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Kaboom! How World of Tanks' Design Battles History

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Kaboom! How World of Tanks' Design Battles History

Just How Realistic are Realistic Tank Battles?

Arjan Terpstra

26 Aug 2020 ⋅ 4 min read

Remember the very first teaser trailer of World of Tanks? A bunch of green orcs duke it out with elves, before the leader of the orcs is comically smashed by a realistic-looking 20th century tank. The reason behind the trailer is given by Victor Kislyi, CEO of World of Tanks' Wargaming studio, in the 10 Year World of Tanks Anniversary book. Before the launch of World of Tanks (August 2010), the MMO genre was completely dominated by World of Warcraft, Blizzard's epic fantasy RPG. But why use the technology behind online games solely for orc fights, Kishlyi and his team thought? Surely there was room for different types of online player versus player battles?
Image from official WoT book
Behemoth

World of Tanks would prove Wargaming right. With over 160 million registered players worldwide, it is a gaming behemoth, spawning a whole genre of realistic-looking war games (World of Warships, World of Warplanes) based on 20th century warfare. The orcs and elves never left the MMO scene, but the rise of themes based in reality instead of high fantasy is undeniable.
Image from official WoT book
Looking at World of Tanks, with its hyper-realistic and historic tanks fighting on realistic-looking battlefields, one may be forgiven to call WoT a 'realistic' MMO game. And yet it is no tank simulator - not by a mile - as the game developers take many liberties with historical realism. The game may boost hundreds of tank models from 11 nations, all recreated from original blueprints with maximum authenticity, but also throws in a bunch of tank designs that were never actually produced or saw any kind of action. The IS-7, a massively popular Soviet tank in the game, is a case in point. The Heavy Tank never made it to mass production, the only discernible 'action' of one surviving (real-life) IS-7 its transport to Moscow’s Kubinka Tank Museum.

Creative liberties

The same creative liberties are taken with the many maps in the game. It may surprise players (called 'tankers' in World of Tanks parlance) but there is no actual town of Himmelsdorf in Germany, and no place called Ensk in Bellarus. Ensk, inspired by the immediate surroundings of Wargaming's homebase in Minsk, was conceived as a 'typical small Soviet-era town', its name a phonetic adaptation of a Russian word-play: 'N...sk', meaning 'Anytown'. Both maps are completely made-up, using historical references to find the right tonality.
Image from official WoT book
Maps like 'Overlord' take the fiction a full step further, as they represent 'plausible alternate historic scenarios' - it's the Normandy landings, but not as we know them. This of course stretches the history of World War II to breaking point, but that's ok - the gameplay possibilities on the map are fantastic, and that's what matters most in map building. It will be no surprise then to see other maps to be completely fictional universes - the final step away from any pretense to show a historical fight in its historical surroundings. The 'Glacier' map takes the cake in this respect, with its warship graveyard dominated by models of the legendary U.S. Midway and the German Bismarck ships covered in ice. In reality, these ships never met or were beached somewhere in a Nordic environment - it simply was a fun idea to pack a couple of World of Warships' 3D models in ice and have tanks drive over them.

Spherical tanks

These diversions from history are completely in line with what you wish for in an MMO. Tankers want historically accurate placing of welds and camo on their tank, but this wouldn't mean a thing if the tank didn't also feel balanced in gameplay, fun to drive, and nice to dress up in new '3D styles' - (called 'skins' in most other games). For maps it's the same: players couldn't care less about historicity when a map would feel unbalanced, favoring one of the two battling sides. This is also the reason behind the creative and non-historical approach to many in-game events, like driving spherical tanks on the moon (in April Fools' events), engaging in tank races, or playing a little tank football in true Rocket League style, where you bounce a giant metal ball around a stadium while firing at opponents. This is pure fantasy, of course. Which proves you can take an Massive Multiplayer Online out of the fantasy genre, like Kishlyi wanted, but you can't take the fantasy genre out of an MMO.
Image from official WoT book
Cook and Becker together with Wargaming produced and published the official 10 Year World of Tanks Anniversary book, detailing the game's many tanks, maps and events in 300 beautifully designed, full-color pages. Click the link to find out more!
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