Last week, World Of Tanks Blitz rolled onto the Aussie App store after a month of testing its mettle on Europe's digital battlefront. The result is a deliberately leaner machine that still remains faithful to its PC counterpart. True to its name, we reckon Blitz will pave the way for bigger and better conversions of AAA video games as the mobile offensive heats up. Here are a few lessons that the Bungies and Respawns of the world can learn from Wargaming.net’s first iOS offering.
Slowly but surely, the smartphone/tablet gaming landscape is changing. What was once dismissed as a frivolous candy land of retro throwbacks and casual time-wasters is beginning to evolve — both in terms of gameplay longevity and graphical sophistication. If you're on the business side of the equation, there's huge profits to be made too.
This has caused the wider industry is sit up and take notice. Even Nintendo has pledged to end its glorious isolation, with the notoriously insular company hinting that smartphone games could become a part of its near future. While details remain scarce, this is clearly a big deal.
Imagine a world where mobile games are virtually indistinguishable, where smartphone titles are every bit as viable as their console counterparts. Imagine a fully-fledged Halo on the Surface 4 or 5. The technology required to make this happen is here right now.
In fact, the only thing stopping this symbiotic union between console and phone from occurring is the publishers themselves. To put it bluntly, they suck at mobile games — and it's suckage by design.
Most smartphone conversions of console games fall somewhere between uninspired afterthoughts and misanthropic cash-grabs. It’s almost as if these games are being sold on brand recognition alone, with nothing to appeal to the existing fan.
Even when mobile adaptations do get it right — such as the excellent iPhone version of Mirror’s Edge — the result usually bears little resemblance to the parent game it's based on. They might as well be a brand new property.
World Of Tanks Blitz is something altogether different. For the iOS version of its flagship shooter, Wargaming.net refused to crank out a 2D "re-imagining" or scuttled port. Instead, the Belarusian wunderkinds took two years to craft a mobile companion to the PC original using an all-new graphics engine and the latest MMO tool kits from BigWorld Technologies.
It’s an ambitious juggernaut of a game that retains all the parent title's core elements thanks to a combination of programming aptitude and global server support. Adding a metric shit-tonne of tanks probably didn't hurt either.
This was done not through kindness but out of necessity. Over the past few years, World Of Tanks has carved out a niche for itself as the PC’s premiere MMO for armoured vehicular combat; complete with a global eSports tournament. Its user base is therefore every bit as fanatical — and unforgiving — as a platoon of Red Army T-23s.
In other words, these are not customers you want to mess with: anything short of perfection was going to cause nuclear apoplexy. With their backs against the wall, the programming team was forced to deliver a smartphone experience that wouldn't incite mutiny. Against the odds, they managed to pull it off. What's more, they may have inadvertently kick-started a new era of mobile gaming in the process.
During the launch of World Of Tanks Blitz in Taipei, we caught up with the game’s product manager Roman Bui (you can watch him bang on about his favourite real-life tank battles here.) It's clear that Bui is immensely chuffed with his team's efforts, as well he should be — the game currently has a Metacritic user score of 9.5 out of 10. For an iPhone game based on a PC cult classic, that's practically unheard of.
“The thing I’m most pleased about is that we were able to create a mobile game with great graphics and great physics that’s totally unique in the mobile gaming space," Roman explained to Kotaku in an effortlessly cool Eastern European accent.
"I think it will be one of the standout titles for iOS in terms of infrastructure, graphics and overall quality. Its penetration rates, penetration zones, damage rates and weather effects are as good as our customers are used to. We’re extremely proud of the whole product.”
According to Roman, the key to Blitz's success was sheer bloody-minded perseverance: no matter how many technical roadblocks the team faced, they refused to let it compromise their vision or halt their advance. "Not One Step Back", as Stalin would say.
As you could probably guess, one of the biggest potential minefields was converting the mouse-and-keyboard controls into a satisfactory touchscreen interface. To make matters worse, the controls had to be optimised for both iPhone and iPad screens.
"4.5 inches is a very small screen for a tank shooter so our main problem was optimising Blitz controls to suit iPhone," Roman said. "We tested various UIs over and over and over again. In the end, I am thinking the result is not bad. For me personally, this aspect was the toughest of the entire development process.”
All told, the team trialed more than 80 different touch interfaces before deciding on the final control scheme. Abandoned concepts still litter Wargaming.net's PC trashcans like blueprints for crazy war machines — examples include a complete onscreen keyboard, assisted A.I driving with the player only moving left or right and having no onscreen joystick at all. ("We realised this meant the tanks couldn't move," Roman explained.)
We gave World Of Tanks Blitz a test-drive during the game’s official launch and can confirm that the radial control dial works exceptionally well. Players can re-size, change and adjust almost any aspect of the UI, with a range of default layouts to cater to left-and right-handed players.
Doubtlessly the tanks’ sluggish speed helps to mask the control shortcomings, but this is more of a happy accident rather than conceited design (the tanks are slow in the PC version too). In any event, the key achievement here is that the game manages to deliver a similar play experience to its PC predecessor. It is unquestionably a World Of Tanks game. On an iPhone.
We also noticed that PvP tank battles have been reduced to seven players per side rather than the PC's 15. Again, this was a deliberate design choice to encourage quicker and more intensive matches. According to Bui, tank battles now average an explosive four minutes; all the better for quick bouts of mobile gaming.
Another challenge faced by the Blitz team was meeting the inevitable server demands of a graphically intensive MMO with a worldwide install base.
“We have clusters in North America, Asia and Europe," Roman said. "There are a lot of players accessing the game at once, which made it difficult to build the ecosystems. But I think we did a good job; any player who wants to play Blitz will be able to play Blitz without problem.”
This level of architectural support is not normally found in the mobile gaming space. It's clear that Wargaming.net expects big things from the title and is willing to invest big bucks to make it happen.
Indeed, even the trailer for World Of Tanks: Blitz is tellingly extravagant. Remember, this is a game for mobile phones yet the production values put most console trailers to shame:
The Blitz team's next challenge will be finalising a version of the game for Google's Android OS. Exhibiting the same gung-ho attitude, they have committed to releasing the game on every Android devices on the market.
“Developing for Android has been extremely difficult. You have different manufacturers, different screen sizes, different CPUs, different graphical processors, different types of Android OS. It’s very hard to create a build that will suit every device.”
Despite this enormous testing process, Roman is confident that the game will be playable on all current Android smartphones and tablets in the months to come.
It will be interesting to see how World Of Tanks Blitz fares in the months to come. We truly hope it becomes a success, if only so it encourages other publishers to lift their game with killer apps of their own. It's nigh time that our tablets and smartphones utilised their grunt in more than just the occasional cinematic cut scenes.
World Of Tanks Blitz just fired the opening salvo of this New World Order. With any luck, the rest of the industry will return fire. The mobile gaming blitzkrieg starts here.
Kotaku attended the launch of World Of Tanks Blitz in Taipei at the invitation of Wargaming.net