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    World of Tanks: success story on Xbox

    Some say it took just six days to create the world. An impressive feat for sure, but Mike McDonald and Chicago’s Day 1 Studios managed to replicate it in just four. What’s more, their world has a lot more tanks in it. Four days was all it took for the tiny studio to convince a team from Cyprus-based mega developer Wargaming that it could realise the dream of bringing its massively popular free to play multiplayer game.

    In January 2013, it was announced that Wargaming had bought the studio for a rumoured $20 million. Today, McDonald is the general manager of Wargaming Chicago Baltimore, which occupies a couple of floors in a building in Chicago’s West Loop and devotes itself exclusively to the Xbox 360 edition of World of Tanks. Up until Wargaming approached the studio out of respect for its console heritage, it had exhibited little indication that it was interested in aiming its turrets Xbox-ward. Less
    than two years later, World of Tanks: Xbox 360 Edition has grown to become one of the powerhouses of free to play entertainment on Microsoft’s consoles. But reaching that pinnacle involved the same kind of quick thinking and brilliant strategies that characterises its online matches.


    But why Day 1? Perhaps it’s because the studio had form when it came to adapting PC games for console its port of F.E.A.R.enjoyed almost universal acclaim following its release in 2006. McDonald also notes that Wargaming CEO Victor Kislyi specifically had American developers in mind when he realised the need for a console version of World of Tanks. Americans were far more familiar with the console side of gaming, having grown up with it at a time when many of Wargaming’s devs were tucked behind the Iron Curtain.

    Both sides of the pond
    “Right away it was a good two way relationship,” says McDonald. “[Wargaming] were buying us for experience, and we were looking to it for experience in the free-to-play space.” McDonald won’t say what kind of cash the studio brings in compared to its eastern counterparts, but he claims that around 90 million players call the game home across all systems. Last year, PC revenue alone was thought to reach $475 million, and that number may be up, particularly following the official launch of World of Tanks: Xbox 360 Edition in February of this year.

    “I will say right now, categorically we’re the most successful free to play game on consoles,” says McDonald. It hasn't been an easy fight. Oddly enough, it's the free to play model itself that initially posed some of the greatest challenges for Wargaming Chicago-Baltimore. Such payment plans are as familiar as air to PC players accustomed to the likes of League of Legends and Dota 2, and they’re responsible for the headline grabbing moolah amassed by the likes of Candy Crush Saga on mobile devices. But consoles remain relatively untouched. Even now, McDonald says, a good percentage of console players still pick up their favourite games in stores, and are used to believing that downloadable games don’t approach the quality of boxed games.

    “During matches in the beta I can’t tell you the number of times I would hear people asking us, ‘When’s this game coming out?’ or ‘How much will it cost?’” says McDonald. “ They simply didn't understand that you could download it for free.”

    In with the old
    It was this uneasy environment that partly lead to Wargaming Chicago Baltimore’s seemingly odd decision to launch the game on the ageing Xbox 360 rather than on the Xbox One, which launched only a couple of months before the game exited its beta.

    “It made sense for us to go on to the Xbox 360 because of the number of players it had and, more importantly, the number of Xbox Live players,” says McDonald. He emphasises the need for a strong install base if a free to play game is to survive and when development commenced, Xbox One was still a far off, untried concept. “So putting this on a new platform right away might have been the cool
    thing to do and may have gotten some headlines,” he says, “but it wouldn't have been the right thing for players.”

    Wargaming West, as Day 1 was initially rebranded, also found itself confronted with the realisation that it would have to innovate to make World of Tanks’ free to play system work on Xbox 360. Even Kislyi expressed doubts about achieving the success he had seen on PC on the eve of the game’s launch he stated that he expected 75% of players not to pay a penny. Thanks for the vote of confidence, eh?

    “The Xbox 360 wasn't built for the types of microtransactions we were doing, so we had to come up with some creative solutions with Microsoft to make our systems and their systems work well together,” McDonald says. Today, he says, the game is 100% server-oriented, which not only affects factors such as the performance of the targeting reticule but also the game’s microtransactions.

    “Even though some of the stuff is initiated on the console, it’s all handled by our servers, too,” he said. “Microsoft had done little bits and pieces of this for other games, so we pulled a lot of technology from different aspects of that to make this work.”

    But it wasn't just the technical obstacles that threatened to keep World of Tanks from rolling forward on Xbox 360. “It’s a different experience, playing on a console,” explains McDonald. “It’s an experience you usually have in your living room, on a much bigger screen.”

    Accordingly, McDonald emphasises that he’s never considered the Xbox 360 edition a port. It may share some of the same server architecture of its PC counterpart, but the studio built everything else from the ground up. In effect, it amounts to an entirely different game. The challenge lay in meshing the new studio’s understanding of rewarding console experiences with the franchise’s existing, winning free-to-play formula. “We wanted to do what was right for console players,” McDonald says, “not tailor the game for someone who was primarily a PC player who wanted to play the Xbox version on occasion.”

    Console covenant
    Jeff Gregg, lead game designer at Wargaming Chicago Baltimore, notes that the game didn't feel like a console one when the team first started tinkering with it. In response, it broke away from some of the heavy adherence to ‘realistic’ tank gameplay that defines the desktop version. The team first tackled the user interface, ditching the miniscule menus and replacing them with items that could easily be seen while sitting on the couch. It then changed the way in which players can upgrade their trundling iron babies.

    “Since you buy all parts in the PC version individually, people were making tanks that didn't work when they were out in the field, that were too heavy, or suffered from other problems,” Gregg explains. “So we designed groups of components that worked well together in a package you could buy in one go.” He notes that the extensive beta test, which lasted for around a year prior to launch, allowed the team to use player feedback to improve the packages along the lines of what players considered optimal.
    “THE TEAM DOESN'T CONSIDER THE XBOX VERSION A PORT”
    Similar simplifications applied to the crews for each tank. “On PC, the tanks have varying crew sizes from two up to six members with loaders and gunners,” he says. “We simplified that with the ‘Commander’ system, where the commander earns all the skills first.” Such decisions removed many of the hours involved in outfitting your perfect tank by letting you pay for them with one click and jump back into the game with minimal delays.

    Even the movement of the tanks themselves differs. “The PC version plays from a different point of view and plays a little bit slower,” Gregg explains, adding that the plodding pace while historically accurate didn't lend itself to consoles. “So we did things like bring the camera down, widen the field of view and speed up some of the starter tanks. A lot of what we did was increase the acceleration, but not necessarily the top speed, so players got moving and into the action faster.”

    Creative director TJ Wagner is particularly proud of the attention that’s gone into making the tanks look more real when viewed on the larger television screens. With undisguised excitement, he pulls up some imagery showing the tracks on a specific tank, demonstrating how each clanking segment moves on its own.

    Devil in the details
    Associated visual improvements include various accessories such as shovels and canteens, and Wagner notes that the studio has to check with Wargaming’s historians to make sure each item is accurate for the nationality of the tank it adorns. What’s more, Wagner makes sure it’s placed in the right spot and moves accurately on the field. “You have to be kind of a bad driver when you’re testing all this stuff, because you gotta crash into a lot of stuff to make sure everything works properly,” he says. Excuses, excuses.

    Some of the best ideas coming out of Wargaming lately spring from its Xbox 360 team, whether that’s the ribbons that pop up after a match to reward you for certain actions and tactics, or in the maps from the PC game that are subjected to conditions such as snow, rain, fog or darkness all seen first on 360. “You can actually see water rolling down the side of the tank,” says Andy Dorizas, senior artist at Wargaming Chicago-Baltimore. “It sounds like a simple thing, but there’s over 370 tanks in the game you need to apply this stuff to for the physics to work correctly.”
    “YOU HAVE TO BE A BAD DRIVER WHEN YOU'RE TESTING”
    Last summer, the studio threw caution to the wind when it made its biggest break from the game’s ultra-historically accurate reputation with the brief release of a T26E4 Super Pershing tank painted with the stars and stripes of the American flag for the country’s Independence Day. The team dubbed it the Freedom Tank, and it was a massive success.

    “We released this to the public for only a weekend and people went nuts,” says McDonald. A few players bristled at the perceived tackiness of the design, but McDonald claims that the ensuing cries for themed tanks representing other countries drowned out the protests. Indeed, the demand actually pointed toward another avenue for revenue.

    Most recently, the team announced the launch of a specialised M4A3E8 Sherman tank. Not up to date with your M4A range? It’s the one Brad Pitt pilots in the recent film Fury, dummy. But unlike the initial launch of the Freedom Tank, the Fury tank also trundled its way on to the parent PC version, a move that hints that Wargaming Chicago-Baltimore is beginning to make an impact on the World of Tanks series as a whole.

    Back to the box
    Yet the team is quick to point out that it achieved this success by blazing its own trail, and by delivering meaty updates and bug fixes on a monthly basis. “As far as we’ve gone now, I don’t know of any console game that’s diverged as much from an original PC version as we have,” said Wagner.

    If there's a downside, it’s that the Xbox 360 crowd hasn't still caught on quite as much as the team would like in spite of its efforts and as such, a boxed retail World of Tanks: Xbox 360 Edition Combat Ready Starter Pack was released in August to pull in those console players who are still a little freaked by the whole ‘completely free’ thing. The downloadable version itself remains free to this day, but the boxed edition provides value for money in the form of a supply drop of generous goodies such as a Panzer 38H Tier II light tank, 1,500 in game gold, 200,000 in game silver, three days of premium account time and a 30 day membership to Xbox Live Gold.

    For his part, McDonald hopes other free-to-play studios join him on his console crusade. “We’re happy with our numbers, but I would love to see more competition in this field,” he says. “That means people will be more aware of free to play games and MOBA like games on the console. And that’s better for us both.”

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