Panzer Pugilism! A GDC 2011 Preview of World of Tanks

Victor Kislyi, CEO of, is the kind of guy who, when the other kids were playing with Matchbox cars, probably waged the Battle of El Alamein with the green army men-scale tanks. I was too, steeped on the stories about my tank gunner grandpa who served in WW2 in II Corps under the command of the Magnificent Bastard’s antithesis, George S. Patton. Victor tensed when I made the connection, obviously concerned that I’d get all historical-realistic on him. If a Buddhist were to glean a mantra from themes repeated during the interview, it was that World of Tanks is selectively realistic.

On the not-so-realistic side, you can forget political allegiances or nationalistic pretexts – any tank will fight alongside any tank from any side in the game’s random 15v15 match type (the only battle type currently available in beta). Those sides include British, French, Russian, and US for now, with more coming, like the more exotic breed of jungle-fighting tanks from Japan.

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Continuing the tour of fun yet not-so-realistic features, set your targeting reticule on an enemy and the tank’s outline will turn a bright green (for friendly) or red (for an enemy). You can spin your view at will, but a blue crosshair will lazily follow, reminding you that you can’t effectively fire until your turret catches up to your tracking. Once your scouts locate enemy armor, artillery snipes it from what can only be called a satellite’s eye view.

Players can purchase items in the microtransaction store that quickly repair treads, extinguish fires, bandage up crew members, or even load special ammunition (including what Victor referred to as the “golden bullet” ammo at two cents a shell) that gives you a better chance at taking out the toughest targets. And, perhaps most not-so-realistically of all, you’ll never need to worry about those two perennial enemies of WW2 tanks – panzerschreck-wielding infantry and dive-bombing aircraft.

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Yet, in a multitude of ways, World of Tanks is staggeringly realistic. The most obvious way is friendly fire. TOS-breaking team kills are a big problem, and for that reason, wanted to take friendly fire out of the game. Yet the community wanted that particular aspect of realism, and the community got it.  Victor explained that the CMs are working hard at banning team killers in the particularly TK-enamored Russian servers.

More brutal realism: each tank has dozens of hitboxes. One hit kills are rare, Victor explained – it takes special ammo or a special kind of luck to cook off the ammo in the magazine or otherwise blow your enemy to kingdom come with the first shot. That being the case, a player’s survivability is reliant as much on repairing damage quickly once hit as not getting hit in the first place. Once your tank is destroyed, you’re out of the battle – there’s no respawning a tank. That’s not as boring as it sounds – spectator mode has its charms, and matches only last 5 or 10 minutes.

Also on the realistic side is what Victor dubbed the rock-paper-scissors nature of the game. There is no automatic win tank – even the nightmarish Maus (of R.U.S.E. fame) is highly vulnerable to a puny light tank playing his or her role correctly. Here’s why: heavy tanks are lethal against medium tanks and effective against other heavy tanks, but their massive turrets can’t track faster, more agile targets effectively.  Meanwhile, these light tanks are working as spotters for self-propelled guns (i.e. artillery) whose huge shells can puncture even the toughest armor from a lofty ballistic angle.

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Medium tanks are best at hunting scouts, and both light and medium tanks are well suited at artillery hunting. These SPGs pack an incredible punch at range, but defend poorly due to slow reload times, low muzzle velocity, dogged speed, and thin armor. Finally, Tank Destroyers (tanks with huge guns and a fixed turret) typically have a low profile and work best in ambuscade, employing hit and run tactics to avoid a running gun battle.

Another realistic touch: it’s hard to understate the importance of the rolling, visually busy, and artistically impressive 3D terrain in World of Tanks. In the short time I watched Victor rack up the kills, I saw three different maps that changed things like artillery deployment and patrol formations entirely. Terrain is especially important because if you break line-of-sight, you’re usually (if temporarily) safe. Best of all, the environment is highly destructible, meaning that if you don’t like the look of the urban landscape for an ambush you can do all the cityscape redecorating you like.

One of my favorite features of games like the Silent Hunter series was the idea of a crew, one that can level along with you. World of Tanks takes this concept to the next level, as your crew gains special qualities, additional stats, and even special qualities and medals as you level. Players can also swap out tank parts like barrels, engines, and radio equipment (to expand the radius at which you report spotted targets to artillery). This new tech is available for purchase with the spoils of war – credits and experience points. Players can also earn medals – WoT’s nod to an achievement system.

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Tanks come in ten tiers in each category, from lowly pre-war era Tier 1s to wunderwaffe prototypes and Korean conflict-era models at Tier 10. Victor was adamant that there’s no free-to-play “brick wall” - that it’s entirely possible to play as a free-to-play purist until Tier 4 or so. If you play to that point, you’ll probably be so hooked that shelling out a modicum of cash for gear, cosmetic items (camo and emblems), and consumables won’t be a big deal. For the time-strapped, a $10 premium offers a huge boost to experience gain. Since experience equates to new tanks and new tech, experience is integral to character development.

And if early returns are any indicator, World of Tanks’ microtransaction offerings are priced favorably. In Russia, the only region in which the game is operating commercially, over 1.3 million players are actively playing the game. Players who choose to spend money on the game are spending an average of $25 overall. Victor wasn’t sharing conversion rates, but he did intimate that the game is making money beyond their wildest hopes in Russia.

But isn’t resting on its laurels. Three weeks ago, posted a highly segmented map of Europe on its website, and suddenly World of Tanks had a territory control system. Control is divided among “clans” of 100 players each, and players schedule battles using the web interface.  Clan members keep the client running or log in at the appointed time, and a dialogue appears when it’s time for the territory battle.

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Clan warfare has been a rousing success, with scores of new clans signing up daily. Victor readily admits that the system has outgrown the European map, and he couldn’t be prouder of that fact. “This is what I dreamed of ever since I first set my eyes on Risk,” he intimated, “there’s really nothing negative I can say about how it’s turning out.” I asked what the plan was in the case that a single clan or alliance of clans overran the map. is employing subtle designer-y tricks to keep that from happening, but mostly Victor relies on the fractious tendencies of the average virtual community to keep things interesting.

That’s the real promise of World of Tanks’ clan warfare – that we could have all the diplomatic hijinx and backstabbing of EVE Online without the layers of spreadsheet-suited complexity. Clan warfare mirrors what the rest of the game does so right – distills the fun from the complexity and offers up just enough gritty realism to keep the game well grounded. We thank Victor and the crew for their time at GDC, and look forward to the game’s European and American launch in April.

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