Multiplayer vehicular war game World of Tanks has finally made its way to PlayStation 4. The free-to-play game first launched in North America for PC in 2011, followed with an Xbox 360 release in 2014, and hit the Xbox One in July 2015. With the game now available for current-generation platforms, we speak to lead game designer Jeff Gregg about the challenges of bringing the game to PS4, and discuss the future of the free-to-play genre.
GameSpot: What are the key differences in graphical fidelity that we can expect from the PS4 version of the game when compared to the Xbox One version?
Gregg: Graphically, we made a big point to try and make sure that they were on par with each other. Both machines are so powerful in different ways that our content was able to look almost the same. If you showed me two screens and put a gun to me head and said, "Which one is the PS4?" I probably could not tell you if there was no HUD elements on.
So we didn't hold back, but just the content we had that we're moving over to the PS4 looks pretty similar, or has almost exactly the same fidelity. Which is both cool for the players and for us, just so we can post content to the PS4 faster, and once they're both at parity do stuff for both platforms with less cycles. Hopefully people will just play on whatever console they own and no one's going to feel jipped.
You've worked on the game for both of the current generation consoles. What were the key challenges you faced in bringing the game to the PS4 specifically?
Honestly, the key challenge was integrating with PSN. That's not a ding against Sony's PlayStation Network at all. It's just different enough but does the same things as Xbox Live that we didn't have the same kind of relationship that we had with Microsoft when we first did the 360 version. [Microsoft] was partnered with us. So we were just looking underneath the hood of Xbox Live all the time, you could say. We could say that this needs to be different, and then they would say 'your game needs to be different this way, and you build your structure this way.' And we came together and kumbuya we made a game. I mean it wasn't that easy, but you know what I mean.
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But with PSN it was more like, we would come in and say, "This is how it works," and they would say, "Uh, we don't know… here's how our system works!" It was a lot of trial and error just to get the systems up and running. It's fun to talk about now because it's behind us, but when we did the first open beta for the PlayStation… I wish there was a giant red handle to turn on the servers, because part of it was like, "Is it going to work?" We'd never done it on that big of a radius and with that many people trying to access the server at the same time. And it did. So like, yay. I mean I'm not trying to paint us as idiots being all, "Oh whatever, it works!" But that integration was not as easy as we thought it would be. I think that was the case for both sides of the fence, for Sony and for us. Now that it's working right we're ecstatic.
Do you think we'll ever see crossplay between the two versions?
If you put that in front of my desk to sign, I would be like "Absolutely!" But the real truth is when you're in Sony you're in your PSN account. All of your handshaking, and all your account details, what tanks you own, it's all kept in their ecosystem. And it's the same thing with Microsoft. Those two parties just don't talk to each other. Linking back to your previous question, they're both very different structures. We can't do it. Until they talk to each other, if they ever choose to, and I'm not saying that they should just talk to each other, but that'd be awesome. But there's such a big barrier that it's not really in our hands. The systems are setup to work, your account is tied to PSN or XBL, and that's just the way it is.
What are some modes you'd like to bring into the game in future?
One of the big pushes that we're doing, we've done a lot of work trying to get people that are new to the game. Especially since we knew we were going to have a tournament for new players on the PS4. It's to teach them what's cool about World of Tanks without just throwing them into the fire. We've discussed it, and a lot of times just going into a multiplayer game where you're fighting other humans that want you dead, it can be like "How do I move--oh I'm dead." That's not really great. So we made this system called IPX, or Initial Player Experience. It's to try and teach you how to play without insulting you and taking you to school. Or lying about what the experience is going to be once you start facing other people.
What a lot of our focus in this is, what are the social elements? What keeps you coming back? What are our opportunities? What does esports even look like on consoles for World of Tanks? What does any kind of tournament that we can do look like? How can we expand the clan systems to make sense within the console environment? That's where a lot of our focus is. Now that we have the infrastructure and all these awesome consoles, and the awesomeness that is Sony's PS4, we can start using our bandwidth and our engineering time to figure out what that's going to look like. There's stuff that will hopefully come soon that will be really exciting on those fronts.
It is a case of the studio focusing on bringing updates to the PS4 version to bring it up to scratch to the other platforms? Or are you still updating the Xbox One version and bringing in new content in at the same time?
Everything. Everybody's important, every console is important. Our creative director TJ Wagner basically sat everybody down and said, "This is the new thing! Everybody look at the shiny new thing!" I mean, it wasn't quite as melodramatic and formal as it sounds… but the reason we live and breathe and exist, until the PS4 version launched, was our Xbox players. And they're going to get just as much love. It might be different love sometimes, because of contractual obligations. But nobody gets left behind. We are going to make sure that both consoles always get love.
I don't know how to speak to speed, but the short answer is yes, new stuff will keep coming before parity is reached. Because new stuff is always cool. It was in the pipe before the PS4 was even born, and we're not changing that.
What are the major differences you face working on a more traditional disc-based game versus a free-to-play game?
Living up to the expectations of the player. We can honestly, and obviously, do whatever we want, right? But we always have to anticipate what the new people are going to think about this new feature. What are the pros, the hardcore people that are playing thousands of hours going to think about this feature? Is it what they're asking for? Is it right for the game? What is this going to do to our balance? What is this going to do for our economic model?
The fact that we have people that like what is on their televisions right now because they're playing it, is an expectation that is really different from a disc-game. It's basically a game you're making for a couple of focus testers in the development team. You shoot it out there and you hope everyone wants it. There's a danger of dipping [in audience] with every new feature modification. That takes a lot of time--whenever something is added or removed or changed we consider all the angles and make sure that it's going to meet its goals and that nobody's going to rage quit the game.
It's really important, and I really actually enjoy listening to what people say about that kind of stuff. It's a two-way street, and it's super exciting for a designer to have multiple clients and hear what they think and hear "oh they love it!" That's really fun.
What are your thoughts on where the free-to-play genre is going?
The bulk of my career before Wargaming has been disc product or cartridge product, if you want to date me. You put stuff on a physical piece of media, you throw it out there, you hope they like it, and maybe after some DLC and some patches, that is what it is. I think the cool thing that free-to-play has because it's a zero barrier to entry in terms of money, it has this ability to adapt to not just what the development team wants to do, but what the audience is demanding. If you think of a difference between a play and stand-up comedy or improv, where you're looking straight at the audience, you can know right away if you're bombing and you can try to adjust. Hopefully you don't panic. I think that is amazing.
Where I think, or where I hope free-to-play and a lot of these games go is kind of similar to what I mentioned before. Removing that barrier to when you can play. A step in that direction is like the Vita and the PS4, where you can play anywhere you are. And the social aspect. Because people ultimately keep playing because they're part of a community and they really enjoy either actively engaging and making a clan or even engaging with the social aspects above and beyond more than the matchmaker. I think that is where a lot of the free-to-play to games are going to go. More into a social environment and removing as many barriers as they possibly can to just playing the game.
Like if I had unlimited funds and a magic genie who could make wishes I would make the same system on every piece of hardware that has instant invites and it will just find you. We can just form a clan and there's absolutely no barriers to you jumping in a game when you want and leaving and that whole ecosystem is preserved. That's where I want it to go in future.