Saint Petersburg was founded in 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great, who decided he wanted a mad cool Russian city right on the Baltic Sea. He also wanted it to have his name without looking like the kind of person who’d go right ahead and name a city after himself, so he found a saint who was also called Peter and whapped a ‘burg’ on the end of it. Job done.
Some time after that, Wargaming.net, the developers of the World of Tanks, Warplanes and Warships trilogy, opened up shop there to begin making games about wars and fighting and metal and death. I went over there recently to see what was up with that whole deal.
Everybody looks very tough in Saint Petersburg. Yes, I’m generalising, but I generally found it an intimidating place to be. The surroundings are strikingly pretty, all of the buildings are beautiful and giant and long and come in either pink, yellow or pastel blue, but all of the people walking around look like the angry ghosts of fists that wanted to punch something so badly that they materialised into full living humans and went wandering in search of fights.
There are four gold-plated cathedrals per street and a museum that quietly hosts the largest collection of paintings on the planet, and not a single person in the street finds this reason enough to smile. And sometimes you’ll walk past a monkey in a tiny red coat, but you know you can’t touch or pat the monkey because then you’ll owe an angry woman a lot of money all of a sudden. It’s very easy in Saint Petersburg to accidentally become indebted to a stranger who is more than willing to hit you.
On my last evening in the city, while trying to find my way back to the hotel, I refused to get into a random man’s car. He insisted that his car was actually a taxi, and he produced a second, bigger man who corroborated this in a way that left me even less assured than when we began. The three of us discussed the matter of what is a taxi and what is not a taxi for a very brief moment before the second man grabbed me by the collar and demanded I pay him a taxi fare that coincidentally amounted to all of the money I currently had.
Yes, it’s bad form to let one little mugging permanently define your impression of an entire country, but…
Wargaming’s offices are situated a short ride out to the city suburbs, in a red brick building that’s either ten or one hundred years old. A group of about fifteen of us were driven there in a small coach and I sat in the wrong seat. Thinking every seat was filled, I squoze my way along the aisle and into the rearmost seat, not realising that the luggage packed into the back of the vehicle had tilted this entire row of seats forwards. So I was sitting on an uncomfortably inclined half-seat, and had to anchor my feet into the carpeted flooring to stop the seat lurching even farther forwards every time the coach stopped at some lights and the weight of the suitcases threatened to heave me on the floor.
About ten minutes into the journey I noticed there was one spare seat a couple of rows ahead of me. But by this point I couldn’t move. Why is this guy changing seats, everybody would think. What was wrong with his previous seat, they’d wonder. “What sort of insecure moron would sit in a bad seat for ten whole minutes before finally deciding to move?!”, they’d turn to me and shout in my face.
No, no. Best to sit in this fucked up seat for the entire trip. Can’t make a bad first impression, I reasoned. Just style it out. By the end of the trip my feet had dug two very noticeable, crescent-shaped furrows into the aisle’s carpet. And this was thick carpet. The durable stuff. What a dope.
The first thing I noticed upon entering Wargaming’s sprawling offices is that they have a shoe buffer. You’ve got your brown shoe buffer. You’ve got your black shoe buffer. And you’ve got your third buffer, which is a general buffer. The general buffer doesn’t apply any dyes during the buffing process, so you can whack any old shoe in there and expect a moderate degree of buffness to be applied to it. Not as much buff as you’ll get out of the first two types of buffer, mind, as those ones’ll enhance a shoe’s natural buffness using an artificial pigment. But what sort of mad person wears shoes that aren’t either black or brown, I ask you? The sort of person who’s got bigger problems than unbuffed shoes, I would hazard. And let’s say no more about that. I’m probably here to see a videogame or something.
We had a tour of the office once we’d all settled in and taken off our big coats. We were all wearing big coats because Russia is so god damned cold. This is the second reason why I hate Russia. It’s very cold. And people attack and rob me in the streets. Now I felt safer than I had felt at any other point on my adventure however, because with our coats all safely secured, a really nice woman began to escort us around the building.
The Wargaming team, I’m fairly certain, cannot be Russian. They’re warm, attractive, hospitable and friendly people whom I enjoyed spending time with. As far as I can recall, the lead level designer didn’t accost me and steal all of my rubles, which is, in my experience, how all Russian people are hardwired from birth to behave. Nope. I love the Wargaming people. I fell in love with several of them on my trip.
They’re funny too. Here’s a picture of what our guide described as “our famous wellness chair”. Was it an inside joke I wasn’t privy to? I didn’t care. This was a leather-lined, automatic massage chair that looked like it belongs on the bridge of a spaceship, and the massage chair was an integral bullet point on our grand tour of the Wargaming office.
There were other stops along the tour too. We stepped into a sound studio, the kind with walls that have been covered in that weird, grey, conical, sound-absorbing foam. In here, we were informed, many of World of Warships’ audio and music tracks are created. A sound engineer sat in total silence as we politely observed the shape of the foam and the many sliders and buttons on his desk. He was very quiet. So quiet that it eventually made me laugh, because he was the game’s sound engineer, and sounds are supposed to be loud! Irony knows no borders.
To be honest, I forget most of the rooms I was shown. There was probably one for rendering boats. Another one was filled with emails. They had a whole room for working out how waves work, I guess. One room was dedicated to testing completed builds of World of Warships, and outside of that room there was a big bowl of these Jenga block sized wafers. Next to the wafers was some pepper, for sprinkling on your wafer. I went to eat one, but then instinctively hesitated, and took a picture instead. Russian food is terrible. That’s the third bad thing about Russia. The food is bad. It is cold. And I am in constant physical danger.
The studio tour ended around 1pm and we were all ushered downstairs into a giant communal cafeteria that Wargaming shared with the other three companies in the building. A generous lunchtime set meal was laid out before us. The first course was vegetable soup, with lovely huge chunks of broccoli and parsnip submerged in a thin beige broth. It was okay and edible and I ate it all up.
Another videogames journalist refused to eat a bite, citing his dislike of vegetables and triggering in me the familiar embarrassment of sharing a profession with sickly pale men who sit in front of small piles of untouched greens looking sad. The next course was one of those weird chickens where it’s smashed totally flat and covered in breadcrumbs a placed on a pile of chips. I didn’t eat that. Not out of fussiness, but simply because my vegetarianism usually crops up if I’ve had a filling starter and there’s some chance I might appear discerning and cool by refusing to eat a smashed up dead bird.
By leaving the veg-and-beak meal early I’d actually found myself alone for the first time since meeting the Wargaming PR person at the airport that morning, an occasion where I’d forgotten her face three minutes after meeting her and then mistook her for airport security and demanded that she let me back into the arrivals lounge when in fact she was only trying to direct me towards the bus I was supposed to be on. It’s not my fault that women all look the same to me, and to be fair it’s one of the lesser hazards of being a gay man in Saint Petersburg.
Given unauthorised free reign of the Wargaming offices, I began stomping around all of the corridors in search of clues and secrets. Yeah, we all know that Wargaming are working on World of Tanks, World of Warplanes and World of Warships, but it’s up to intrepid journalists like me to find out if they’ve got a World of Cool Dogs or World of Being Kind somewhere hidden up their sleeves. For about an hour I wandered the halls, banging on doors and encountering nobody. The place was really empty, as if everybody had taken the day off.
I uncovered nothing and quickly became very, very lost. Wargaming’s offices are a giant maze spread across three floors and hundreds of rooms but seemingly occupied by about eleven developers in total. Doors were locked with thumbprint scanners, like I was trapped in a Bond villain’s secret volcano base. Sometimes a security guard would let me through using his special security thumb, but for the most part I had to double back on myself, only to find the way that I had come was now blocked or had somehow changed into a staircase. I was Jennifer Connelly in Labyrinth. But who was David Bowie? Who was the Goblin King?
Hey, I’ll tell you who the Goblin King was. The most fascinating man I spoke to at Wargaming (and therefore the king of goblins in the metaphor) was in charge of eyeballs. Your eyeballs. Wargaming employ a whole team of people who monitor player behaviours, not just while you’re firing guns at boats on the high sea, but all the way down to specific mouse movements, where you click, what you click on and how long you spend looking at certain menu screens. They gather all of this precise data by dragging real human test subjects into special rooms set up with eyeball-monitoring cameras, and paying attention to where the eyes are pointing at critical points during the game.
This is a real thing that Wargaming are doing right this second. If players’ eyes are bouncing between two corners of the screen, Wargaming figure out what information we’re straining to look for and then bundle it into the same spot. And it’s not just these tiny details that they’re interested in. The eyeball man showed me a graph that outlined the differences in player behaviours on different continents. And the following, I assure you, is true. Asian players are more interested in co-operative teamplay, sweethearts that they are. Americans are more prone to egocentric and often stupid acts of in-game valour, and the Russians, well wouldn’t you know it, they’re the most aggressive warship commanders of all. I would probably guess that they’re also far more likely to steal your money in the night. You just can’t argue with thedata.
Eyeball man wouldn’t let me have a copy of this player information, as the conclusions one might draw about the temperaments of people who live in different parts of the world could be upsetting or offensive. Some countries are way better at boats than others too. The United Kingdom, for example, is especially bad at boats and needs to get its act together. We are an international disgrace.
Another interesting man I spoke to was a man whose job it was to draw the boats in three-dee using computer software. He stressed to me the importance of accuracy and detail and adherence to the source blueprints, and took genuine pleasure in seeing his creations come to life in the game. A secret he told me is that if they can’t find a historical photograph of some part of a boat that they’re building, they just make it up and hope nobody notices. Please don’t tell anybody.
Yet another fascinating person was Wargaming’s head of archives and resources, whose role it was to visit museums around the world and meet with foreign governments and ambassadors in order to attain the massive amounts of authentic and restricted source materials Wargaming need in order to recreate the warmachines in their games.
From blueprints of battleships from the Japanese, to technical specifications of bombers from the Germans. A surprising amount of military knowledge from World War II is still classified, he told me, not because it’s very secretive, but because the process of declassification is so slow and meticulous. There are machines from the second World War whose exact workings are still a mystery to the public.
After speaking to the three interesting men, it was time to play the World of Warships game with all of the other journalists in that room near the wafers. We were to face one another in a gruelling tournament of ship battles, stage after stage of explosive naval warfare. It was a test of our boat-mettle that sadly never materialised because of server connectivity problems. So instead of doing any of that we each played a few rounds of the single player mode, driving our good guy boats around and trying to score points by sinking the AI-controlled bad guy boats.
We did this until finally a winner was announced and we could leave. Did I win, you ask? Was I the best person at boats in the room? Teehee, I’ll never tell.
And then, as swiftly as we had handed them in, our big coats were returned to us and we were all shuffled past the shoe buffer and thumbprinted back out of the building and into the car park where we stood and waited in the cold for the coach to come collect us and take us to vodka. Full disclosure: I drank all of the vodka and had a tremendous time.
Speaking of which, travelling back to Heathrow from outside of the European Union meant I could get some really good deals in duty free on my way home. How good? Well, how does three litres of Russian Standard for £21 grab you? (Alternatively, if you work for the British government and are reading this, how does the maximum legal customs allowance of one litre of vodka for £7 grab you?)
On the train back into London, weighed down by all of my not-smuggled booze, I reflected on my time in Russia with a degree of fondness. A singular degree of fondness in a 360 degree circle of misery. It was a relief to be back home, in a city in which I have never been attacked by a man whose plan it definitely was to get me in his car, drive me into the wilderness, take all of my belongings, make me dig my own grave and then shoot me in the back of the head.
So I’m never going back, even though the Wargaming people were so lovely. Even though the loveliest person there is a man I would dearly love to spend the rest of my life with. Let me tell you about him. He was a real Russian Marine whose job that day was to stand in the corner of the lobby teaching everybody how to tie proper, Navy-approved knots. We tied some knots together. We had a nice time.
He smiled so much. His love of knots made me happy to be alive.
PS: Here is my preview of World of Warships.