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Wargaming has crossed its 25th anniversary this year, prompting CEO Victor Kislyi to talk about the company’s history in an interview with GamesBeat.
We talked about a lot of things with the maker of World of Tanks, including the Cyprus-based company’s most difficult moments after war broke out (anew) in Ukraine with the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022. When the real tanks started rolling, Wargaming was split among the countries at war.
For much of its existence, including its early years in the 1990s, the company was based in Minsk, Belarus. It made games such as Massive Assault and other war games.
Then, in 2010, it published the online multiplayer game World of Tanks, and it changed its course in gaming history. Made with a team of more than 100 people, the title took off and generated tens of millions of downloads. And it made money, despite skepticism about free-to-play games. It was popular in Eastern Europe, but it also broke through as a major hit around the globe. It kept on growing, expanding to the consoles and mobile devices, and it had surpassed 140 million downloads as of 2021. Its tanks had gone out to conquer the world — in a video game way.
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But the company didn’t stay in Belarus. In 2011, it moved its headquarters to Nicosia, Cyprus, while still maintaining its development in Eastern Europe. During the pandemic, the company had more than 5,400 people. But that all changed when Russia launched its massive invasion in early 2022.
Work came to a standstill, and Wargaming began moving people from vulnerable areas to the western side of Ukraine. The company decided to part with its Russian and Belarus development studios, and its ranks shrank down as low as 2,800 people in a very short time. With its formal announcement on April 4, 2022, the company said it was leaving both Russia and Belarus and separating from employees who stayed.
It created studios in places like Poland and Serbia, and it added to its headcount in other places, growing back to about 3,500 people, including hundreds still in Ukraine. All told, it lost a third of its development capacity and a third of its revenue disappeared overnight as it cut off play in Russia and Belarus, resulting in $250 million in lost revenues.
Still, Kislyi said it was worth it to be “on the right side of history.”
Now the company still has hundreds of people in Ukraine, and it is working on multiple games beyond World of Tanks and World of Warships — its most successful titles. Kislyi said the company continues to support the people of Ukraine, and it is rebuilding its capabilities throughout the world.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
The first 25 years
GamesBeat: When is the 25th anniversary coming up?
Victor Kislyi: There’s not a particular date. We were started by a bunch of college friends making something we were passionate about, before the Facebook and Apple world. We just picked 1998 as the year, August of that year. Although it’s 1995 to me, to be completely honest. But 25 is a good number, a quarter of a century.
GamesBeat: What do you remember about the start now?
Kislyi: Our first game was put out in 1995 with my brother and one of my schoolmates. It was DBA Online. It was based on a tabletop game, a hex-based game. It resonated with us so much that we started to code it. It wasn’t even Windows at the time. It was DOS, on an IBM 286. We got our first taste of making a game. In 1998 we started a whole line of tabletop miniatures games, classic historical wargames, which we computerized. That was when we started earning money. They weren’t boxed games. They were online games, turn-based. But that’s how we started learning the hard way about marketing, tutorials, easy to learn and hard to master, connectivity, and all of those things.
Before World of Tanks
GamesBeat: And that continued for quite a while. How many games did you make in that historical wargame category before World of Tanks?
Kislyi: I’ve never had any other jobs. I had school, and then professional chess school for seven years. I took English courses, and I went to university. My father wanted me to study physics. After the first year of physics, not real physics, I went to New Hampshire in the summer as part of this student exchange program. I was passionate about games. I was fascinated by America and code. I started Wargaming while I was in my second year of university, and I never did anything else.
As far as the big ones we made at Wargaming, DBA Online, Massive Assault, Domination, Massive Assault II, Galactic Assault, which was a smaller one, Order of War at Square Enix. We acquired a small studio in Minsk doing work for hire. They made a couple of RPGs, and they were good at ad ops, so we got that experience and that talent. Then there was World of Tanks. Depending on how you count, it was eight or nine.
GamesBeat: It seemed like for quite a while you were always fascinated with tanks.
Kislyi: I’m an admitted history buff. Napoleon, Caesar, you name it. WWI, WWII, tanks are cool. No doubt. Tanks are cool. I’ve probably told you this before many times, but with World of Tanks, tanks are tanks and history is history. We support history. We try to be historically accurate in some elements. But World of Tanks is not a historical game. Instead of being a rifleman, you’re inside a tank. You see yourself from the third-person view and you run around doing what tanks do. It’s slower than some shooters, so that people who can’t run around like you do in some shooters can have fun with tanks. It happens to be enjoyable. It’s balanced. It’s fair. No play to win. It took off. We’ve managed to get momentum and bring it across the whole world.
GamesBeat: Did you ever feel like Will Wright’s description of it was accurate? It’s a first-person shooter for older people?
Kislyi: Well, a lot of teenagers and small boys play it too. I wouldn’t define it like that. It’s more about cooperation and tactical setups. We encourage that. You’ve seen our history. We made what we made. I would dare to say it’s genre-defining. There’s a World of Tanks style. It’s hard to define World of Tanks in standard terms. Is it an RPG? Is it an MMO? Is it DotA? Is it arena-based? Yeah, there’s an arena. There are a lot of players, like an MMO. It’s World of Tanks, which moved forward as a product enjoyed by millions of players. We’re proud of making something that we can say was an innovative breakthrough. It’s not just for older people.
GamesBeat: Did you feel like it took off suddenly, or did it take off in a more gradual way that required a lot of tweaking?
Kislyi: Tweaking, adjustment, iteration, updates, improving technology and gameplay and content. New maps, new gameplay modes, new social things. It’s a combination. It didn’t take off like a rocket. It wasn’t like Apex Legends, when they launched and completely destroyed Twitch. That does happen. We’re in a hit-driven industry, where everyone wants to make a big hit. We were lucky, but we earned it. We put in a lot of devotion and nonstop work. It resulted in 13 years on the rocket. Plus, service. It’s a hobby. We have to provide a service. After 25 years of Wargaming and 13 years of World of Tanks, I guarantee you the next 25 years of our games will go for decades. But it requires this 24/7 care. Players are getting a triple-A games as a service that they can turn into a hobby.
GamesBeat: And you always thought of it as a hobby, as opposed to something else?
Kislyi: Well, when you’re young and crazy, even if you’re also disciplined and hard-working, you dream about many things. I played chess for seven years. I played football in the backyard. Some people play basketball all their life. Hobbies exist. It’s good to have a pastime, a hobby. We all know what hobbies are, whether it’s an instrument you play or anything else. It’s something that’s part of what you are. You always want to have it. But it doesn’t happen automatically. Quality, service, innovation, understanding the customer.
It’s not a live or die product. It’s not food or shelter. It’s a hobby. It’s entertainment which you can afford or not afford. It’s less about money than time. I have hobbies. We provide one in a well-done game that’s always improving. It earns its right to be a hobby, an online hobby.
GamesBeat: These are good tips for people who have game startups today, or just want to be entrepreneurs.
Kislyi: Real advice, not philosophically – entrepreneurs of any kind, you can read Guy Kawasaki’s Art of the Start. It’s an all-time classic. It’s a simple book about going for investment and so on. In the game industry, I realized–25 years ago, 28 years ago, I started my game development career and never stopped. If you decide you’re going to make games, it’s an uphill battle. You have no money, no technology, no marketing. There are so many things you’re missing. But as long as you have passion in your heart – and I’m in a position to say I have that now – if your mind is always occupied with, “I want to make the best game of all time, and no less,” those are the kind of people who start game companies.
If you make a small, niche kind of thing – not everybody starts by wanting to make the next World of Warcraft, the next PUBG, the next World of Tanks. But no matter what, the advice I’d give to them is to keep going. Read the books. It’s not bad to know a bit of business, the basics, because it is a business. There’s some IT, some science stuff to making a game. It’s a technology product. It never hurts to learn what you can at university or through online courses. But that passion – don’t stop. Make sure the people who join you are passionate people like yourself. They join you to make games. Not for the money, but because that’s what they want, because they live or die for it. That’s the whole thing they want to do.
GamesBeat: To give people a sense of how fast things grew, how long was it until you got to, say, 1,000 employees? Or when you crossed 100 million downloads? Do you remember some of the milestones to give people a sense of scale?
Kislyi: World of Tanks was made by a team of about 100, 110 people. We started small, with about 60 people, and it took about two years. Closer to launch we were about 120-ish. Small, but passionate. Then we launched it. We didn’t know what to do after the initial success. But the logical, common-sense thing – I liked to play what we made. We could tell people liked it. They played and engaged and moved up. It was good business.
Then our next strategic aspiration was to conquer the world. We wanted to make sure that each territory had its own operational center to cater to local interests. We had the momentum. We had technology. We had success. We had the tail wind or whatever to make other things, similar things like Warships and Warplanes, to bring it to mobile devices and consoles. Then R&D and other things. It’s a business where you have to do R&D. That’s why we spread across the world.
I don’t regret it. Some people would say it was too fast or too slow. We became an international, global company with all kinds of nationalities and backgrounds and religions. But we had the same purpose, to keep upgrading and innovating and updating the games. Through the process, we also created new games, tested them, brought them to market, explored new devices. After three years of World of Tanks, the Gamescoms and E3s of the world, esports, grand finals and so on – we transformed into a global company with production, publishing, and other activities all across the planet. Anyone who had a device, an internet connection, and a willingness to play our game could play it.
GamesBeat: Do you feel in hindsight like the move to Cyprus [in 2011] was necessary for you to have a stable place?
Kislyi: Yes. We cold-bloodedly analyzed the ecosystem. It’s an EU country. It has democracy, the rule of law, a sound business system, lots of services. It’s not the biggest country in the world. But we studied a lot of other places. Cyprus was amazing, and it is amazing. We decided to start the corporation there, and I have no regrets. We’ve been there for 13 years. I like it.
The invasion of Ukraine
GamesBeat: Along the way, what turned out to be some of the tough decisions or difficult challenges that you had? Maybe harder than just getting the game off the ground. After that seems like it was full of different challenges.
Kislyi: There were many tough decisions given it’s been 25 years. But the toughest was after 2022, when the invasion of Ukraine happened. We got everyone together as best as practically possible, and there wasn’t much argument. We took the decision to completely abandon, leave untouched, the market of the Russian Federation and Belarus. We shut down and wound up all other operations, production, whatever, everything in these two countries. We were all united. We very quickly made the announcement. Then we walked the talk.
It was very difficult. There was no way to enumerate every single aspect. It was like cutting our own limbs off. But it was unanimous and fast. We made the decision, announced it, and moved forward.
GamesBeat: Given that fighting had started in 2014, did you have some foresight, that you might have to do something like that? But did it still come as a surprise, that the war would become so much worse?
Kislyi: We had about 430 employees in Ukraine on World of Warplanes. We have a huge office with a lot of Ukrainian employees. As far back as 2014, we had made plans. Business continuity, business risk assessment, like any big global company has to have. We had dozens if not hundreds of Ukrainian employees relocating to Minsk as a safe place when it wasn’t safe in the streets of Kiev. We love all of our employees no matter where they are.
In 2020 had very strong leadership in Europe, doing things like compliance, tax, GDPR and so forth. Kind of boring, but important and necessary things you have to do. As well as risk management given our geography and the location of our production. We had a lot of people in both Russia and Ukraine. We did have risk mitigation plans, although I personally didn’t believe this would happen. Very few people did. A friend of mine who’s very experienced in business told me, though, “It doesn’t matter what you feel. As a business you have to have a business continuity plan.”
In February 2022 the first bombs and rockets started hitting Ukraine. Before that we had prepared buses, passports, names of family members for immigration. As well as other aspects of safety. It is what it is. In February I remember waking up, making a cup of coffee, and reading the news. “Oh my God.” The first supernova in my head was, “We have 450 employees in Kiev.” Their safety was our immediate priority and focus. As I said, we had prepared. We had already prepared living space and working space in the west of Ukraine, beyond the mountains, which was still safe. When the bombs were falling and the horror started to materialize, all our employees and their families knew what to do. The buses were there. People got on board with their relatives and kids and went to safety. We’re proud of that. Everyday we’re supporting our Ukrainian employees in every meaningful way possible.
GamesBeat: How many people are there now across all of Wargaming?
Kislyi: Our decision to exit the Russian markets and shut down there – no contracts, no exchange, zero – caused an obvious financial hit. You don’t need to be a professor of economics to understand that. It was $250 million, give or take. Disappeared from our income for the year. It’s a huge hit. Again, we also made a bunch of logistical miracles happen to relocate our most critical talent to Europe, to Cyprus and elsewhere. Some things obviously weren’t sustainable. We had to make a lot of sacrifices. We took direct hits. We lost a lot of good people. We had to rehire and relocate and settle families in new environments, which was very shocking. We lost about 2,000-ish people.
The outlook is good. Everybody is optimistic. What happened happened. We’re proud, even if it was painful. The rest of the world is our market as it was. Russia and Belarus, we have no connection to them whatsoever. We have a hiring process in the areas where we need specialists. Western Europe, North America, the rest of Europe, those are our primary markets. We have to double down on design talent, art directors, marketing, these kind of western business specialists. It never hurts to have more of those. We’re about 3,500 now. All of those people were hired when we went through with our plan.
GamesBeat: Are you larger than you ever were, then, or are you still smaller than the pre-war time?
Kislyi: We were 5,500 at one point in time, yes.
GamesBeat: So it was a lot like almost dividing the company up. Or leaving people who wanted to stay.
Kislyi: When you have that many people, some of them have their reason. Some have relatives. Some have the graves of their ancestors. Whatever. Obviously not everyone wanted to relocate and that’s their decision. Now, those who stayed behind, we have no influence over them. It’s water under the bridge. We lost a lot of good talent. We did what we could for those who were with us. Right now, we’re doing well expanding in our other locations.
We’re a game company. Our vision is to make games, put them on the market, and make players happy. We’ll upgrade them, update them, and make other games. We never forgot this, even through this year and a half of turmoil. We didn’t forget our main mission and all the main products we have. We kept serving, doing updates, doing what the players expect of us.
Right now, we’re out of the woods. The major risks are past us. But it’s not really about risk. We made the decision and moved forward. We didn’t think about it monetarily. There was no time. The reason was very simple: to choose the right side of history. Yes, it had some implications. We made this decision unanimously, though. After that the rest was just nuances. Some of them were hard challenges, but they didn’t derail us. Choosing the right side of history, making the decision, making the announcement. All of the other things–there were a lot of unknowns. There’s no guarantee of success in this kind of situation. It was getting worse and worse. Unfortunately, the war is still there.
GamesBeat: Was there anything that maybe you could do to help stop something like a civil war within your company?
Kislyi: Well, there’s no civil war in the company. We are Wargaming. Our first market was Russia. It was our neighbor. Success, money, resources, experience, aspiration, ideas. In a year and a half we were a global company – San Francisco, Singapore, Sydney, you know it very well. That’s what we wanted to be. But when this tragedy happened, it was very clear what was the right side of history. Everyone had a very clear realization. We’re getting out. This didn’t happen overnight, but it was faster than any other western company, I would say. Almost faster than humanly possible. We’re very proud of this. No shame, no regrets, no looking back.
[Worth noting: Sergey Burkatovskiy, creative director of Wargaming, expressed support of for Russia on his Facebook page at the outset of the war. For that, he was fired almost immediately. Following his termination, Wargaming said in a statement, “Sergey is an employee of the company and expressed his personal opinion, which categorically does not coincide with the position of the company. All our staff are now focused on helping out our over 550 colleagues from Kyiv and their families. Sergei’s opinion is in complete contradiction with the company’s position. He is no longer an employee of Wargaming.”]
We sent a very clear message. We’re getting out. That’s it. The rest was details. Everyone was given the opportunity to consider their life situation, of course. There was time to do the logistics and so on. Now, Wargaming today is Wargaming today, which has zero connection to Russia. No people, no money, nothing. We’re united as a global company. There is no civil war at Wargaming. We have good people who perceive the situation in the same indisputable way as we decided and announced and executed. I’m proud of our united position, no matter of origin.
The Wargaming diaspora
GamesBeat: Where do you have the most people now?
Kislyi: Lithuania, with almost 1,000. In Cyprus, 500-ish. Prague, a couple of hundred. Chicago, 150 or so. Belgrade, soon to be a few hundred. But Lithuania is our biggest. Lithuania has given us a great deal of hospitality. They understood what we did. They were supportive of our relocation.
GamesBeat: Was it a surprise in some way that the business in Ukraine turned out to be stable enough to continue with a large studio there? A lot of companies have been surprised that many Ukrainian studios are still working and functioning and going strong.
Kislyi: [Belarusians] and Ukrainians, as nations, we’re friends. We have similar culture, language, songs, food, all kinds of stuff. I have relatives in Ukraine. The people at Wargaming in Ukraine are our brothers, our comrades. You’re right. But they’re very strong, freedom-loving people. Proud. Proud and free people. We have hundreds of people there, and that’s who they are. They’re resilient. They walk the talk.
The first couple of months, they couldn’t work. No internet, no electricity. But our employees, and those at many other companies too, as you said, they realized–they didn’t cry over it. They’re working very hard. We did our best to keep them supplied. We did a lot of meaningful things to help the humanitarian effort in Ukraine. But of course, our main focus is our own employees. There were patches of low productivity because of the situation, but the moment they had electricity and internet back, they worked. They felt a strong dedication to do their jobs and support their country by bringing money in. [Wargaming donated money for ambulances in Ukraine].
If anyone could criticize Wargaming for anything, hypothetically, this would be our Ukrainian employees. They could have left the company and demonstrated visibly what they were unhappy about. But they know what we did. They understood the decision. They can read the news like we do. Our Ukrainian employees, and the [United24 crowd funding initiative set up by and for the people of Ukraine], are with us because they deeply appreciate what we did. If they had any problem with us, you’d hear about it. The reality is, whatever we did, we didn’t do it for fame. We did what was right. We continue to do so.
Our Ukrainian employees appreciate what we did. They’re grateful. They demonstrate their gratitude by working hard. Their productivity level is the same as before the war. They just do it. We have a lot of stuff being produced there – tanks, assets, graphics. It’s a full-blown Wargaming office. They’re amazing.
Beyond World of Tanks
GamesBeat: What do you think most about looking forward to the future? You have that ongoing challenge of making something as big as World of Tanks in some other game. How do you approach that?
Kislyi: People who decide to make games have this fire in their heart. It’s very unambiguous, very straightforward. I play games. I love them. I see lots of improvements and new things that can be made. I decide to step into game development so that I – everyone says this to themselves – can make and will make the best game of all time. The rest is secondary. In the years before World of Tanks, I was driven by this fire. It hasn’t stopped. It drives you through the rainy days, bad days, gray days, gloomy days, desperation, no hope, people around you giving up, your parents telling you to get a real job. You keep going.
Guess what? This late in the game – we have a super hit. World of Tanks happened. Warships was kind of derivative of World of Tanks. We’ve had a couple of other hits as well. But for the next 25 years, I’m not going to change my job. I’m going to be the same. This fire doesn’t go out. I know the taste of success. I know the taste of humiliation, sweat, blood, hard work, and no light at the end of the tunnel. I’m going to keep going. With my team and all these resources, I’m going to be doing the same thing.
I want to make another thing, a triple-A MMO computer game, a piece of art, a hit to shake the game industry one more time in the next 25 years. With all those losses and sacrifices, we kept going uninterrupted. A lot of players didn’t even notice that we’d been having trouble. Our people doubled down on doing the job, knowing that we’d been decimated by circumstances.
We have two big projects in development. They’ve been in development for some time. Some initiatives we abandoned. When the time comes, though, we have those two big projects, World of Tanks-style, triple-A big games in development. Of course, nobody knows. The game business is a risky business. But these projects are going on now as we speak. I believe that World of Tanks itself will become bigger and bigger as well. You can look at many examples of serial entertainment products that go on for decades. South Park or the Simpsons. After 13 years of Tanks, it’s not a game. It’s a hobby, a way of life, an entertainment. It’ll go on for the next 25 years, getting better and better.
There will be something that qualifies to become the next big thing. I want that. It’s my passion. I don’t want to change. I like that.
GamesBeat: In years past you guys were known for pretty crazy parties. It felt like a wild culture at Wargaming. Then we had the pandemic and all these changes. Do you feel like you have a different culture, a different company compared to those earlier years?
Kislyi: I come from a PhD, science kind of background. I studied chess. Our parties were–I wouldn’t say they were as wild as some other companies’. They were passionate, but decent. They looked cool. But we never crossed lines at our parties. They were cool. It was our way to say thank you to our employees, and sometimes to our players. Places like Gamescom, Sabaton, meeting with the players. We’re an entertainment industry. Our players, our colleagues, our competition, the media, we like parties. We work hard. From time to time we can celebrate in a decent way as the game industry.
Obviously we’re coming back to Gamescom. We had a big meeting with German World of Tanks and Wargaming players. Those faces, they’re like brothers. We’ve known them for many years. Talking about tanks, ships, suggestions, T-shirts and stuff. I love that energy. We’ll continue doing this in the coming days in different countries. Tankfest in [the United Kingdom], our players got together there.
As of now, parties with loud music and celebrations and fireworks–after the start of the war we decided to tone down everything. This 25-year celebration, in the olden days, you could imagine how we would shake a stadium or something like that. But we decided to get together in a lot of different cities and have smaller, local parties. They’re toned down. There’s no Guns ‘n’ Roses. It’s positive. It’s not a funeral. But when the war started, we toned down our advertising too. We make a game about tanks running around shooting stuff. It’s a military aesthetic. We stopped our advertising for a significant time just to–I don’t need to explain. You understand.
Right now our parties are local, family, and relatively quiet. It’s a time of sorrow in this world. Hopefully soon will come a time where you’ll hear from a thousand miles away when we have a party. But now it’s not the time.
The right side of history
GamesBeat: What does it mean to be on the right side of history?
Kislyi: You know very well what it means. We all know the history of the American revolution, the French revolution, the War of Independence, the Second World War and so on. We all watched those movies. This was the formulation we had. Any justifications–they do exist, but this was a very strong move. Think about this decision. We go to the right side of history, which means the complete independence of the market, cutting any ties, pulling out whatever we could see. We understood that this would be–it was huge.
We’re proud of our decision. It’s not related to financial analysis, your typical mitigation, all of those things that businesses usually do. It was like this. We know what’s happening. We’re there. We see it. We have the information. We’re not fooled by the media on any side. We know what’s happening. We walked the talk. We demonstrated. We made a decision, irrevocably, to do this. We made an announcement [April 4, 2022] in a couple of days and fulfilled it.
I think this demonstration, this signal, explained what the right side of history is. There are many flavors of that, but what we did, it’s bigger than any shades of gray or whatever explanation. We did the right thing. The Ukrainians know it. You know it too. We’ll be back.
I went to GDC and a couple of other conferences recently, bigger and smaller. We went to the Sony conference in the U.K. We saw all our comrades, peers, competition. They’d come and see me and say, “Was it difficult? Was it painful?” Well, what do you think? We had a lot of appreciation directed to us. We know we did the right thing. We’re proud of it. We’d prefer the world had never gone this way at all, but you know. It was the right thing, the right side of history.
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