Wargaming is one of the biggest military history video game companies in the world. Its free-to-play online action games include World of Tanks but it is also highly active in funding projects to preserve military cultural heritage worldwide. In the past, the company has been instrumental in the recovery of the world’s last remaining Dornier Do 17 and Panzer VIII Maus among others.
As one of the main sponsors for the internationally renowned TANKFEST at the Tank Museum in Dorset, Wargaming’s latest project is the restoration of one of the few surviving Panther medium tanks. Held in the collection of the Musée des Blindés in Saumur, France, a Panther was chosen that had been captured in Normandy and then used by the French Resistance. The restored tank subsequently made a guest appearance in the display arena at TANKFEST on 29 June 2019.
History of War spoke to both Victor Kislyi, CEO and founder of Wargaming and Richard Cutland, Head of Military Relations Europe, about the company’s development, it’s thriving restoration projects and the importance of military history.
VICTOR KISLYI: CEO, WARGAMING
Kislyi founded Wargaming in Minsk, Belarus on 2 August 1998. Now headquartered in Nicosia, Cyrpus, the company has many offices and development studios across the world and employs over 4,000 people. It is most famous for its World of War series of online action games, which include World of Tanks, World of Warplanes and World of Warships.
I was born in the Soviet Union and had the best childhood in the world. My parents were both scientists in the intelligentsia and I was exposed to art, history, books and chess. If you think about it, chess is a war game and of course WWII was big in the Soviet Union in terms of books, endless documentaries, feature films etc.
Every boy would play with tin soldiers: Red Army versus Germans etc. So military history fascinated me and then computer games happened in the late 1980s-early 1990s. My favourite game of all time was Civilisation, which is on its sixth game now. This is a game of tactics, strategy, empire building and economies.
The strategy and tactics genre grew to be very big. I loved military history and finished school but my father insisted that I got into physics at university. I studied physics for six years but my passion was strategy computer games.
Back in 1995 we first made a board game in my bedroom. Then we made a very simple-looking but smart tactics and strategy war game that was computerised for our own pleasure. I then decided to not pursue a scientific career but just make games. It’s just your typical garage-bedroom pipedream.
Initially, you start making one game but you realise no one is playing it because nobody knows you. However, the internet came in which helped a lot and then we made game after game. They became better and our first commercial success happened in 2000 with a game DBA Online (De Bellis Antiquitatis). It had British tabletop rules for Ancient and Medieval battles and was very historically accurate.
This was all led by just pure enthusiasm and when you are persistent for so many years things start happening. We would make game after game and then in 2007 we realised that although we had some commercial success with discs you then had to submit them to a publisher. We realised the world was moving on to massive multiplayer online games with World of Warcraft being the main example.
Some people who were interested in realistic military history, especially armoured warfare in WWII, suggested that we make this massive, multiplayer online game but with historically accurate tanks. The idea seemed crazy but at that time we only had 60-80 people in the company. We invested everything we had in time and money into the game, which became World of Tanks.
We wisely realised that we should go to the Russian market first, which was not as competitive as the Western or Asian markets and it worked out. We were lucky because in the former Soviet Union tanks were like Spitfires for Britain. Tanks like the T-34 are iconic so it picked up like wildfire. We had financial success and we reinvested in updates to World of Tanks and started up operations worldwide. There are about 19 offices worldwide and we keep updating World of Tanks. We also successfully released World of Warships. This was the same concept but had the Bismarck, HMS Hood, Yamato etc.
Is there an area of military history that particularly interests you?
Personally, as an amateur historian i’m interested in the Napoleonic Wars and WWI. To me, one of the greatest movies of all time is Waterloo. It is iconic and there were no computer graphics at that time. Those redcoats in squares, cavalry charges and cannons are all real. It’s amazing how they did the stories and camerawork and it sends shivers down your spine. I’ve watched Waterloo about 50 times.
Military history is amazing in that it teaches you so many things [that] make your brain work. Studying it and playing games like Civilisation also made me come to only one conclusion: no matter how good those uniforms and parades look, war is bad. Don’t start or make wars because diplomacy is much, much better.
How does Wargaming support projects to support military history?
We started supporting projects in the former Soviet Union where you would imagine there would tonnes of museums and veteran organisations. We then discovered that there were also museums in Europe or America such as the Tank Museum in Bovington that are government or charity funded organisations. In our turbulent economic times there is not much money. They are always short of resources so we found a way to connect to many of those museums and start helping them.
For example, when it came to restoring the Panther there are only a few of them left in the world and we benefit as well. We have community player gatherings, pictures, blogs and documentaries that we make for museums. For instance, we made a computerised room for USS Iowa in Los Angeles. We try to find creative ways rather than just giving organisations a cheque. This means we can sponsor projects like the computer rooms where kids can come and study history or help restorations to happen.
The people at the museums have a very similar philosophy to us. We can talk to each other for hours about history and people need to know about it. All museum people are passionate about history and they obviously don’t do it for money. Doing this is the passion of their life.
For example, when we started coming to the Tank Museum about five or six years ago there were a couple of thousand visitors to TANKFEST who were mostly from the nearby army tank unit. This year there has been tens of thousands of people coming from all over the world. This is because we promote all these museums through our online media. A lot of our online forums and communities will then come and they’re obviously our gamers. They take pictures, tweet and use Facebook to spread this chain effect. It has got much bigger and flourished with our cooperation.
What do you think is the secret of success behind games such asWorld of Tanks?
Computer games are a form of art in their own right. Radio, newspapers and films are all static. No matter how beautiful James Cameron or Steven Spielberg paint a picture, you just sit and watch and can’t do anything for 1-2 hours.
In good games, you are the magician who saves Middle Earth, the knight who defeats the enemy hordes or, in our case, a tanker. In World of Tanks we moved away from Nazis versus Allies directly and its more about strategy and tactics. That’s why we think it picked up away from the military history community to the general public across the world. We made a dynamic form of chess where individuals matter. You have to know how to move, shoot, hide and spot enemy weak points as well as how to coordinate groups of different sizes on different terrains.
It’s like you’re playing chess on steroids. We’ve brought the graphics to the top-notch level of the world’s biggest producers such as Call of Duty: Battlefield. When you play with the tanks its like you’re in a Hollywood Saving Private Ryan, Patton or Waterloo film with tanks.
Some communities have been playing for ten years so we’ve got it right. We also made it free to play so the beauty of the game is that you don’t have to pay. You can just download it and start to play.
RICHARD CUTLAND: HEAD OF MILITARY RELATIONS EUROPE
A 30-year veteran of the British Army, Cutland served with the Royal Tank Regiment. Deployed on various operational tours, including the Iraq War, he has worked with many of the world’s armed forces. Before working for Wargaming, Cutland’s passion for military history led him to teach Armoured Tactics and he worked closely with the British General Staff’s Briefing Team, which was then headed by General Sir Mike Jackson.
What was the idea behind the development of the Panther?
The whole idea was to counter the T-34. At that stage the Soviets were pushing out hundreds of them off the production line and they were working really well. They were efficient, cheap to manufacture and there were a lot of them. The Germans said, ‘We need to counter this’ so they came up with the Panther.
Like the Tiger, the Panthers were great vehicles with great guns although some historians might argue that they were a little over-engineered and not so good for reliability. However, that was the idea of German tactics, which was blitzkrieg. This meant driving forwards as fast as you could to take things quickly.
How did Wargaming work with the Musée des Blindés to restore the Panther for TANKFEST?
We were wondering what we could do to up the ante for the arena displays. We thought for this year, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to take the Panther?’ The Panther was in their collection but it wasn’t running at that time.
One criteria is that it is a German vehicle, which helps. Everybody has this passion for German armour, which in a sense is a very strange thing but true. The Panther also had a really good back-story. At that stage there were only two running Panthers in the world but to potentially have three was fantastically appealing.
We looked at the back-story and it turned out it that this Panther had been abandoned by the Germans in Normandy, captured by the French and used by the Resistance back against the Germans. Its a great story and had everything going for it. That’s when we began the process of working closely with both museums and art development teams to bring these working parts together to see if we could make it happen.
It was lovely project because it was the first time that we worked so closely with a particular museum. They were super excited about getting the Panther restored and making it known to a wider public. We tried to involve the museum in every stage of the development and were constantly updating them with 3D models. Although it was time-consuming it was very worthwhile.
What was the most difficult part of the restoration?
As you can appreciate, restoring any vehicle of this age is not an easy process. Restoring the Maybach engine was probably the most difficult part. They were amazing engines but fraught with problems. There is a lot that can go wrong with them and the trouble is you can never pre-empt anything like that.
How does it feel to drive restored vehicles?
I had the opportunity to drive the Panther, which was amazing. The last tank I served on was a Challenger 2 and it was like comparing a Ferrari to a Morris Minor. They’re worlds apart but it is fascinating. However, all tanks are fundamentally similar as far as the actual driving is concerned although some are much better than others. Some had steering wheels and others had tillers but they all have tracks so there is that continuity.
I’m also drawn to the stories behind the vehicles. I really appreciate technology but I love the human element. That’s probably to do with my army background so to get inside these vehicles and think, “My god, this served in war” is quite a feeling.
As a former tank veteran, how important are events like TANKFEST to increase awareness of the history of armoured warfare?
From a personal perspective, it’s nice to remember these people who gave so much for us to live in this society. By far the best part of my job is to have done so many interviews with WWII veterans, including people who served on tanks in Normandy. I’ve been in conflicts myself but I would never compare something like Iraq to WWII. There are fewer of these veterans every year and I think that keeping history alive is incredibly important, particularly to learn from the lessons of the past.
Images courtesy of Wargaming