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Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, July 7, 2013

[WG] Anton Sitnikau On Warplanes

Yet another interview. Now with Anton Sitnikau, WoWP Lead Producer

 — Anton, currently you are World of Warplanes producer however your start was totally different – you were a programmer. What is the story behind this transition? How long did it take? What stages did you go through? 

— I was studying to become a programmer, which I eventually did getting software engineering degree from Belarusian National Technical University. My specialization was C++. First 10 years after graduation I spent working for a scientific research institute. I developed and supported dispatching systems for power engineering. Those 10 years were interesting both in terms of contents and financially, but it was middle-age crisis I guess that made me long for a change. I went to work for the largest IT-company in Minsk then (EPAM Systems - Overlord), where I did a course on ABAP/4. I stayed there for a year only and mostly because that condition was stated in my contract. Despite growing popularity and potential of SAP, it appeared to be not my cup of tea. I was invited for a job interview in a small and cozy company called Wargaming. The opening I was interviewed for was of a game logics developer. And that was my role in 2005 when I joined the company. In those times we were developing something that was later called “Operation Bagration” (Order of War for Western market - Overlord).

 — When you joined the company, were you thinking of becoming a game designer? 

— Back then I didn’t know that such profession existed. When they were introducing some of the colleagues who were game designers, I could hardly understand what the guys did. It appeared that game designers had their fingers in many pies – they were doing a lot of things from different areas. The only thing they didn’t do was drawing, perhaps. This situation was true not just about WG but a lot of other gamedev companies, too.  My personal transition to game design was smooth. Executing my duties as a programmer, I also worked on draft unit balance in technodemos and on making video presentations. When I got to grips with the essentials of game design, I finally realized that I wanted to be fully involved in the area.

— But why?

— I have never had troubles coming up with ideas. I felt that my background as a programmer is beneficial because it was easy to sieve the ideas that were impossible to implement. Long story short, I had an interview with Victor Kisly and my shift to game design was approved. Soon I was appointed “Operation Bagration” lead game designer.

— It sounds like you took over the project just off the bat? 

— Well, yes. I’d say it’s probably one of WG’s traditions to throw a person into the open see and wait if they swim out or not. If they emerge, that’s cool. If not, well…kinda sad but overall they work…so…
«Bagration» was a success. We got “Best Strategic Game Award” at KRI (Russian game awards - Overlord) and we also got Editor’s Choice Award from several game industry editions.
At some point at pre-final stage of working on the westernized reincarnation of “Bagration”  — Order of War — I was offered to move to “World of Tanks” project as a balance specialist. Mostly I was working on game economy but sometimes – on battle balance as well (at early stages - alpha, closed and open beta of WoT - Overlord). I was curious about other tasks too, but the project needed a technical specialist able to analyze and calculate, which I was. I worked out an economy model which was a totally reckless thing as there were no statistics – not enough at least – it wasn’t obvious what data to be guided by. Even the system of prices and values was to be defined. The model appeared to operate successfully and to some extent it’s been applied in WoWP as well. Obviously, the model has been polished as the economy of an MMO is affected by various influences and fluctuations. This process will be going on for as long as the project lasts.

— When were you offered to be at the helm of Warplanes?

— The initial balance of “Tanks” was completed. For a month or two I worked as an analyst and later became the lead of the analytical department that never appeared. During that time a report system  specifications were created (the system is now in WoT - Overlord). The system has been implemented and will be fully functioning in WoWP open beta. It was then that I was offered to check out “Warplanes”. I went to Kiev, played the prototype, got acquainted with the staff. Upon arrival I came up with a huge report listing project risks, major gameplay issues, gave characteristics to the staff. The time has proved that I was right about all of the points. Thus, I was offered to lead the project from Minsk side.

The studio in Kiev was very professional. It started to grow fast due to the new project mostly – World of Warplanes I am talking about. In Minsk we had experience, knowledge and vision developed with “Tanks”. All of it was to be shared with the developers in Kiev. Kiev specialists are cool but some “parenting control” is necessary anyways. It’s true not just about the level of concept creation but also knowledge transfer from major to minor details.

— Would you say that your programming background helps you now, when you are a project producer and in charge of “Warplanes” gameplay? 

— It helps when I have to make an astonished face asking: Do you really believe that the development of this feature will take a week? I’d say that my technical background, logical thinking and common sense are of great use. They help to formulate requirements and specifications. Plus it helps to stick to a rather strict and consistent product concept as such.

— How are “Warplanes” different from “Tanks” in technical terms? What problems did you have due to these discrepancies? 

— In technical terms “Warplanes” and “Tanks” are very different. One of the main reasons is the transition from 2.5D in WoT to full 3D in WoWP. Besides, plane speed and armament are totally different. Although we did understand that the concept of “like tanks but about planes” sounded a bit naive, it turned out that the gameplay was even more different than we imagined. A lot of solutions were to be developed from scratch. It was tough as we lacked some specific experience.

For instance, render. World of Tanks has never used the default one – offered by BigWorld. Our render was modernized and shaped according to tank “needs”. Even at alpha stage it was different from the default version. It turned out that what we had for tanks couldn't be applied to what we required to have for planes. Planes need bigger maps, very few visual objects in the air. Planes themselves are more complicated than tanks. The main object that the player sees for 99% of the whole gameplay should be implemented otherwise, not like in WoT. For “Warplanes” it’s not important to display a bicycle leaning on a fence in a shadow of a tree in detail, but this is something that those who play tanks should see. Those who pilot planes can see that only when they are flying over the ground on high speed. However, the rest requires a more thorough approach: complexity of the aircraft models, 3D terrain, massive trees, large city quarters, water, complex 3D clouds.

When Kiev programmers got the BigWorld box version render, they realized that it was not enough at all – just the same thing had happened to Minsk programmers when they were working on “Tanks”. For some time we were coping with a compilation of the default render, tank pieces and first own ideas, but eventually the WoWP render was redeveloped and redesigned completely. By the way, then the knowledge was transferred to St.-Petersburg - WoWS will get its own unique render that has very little in common with default BW solution.

— These render improvements of yours, are they integrated back to BigWorld? 

— Now they are. In the situation being we can prioritize our requests to the Australian team more effectively. Much work has been done on server-side improvement, network protocols optimization and toolset development. Speaking on server-side, WoWP differs from WoT a lot. For instance, take shooting. When the shell is fired, it flies with a particular speed according to particular ballistics, enters the armour plate under a particular angle. It can pierce the armour, can just damage it or ricochet. The shell behavior is defined by real life empiric formulae.  Having penetrated the shell can move further and damage one or more internal tank modules, inside armor compartments an so on. Now we can compare. The tank gun makes up to 6 or so shots a minute. My favourite example in “Warplanes” is the following: tier 3 attack aircraft – a monstrous Soviet construction of the 30-ies ТSh-3 – carries 10 machine-guns, every one of which shoots 10 bullets per second. Although the armour of planes is simpler that the one of tanks and we don’t really need detailed calculations for penetration, it still is a serious calculation problem. No one is insured against a battle where 30 (!) ТSh-3 will start shooting simultaneously.  Initially we were trying to deal with it by clusterization of bullets and after the server side optimization we can now calculate each bullet separately. Well, of course there are some simplifications but in terms of game mechanics, we are happy now.

— Apart from render-issues, were there any other difficulties in the development process of WoWP? 

— From the very beginning our major concern was simple and comfortable controls system. First, we simplified the aircraft’s behavior. We disabled the flatter – vibration on a particular speed, which may lead to a plane destruction. We disabled the spin, too. We left behind the nuances of fuel mixtures regulations and some other things. We are not trying to make a hardcore simulator, our target audience is different.  Despite this and thanks to this, our controls have to be user-friendly and understandable. And funnily enough our advantage is our drawback at the same time. What I mean to say is that everything is calculated on the server only.

— Is that a way of fighting against cheaters?

— Yes. We tend to guarantee equal rights for all players. What has it led to? Let’s compare with “Tanks”. The player pushes the button “move forward” and the tank accelerates. The plane has got totally different speeds. They require different reactions – being 200 milliseconds late can be too much for a player. “Warplanes” is definitely a more dynamic shooter than “Tanks”. Imagine the situation, game client has got player’s input, converted it, sent to server, the server has calculated everything and sent it back to client, which has interpolated and visualized everything. If the flight physics and the damage were calculated on the client side, we would be able to have sensitive controls straightaway.  However, the players can be located somewhere far and the ping of 300 milliseconds is quite unpleasant for “Tanks” players, for “Warplanes” it's just fatal.  By the way, server lags are just one aspect. Another aspect would be causality and easy controls. To solve this problem we spent a lot of time and resources. We created more than 15 controls prototypes. Barely 1/3 of those has reached our testers. At some point our flight model became overcomplicated and too difficult to balance. Our controls were liked by some players but hated by others. When we tried to change the controls, these audiences switched places. We felt we faced a dead-end.

However, a young and initiative group of developers inside the development unit – game designer Anton Muskeev and server programmer Misha Pavlenko gathered together to prototype independently in their own time. In one of the meetings with Minsk managers the guys presented their prototype and we got amazed! Their solution was developed in parallel to the existing one. After some time their idea became the default version and it was introduced in 0.4.0 update. Now we understand that we are on the right path.

What was the solution of the creative duet? The guys have totally redesigned the flight model on the server making the behavior of the plane more sensitive and real. They were not afraid to try out some architectural changes. It allowed us eventually to have a totally independent and quality data processing from different devices. I have to mention that the final version of the solution appeared with the help of 777 studio – the guys who created a fine hardcore simulator Rise of Flight about WWI warplanes. At the moment by the way they are working on the new IL2 with 1C. We invited them as consultants. Their expertise and fresh approach helped us to polish the great solution and make it fantastic.

Finally we implemented these new mouse controls. Plus we started working on a more hardcore option of the controls but it was decided to freeze the implementation.  Apart from the controls, the guys’ flight model was more predictable. This complex of solutions simplified game designers’ lives when it came to aircraft balance and adjustments. Now all the planes can be easily tuned according to both, historical data and gameplay needs.

— Are the Ukrainian developers any different from Belarusians? 

— They are. Their temperament is different as well as their attitude to corporate culture. In Minsk all communication processes are tougher. In Kiev they are more relaxed and friendly.

It is easier in Kiev when it comes to finding resources. Their market is richer. In Kiev there are a lot of studios of well-known companies, which “shared” their employees with us. From employer’s perspective the situation in Kiev is less tense than in Minsk. Plus, people are more eager to relocate to Ukraine rather than to Belarus.

I am happy to work with the Ukrainian office. The team has got experience of working for European and American companies renowned in game-industry. The guys in Kiev are competent and qualified. On one hand, their outsourcing experience is a double-edged sword. You have to change the way you think when you are working on your own project. On the other hand, “Warplanes” is the first own project for the studio. The story about controls development I told earlier is a proof of how the way of thinking is changing.

Generally speaking, “we make our own product” mood is still something that empowers Kiev developers. It becomes obvious the very moment you enter the office – posters of WoWP everywhere, a lot of plane models on desks. It’s great that people like what they do!

Originally posted here