Develop travelled to Paris to discover how the MMO giant is maturing
Wargaming’s Frédéric Menou (pictured above) and his staff have been getting funny looks from their new neighbours at the prestigious Tour Horizons office building in Paris.
“It’s a very funny thing to come into a corporate building with a lot of people in suits and bring 171 Wargamers here,” he chuckles, casually dressed as he is in a navy blue polo shirt and jeans. “Everybody’s looking at us like, ‘who are they?’”
What the suit-and-ties from the likes of pharmaceutical company Roche and hospitality corporation Sodexo probably aren’t aware of is the $474.93m in revenue, according to SuperData, that the World of Tanks developer made last year. A sum that’s enabled the rapidly expanding firm to relocate its European headquarters to this 18-storey building, which was designed by French architect Jean Nouvel and resides in the Boulogne-Billancourt, on a site formerly occupied by Renault’s car production plants.
“We had this tremendous success and then we had to run after it. We had to grow very quickly,” Menou, Wargaming’s managing director of EMEA & NA, explains during Develop’s visit to the studio.
Catching up with this “exponential growth” has been a big challenge, but Menou says a mixture of Wargaming’s family culture and a do-it-yourself mentality has allowed it to not only learn from its mistakes, but take charge of opportunities that its free-to-play military MMO was never even intended for.
There were fewer than 50 staff when Wargaming first opened its European division in France in 2011. Escaping the cramped conditions of their old office was a key reason for the move, Menou says, and its 171 staff now occupy an entire floor of the three-tiered building at Horizons.
“We built this family as closely as we could. We like to work with each other and we’re convinced that liking the people you work with is key to the future the company and for the motivation of everybody in the long term,” he says. “We believe that being on the same floor and seeing each other every day, and having a mingling area where people can talk to each other and play pool helps a lot. And the door to my office is always open.”
Wargaming had moved in only a week prior to Develop’s visit – the first publication worldwide to do so. But even at this stage, wandering around the open-plan studio, there was a sense that communication and collaboration are both encouraged by the space.
Floor-to-ceiling windows treat the eye to some striking views of West Paris. Whiteboards dotted about the workspace allow staff to scrawl ideas and pictures. The meeting rooms have sci-fi-style, full colour displays showing who is present in them and when they are next free. Military-themed décor – ammo crates, sandbags, cameo netting – adds to the considerable paraphernalia strewn across each desk.
The European HQ is responsible for publishing Wargaming’s titles across the continent. Staff work on projects that have left the concept stage of development, providing publishing feedback and figuring out marketing strategies for the various markets. And with over 60 million registered WoT players, community management is also a big part of what goes on here.
Together with his original staff, the family culture that Menou has built up has so far attracted 21 nationalities to the studio.
“It is very important to keep that family feeling,” he says. “And I have to admit it’s cheating a bit when you’re trying to build that, because there are a lot of people coming from other countries. They don’t have they’re family or friends next to them, so they need to rebuild something here.
“The best part of it is, no matter where you’re coming from, you’re Wargaming first, and then you’re part of your community, which helps build that family feeling. But it’s hard work.”
Ironically, French nationals are actually in the minority at the studio. But Menou says it would actually be “a mistake to have more French staff than Germans or Polish, where our strongest communities are”. He also feels that having its European HQ in Paris, as opposed to London or Brussels, gives the MMO maker a solid advantage.
“Now with Ubisoft, Blizzard and Wargaming, there’s kind of a publishing hub in Paris. I actually find it very healthy. When you’re in a country and you know there’s no other options open to you besides moving to another country, then it becomes difficult for employees and for companies.”
Situating its mainland HQ in Blizzard’s back garden was another unconventional move by a company whose rise doesn’t fit the prescribed MMO developer mould.
At a time when multiplayer gaming was becoming more about twitch reactions or grinding, the slower-paced tension of World of Tanks seemed destined to be confined to a niche market. Four years later and that prediction has been detonated.
BATTLING FOR SPORT
Wargaming has begun expanding its military MMO series to new platforms, such as Xbox 360 and tablet computers, and for the last two years it has been working two new additions to the World of family, World of Warplanes and World of Warships.
The developer started its own eSports tournament last year with more than 40,000 teams playing competitively, and, based on its reception, has elected to throw $10m at promoting its eSports efforts in 2014.
“I think for all of us it’s clear that eSports is very important,” Menou says when we asked if eSports has become a primary pillar for Wargaming’s business. For us it wasn’t in the beginning, to be honest. It just became a need when the players started to ask us.
“Then we started doing the Wargaming League, with the regional finals and then the grand final. We saw that it did work. And I have to be honest, we were kind of surprised at the success of it because we hadn’t thought that WoT was made for eSports.
“But looking at the success of it, this is showing a different way of playing. These players are really amazing; the skill and strategy level is very high. We saw an entertaining match during the grand final. We also saw a lot of things we can improve. That generated great excitement both for players and for us. I think it was very energising internally for us, and for players.”
ROLLING OUT ON MOBILE
eSports has turned out to be a big boon. But in the last 12 months, Wargaming has also undertaken the herculean feat of forging new ground for itself on mobile and console.
Experimentation is the one constant. Menou is open about the fact that Warplanes, the company’s aerial combat MMO, released in November 2013, hasn’t exactly taken off, having attracted some four million users since launch – a modest amount compared to its land-based sibling, but enough to show that there is an audience for such a game experience. Menou says the team is already trying to figure out how it can make Warplanes more enticing. But in the meantime, there’s plenty on its plate.
Take World of Tanks: Xbox 360 Edition, the first free-to-play title of its kind to appear on Xbox Live. This was the premier title from Wargaming West (formerly Day 1 Studios), which the company acquired in January 2013. Menou says the biggest challenge here was learning how a “fully online company” could make its F2P offering attractive to console gamers that are used to premium titles.
Another example, World of Tanks: Blitz, is taking the game to iOS and Android. Currently undergoing beta testing, the game shrinks the action down to seven-on-seven battles that can be tackled in shorter bursts. Fully 3D with an intuitive UI, it’s already looking like it will become a hit with the commuter who’s partial to armoured warfare.
For most studios, tackling such a broad array of projects would be daunting and certainly not something many would launch into without prior experience. So while the company has a dedicated mobile team and has hired talent specifically for mobile development, Menou says that Wargaming’s nature is to learn by doing: “I think it’s in the DNA of company. Because that’s what we did for World of Tanks.
“If we were to look at the books for World of Tanks, I don’t think there are a lot of chapters that would have helped us. So we had to learn by ourselves. Make some mistakes, learn and correct them.”
Of course, as Menou acknowledges, Wargaming isn’t shy of hiring or buying the talent it needs in order to achieve its goals. In the last two years, it has acquired middleware provider BigWorld, Gas Powered Games and the aforementioned Day 1.
When asked whether the company could have got where it is today if it hadn’t brought more people into the Wargaming fold, Menou told Develop: “I don’t think so. With the line-up and the schedules we have, I don’t think we could have achieved them without bringing a lot of people on board.
“The vision from Victor [Kislyi, Wargaming CEO] was to go somewhere that was very clearly defined for us, and that was World of Tanks on every platform, and developing the trilogy of World of titles as fast a possible.”
COMPETING AGAINST ITSELF
Thanks to pursuing growth areas, such as mobile, and the surprise bounty of its eSports league, Wargaming has a lot to smile about.
Menou says its new European office is a sign that the company is “maturing”. What’s more, he feels the strange reactions that he and his staff have been getting from their suit-wearing neighbours are actually “really cool, because I think that’s kind of what happened when we entered in the industry”.
Following the success of World of Tanks, rival titles such as War Thunder have been launched in an attempt to hijack players’ appetite for military MMOs. Menou, however, is not scared by the competition. Not when the continent’s biggest sporting event is mere weeks away and he’s got a studio to run.
“I think we’re our own competitor,” he says. “And most of the time it’s just how good are we going to be in improving our project. Because releasing a product is just one part of the contest. It’s then about how you support your player and how you update your game. How fast can you answer those questions?
“This is our real challenge. We’ve had competition from a lot of different publishers in free-to-play for a while. This is healthy. It forces us to challenge ourselves.
“But, to be honest, I’m more worried about the World Cup this summer than any of our other competitors.”