birds creator Rovio (700 million). But according to Nicholas Lovell, director of the games consultancy Gamesbrief, “We are moving away from the era of size mattering. Kixeye announced this morning (on TechCrunch) that it had 5 million monthly players of its games on Facebook, including Battle Pirates and Backyard Monsters, and is making $100 million in revenue.”
World of Tanks successfully blends reality and fiction. On one hand, gamers—or tankers—employ tanks and artillery that are carefully modeled after real life. The web site includes extensive, detailed descriptions of all the hardware. Tankers are advised about the pros and cons of light versus medium or heavy tanks, penetration rates, reload times, maneuverability, horsepower, speed limits and “compatible consumables.” (Tankers have to eat, too.) “The creation of project TS-31,” gamers who are considering this top-tier, heavy, American tank are told, “was entrusted to the Chrysler Corporation. … The process of building this tank makes a good example of why the ‘classic’ tank configurations lasted so long.”
On the other hand, tankers are not confined to a particular war or battle—“We wanted to move away from Stalingrad or Normandy,” Kislyi says—and can even mix and match tanks from different countries and periods. It’s not uncommon for the Panzer VIII Maus, which the Nazis developed in 1944 but never deployed, to appear in the same battalion as, say, the Soviet T-50, which was deployed after the war and became a key component of Warsaw Pact forces across Western Europe. (World of Tanks features hardware from the glory age of tank warfare: from the 1930s to the Korean War.)
Gamers are enthusiastic.
One tanker, who goes by the moniker DarkOne, recently posted a review on a gamers’ site called The Nexus Forums. “Never heard of World of Tanks?” DarkOne asks. “This is normally the part where I chastise you, but I’ll let you off this time. … In World of Tanks, you are a tank (I’m not joking), and your job is to work with 10-16 other team mates to destroy the other team’s tanks or capture the enemy team’s base by sitting in it for about a minute without being shot.” DarkOne adds: “I’ve been playing this game to death for the past 10 months (3,500 battles and counting!).”
Tankers are sprouting across the globe. There are now 2 million of them in the United States. As much as 3 percent of the population of Iceland regularly logs on. And Wargaming is very bullish on its prospects in China and Southeast Asia.
Russia and Belarus, where World of Tanks launched, are hotbeds of tanking. But it’s the Poles—perhaps because they’ve been occupied by the Germans and the Russians—who have proven among the most skilled and ruthless tankers.
Kislyi says there’s nothing obviously Soviet or Russian about World of Tanks—Wargaming’s programmers went to great lengths to make sure the Soviet tanks were not given any historically incorrect upgrades—but that’s not entirely true. Russians, after all, spend every May 9 celebrating Victory Day—as in, the victory of the Soviets over the Germans.
For those who don’t care for tanks, fear not. Wargaming is now testing World of Warplanes and World of Battleships, which will both launch within the next two years.