Mixing gaming and politics is rough. Think back to the Blitzchung fiasco for Blizzard back in 2019. Or when Daybreak was (and then wasn’t) owned by Columbus Nova, which itself was owned (and then wasn’t) by Russian megacorp Renova. Understandably, companies steer clear of this kind of attention, but that navigation becomes all the more difficult when your entire operation has deep roots within the old Eastern bloc.Wargaming, the publisher of online PvP titles World of Tanks, World of Warships, and World of Warplanes, was founded in Minsk, Belarus, back in 1998 and went on to develop several single-player strategic games before releasing its first online title (Tanks) in 2010. Shortly after, in 2011, Wargaming moved its headquarters from Minsk to Cyprus, presumably for tax purposes but probably also to reassure western customers that their in-game payments were not going to fund any eastern states’ regimes. Also in 2011, the company unveiled World of Warships in partnership with St Petersburg (Russia, not Florida) developer Lesta Studio. Development of the Warships game continued in Russia for several years.
Though the company has technically been headquartered outside of Belarus for years, its origins and close partnerships with development studios in both Minsk and St Petersburg have loomed large in the minds of Western players. Questions – and concern over possible state monetary support – have frequently appeared on Reddit and within the official forums regarding purchases within the game. Western players, many of them military veterans, want to ensure their money was not inadvertently funding anti-western ideals.
Likewise, the term “Russian bias” has entered the vernacular of many a Wargaming MMO player to describe an unusually powerful tank or ship from that nation. It’s a phrase that has been around so long that it has become a meme within the community, and its utterance requires no further exposition for the company’s playerbase. “Russian culture” has also been batted about as a possible reason for the company and devs’ sometimes harsh and dismissive attitude towards both its employees and customers [Editor’s note: towards press, too.]. In any case, Wargaming is often referred to as a Russian company even though that has never technically been accurate.
Moreover, not only did Wargaming have employees in Russia and Belarus, but it had a substantial presence in Kyiv, Ukraine, as well. All of this is to say that it just makes sense that when Russia invaded Ukraine almost two months ago, players of Wargaming products paid close attention to how the company would react. And as it’s turned out, Wargaming has made several moves that invoked approval from North American and EU customers.
First, Wargaming emailed a press release to advertising partners noting a pause to all Tanks and some Warships advertisements worldwide. Execs must have recognized that potentially associating their brand with Russian military vehicles during a ground invasion, and the human cost that comes with it, was not in anybody’s best interest.
Next, the company fired a controversial creative director, Sergey Burkatovsky, for his very public pro-invasion professions. He was let go on the same day he made this statement on his Facebook page (translated from Russian): “I support the operation of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, the DPR, and the LPR. The rest are nuances.”
Lastly, Wargaming pledged to donate $1 million to the Ukrainian Red Cross and to provide employees from the Kyiv office with “alternate housing, early salary payments, additional funds to aid travel to neighboring countries [along with] accommodation for them.”
Possibly the most interesting statement came in parallel with Burkatovsky’s firing; Wargaming said, “Sergei’s opinion is in complete contradiction with the company’s position. He is no longer an employee of Wargaming.” The inclusion of the language “complete contradiction” and “company’s position” certainly made it sound as if Wargaming was taking an official position on the war, and it definitely wasn’t siding with Russia. Further, many players were surprised by the donation, as Wargaming has not always been known to put its money where its carefully contrived official statement is.
But the biggest news, and clearest sign of Wargaming’s official position on the invasion, dropped nearly a month later when Wargaming announced on April 4th that it would be closing the office in Belarus and disassociating from Lesta Studios in St Petersburg. The entire statement reads:
“Over the past weeks, Wargaming has been conducting a strategic review of business operations worldwide. The company has decided it will not own or operate any businesses in Russia and Belarus and will leave both countries. Effective March 31 the company transferred its live games business in Russia and Belarus to local management of Lesta Studio that is no longer affiliated with Wargaming. The company will not profit from this process either today or going forward. Much to the contrary we expect to suffer substantial losses as a direct result of this decision. We will be completing the operational transition with all due speed while remaining in full compliance with all laws and ensuring the ongoing safety and support of our employees. During the transition period the live products will remain available in Russia and Belarus and will be operated by the new owner. Wargaming has also started the process of closing its studio in Minsk, Belarus. We will be providing as much severance and support as possible to our employees affected by the change. Despite the magnitude of this decision, we as a company are confident in the future of our business and are committed to delivering quality games to our players.”
For non-Wargaming players, it might be difficult to understand just how extraordinary this decision is. Not only is Wargaming closing its original office (the one in Minsk), but that office was also responsible for a substantial amount of the development of World of Tanks, the cornerstone of the Wargaming portfolio – and Tanks, while somewhat known in the west, is enormously popular in Russia. One survey last year (co-sponsored by Wargaming, so take it with the appropriate level of sodium) ranked World of Tanks the #1 game in the entire country among gamers aged 16-64. One has to wonder what financial repercussions Wargaming will suffer not only in the form of cost of reorganization but also in terms of goodwill from players in the recently vacated countries.
It’s difficult to say what the reorg means to the products themselves. Wargaming does mention keeping the games running in Russia and Belarus, albeit with the ominous qualifier “during the transition period.” Speculation among the community is that the games will continue to run separately in those regions similar to how the Chinese servers have been segmented for several years. However, we’ve yet to receive any concrete statements from Wargaming in that regard, even two and a half weeks after the original announcement.
Not everybody has welcomed the closures. Employees at the Minsk office indicated that they were informed of the shuttering at the same time the announcement hit the news, meaning it took them by surprise. “That part of the team that is registered in the Minsk office is simply in a trance, because no one expected this,” one Minsk staffer said (translated from Russian). Team leaders were described as scrambling to provide news to their teams but were lacking the information to do so effectively.
Confusion among the Wargaming regional offices then took hold as Warships players flooded the official forums with questions about the announcement and were met with silence for several hours. Regional responses were inconsistent as the EU forums were allowing discussion on the topic while the North American forums initially allowed it, then deleted all related threads, then resurrected them hours later. Finally, after an entire day and several pages of forum speculation, a North American community manager issued an official statement that confirmed Wargaming’s intention to move World of Tanks’ and World of Warships’ Russian operations to Lesta Studio, vowing that players outside of Russia would not lose any currently held game properties or purchases.
“World of Warships operations in Russia and Belarus will be transferred to Lesta Studio. Over the past weeks, Wargaming has been conducting a strategic review of business operations worldwide. The company has decided it will not own or operate any businesses in Russia and Belarus and will leave both countries. Effective March 31 2022 the company started the process of closing its studio in Minsk, Belarus and transferred its live games business in Russia and Belarus to local management of Lesta Studio that is no longer affiliated with Wargaming. The company will not profit from this process either today or going forward. Much to the contrary we expect to suffer substantial losses as a direct result of this decision.”
It appears the plan is that Wargaming will continue to operate World of Warships as before in countries other than Russia and Belarus. The game servers will be operating as usual, and players’ accounts, as well as their in-game property accumulated through purchase or any other means, will remain unchanged.
But what has players worried now are the questions that were not – and to this day have still not been – addressed at all.
“Operations” typically refers to the ongoing upkeep of the game, not future enhancements. The announcement only referred to operations and did not address development at all. Will the development of World of Tanks and World of Warships continue? If so, who is assuming those development responsibilities, and how will the announced roadmaps be impacted? For a company that has been striving to improve communications with its playerbase, and for the most part succeeding, the radio silence in April has been ominous. Weekly streams have continued, but community teams are only able to respond to player concerns with “we have no new information is at this time.”
No doubt the decision to abruptly close offices and transfer development and operations is a huge and painful undertaking. And while many players applaud the sentiment, the seemingly haphazard or nonexistent communication both within the company and with customers is incredibly troubling. While some NA and EU players were once holding back on game purchases due to concerns with Russian affiliation, some are now reporting a hesitancy to spend money on a game with a questionable future. For those in that camp, all they can do is hold their breath and wait for some indication that their favorite WWII arcade simulator is going to be OK – to say nothing of the workers and other people in the bombarded territory.