How Wargaming’s historians helped bring World of Warships to life

Source: – thanks to Dennis H. for sharing.
The battleship is a relic.
Obsolete even in World War II decades ago, these great warships continue to fascinate people around the globe. Otherwise, kids would be saying “You sank my aircraft carrier” as part of the tagline for the board game Battleship.
Wargaming understands the lure of these majestic, deadly warships better than any other game company on the planet. The maker of free-to-play PC online games World of Tanks, World of Warplanes, and World of Warships takes a museum-esque approach to re-creating these awesome ships (along with aircraft carriers, cruisers, and destroyers). It visits some of the remaining nine battleships afloat (eight of which are in the U.S.), such as the USS Texas, the only battleship from World War I left in the world, or the USS North Carolina. It uses staff historians to go over existing ship plans, securing documents from archives in around the world, from collectors, and even from retail, to reconstruct these ships in a digital environment.
Wargaming does more than re-create history — it preserves it.
And here’s how it does so, as GamesBeat learned from conversations with Wargaming’s Nicolas “The Chieftain” Moran, the director of militaria (aka chief historian), and Allan Muncaster of militaria relations.

Loving history

How do the Tuskegee Airmen, the famed African-American fighter pilot groups of World War II, factor into a naval game? One of Wargaming’s researchers, the 26-year-old Muncaster, had a great-uncle who flew with these legendary airmen. Along with a father who was also a pilot, this ignited Muncaster’s lifelong interest in military history. His role shows you can turn your passions into a career even without having a college degree that fits the job.

“Hearing those stories, particularly of my uncle, flying P-51s [got me into military history]” he said. “My dad was a pilot, and we shared a passion with history. He kinda got me hooked on aviation history, then naval history, visiting local museums … here in the Bay Area — the USS Jeremiah O’Brien [a Liberty transport ship], the USS Pampanito [a submarine], and the USS Hornet [an aircraft carrier]. Visiting fleet weeks.”
How Muncaster went from loving the small but deadly fighter planes to digging the majestic but lumbering and slow battleships is of a story of scope and scale.
“They look amazing,” he said. “I love the way the dreadnought-era U.S. ships looks, with the lattice masts to the tripod design. Then you get to the North Carolina, the Iowa, and the Montana, three of the best-looking ships ever designed. On top of that, these are hugely powerful ships, and you get that sense of power.
“Looking at them, it all comes out in the game.”
The battleship held an important place in the history of the past century. It served a diplomatic role in the projection of power — see U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s use of older battleships (known as predreadnoughts) with the Great White Fleet. The arms race between Great Britain and Imperial Germany factored into World War I, and what was then the biggest arms treaty in world history dealt with battleship restrictions in the 1920s.
“What rammed it home for me and what really got me into battleships, a real-life experience, was visiting the USS Massachusetts,” Muncaster said. “To see the amount of engineering and work that went into building the vessel, you could see how it was the hallmark of national prestige before balance of power switched to the aircraft carrier.”

Re-creating history

The World of Warships design team had a major decision to make when it settled in to design battleships — where to start. The game’s cruiser line has examples of ships dating from the turn of the 20th century, like the Russia’s Aurora (the mascot of sorts for Wargaming’s St. Petersburg base). But do you include the older battlewagons from before the design that revolutionized naval warfare — the Dreadnought, the first “all big gun” battleship that ended up lending its name to all future battlewagons.
The Arkansas is a World War I dreadnought design.
Wargaming decided not to, because those ships would just be too obsolete. In fact, deciding which ships to include and why was a crucial step, especially considering the leap dreadnought development took when the “superdreadnought” appeared in 1910, with bigger guns, thicker armor, and faster speeds. Take the U.S. battleship tree: Your first ship is the South Carolina, America’s first dreadnought. You then jump to the Arkansas before you then hit your first superdreadnought, the New York.
The designers tried to make the jumps feels like a gradual progression, not necessarily the jarring leaps of tech that occurred in naval history.
“Our developers have done a very good job of creating a sense of progression that feels fluid — there’s a couple of points where you change that feels abrupt,” Muncaster said. “I’d say it’s not between from the North Carolina to the next phase of ships [the Iowa and Montana classes] but the Colorado to the North Carolina.”
For those of you who aren’t battleship geeks, Muncaster explains.
“You’ve got the WWI-style [the Colorado], but then you have the 1930s, and it’s  visually different, handles differently, performs differently, it’s that complete shift to the fast battleship design — heavy antiaircraft armament — everything that makes the quintessential WWII U.S. battleship design.”

History’s blueprint

How do you re-create the designs for these ships, down to the rivets? You find the plans.
Militaries bureaucracies are good at many things — including hoarding documents. Moran and his team was able to acquire copies of the original blueprints for many ships. At the time of this interview, Muncaster had sets of old plans for two key German ships: the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and battleship Tirpitz (the sister of the more infamous Bismark). And there was no doubt these were copies of the original plans.
“Stamped on the corner with Kriegsmarine,” Muncaster said, referring to the name of the German navy during the Third Reich. “They’re absolutely copies of the original blueprints.”
Wargaming scans these in, working with CAD software. It could be a complicated process, given that the blueprints for these beastly vessels are 10 feet long. The scanner bed, he said, could only fit in a 3-foot square, so they had to scan portions of the plans.
“By piece-by-piece, you’d get this giant print,” Muncaster said. It then goes to the art department — “They gave me wonderful tips for PhotoShop.”
Even if these are copies, he buzzed at being so close to some epic pieces of naval history: “I spent days just ecstatic, piecing together ship blueprints.” And he drank in the sense of history.
“Particularly with the prints for Tirpitz. The illustrations of the interior were so detailed — you could see individual bunks and faucets. It’s an inside no one will see again.”
Moran explains how Wargaming goes about finding plans — and where they find alternatives should they find the official sources lacking the information they need. Turns out this is something many amateur historians can do as well.
“It all depends on how hard or willing you are to look for them,” he said. “The first place is the national archives. The navy section of the national archives are very good, indeed. I remember looking for microfilm and thinking, ‘I could give them to an industrial plant, make these, and could build a South Dakota ship. The big problem is finding the records that are useful — I don’t care about the bilge.”
Moran and his crew find another, surprising source for plans — model kit makers. “There’s a cottage industry of people who have copied blueprints for making models,” he said. He throws out an example of someone with photocopies of plans in West Virginia — “If it’s copies of the original material, who cares? Lots of digging around in places you wouldn’t check.”
Another source Moran cites is Amazon — a book of Japanese warships he snagged for $300. “I hand-carried it to St. Petersburg. The head of art was going, ‘It’s the holy grail!’
“Info is easy to find if willing to find, man hours, money to find it — which we’re happy to say we are.”
Some plans are harder to come by than others. While the Russian archives are relatively good, Moran said, they have some issues with some blueprints winding up in private hands than in a central state repository. Classic Russian paranoia plays a role, too — “It doesn’t matter if it’s a 100-year-old tank, it’s still a state secret,” Moran said. But he notes that over the last couple of years, the Russians have begun to open up.
When it comes to Japan, Moran said that Wargaming has a Japanese “chieftain” to help there, an editor of a naval magazine. Japan shares something in common with Eastern Europe, too, Moran notes — when it comes to the information in books on military equipment, the U.S. is CNN to Eastern Europe and Japan’s “60 Minutes” — “Japanese books on tanks and naval history go to insane levels of detail,” Moran said.
As a historian, Muncaster finds awe in how people built such a massive ship — and all each part fits into the greater whole.
“The interior spaces, the laundry rooms, the fuel tanks — how it all comes together — it’s this great, huge machine where you have all these little things going together — hard to process with ships — it feels like touring a building,” he said. “What a wonderfully complicated machine.
“You look at it and know what it had to look like. You can almost see people going through the hallways, see people in their bunks — it’s pretty amazing.”
The USS Montana -- America's answer to the Yamato.
While Muncaster had a number of revelations about warships while studying the German plans, and he enjoyed learning about all the vessels he worked on, the researcher did have a favorite ship — and it turns out it’s one that existed only as a design on paper: the Montana class of super-battleships, America’s answer to Japan’s Yamato. It’s a ship that would’ve been so large that it wouldn’t have fit through the Panama Canal, a spec that had limited the designs of every past U.S. warship.
“The research for the Montana class was fantastic,” he said, noting it’s like someone “looked at the Iowa [class] and said we could more armor on it.”
And if they were going to give this new battlewagon extra armor, might as well give it an additional turret — giving it four batteries of 16 inch guns.
He explains how battleship armor design works: “They take the biggest, baddest shell in service and block it.” When the Iowa was being designed, the 2,070 pound shell entered service, and the Iowa wasn’t going to stop that. So the theory was that we needed one that could stop it, and that was one of the origins of the Montana.”
And the ship, in theory, had the protection to stop a 500 pound armor-piercing bomb dropped from as high as 30,000 feet. “From an engineering standpoint, that’s amazing,” he said. “it’s almost humorous — dropping bombs from planes from 30,000 feet, they’re not going to hit a ship, not in the 1940s.”

Gaming history

The two historians understand that history must sometimes make way for gameplay. One of these concessions is gun ranges — they’re far shorter in World of Warships than they should be.
“I certainly understand feeling weird but there is the limitation of map size. This becomes apparent in higher-tier gameplay,” Muncaster said. “If you have 23,000 kilometer range, it’s the entire map.”
And the battles aren’t historic, either — something that comes with aiming for balanced teams in terms of ship tiers, players, and fleet compositions. But this doesn’t bother the chief historian.
“It’s very easy to deal with. In every real-world battle … if you’re fighting fair, you’re doing something wrong,” Moran said. “For games, you have to have a reasonable chance of either side winning.”
The Des Moines is one of the most powerful heavy cruisers in World of Warships.
He offers an example with a battle he’d like to see replicated — Savo Island, a sorta prelude to the Battle of Guadalcanal. The Japanese routed a force of U.S. heavy cruisers and destroyers with a near-equal squadron of their own. “Actually, I have a strong suspicion on how we’d be able to replicate a battle. In order to make it fun, some ship characteristics would have to be modified to be fun. The Des Moines — it’s a revolutionary [heavy] cruiser, would ROFL-stomp everything floating [in that battle]. Yet make it equal to other top-tier cruisers to make it equal in the game.”
It’s fitting that Moran would bring up the Des Moines — he said it’s his favorite ship, and he digs admiring it in 3D. “You can’t play in 3D, but models are supported in 3D. Looking at the Des Moines cruiser, how it’s festooned with 20mm and 40mm [antiaircraft guns] — I’m not going to look at a 3D model the same way again.”
It’s one of the surviving ships Wargaming has visited. “It’s just a beautiful cruiser to look at,” Moran said.
Only a small slice of the battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and carriers in World of Warships remain afloat, but for those that either sit on the bottom of the ocean — or were scrapped long ago — the work of historians like Moran and Muncaster enable Wargaming’s players to still appreciate these lost, majestic rulers of the sea.