My first impression of Victor Kislyi didn’t require his presence. His reputation preceded him: One of extravagant parties, tanks at every trade show, and quite possibly more money than sense. At the AIE Alumni conference in Tuscany, I tried to nail down who the real Victor Kislyi is.
He’s used to the attention. After coding on the ZX Spectrum as a boy in Belarus, his Dad bought him one of the first DOS-capable machines in the country. The floppy disks made Kislyi an object of envy, and set him up to learn BASIC, Pascal, and then pursue a game design vocation that would win him Russia’s largest gaming empire.
My second impression of Victor Kislyi is narrowly missing him, because everyone in the resort but me hears the helicopter he had departed on at 8am. I shrugged it off — who among us knows what its like to have such demands on one’s time?
The publishing and localising side of Wargaming has made it a massive operation, and riding its lofty trajectory is the Belarusian bazillionaire who makes my year’s earnings every time he thinks about a tank. Which happens to be a lot; this is a man who has played 13,000 matches of his own game. He loves his tanks. He loves his Worlds of Warthings.
But that’s not the real Victor Kislyi.
My next impression comes at a networking dinner. He’s standing alone, his mind clearly on other matters. Here, he’s a man of one-words answers, leaving the fire of conversation for someone else to tend to. Not rude, or even despondent — but most of his internal CPU cycles are solving problems a world away.
The buffet is blessed with a lavish display of olives, tomatoes, cheeses, biscuits, fruit, and more, but he’s nibbling from a plate of only meat — a pyramid of prosciutto reminding everyone who the carnivore of the games industry is. Though he’s quick to point out he’s not cannibalising the gaming world.
“We’re in the business of killing time,” he’ll later say, addressing the whole room. “We want to steal people from other time killing mediums. Instead of drinking a beer at the pub, or smoking, or watching football on the TV, they could be playing our game.”
He admires Zynga, in that regard. “They turned a million people who never would have been caught dead playing a ‘video game’, into gamers.”
He’s talkative now. He tells a silly joke, and it’s funny. The brick wall from before is replaced by the life of the party, yet…
Neither of those is the real Victor Kislyi.
I sit down with Kislyi in his hotel room. He orders two cappucinos and I mistakenly drink one, not realising they were both for him. He doesn’t mention it.
“Russia was way underestimated by the rest of the industry,” he says. “We managed to double the existing Russian market. It wasn’t as huge as America’s, but it existed. So we doubled it, literally. We opened up this new niche of a common Russian guy comes home from work, he checks homework, checks on his kids, spends some time with his wife, then when everyone goes to sleep, has his own half hour, one hour, two hours, in front of the computer. That’s the kind of market we grabbed. And it was good.”
But grabbing a market, and keeping it, are two different things. Other global development operations of the same size as Wargaming are devoted to yearly releases, such as that of Ubisoft and Assassin’s Creed. With so many quality games demanding a gamer’s attention – not to mention competitors like War Thunder springing up — how does an established game maintain its longevity?
“The secret is very simple, and difficult at the same time,” says Kislyi. “You have to do good updates. So far we have done 22-23 updates, and all those are very meaningful. So the players are not stupid. They also consume content very fast, and then they want a lot of things.
“In the beginning, it was easy. New tanks, new maps. But today we have almost 500 tanks. And many thousands of maps. So it’s not exciting anymore to receive new tanks, so we understand that. So that’s why they want new gameplay modes, clan wars, eSports functionality, better physics, better graphics, a better movement system. We have to pretty much reinvent the game with almost each new patch.
“If you’ve just released the game, let’s say after a few months when you release your first patch, you have to fix some problems and present some cool features. So the first couple of patches are a little bit easier because you just finish what you started. But when you are doing patch #22, all those old reserves of unfinished things are already nonexistent.
“But the psychology of people does not change. They still want something spectacular. And they want those patches fast. And this is global, so there are so many things Chinese players want, and Korean players want, and Russians want, and Germans want, and Americans want, and sometimes those things are opposite. Maybe for a New Years’ celebration decorations, China there’s this rabbit in red colour, Russia is more like a victory day style, and the Russian Santa Claus.”
The meaningful updates he refers to are gameplay focused, which is key. Wargaming will never send players “into the forest to fet the scalps of 10,000 innocent rabbits,” as Kislyi says. The progression system is never the focus.
“We thought we knew everything in F2P after a couple of successful years in World of Tanks. But the World of Warplanes launch was not that spectacular. It is true to a great extent that the biggest competitor for World of Warplanes is World of Tanks itself. And we can see within our own ecosystem and database, this is true. The tank men go check the planes, and go back to tanks. It’s hard to fight.
“However, some mistakes or misunderstandings on our side, were the fact that a real combat, a dogfight, is much more complicated than a tank. And people will drop out much quicker than we expected. It means the numbers are not growing so well, I believe we need to spend more money on marketing just to attract players.”
That was a flash of the real Victor Kislyi, though I didn’t yet realise it. We take a small break to enjoy the Tuscan countryside. It takes him just a minute to soak in the vista before he snaps back into business mode.
“I was a little bit sceptical, or a little bit ignorant, of eSports, I thought it was just for crazy Korean kids or German kids. But this February, my whole world changed when I was brought to WOT grand Final in Warsaw,” he says.
“We made our own World Cup. 12 months of fighting across all regions. The preliminaries had 40,000 teams starting, each team 7 people. Then, throughout the 12 months, the best 14 teams came to Warsaw.
“It’s like in football, teams from different cultures compete, like Brazil vs Germany. How could it be any better? It’s the same game, 22 people and 1 ball on a field, but the styles are different. So we had teams from all over, and historically Russian teams are the strongest. But the fourth place went to Phillipines. The beauty was the Phillipines team was not the classically trained, well paid team like America or Russia, they were more the Brazilian amateurish style, they just played their football style, if you will. They just played WoT, for fun. Their captain was wearing a Batman mask, bringing an element of show biz on stage.
“After it was popular on Twitch, and we blitzed eSports, we definitely saw a surge in registrations, and players. We as an industry need eSports to be bigger and bigger.”
I have time for one more question, and wanting to get to the heart of the man, I ask what part of his job he loves the most. It feels like a softball, even by gaming industry standards, but having seen first-hand how busy he is, I’m genuinely curious.
“I’ve done this since 3 years before finishing uni, and haven’t done anything else since. I’m really enjoying everything” he says.
“But probably meeting with the players. There are so many trade shows around the world. And I usually go to every big show, and some of the players, I’ve met for 3rd or 4th time. Some of them I’ve met in beta. I’d say ‘Hey, how you doing?’ and they’d say ‘That Russian tank is overpowered!’
“But people who remember me being small, I remember them being less skillful, or maybe they have a kid or two now. I meet them from all around. This gives me energy to keep going.
“The most boring part is the corporate business, accounting, taxes schmaxes, but you have to do that in a big company, we are around 3,500 people. And those locations all around the world. You have to keep your house in order when it comes to all those people, and especially taxes. Very boring, but I’m hiring teams of very professional people who are die-hard specialists so I can just look at them and go ‘Yep!’ Those numbers are very boring for me.
On the bus back to Rome, I’m left with the puzzle pieces of a man who changes from moment to moment. He was generous and candid when talking about Wargaming, yet still, I find myself more intrigued by the man himself. Is it just moods? Is it alcohol? There doesn’t seem to be any correlation.
The contemplative loner, the cheerful jokester, the inspiring orator, the informative teacher…
Victor Kislyi is none of these things, and all of these things. He calculates his next action, and then he is what he decides to be. He’ll forge a success story out of it, whether it’s a game, a speech, an alumni event, a simple quip, or just an interview. That’s the real Victor Kislyi.
Perhaps the greatest compliment he can give is his full attention; when you’re being charmed, it’s because he’s decided to do so. But take advantage of those internal CPU cycles while you can — the rest of the time, they’re off with the tanks.