It wouldn’t be PAX Australia without Wargaming. The global company - based in Cyprus and responsibility for the - is stalwart supporter of Australia’s biggest games, tech and pop culture event. During the event, we made time to sit down for a chat with several Wargaming executives (plus The Creative Assembly’s Josh Williams) to talk about the company’s past, present and future as a publisher.
Naturally, the first question we bounced off Wargaming’s Global Brand Director Al King was: "where exactly does the company sit in the gaming landscape of 2017?" They’ve been around for coming up on two decades, and have been riding high on the global success of World of Tanks for about half of that time.
Of course, sometimes, to move forward you need to be able to look back. King's response to our question began with a quick recap of the company’s origins. He recounted how the free-to-play model of World of Tanks worked as a unique but powerful catalyst for growth the CIS region.
“They don't have the kind of disposable incomes that we do in the affluent West, North America, and Australia, New Zealand region. And, so, giving it away free makes a lot more sense in that context. And then I think that also encouraged them to be very fair with where they put the pay wall and how they monitor those things - because they knew that they wouldn't be able to fleece the Russian speaking community.”
“What you got was a very well balanced, very polished game that was incredibly fair. If you didn't want to pay, you could grind your way to the top and get to the top tiers without dropping a single cent. And that meant that we had a very faithful response from the A) the community and B) the press. That then led to the sort of global expansion.”
Speaking frankly, Al says that “[World of] Warplanes was disappointing. It was kind of rushed out and wasn't really fun to play. Thankfully, that has been addressed and we've re-launched Warplanes 2.0 about three weeks ago in North America and Europe and CIS. All of the gameplay concerns have been addressed and fixed and the response has been fantastic.”
“So, we've now got a, sort of, a credible “Iron Trilogy”, if you like, [of] tanks, planes and ships. There's still work to be done there. Both Warplanes and Warships need to be made available on console and mobile and all that for the global consumer to be able to get that irrespective of what format they're playing on.”
King says that “After the massive success of World of Tanks, we were literally spewing cash from every orifice and it was fairly reckless at times. Because the people that founded the company were very young and didn't come from a disciplined corporate background they didn't understand fully things like transparency of cost and where the money is and tracking stuff for accountability and setting objectives. You know, it was all that kind of stuff."
“So a lot of older types from traditional big gaming powerhouses like Electronic Arts, myself included, came into the business and helped them put in place the disciplines that you need in order to survive in that kind of corporate environment. So, the sort-of big high-growth party-party phase is now well and truly over - thankfully - and we're in a sort of sensible lean transition growing-up, focusing-on-the-future phase. That's why we've been able to think strategically about the long term and sign deals with important partners.”
King says that the company have been happy to focus on catering to their audience, niche as it might seem from the outside.
According to him, “it's an informed and it's passionate and it's profitable - and it's a loyal niche. You can build your business on that - so that's our core business. And then around that we've been able to think about other ways to expand. One of those was third party publishing. When you think about the types of games we do and given that type of audience that we have, when you look out there for potential partners, it's people like Creative Assembly that are right at the top of the list.”
Recounting the history behind the two-year partnership between the two, King says that “just as we were about to make the phone call, [Creative Assembly] actually called us” and approached them about a publishing deal for a mobile-based version of Total War.
“We're sort of two years in now into a very productive hard working relationship in which two very different sort of cultures are exchanging ideas and views and making, hopefully, what will be judged to be fantastic gain.”
The first title to come out of this partnership is Total War: ARENA. A fast-paced, multiplayer-focused take on the historically-flavored strategy series.
Creative Assembly Developer Communications/Associate Brand manager Josh Williams says that “After Shogun 2's Avatar Conquest [mode[, we came out and we saw that we had something really special there. People really engaged with the multiplayer of Shogun 2. So, lots of people worked on that came back and made Total War: ARENA. So, we wanted to make it persistent multiplayer Total War experience that would run alongside all of the big releases.”
The focus here is on the tactically-diverse and historically-accurate battles. Each of the game’s nine online battlefields is a 10 v 10 affair. Each of those 10 people have three units, and each of those units can have up to 100 soldiers in it. Though definitely smaller than classic Total War fare, it's still continues the series' love of big, complex battlefields.
Williams says he's invented a fun meta-game for when he himself plays “called Who Accidentally Does Ancient Roman Maneuvers. Actually, surprisingly, it's a lot. When you kind of have your infantry and your cavalry on the flanks, people kind of naturally seem to gravitate towards being tactical [in that way].”
Still in beta, Total War: ARENA touts three factions with eleven commanders, with the most recent - Sulla - released only a few weeks ago.
Summing up the game’s appeal, Williams says that “with Total War: ARENA you can get that kind of the resolution that you would feel in finishing a campaign. A victory or a defeat, in seven, eight minutes.”
He says that the large time-commitment required of a Total War campaign is “something that we would never change, because it's such a core part of the Total War...these long enduring campaigns. That's what makes us great. But, it also means that maybe some people feel alienated by that, saying I can't commit that much time. So, this is our solution.”
Though the free-to-play model has its fair share of abusers, Williams reassures us that "we're never gonna lock content away [behind microtransactions]. It's just if you want to try something different without going onto a different faction or trying a different play style, then the option's there.“