There was a time when gaming studios thrived in Australia.
Sega had a major presence in Sydney, Rockstar Games launched L.A. Noire from Bondi and THQ was busy producing local cartoon tie-in content. But despite years of success, it wasn’t long before the operation crumbled. Following the Global Financial Crisis and the closure of the Australian Interactive Games Fund, major publishers began exiting the Australian market, taking massive chunks of our local games development industry with them. In 2021, few major developers remain — but despite the pressure, Wargaming Sydney is thriving.
Over the last two decades, the Sydney studio has grown from its small roots to become one of Australia’s largest games development studios. It all started in the early 2000s within fellow Australian studio Micro Forté, where Steve Wang and his team began work on BigWorld, the propriety technology which would go on to underpin several major MMOs and become the basis of Wargaming Sydney’s output.
“BigWorld was part of Micro Forté, one of the earliest games studios in Australia,” Wargaming Sydney’s general manager Steve Wang told Kotaku Australia via Zoom. “In the 2000s, we started developing BigWorld [the software] because that was [during] the rise of things like Ultima Online and World of Warcraft. There was a massive uptake in that period.”
Amidst the success of World of Warcraft and its competitors, the BigWorld team saw a future in online games.
“[We] decided online games were the way to go,” Wang explained. “We created BigWorld Technology, which is sort of a game engine like Unreal, but very focussed on … massive online games. We were able to be quite successful in selling that over a period of time, mainly into China because that was [during] the rise of the internet in China in the 2000s. Big companies like Tencent, which were only a few years old at that point.”
Wang describes the period as a “gold rush” as the age of online gaming pushed uptake of BigWorld technologies forward.
The success of the game engine soon attracted the attention of Wargaming, which became one of BigWorld’s major customers. Back then, Wargaming was mostly producing ‘boxed’ strategy games for the Eastern European market, but it had its eye on the world of online gaming. While Wargaming briefly considered bringing in BigWorld to create a World of Warcraft style ‘fantasy arena’ game, the company instead licensed BigWorld’s technology for World of Tanks, a 2010 MMO that went on to become a major, decade-long success.
As the World of Tanks audience grew, so did Wargaming — to the point where it acquired BigWorld and rebranded the Aussie studio as Wargaming Sydney.
Over the last decade, their output has grown to support with new titles in the World Of franchise, including Warships and Warplanes. World of Tanks remains the company’s flagship title, but Wargaming’s continued expansion has led to mainstream popularity — and even a wild collaboration with WWE, which saw Steve Austin, Becky Lynch, Andre the Giant, Sgt. Slaughter and the Undertaker receive their very own themed tanks in-game.
It was just one of many collaborations for World of Tanks, which continues to grow its fanbase at a rapid pace.
Wargaming Sydney has thrived over the last decade
In 2021, the Sydney office has become a major global hub for Wargaming with multiple working arms. The development side of the company continues to work on developing propriety technologies like game engines and new features for Wargaming titles, and it’s also currently co-developing a new, unannounced title with another studio in the UK.
Beyond this, Wargaming Sydney focuses on community building within the local Australian gaming scene and abroad. Before coronavirus hit, the company would host frequent get-togethers with fans celebrating not only World of Tanks, but the global developers behind the scenes, too.
“[In the past] we’ve been able to invite key community members, our broader community members to actually come in and see what it looks like to develop World of Tanks and other titles,” Jake Truman, World of Tanks ANZ product manager said. “The devs are super keen on that as well, they get involved and use it as an awesome opportunity to get feedback in real time from some of the most relevant people.”
For Eileen Lorenzo, Wargaming’s head of APAC public relations, her favourite moments are when the players interact with the wider team. “It’s [all about] how excited the players get to meet the [development team],” she said. “When Alex [de Giorgio, World of Tanks regional publishing director] came down to Melbourne … Alex was Kanye West. He literally walked in and the guys were like, ‘There he is!‘ and he was surrounded.”
These meet-ups were a unique chance for fans to connect with their fellow players and talk face-to-face with the people responsible for their favourite games. For Wargaming, it was an opportunity to really understand how and why World of Tanks reached so many people to become the roaring success it is today.
One particular moment stands out for the team — when they encountered a family where three generations were playing and enjoying World of Tanks.
“When we hosted our first on-ground player gathering back at PAX 2017 at GG EZ, the first group through the door was a family of three generations — grandfather, father and son who were all playing World of Tanks together,” Truman said. According to him, it was the grandfather of the trio that was ‘leading the charge’ and encouraging his family to get involved.
And that’s just one story amongst many, with fans across Australia pitching in to share their love of World of Tanks and its history.
With the help of local enthusiasts, the team has also shared wild events with its community, including one where players were able to watch cars being crushed by tanks, and another where they were able to ride in them.
“There’s this beautiful group of guys up in Cairns who have an amazing collection of tanks and military vehicles, one of which we actually donated to them about five years ago,” Truman said. “They always roll out the red carpet.”
But coronavirus has thrown a spanner in the works
March 2020 kicked off a new era of “strange times” around the world, and while Australia looked to have briefly conquered the coronavirus pandemic early in 2021, new outbreaks forced restrictions firmly back into place. Wargaming Sydney was already accustomed to Zoom chats and online meetings — a natural byproduct of being part of a global business — but the transition still changed a lot about the day-to-day life and planning for Wargaming Sydney.
“At this time last year, we had a whole bunch of plans of on-ground events and conventions,” Truman told Kotaku Australia. “We had to pivot very quickly and re-evaluate how we were going to do that online. Planning for this year, we were quite optimistic and hoping that wouldn’t be the case again, but here [we are] again.”
It’s been a busy process for the team filled with logistical challenges and a constantly-shifting landscape — but there’s still hope for a more ‘normal’ future for in-person gaming events.
Looking forward to the future
“Given the communities that have built around World of Tanks [were] originally built through Facebook groups and social media channels, we already have a lot of those touch points where we can engage with communities [online],” explained Alex de Giorgio, regional publishing director. “We have a World of Tanks Asia Discord and multiple Facebook groups … [We’re] trying to be where our players are at all times, that’s been a key mission for us with that pivot.”
That pivot means there’s still plenty for fans to be excited about in the near-future, even if in-person events aren’t yet possible.
The third season of the World of Tanks ANZ Premier League kicked off in early September (it airs Fridays on Twitch), and there’s also future plans for World of Tanks to expand its esports presence in universities.
With change on the horizon for covid-era Australia, the World of Tanks community could also be in for a major post-lockdown celebration. LAN tournaments are still up in the air, but Truman and the team are hopeful for a return to normality soon.
“Wargaming has always been a player gathering, on-the-ground company,” Truman said. “It’ll be nice to catch up with the [players] when we can see them, buy a round of drinks for everyone.”
That future still seems a while away for Australians stuck in lockdown, but it is coming.
For Wargaming Sydney, returning to in-person events will be a well-earned homecoming after a terrible, challenge-filled year. 2021 has been hard, but the future will be much brighter.