For Master of Orion, Wargaming worked the first time with a third-party developer and acted as publisher. Maxim Matveyko talks about the founding of WG Labs and how their first project worked out.
WG Labs owes its creation to Master of Orion, which acted as the catalyst that got the unit up and running. Before this, Wargaming had never really worked with a third-party game developer to such an extent. At Wargaming, our development, marketing – it was all in our hands. Reaching outside your comfort zone and putting the development of a legendary title, which is dear to a lot of people at Wargaming, in the hands of any other company, can seem like a risk. But if we didn’t take any risks, then Wargaming wouldn’t be where we were today.
After seeing how passionate NGD Studios were about Master of Orion, and the high quality of their playable prototype, we were all really excited about what they could do with the game in their hands. The decision to collaborate with NGD was, unbeknownst to us, the first step into the creation of a totally new organizational unit within Wargaming: WG Labs.
An independent Unit with Startup Mentality
Creating the unit just made sense. Just like we have marketing managers looking after our internal products – World of Tanks, World of Warships etc. – there were going to be a lot of publishing activities around Master of Orion. Because Wargaming has a wealth of experience in the area, and the fact that we originally started out with RTS games, it meant we could fully support the title.
WG Labs helped define what it meant to globally market a product, work with new genres and people, and connect with a worldwide audience. With Master of Orion, we set the bar and expectation high. Further down the road, we knew that WG Labs would have the expertise to be able to focus on smaller titles to huge, triple-A games with a legacy behind them.
WG Labs is, first and foremost, an independent unit. It’s not a giant team, and we wanted it to have that »startup« mentality to the way we work. It’s a mentality that helps to stay agile. We have a very »troops on the ground« mentality. Building up strong connections at events, being face to face with people we could potentially work with, is important to the team. There’s no middlemen or go-betweens. You’re able to communicate directly with someone who is an active part of helping to develop your project.
The Idea behind WG Labs
With all those ideas up in the air, we were feeling our way through the first few months of it all. So we had to define what the goals of WG Labs would be, and working with NGD Studios helped form the company ethos.
Above all, we’re a breeding ground for new, innovative ideas and solutions. It doesn’t matter if you’re a single developer or a team, or if you’re an industry veteran or new company. WG Labs wants to work with third parties who believe they’re onto the next big thing.
The way the industry is at the moment, there’re a lot of people with great ideas out there. The problem is, because creating a game is so accessible these days, many people get lost in all the noise. There are lots of talented teams in the industry, even those that have been around for a while, that just don’t have the resources to publish their game. Marketing, PR, testing – anything else – it can be difficult to have those skills if you’re just a small team of devs, too. That’s where we come in.
We’re a worldwide operation, Wargaming has built up a lot of robust business intelligence and statistical tools, as well as CRM. WG Labs is able to draw on all these insights to get to the heart of what gamers really want. If you throw into the mix infrastructure and servers, as well as other PR and SMM activities, we have a lot of resources to help third-party publishers get their game to the right audience. There’s no denying that we have access to a massive, global audience – there are over 180 million registered users across Wargaming’s titles. We’re able to target and connect with a lot of people who would be interested in our games.
The cornerstone of this is the notion that good ideas become great when working together. Because we’re agile, because we have a lot of expertise in different areas, we can get up-to-speed with projects over pretty much any platform and get it the attention it needs.
This expertise lets us experiment with new game mechanics, platforms, services and business models. We’re able to take this further thanks to our Evaluation Team, which we have across the world. This team evaluates and shortlists products submitted to WG Labs, with experience in game design, producing, game vision, and publishing. Products can come to us from different areas – just like Master of Orion – and different cultural backgrounds that have great, perhaps even unseen, potential.
So, WG Labs is about finding those passionate people and helping them get their game to market. And the very first project for us was Master of Orion.
How works on Master of Orion started
Working on Master of Orion and with NGD helped us define what we as a unit could offer third-party developers. Going back a little, Andres Chilkowski, the General Manager and CEO of NGD Studios, has been a friend of our CEO, Victor Kislyi, for several years. Our companies share a common background of working our way up from nothing as small indies, living in countries most of the game industry has never heard of, and having a burning passion for making great games. In 2013, when we bought the rights to Master of Orion from Atari, Andres approached us to make a prototype. His enthusiasm sparked approval, and the high quality of NGD’s demo prototype three months later sold us on their abilities. We haven’t looked back since, and our partnership has been excellent.
However, although our CEOs knew each other, nobody else did. We used the prototyping period as an opportunity to establish our processes, deepen our relationships, and learn about each other as people and as fellow game developers. We were happy to leverage their skills in development and art, while providing a larger publishing framework and supporting them with a lot of external assistance so they could stay focused on the game itself. While this was touched on above, how we execute our expertise can differ for each project. For example, Wargaming handled all of the voiceover recording, localization, music, art book, and platform contracting. This way NGD could focus on core gameplay, art, animation, story, and mechanics. It turned out to be a great match.
Refining processes like this took time, though. A few years ago we were newly-global and had spent 15 years as a small indie studio. We didn’t have a lot of processes in place to handle third-party relationships because, well – we’d never had any before. This is the first time we have acted as a Publisher to ship a game that wasn’t developed in one of our own studios, and it has set a high bar for managing these kinds of relationships. Because of this, the prototyping process was fairly informal, and the prototype approval meeting was held in a hotel at DICE in Las Vegas in early 2014. Andres presented the prototype and his pitch to Victor, his brother Eugene Kislyi, and Slava Makarov, VP of Product Vision. Randy King (Executive Producer on Master of Orion) and Chris Keeling (Senior R&D Expert, Product Vision) were also present. Before the presentation, top management was a bit doubtful, but after seeing what NGD had accomplished in just a few months, they were ecstatic. The project was then approved to begin development immediately.
Learnings from WG Labs’ first Project
So, as said, this was the first time this sort of third-party relationship had been done. And we certainly don’t expect the process will ever be the same as this again, because we have learned so much and established a lot of new ways of doing things together that have formed the best practices that we are using going forward with other projects. WG Labs has a more formal evaluation process now, and Wargaming has a more efficient way to approve projects to make sure they are in line with our goals and strategies. While many of us have worked with third-parties before at other companies, this is the first time we have done it as Wargaming and WG Labs, so we knew there would be a steep learning curve as we sorted out the best ways to do things, but now we’re definitely ready to take on more projects like this.
However, in taking on new projects, and being unable to be physically located at every corner of the earth, means there are some further challenges. Sometimes working across three continents (and in three languages!), in the case of Master of Orion, made for late nights or early mornings, depending on which side of the Atlantic we were on, but we always made it work. We had stand-up and design meetings scheduled at least three times per week, plus separate Skype channels for design, production, and so forth, and daily emails.
We kept tasks – including bugs – logged in JIRA and shared dates and documents internally as quickly as they were approved to make sure everyone would be on the same page. It was a very iterative process with sprints of two weeks and monthly Early Access builds, plus usually daily staging builds for QA testing and rapid feedback. On top of the actual production process, we had to also coordinate localization, QA testing, UX testing, and a myriad of other functions like legal, platform distribution, and industry event attendance to support our marketing efforts.
With the confidence and positive experience that we gained from working on Master of Orion, we know that momentum is key for WG Labs. One area in particular that we’re interested in is the mobile sector in Eastern Europe and Asia, as well as Latin America. Unlike PC and console titles, mobile definitely has a lot shorter life span. However, uncovering unique projects in a market that is saturated with them can be a real challenge.
All of this allows WG Labs to go beyond Wargaming’s paradigm of military warfare. With our first project, we decided to go out of this world, which has given new life to loads of other exciting, future collaborations.
Maxim’s Master of Orion player profile
What’s your race of choice?
I do prefer to play Bulrathi, I do like to colonize several planets quickly.
What’s your total hours spent playing Master of Orion?
Approximately 100 hours in the Steam version of the game, much more in early versions which were not available on Steam.
What’s your greatest achievement in the game?
I think I’m not the best player in our team – I’m making a lot of quick turns without thinking deeply about the strategy.
About the author
is Publishing Product Director for WG Labs at Wargaming.
As Publishing Product Director at WG Labs, Maxim Matveyko manages all WG-Labs-related activities, including publishing of selected products and games developed under the supervision of the Wargaming R&D team. Previously, he worked as Managing Director of Game Insight and VP BizDev at Nival. Max focuses on building strong relationships with the external development community, finding prospective games to invest in and publish, as well as define and implement WG Labs’ overall strategy.