MMObility: Illyriad, a kingdom in your pocket

There are a lot of city-building, army-amassing, crop-growing RTS-style games in the browser market. Heck, I will wager that they probably make up about 70 percent of the games I come across while researching (my fancy word for lurking through game sites). The genre works really well in a browser, though, so I can see the appeal of making such a game. Of course, as in any popular genre, you will have your duds. After seeing my billionth army-builder, I have to say that I'm just not really interested that much anymore. It takes a unique one to grab my eye.

In comes Illyriad. It looks pretty similar to other RTS-style browser MMOs, and it plays similarly as well. Something about it was different, though, and I just couldn't put my finger on it. The hand-drawn art was a nice touch, and the world truly felt large, but there was something else.

Join me past the cut as I examine what it was. I also fired off some questions to the developer, Stormcrow, to get his take on the game's success.

In Illyriad, you start off pretty much like you do in other games of the genre: You have a tiny village, you are surrounded by large swaths of wilderness and the occasional city or castle, and you must upgrade your butt off in order to survive. Whenever I try a new RTS-MMO, I keep it bookmarked and check back on it several times a day. Some of them require much more babysitting than that, but Illyriad seems to move more slowly. In fact, I thought the darn game would never pick up, but I kept at it.

Over the last few days, I started to understand some of the complexity behind the game. There is a lot to be done here, and it takes a while to do it. I asked Stormcrow how the game first came about.

"Conceptually, the game was developed out of a chance meeting of gamer friends during one of those 'midnight oil and and fairly oiled' conversations," he said, "along the lines of: 'Wouldn't it be great if there was a free-to-play MMORPG and RTS empire-building game in a persistent, hand-crafted world that didn't treat players like cash cows? And -- graphics aside -- why can't you have the depth of a big-budget sandbox production like EVE Online in a 2-D, cross-platform, browser-based game?' Many sheets of paper later, two of us began work on the Illyriad codebase full-time, supported by a small army of amazing volunteers on the game design, content and lore fronts."

EVE Online is actually a great example. Now, I am not the biggest EVE fan, not by any means. I have played it off and on over the years -- six years and 10 million skill points' worth -- but I never really enjoyed it that much. I loved jumping in and out like many players, but the game seemed to offer that sort of play while still demanding that players sit down for hours at a time, babysitting ships. Illyriad allows for those small bouts of gameplay but does not require any babysitting. I am not worried about watching my back every step of the way, primarily because the realism of the game makes attacking someone more difficult.

Also, the community would "jump on any bullies," at least according to my last chat conversation. It sounded almost like a trick, but when I continued to ask my fellow players about the community, I suddenly received notice that I was being attacked. Well, it turns out it wasn't an invading army but a caravan of goods that was headed toward my humble town. Some older player with several cities smelled a newbie, I assume, and decided I needed a care package. When I asked in the chat whether I should be worried about poisoned goods or trojan pumpkins, they laughed at me. A few minutes later, I received notice of another package headed my way, this time sent by player LadyLuv. I was... well, surprised. The only other browser-based RTS that received me this kindly was Ministry of War.

Unlike Ministry of War, Illyriad runs amazingly on every device I had. Yes, I had to zoom in occasionally to push buttons, but every device from my iPhone and HTC Inspire to my iPad and laptop ran the game wonderfully. Even the chat worked! Was this a conscious decision, to make a game that worked for mobile users?

"Yes, very much so," Stormcrow told me. "In terms of our relaunched graphics and screen layout, we kept mobile devices firmly in mind, grouping common game functions in satellite buttons to reduce the navigation imprint on a potentially very small screen as well as to reduce the number of clicks it used to take to get to a specific game page -- something that an often bandwidth-limited mobile device certainly appreciates. On the technical side, we established a policy very early on of not using any browser add-ons or plugins, and we stick to W3C web standards."

I found myself checking the game while waiting for my oil to be changed, during a trip to the pharmacist... even while in the bath. (Don't tell anyone, though; that might sound weird.) Gameplay was slow enough that I could check in only a few times per day if I needed to but complex enough that I could read up on lore, spell explanations and definitions. Sometimes I just watched the chat and caught some nice pieces of information there.

I should explain to you how to play the game, but if you are familiar with RTS games of any type, you will be OK when starting out in Illyriad. Also, I've only recently become used to how the game plays and how large the world is. When the other players sent me those friendly welcome gifts, they took a long time to reach me -- as in, over a day. There are even strategies for trading and sending shipments that help defend caravans, but I barely have a few horses to trade with. For now, I am dependent on the kindness of strangers.

Magic plays a nice role in the game, too, but I am not sure how deep the system goes. I have researched a mage tower and have started gaining mana. but I am just now researching different types of magic. Some of the spells offered sound pretty mean and nasty, and each one needs to be researched. Research is very important in the game and is a little overwhelming when you see all of the different abilities, bits of knowledge and spells there are to learn. All of this makes up for a fairly overwhelming game, at least at first.

"Illyriad has vast depth: hundreds of military units, 200-plus technologies, and dozens of available strategies from theft and assassination to sieges, trade, magic, quests -- and we add content on a weekly basis. It's a big sandbox world and possibly a daunting one for a new player," Stormcrow cautioned. "We'd strongly recommend doing the tutorial, which will help you get to grips with some of the concepts. Beyond that, we have an excellent and active community of helpful players in both the live in game chat as well as the forums, so don't be afraid to ask for help! It's also a great idea to join one of the excellent player-run training alliances who will often provide you with additional resources to help get your first city up and running faster as well as provide you with a protective umbrella and unlimited friendly advice."

After talking with Stormcrow and chatting more with the community, I feel assured that Illyriad is not just another browser-based RTS. It has a ton of depth, a great community (though I'm sure I'll meet some bad apples eventually), and the type of gameplay that makes you daydream while you're supposed to be working.

How does it do it? It's portable, it actually works and the game does not talk down to you. You can play at your own pace and become whatever type of leader you choose. The trade options seem more fleshed out than in other games, even fully 3-D "AAA" titles, and the cash shop is really just a simple exchange that players can use to speed things up a bit. Call me intrigued -- and fully sucked in.

Each week in MMObility, Beau Hindman dives into the murky waters of the most accessible and travel-friendly games around, including browser-based and smartphone MMOs. Join him as he investigates the best, worst, and most daring games to hit the smallest devices! Email him suggestions, or follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or Raptr.

This article was originally published on Massively.