World of Tanks makes sense. It's Counter-Strike with moveable turrets; angry houses hiding behind placid houses, streets like corridors, cannons like machineguns, machineguns also like machineguns.
World of Warplanes makes sense, sort of, on paper. Planes. They're like tanks but they fly. Except there's no cover in the sky, and enemies could be in front, behind, beside or above you. So you sort of just wheel around in circles forever and it's alright.
World of Warships? That doesn't make sense at all. How the hell would you make a multiplayer game out of something like that?
That's what Wargaming have been asking themselves since World of Warships was announced, prematurely, back in 2011. It's what they've been asking themselves since the closed alpha launched back in 2013. Evidently it's what they're still asking themselves now, as the build I played at Gamescom this year had changed significantly since E3 just two months prior.
All this skepticism expressed, there's hints of answers in what I played.
The first issue of making a multiplayer game from warships is that warships are huge, slow to turn, and even slower to stop. Wargaming have got around this somewhat by simply making the ships far nippier than they would be in reality. Using WASD, you can stop faster than inertia would technically allow, turn in surprisingly tight circles around your targets and quickly accelerate from a standing start. The goal, I'm told, is to encourage players to slow down of their own accord by making reckless maneuvers a sure-fire way to get yourself shot and sunk. That sounds good to me, in theory.
The second way the game might run aground is that the ocean, like the sky, doesn't naturally lend itself to the systems of cover, sightlines and chokepoints that normally make competitive multiplayer interesting. For the demo I saw, Wargaming sidestepped the issue almost entirely, as right now they're focusing on PvE. In the encounter I played, a wave of ships spawned on the horizon near a coastline, and I and some other players fended them off. Then another wave spawned further out to sea, giving shape and momentum and a changing frontline to what, in competitive multiplayer, might have felt shapeless and confusing.
There are at least systems in place that might offer a similar structure to competitive multiplayer. For example, fog of war plays a role, and if you spot a ship then everyone on your team can now see that ship. That forces the need for scouting, and perhaps helps shape battles in lieu of massive sea-crates to duck down behind.
The third problem facing World of Warships - the biggest, which I have saved for last - is that these vast sea-faring titans can't be easily abstracted into a single point of control like planes or tanks can. Tanks are operated by a crew, sure, but as a player it makes some sense that you'd be both driving and shooting. You can do both with the camera fixed in a single position.
That's obviously not the case when your vehicle is an armored platform a hundred meters long, with half a dozen turrets along its surface. Yet weirdly, this is the part of my playtime that most impressed me.
Your warship is controlled via a camera hovering above your ship, which can be zoomed and slid around various points-of-interest with small flicks of your mouse. I thought this would be cumbersome but in practice it feels elegant to move between different cannon types, aim down their sights and volley cannonfire towards your floating enemies, then flick your mouse to move back, or zoom out, or to press a button to have the camera track your artillery off towards its target.
I had some fun sinking some boats, but there still remains more that's unseen and unknown about the game. During my session, there was mention of aircraft carriers which would completely change the nature of the game, turning it into an RTS for whoever was ordering about planes. There's obvious opportunities for teamwork here, as those planes could be used to scout the watery battlefield, spotting enemy ships for your slower destroyers. Without seeing any of that in action, or playing for longer, I've no idea if any of that will feel worthwhile.
All that's left then is what we can assume. My session with the game started with a quick tour of the garage from which you choose your ship, and the UI looks just like that for World of Warplanes and World of Tanks. Wargaming aren't yet ready to talk about payment models, but I'd bet all the angry floating houses in my fleet that it'll be extremely similar to those other games. They're promising dozens of vessels from America and Japan at release - they're aiming for a beta by the end of the year - with other nations to be added later. Each of the carriers, destroyers, cruisers and so on will also have skill trees to follow, abilities to upgrade and loadouts to customise. Given the similarity in structure, it seems inevitable that you'll be doing all of the above either through devoted playtime or through microtransactions.
How do you make a multiplayer game out of warships? Wargaming are halfway towards an answer.