World of Tanks has been live for over eight years now, and has been continually upgraded, re-balanced, expanded, and refreshed by the code wizards at Wargaming. Each year has seen new historical vehicles added from a huge host of nations, now including Italy, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, and Poland.
Yet despite all this new content World of Tanks has faced the challenge that all established, legacy MMOs face: how to retain players. How do you keep your fans coming back for more when they've been playing essentially the same game for years and years?
To this end Wargaming has implemented a succession of special game modes, each playable only for a strictly limited time. These modes create a sense of occasion – their artificial scarcity invokes the dreaded Fear Of Missing Out. They also give the game designers at Wargaming a chance to cut loose and experiment with some pretty wild ideas.
One of the most popular of these modes is Frontline. In one sense Frontline brings World of Tanks closer to a more arcade-like ideal: it's possible to repair a damaged tank in the middle of a battle, and if your tank is destroyed you can respawn. But in a way it's also more realistic. Most World of Tanks games unfold on maps no bigger than 1km square, but the map in Frontline is nine times that size. Seizing control of one of nine zones denies it to the enemy, creating the sense of an invading army sweeping across the landscape.
To learn more about why Wargaming introduced Frontline, we recently spoke with World of Tanks Regional Product Director Alex de Giorgio. It turns out that this new mode has been in the works for quite a while, its inception pre-dating even last year's massive Core engine revamp.
“1.0 was one of the biggest and most difficult updates we have ever had in World of Tanks, one that was nearly 3 years in the making. Yet even during that launch period we were already focused on the next steps. The reality is you only ever really have a minute to stop and look at what has been achieved before it’s on to the next challenge. That’s one of the reasons we were able to launch Frontline just over a month after 1.0. Frontline was the culmination of a number of ideas and concepts we had been playing with over the past couple of years as well as the experience we gained from Grand Battles (30v30 Tier 10 random battles) or one of the many unique events we have run in the past. As a team we are always looking at offering new experiences built around the high-impact tank battles that are at the core of our game.”
It was a great idea, yet implementing Frontline proved to be a huge technical challenge. “We want the widest number of players to be able to enjoy tanks without needing powerful hardware, and the Core engine which we developed for 1.0 has really helped in this regard. Even so, there were a number of technical hurdles we had to overcome to get Frontline to perform the way we intended, especially with the introduction of respawning and the challenge of potentially having 60 tanks congregate in multiple locations in real time.
“Actually in the initial test launch in May 2018 we were not satisfied at all with the overall optimisation of the mode and it took us working on it for the rest of 2018 and beyond to get it to a place where we felt comfortable offering it back to players as a game mode.”
When making those optimisations and tweaks Wargaming didn't go in blind. The dev team at Minsk pored over vast quantities of player data collected during the initial month-long trial run. “The main revisions to the mode were focused on optimisation for less-powerful PCs, how players progress through the tiers and redesigning incentives so it can be redeployed on a monthly basis versus annually.”
Tank crews won't increase their skills in Frontline mode, but grinding away for dozens or hundreds of hours will net other rewards, including consumables and premium tanks. The grandest of these reward tanks is an all-new (and, for now, top secret) Tier IX premium.
“We still have one tank yet to reveal, so we can’t go into too much detail yet 😉 As for the other tanks, the STA-II and WZ-111 are already out in the wild and represent two very different playstyles which will appeal to different types of players. The Emil 1951 is a completely new Swedish heavy tank which is not yet available in-game and will be the one a lot of players will be looking to add to their collection. As for the final tank, let’s just say it should be worth the wait!”
While Frontline is proving an effective means of keeping veteran players engaged, there is one promotional activity that Wargaming has struggled with: eSports. World of Tanks can be fun to play, but it's been quite difficult figuring out how to make it fun to watch.
“We’ve said that our official eSports operations are on hold at the moment, however we continue to tinker with different approaches as we look at what the future holds for World of Tanks. In APAC we ran the APAC leagues in 2018 and are working on a number of other ideas at the moment. The goal for us is to find a fun and engaging experience for our best players, our upcoming players and viewers alike, all the while making sure it ties back to our own end game in a logical way.”
Aside from new time-limited modes and revamped eSports, the 600-odd members of the World of Tanks dev team are dedicated to continually re-balancing their baby, striving to create a better player experience as the game moves into 2019, and beyond. “At the end of last year we detailed our 2019 roadmap and frankly, this year is a big year for us. We’re in the process of rebalancing premium ammo as well as a number of tank lines, we’re shaking up how our matchmaker works, and a ton of other fan requests.
“We are particularly excited about a number of special time-limited modes coming throughout this year. Players won’t have to wait long to see these pop up and while I can’t speak to the details on most of them, let’s just say that you may seem some interesting Tank races in the not too distant future.”
There are ten unlockable tiers of vehicles in World of Tanks; Frontline is only open to players with one or more Tier VIIIs. Coincidentally, Tier VIII is also the highest rank of premium tank available to buy from the Premium Store. When Frontline mode is live, Wargaming also offers a small selection of Tier VIIIs to rent.
Ten episodes of Frontline are planned for this year; Episode 3 will kick off on April 15. For more details, visit WorldOfTanks.Asia