Chicago's Wargaming West is producing a version of the wildly successful free-to-play phenomenon World of Tanks for the Xbox 360. Like the PC version that came before, World of Tanks Xbox 360 Edition puts players in command of WWII-period armored vehicles, from nimble scout tanks to large-caliber indirect-fire artillery. It borrows heavily from MMO games and first person shooters to create gripping tactical battles. The game has thrived over the past three years due in part to its rich clan structure, where teams duke it out across multiple maps on multiple fronts.
American and German tanks will take the field in an open beta scheduled to begin soon after E3. That beta will be carefully-scaled for release on the Xbox Live Marketplace. When the game goes live world-wide later in 2013, British tanks will also be available. Wargaming West has already announced an expansion, dubbed "The Russian Invasion," that will unlock the Red Army as a playable faction.
Wargaming West is inviting attendees at E3 to the closed beta, which has been ongoing since early this year. When we visited their studio in mid-May we were told that the game was already running on retail Xboxs in the wild. The demonstration we played was a solid experience, a faithful port with analog controls and a user interface specifically designed for larger, lower resolution screens.
The Xbox 360 game will not be connected to the PC title. Wargaming West sees the console as a seperate user base, and has not made efforts toward cross-platform play with their more than 60 million other registered users. Instead they're developing for the console in order to leverage the 8-year-old device's large install base and add value to the tens of millions of units already in consumer homes.
The Polygon Preview: World of Tanks Xbox 360 Edition
The western front
"It is a different play environment," said Denny Thorley, General Manager of Wargaming West. "Microsoft's done a tremendous job with the Xbox 360 and the social environment. We're gonna take advantage of that."
Wargaming West will also take advantage of Wargaming's proprietary Big World server architecture, a a platform known for having staggeringly high numbers of peak concurrent users. Executive Producer and Creative Director TJ Wagner tells Polygon they wanted to leave as much as possible of the already successful game's server code in tact.
"Microsoft's done a tremendous job with the Xbox 360 and the social environment. We're gonna take advantage of that."
"One of our number one goals when we started this project," Wagner says, "was don't touch the servers, because ... one, it wasn't our expertise. Two, they just work. And so, leave the server alone. Make all the changes on the client."
Day 1 Studios was responsible for one of the first games to fully support Xbox Live, 2002's MechAssault published by Microsoft. But after the release of F.E.A.R. 3, published by Warner Brothers Interactive, the studio fell on hard times. A contract with Konami fell through, and they were forced to lay off a significant portion of their staff.
Wargaming purchased Day 1 Studios earlier this year and renamed it Wargaming West. All of the employees we talked to were excited to be part of a bigger company. Wargaming West contains a core team that's experience spans both Microsoft consoles. Wagner himself is a 10-year veteran, and the average tenure of the 30-plus person World of Tanks team is 6 years.
Establish a beachhead
Porting a successful property to a new platform required kit gloves.
"We did it in a kind of unique way," Wagner says. "We have our own proprietary engine that we developed … that Wargaming also acquired. And the client-side of the game that runs on the Xbox ... runs [on our] Despair engine. … What we did was take their assets and their server code, which is based on the Big World server … and we blended the two of them."
Wagner says that the team was working on a new console-based mech combat game, called Reign of Thunder. While searching for a publisher Day 1 had conversations with Wargaming, who asked his team about the potential for porting World of Tanks to consoles. Day 1 was able to prototype the game on 360 architecture in mere days.
Wargaming liked what they saw and, in 2012, moved quickly to acquire the studio. Things have only sped up since they've been given unfettered access to Wargaming's server code and art assets.
The game that we played lacked a few features, including a proper radar system for the game's larger artillery pieces and a system to support clans. Gameplay also had some hitches, including dropped frames when zoomed in on targets and lag when switching between players after your tank had been knocked out. We were assured these issues would be cleared up, but Wargaming West acknowledges there are limitations to what the 360 can do when compared to a modern PC.
The game was, however, undeniably fun. We were able to play on 6 different maps, ranging from small cliffside Italian towns and French hamlets, to stark desert landscapes and dense rocky ranges. Some are so large the team has conveniently mapped cruise control to the D-pad.
Light tanks scurried around the map, earning experience for spotting the enemy, while heavy tanks plowed through choke points to score solid hits on the opposition. In the distance, tank destroyers sniped from hull-down positions far across the map. As the battle raged, secondary explosions roared from knocked-out tanks and columns of smoke filled the horizon.
A common complaint among PC players is that World of Tanks devolved into a pay-to-win game, where players willing to spend more real-world money than the competition could tip the scales in their favor. Wargaming has had a new economic model in development, and talked about it in detail earlier this month. That model has been built into World of Tanks Xbox 360 Edition from the game's inception.
A war of ideas
Regardless of the rebalancing, the economics of World of Tanks will be new to most console players. Anyone who plays the game will earn experience, used to unlock tanks and accessories, and silver, which is used to actually buy the vehicles and equipment. Players will also be able to take their existing Microsoft Points into the game to purchase premium gold currency.
Gold will remain the fastest way to accelerate progress in-game, through the purchase of premium tanks and premium accounts.
When used together, premium features compound the amount of experience and silver currency players earn. This is how World of Tanks make will make its money on the 360, by charging players to accelerate their growth in the game.
"One of our number one goals when we started this project was don't touch the servers. They just work."
Wagner says that his goal is to make each track, or tank class, have about 100 hours of unaccelerated content to unlock. This means that, in the American ranks alone, there are 400-500 hours of gameplay required to unlock all the options. With a premium tank, and a premium account, you could cut that down by as much as a factor of three.
World of Tanks Xbox 360 Edition will be in beta throughout 2013, and the world-wide release date is not yet known. The game we played was stable, exciting,World of Tanks Xbox 360 Editionand worked well for 15-on-15-tank skirmishes. Whether Wargaming West can create the same momentum that propelled the PC version of World of Tanks to 60 million registered users will depend largely on console gamer's appetite for the complex economies free to play games bring with them.
Update: Beta registration is now open.