World of Tanks Blitz turns 10 on mobile and hits $1B in lifetime revenue | Thaine Lyman interview

Wargaming‘s World of Tanks Blitz has turned 10 years old. It has generated more than $1 billion in lifetime revenue and reached 180 million registered players.

Thaine Lyman, general manager of MS-1 Studios at Wargaming, proudly points out it was and is a real game on mobile, and it is not an “alarm clock simulator.” It launched a decade ago with eight maps and three tank nations.

The mobile game had to make it through some challenges. Getting the performance right was one matter across a variety of mobile devices. It also had to find the right gamers who appreciate a lightweight experience of tank fighting on the go. Now it has expanded to Windows 10, Steam, MacOS and Nintendo Switch. It has full crossplay and crossprogression. It has also beefed up its graphics fidelity and performance.

There are now 30 maps, 11 game modes and over 500 historical tanks. Lyman said in an interview that Blitz will celebrate its 10th anniversary with a flurry of events going on inside the game this year.

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One of the key lessons? Set no limits. Wargaming itself is more than 25 years old, as it was founded in 1998.

June has already started with a special birthday event where players can win a brand-new Tier VIII and favorite Tier X tanks. Tankers can also claim a special festive container filled with the Blasteroid tank, a themed avatar, and a profile background before June 30.

July rolls out a space-themed party and cosmic activities, bringing back the “Objective: Sheridan Missile” event featuring the Sheridan Missile tank. Players can also look forward to a special collaboration with a world-famous sci-fi movie franchise, taking the party even further into the cosmos.

August will bring in the beloved among players Mad Games event returning for 10 days along with the highly anticipated seniority awards. Tankers can also expect a totally epic (and secret) gift to conclude the festivities, celebrating a decade of virtual tank battles.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

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Thaine Lyman talked about 10 years of World of Tanks Blitz.

GamesBeat: What’s happening for the anniversary?

Thaine Lyman: I know you and Victor [Kislyi, CEO of Wargaming] had a long conversation about all the things that went on in the last couple of years. I’ll walk around the outside of that. Blitz is now celebrating its tenth year. We have a bunch of cool things lined up that I can tell you about, a bunch of events going on in the game. I can tell you about the history and some good numbers and interesting facts.

The thing that’s been the most fun over these last several years–when the game started, it was a really cool mobile game. It was one of the few games on mobile that was a game, frankly, and not just an alarm clock simulator. Push buttons, come back in 10 minutes, push another button. It was one of the first games you could play for as long as you wanted and enjoy like a regular game that just happened to be on mobile. It was a seven on seven version of the World of Tanks PC game. There were changes because of mobile screen sizes and memory limitations and processing power. You couldn’t do a 15 on 15 game with artillery and so on the way the PC works. But it started there.

The more we’ve been on mobile, the more we’ve found a very different voice for the game. World of Tanks PC, what people traditionally think of as World of Tanks, is epic and intense and military and historical. It’s a hunting game, almost. You’re hiding and positioning yourself to get around on someone. It’s a cool, intense experience. But it feeds this very military fantasy. I’m a soldier in a tank on a battlefield doing real historical stuff.

Blitz, over time, we’ve built out away from that historical focus and toward the joy of driving a powerful tank and blowing stuff up and having fun with it. Where the PC tends to appeal to a more mature player who’s into that sort of thing, half of our audience is Gen Z on Blitz. We’ve grown, despite all the things Victor told you about–we’ve grown consistently year over year. We’re over $1 billion in lifetime revenue on Blitz. Which surprised me. You don’t think about it, but when you add it all up, there we are. We have 180 million installs across the globe.

We’re kind of the irreverent younger brother in the World of Tanks. We’re very much our own distinct and different game that’s designed to appeal to a different audience. The analogy I use a lot, if you think about going to see a Marvel movie, going to see Avengers is the PC game. That’s a very different experience from going to see Guardians of the Galaxy. We’re Guardians of the Galaxy. They’re both cool, but what makes them cool is very different. They appeal to a different kind of gamer. I’m proud that we’ve leaned into that and become less and less historical, more and more about Dracula tanks and the whole gothic line we have. The post-apocalyptic line. More fantastical, allowing for more customization, non-historical skins.

We’ve seen that when you have a non-historical skin that’s kind of fanciful and fun, and then a historical skin that’s really cool, but definitely looks like a traditional military vehicle–when we have both of those available, the non-historical stuff tends to tell better, by a lot. Like three to one. It’s that extreme.

GamesBeat: Is that the different kinds of microtransactions, the things that people buy?

Lyman: Right. The different ways you can make the tanks look. We’ve tried to make self-expression part of the core value of Blitz. If you want to be wacky and weird and not worry about which era your tank was in, what battles it played a role in versus which other historical tanks, and you want to lean into your crazy Defender tank with this nuclear reactor bath, or Dracula with the double shot stake cannon, that kind of stuff, then you can do that. PC hoes a very different row than we do.

GamesBeat: For your events, do you still do things on historical anniversaries, like D-Day?

Lyman: At the beginning those things were very critical for all of us, for the whole World of Tanks family. For us, it’s less and less about the historical events and things like that. I have a huge respect for the sacrifices that the Greatest Generation made, all the things they did to get us here. I feel like as a company we do a great job with Warships and Tanks PC in honoring these things. With Blitz, I think our audience is more excited by–for Gen Z it’s not even just their grandfather. It’s his father or grandfather that were in the war. We try to put in front of them things that are more in their memory.

We have events like–we had a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles event that just wrapped up recently. We have a Star Trek event that’s coming up in July. In August we refresh our Mad Games, which is kind of our own Mad Max world, that post-apocalyptic era with all the crazy spiky tanks. We did that with Korn, too. As an old guy I joke with my team. Whenever we talk about doing a musical collaboration with a band where I recognize their name, I say, “Wait, are we sure? Is that the one we want? I’m not sure my kids are into this.”

For people who maybe haven’t realized how different a game Blitz is to World of Tanks PC–if the idea of playing in a tank sounds like fun, but the idea of being steeped in the World War II historical period sounds less appealing, give Blitz a try. You may find that it speaks to you in a way that what people traditionally think of as World of Tanks maybe doesn’t. For the people who’ve played for a while and moved away, now is a great time to come back and check it out. A lot of things have changed in Blitz since five years ago, 10 years ago. Plus they have a bunch of rewards waiting for them when they come back and play.

GamesBeat: What sorts of bigger investments do you make that reflect that focus on fun over history?

Lyman: Again, we try to do a lot of pop culture integrations. We work with things that have an interest and a following among that younger group. With all the events and things we’ve been doing–if you look at the last six months or so, we’ve gone in these seasons and themed out and built story and fiction into our battle passes. We’re giving more of a “Why are you here?” view into the Blitz universe. How do you find yourself driving around in these crazy tanks? We’re hinting at a lot of it, dancing around it. We’re not building a super deep narrative as yet. But we have a lot of plans that we’re leading toward in some bigger releases.

Whenever we build an event, we use it as a chance to push the boundaries, do something different with the gameplay. Upcoming we have a Sheridan missile event where you have a chance to use a missile-firing vehicle. It’s something we had early on, took it out, made some changes, and now we’re bringing it back again to do some different things. Or the gravity mode. We had our lunar event a while back where you had tanks on the moon. Everything was operating in this very loose gravity. Suddenly you have tanks doing massive jumps like a dune buggy. Or the Mad Games, where we brought in very sci-fi powers – healing, teleportation, vampirism, invisibilty. We’ve tried to lean into embracing the fanciful and fun with the ways that we give players the ability to personalize the look of their vehicles in the game.

Thaine Lyman Photo 2
Thaine Lyman is head of World of Tanks Blitz

We do have some other stuff that’s coming. Ten years is a long time. Obviously, technology gets old over 10 years. There’s a pretty big group of devs working on some major technical updates. Some other things we’ll do with theming and story. This direction we’ve been moving, we’ll keep doing that as we go forward.

GamesBeat: How much has the game changed from 10 years ago compared to now as far as graphical fidelity? Is it possible now to have parity with what you can do on PC and console?

Lyman: We’re fully cross-platform ourselves now. We’re on Switch, Steam, MacOS, and the mobile platforms. We’ve done a lot of work over the years with both minor and major graphical updates. We’ve always tried to support a pretty modest, let’s say, spec of phones, to keep a very broad appeal. We’ve gotten better about modular graphical features. The low-end guys can still play, but the people who’ve invested more money into these higher-end devices can have some cool stuff to show off. We’ve done tons of updates there to things like lighting and PVR stuff. Those are all the cool bells and whistles that everyone can see.

We’ve also done a lot of work under the hood just to improve stability and framerate. A few years ago we did away with the need for downtime when we updated with some multi-cluster network stuff. There’s no point where the player is told, “I’m sorry, you have to come back in two hours.” We did a lot with the way our downloadable content is organized, so people can get in and start playing faster. They don’t have to download the whole game before they can start with a new player. We’ve done a lot of tool work to make it easier for developers to move from dreaming about a thing to having that manifest itself on screen.

It’s a combination. There’s definitely a lot of graphical work, but there’s a lot of other stuff designed to make it more fun by being less frustrating, more fun because we can push out a greater amount of content and features than we used to.

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World of Tanks Blitz in 2014.

GamesBeat: How important was cross play for you, and how has it turned out over the last four years?

Lyman: We didn’t want to make people feel like, if they played with us on mobile for a long time, they’d have to start over with a new account and lose all their progress if they wanted to move on to playing on Switch or PC. We love the fact that you can–wherever your PC is, you can play on PC, whether that’s your home PC or after work or whatever. When you’re on your way home you can play on mobile on the train. If you’re at home and you want to play with your Switch on the couch, you can. You don’t have to make a choice.

Of course it’s also important from a player count standpoint. When the platform is smaller, you don’t want people to be stuck with tougher matchmaking and longer queues because there aren’t as many players. It’s been valuable for that.

GamesBeat: How many players get into a match now?

Lyman: Most of our matches are still seven on seven. That’s our core mode. We’ve done some where we’ve had less and we’ve experimented with a lot of things where we’ve done more. We’ve tried a lot of ways of making the basic stuff different. But seven on seven is still our core.

When we were talking about the Switch in the past, I joked about how the ideal session length on any mobile device is about how long you can be in the toilet before people realize that you’re gone. The match length and all that, it’s much shorter than PC, where you spend 15 to 30 minutes on a battle. With Blitz our average battle is a couple of minutes at a time. Five minutes is a long match for us. Things like scouting and spotting–camouflage is still a relevant factor, but the timing is very different. We try to make it less about hunting and more core action. The pace gets to the point quicker, versus the PC game where there’s a lot more strategy around hiding and setting up ambushes. We wanted people to be able to get in and blow stuff up.

GamesBeat: Are there fluctuations in daily active users or monthly active users that are driven by anything in particular?

Lyman: Part of the reason we do as much as we do with events, reintroducing modes–if we find something that works well, we’ll bring it back again. Maybe we’ll iterate and make a few changes. But we find that if people love the core gameplay experience–if you play 5,000 battles, 10,000 battles, you need something to keep it fresh. Giving people a way to change the rules, to get a different experience, keeps those things up.

At the beginning of a battle pass, a new season, a new event there’s always a spike. There are the usual holidays and the seasonality you see from that. It’s a bit different because–in the summer we go down a bit. But if you’re playing a PC game or a console game, when you leave and go on vacation, that’s it. With us, you’re only as far as going into your pocket to play another match. The seasonality isn’t quite as pronounced for us.

We try to make sure we’re giving people enough reasons to come back regularly. With the birthday, with the anniversary, we’re giving people a bunch of goodies, a bunch of gifts and stuff. What you get is based on your longevity with the game, from the time of your first battle. People who have been with us for 10 years get a bunch of cool stuff. They get some cool cosmetic things to show off that they’re a 10-year player. There’s a bunch of value that comes from that. We try to give people good reasons to come back if they stopped playing for a while. Come back and see what’s changed.

GamesBeat: How did you get through the Apple privacy push? Was that impactful for you compared to other mobile games?

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World of Tanks Blitz for Android in 2014.

Lyman: In terms of the business effect, it hit us like everyone else. It changes your CPIs. It changes the ability to make sure that the customer you’re advertising to is someone who’s likely to be interested in your product. In some weird ways, what this has meant–it’s forced all of the mobile teams out there to embrace the value of what we might have thought of as traditional marketing in some ways. When it’s not just an algorithm pushing UA campaigns and where you put your spend, you have to focus on building a fun commercial. Doing brand campaigns. Just building generalized awareness. Making sure that people are interested in your product not just through targeted ad spend, but in general.

A lot of that is still different from “traditional” marketing in some ways. How you reach Gen Z is not with a TV commercial on NBC. It’s on TikTok. But the basic underpinnings – do something fun and memorable and interesting, that speaks to people in a language they recognize, that they can share and show their friends – that becomes a lot more important in this world. You can’t just do what we now call traditional mobile marketing, that at one point was the newest thing on the planet.

GamesBeat: How has the location of the team changed? Did you have to have a bunch of relocations?

Lyman: Absolutely. A lot of the team left before anything that happened in Belarus, let alone everything that happened in Ukraine. We started building up, in 2018-2019, the capacity to do distributed development over multiple sites. At that time it was one location, one language, one culture, and so kind of one point of view, one opinion. I think the best way to build a game that appeals to a diverse crowd of people is by having a diverse team with diverse points of view.

We started by trying to build out a second location, just to start doing distributed development. A lot of things make that hard the first time around: language barriers, cultural barriers, time zones, visas, travel, whatever. Our first location, it seemed like a great idea, because what could possibly be a problem with building up a team in Moscow? Again, in 2018 it made sense. Later we found that there were some things that required further relocation. But it was a great way to get the team to understand and experience and be able to do that.

As other things started to change we started to build out–originally there was a team that worked on Warships. The development team was mostly in Shanghai for that. Some of the publishing was in Berlin. Those guys joined us. We started having them work on features for Blitz, and some other stuff. Originally that was focused specifically around the Chinese version of Blitz, but now they’re building things that are part of the worldwide game as well.

The biggest part of the team now, once Wargaming left Russia and Belarus–the majority of the team moved to Vilnius, Lithuania. That’s where the majority of us are now. We have a small group in Warsaw, very small, about 10 people. We have a small group in Cyprus. A lot of that is publishing and marketing. We’re distributed across a lot of different areas, and I think we’ve done a good job of getting to what I was hoping for all those years ago, which is having a diverse team that brings different experiences and cultural backgrounds and points of view about what makes a game fun and what’s important in making a game fun.

The game has benefited a lot from that more diverse team structure. It removes a lot of our blind spots. The way we’ve grown and embraced stuff that might have been impossible to imagine 10 years ago–I think it’s a direct result of that. It’s a real compliment to the core members of the team who have been there for eight, nine, 10 years or more. They’ve not just reluctantly adapted to having these different points of view, but actively embraced the value of it. It wasn’t a fight to get there. It was hard. It’s difficult when you start operating in different languages and start interacting with people who, at first, may say things that sound really strange. But there’s an inclusiveness and a desire to challenge themselves that’s been at the core of why the team has been successful at making these huge changes.

World of Tanks Blitz on the Switch.
World of Tanks Blitz on the Switch.

It’s why the game is still not only live, but growing and appealing to a younger audience. I don’t think we could have done that if the team wasn’t mentally spiritually ready to embrace this idea and really throw themselves at some things, even though at first it uncomfortable.

GamesBeat: What are some things that you want to get to on your road map?

Lyman: The first thing is, we want to be better at catering to this style. We’ve done a lot to move in this direction, moving further away from the traditional underpinnings of what people think of as World of Tanks. Every World of Tanks game that’s been made, and probably that will be made, has to revolve around the idea that tanks are just fun. But for me, some of the joy–tanks are fun in the same way that playing with Transformers is fun, or a Godzilla action figure, or superheroes. It’s a power fantasy. It’s not about living a realistic experience on the battlefield. I think we all see enough of that on the news. It’s a catharsis. You get to have fun and enjoy being super-powered for a while.

We’ve gone further in that direction. We’re going to keep moving in that direction. The art team is doing it, the events team, everybody. We’ll continue to do things like Ninja Turtles or Star Trek or Megadeth, having tie-ins to things that are fun for people. We’ll continue working on our core tech, and on some fun tweaks, building out the narrative of what the Blitz universe stands for and what you can find there.

The coolest thing I can say about the team is that in some ways I have no idea what’s going to be on the road map. It’s going to depend on what people love and have fun with and enjoy. The things we do that they like, we’ll do more of that. The things that don’t get played with as often, either we’ll figure out a way to rework those in a way that’s exciting, or we’ll move in favor of other things. It’s great that we’re flexible and limber. We’ve tried to build ourselves, from a team composition standpoint and a technology standpoint, tools and everything else, to be able to do that. We want to be truly responsive to what the audience is telling us they like.

GamesBeat: Have you ever talked about how large the dev team is now?

Lyman: Altogether, it’s a little more than 300 people. About 270 of them are directly on Tanks Blitz. The majority of that team is in Vilnius, and a few more in the other cities that I described.

GamesBeat: Are there other platforms you might take Blitz to? Does Apple Vision Pro sound appealing?

Lyman: Everything sounds appealing at the right moment. The issue for us is always going to be, can we do something that works and makes sense? With that platform, we’re waiting to see where it goes. How can we build a game that–across iPhone, iPad, PC, console, the basic rules of the input are similar. When you move to something like the Vision Pro, then all of that goes out the window. Now it’s motion and eye tracking, all these things that are wildly different. If we see people really picking up and playing a lot on that device, that’s the point where it becomes a focus for us.

I’d love to get to a point, from a console standpoint, where we’re not just on the Nintendo console. Those are things we’ve looked at and thought about. There are lots of things we’d have to do to get there. Talking about graphical fidelity, that becomes a huge focus for those platforms. But there’s nothing where we’ve ever said, “We’ll never do that.” It’s all a question of how and when and where we prioritize.

GamesBeat: As you look out at a lot of the painful things that have happened in games recently, how do you react to that in light of your experience?

Lyman: It’s interesting. This is where my age will show. I’ve been in the industry much longer than just 10 years of Blitz. It’s cyclical. We’ve seen peaks and valleys before. There’s always a moment of exuberance. Honestly, the pandemic was probably a moment like that for the whole industry. Revenues went up. User numbers went up. A lot of hiring was happening. That coincided with a lot of interest around web3 and NFTs. A lot of investment went there.

Post-pandemic, people started going out and doing things instead of playing games. Unfortunately–the NFT stuff, never say never, but I don’t think as yet there’s been the defining, “This is why I’m playing a web3 game.” That game hasn’t come to the forefront yet. When you combine that with the cost of money, the changes in the world economy, interest rates going up everywhere–a lot of people who were speculating, instead of being able to get money at virtually 0%, suddenly that became very expensive.

It felt like a perfect storm, what happened. It’s not that people quit gaming. They just went back to gaming alongside other things. The big push around web3 didn’t translate to a breakout title. Investment capital got more conservative. Combine all those factors and it’s not so surprising to see a lot of layoffs happening. Also, if you look at movies and TV and other entertainment media, going back far enough, when consolidation happens that tends to lead to layoffs as well. You have two of a particular thing and suddenly you’re one big corporation.

World of Tanks Blitz on the Nintendo Switch was made in the pandemic.
World of Tanks Blitz on the Nintendo Switch was made in the pandemic.

A lot of these things add up together. I can’t say that I saw it coming. If I was that good I’d probably have my own island and you’d be interviewing me about something very different. But in retrospect, it’s understandable and explainable. And if you look at the history of games, I remember the dot-com boom and bust. I remember the VR boom and bust. We’ve been through cycles of incredible prosperity and incredible downturn. Gaming has always survived, overcome, and thrived again.

GamesBeat: We have an AI boom now.

Lyman: Yeah, that’s the next one. Even now, I don’t think AI is going to come and take all our jobs. I don’t think AI will make great games. I think AI will help clever people who figure out ways to use it as a tool to make even better games. But I don’t think we’re in danger of being replaced yet. All it’s doing right now is taking a bunch of great ideas that come from 8 billion people around the planet and pattern-matching, figuring out how to move that in different directions.

The great inspirational moment is still always coming from humans. After we have it, AI is going to figure out ways to copy it and make it more efficient and so on. I guess I’m still on the optimistic side about where this goes. We’ll figure out how to integrate AI in games in a way that’s helpful and positive and makes a more fun game for players.

I honestly believe that the core of success in the games business just starts with a great game that people have a ton of fun with. If you do that, you’ll figure out a way to make a bunch of money. If you start with, “How do I just monetize a bunch of people?” that will get you some money for a little while, but over the long term people will sniff that out. They’ll go somewhere else and play a game they actually love. As long as we keep doing that as an industry, we’ll be fine. We’ll thrive. There are enough people inspired by games and have grown up playing them and ultimately decide they want to make better games than they were ever able to play as kids. That’s going to keep pushing us forward.

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