Free for All: An inside look at Illyriad Games

Beau Hindman and James Niesewand
You have to be a bit insane to write your own game, says James Niesewand, Illyriad Games' CEO. When he and a group of friends decided to sit down and list off what they wanted to see in a browser-based game, they decided to go for a game that would not periodically reset like so many browser games, one that featured the complexity and depth of games like EVE Online and would be free to play.

Niesewand started with no experience in the gaming industry, but he did have some coding background. He writes the back-end material (the information that is queried), and his co-conspirator Ben Adams writes the front-end (the stuff that you interact with and see). Of course, I am simplifying this, but for the sake of keeping this article under 15,000 words I will attempt to sum up the conversations James and I had at GDC Online last week. They covered the start of his first browser-based game as well as some of the inevitable growing pains that come with being an indie developer.

Click past the cut!

Illyriad banner
In 2009, the team was able to stitch together a rough version of the game to act as a beta. Maps were randomly generated, and things in-game were nowhere near as complex as they are now. After a short while, the devs decided that randomly generated maps would not bring on that sense of "epic," so they started by adding biomes (areas of geography) and then added detailed landscapes on top. Needless to say, some members of the community were a bit upset after the landscape reconfiguration. A free move was given out to every player so that cities could be placed somewhere more desirable if needed. The decision to make the game out of HTML5 was based on convenience for the player, of course, but it helps that the developers would not have to worry about making a Flash version, an iOS version, one for Android... essentially cutting out a ton of work. While some tweaks still need to be made, generally the game works great on any device.


"Will that philosophy hold out? After all, the temptation to release some sort of mega-weapon for a huge profit has to be tempting."

So how did a small start-up get the tens of thousands of dollars to start their project? While other developers might mortgage their house, take out a line of credit, or simply work on their game part time, the Illyriad crew was lucky enough to know some people who were willing to take a chance on the project. After Illyriad had seen some success, the developers were able to bring on freelance artists and writers to help with the project. They also brought on well-known industry vet Kevin Hassall to be a production manager. The production manager contacts artists, quest writers or other talent needed for different jobs. The addition has brought a level of polish to the game.

The developers decided to keep the game free-to-play with microtransactions but wanted to avoid any pay-to-win scenario. In many games, not only does the server reset at certain intervals, truly allowing someone to "win" the game, but in many of those titles players can buy true power. That's a fine model, but the Illyriad developers decided that the ongoing nature of their world would not work well with anything other than purchasable items that speed construction of buildings or help caravans of goods move faster.

Will that philosophy hold out? After all, the temptation to release some sort of mega-weapon for a huge profit has to be tempting. Fortunately, prestige (the name of the in-game cash-shop funds) allows for the sale of many items that do not effect gameplay. Imagine paying a few cents to add a unique look to your city. Not a bad deal. Currently, you can buy buffs to army units, around 10 percent, but in the long run it is not enough of a difference to swing the tide of battle. In some battles the percentage of difference between forces can be quite large, and even larger considering terrain issues and commander bonuses, so the 10 percent buff to certain units is hardly selling power. The key "braking mechanism" is the fact that research is always based on real time and cannot be influenced. In other words, all players will take the same amount of time to learn the same thing. Even if the biggest group of troublemakers came into the game to maim and destroy, they would have to take the time to do so. In the meanwhile, the established players can keep an eye on them and even knock them down a peg or two if needed.

Illyriad map image
How do you design a game with an open, player-controlled market? Do you, as a developer, step in when the market goes crazy? Not at all, according to James. He remarked how funny prices were when the market first went live. Some players thought that a cow should be priced for a certain amount, while others thought it should be priced higher. What happens is that eventually the price equalizes. Hopefully. Large wars and market warfare break out and prices change. If you are fighting someone who needs a lot of spears for her army, you buy up all of the spears. It's large-scale, nasty strategy. Amazingly, the community has remained open and welcoming, even with all of these opportunities for mayhem.

The next milestone of the game will be pathfinding, or movement that is literally affected by the environment. Pathfinding will allow for such things as roadbuilding and deeper strategy. Imagine that you are being attacked by an army and can funnel enemy soldiers into a valley pass for an advantage. (Has anyone seen 300?) The feeling of ownership is also something that is important to the Illyriad crew. In the future, alliances will be able to name the land they are in, giving not only that sense of ownership but a warning to would-be troublemakers. Walls can be built around lands, forcing enemies to be funneled into an area or to siege the walls.


"The old joke is that design has less to do with pretty pictures of dragons and more to do with massive sets of numbers, and that is probably true at Illyriad headquarters. "

The old joke is that design has less to do with pretty pictures of dragons and more to do with massive sets of numbers, and that is probably true at Illyriad headquarters. Sound boring? Well, game design is, at this point in our technology, a game of numbers. James mentioned algorithms and math during our conversation -- stuff that made my head hurt. Of course, not every wanna-be designer will have a background in working with information like James and his company do, but it should be noted that this information is key. At the very least, access and analyzing of this information could possibly save your company in case of trouble.

James also let me know about another advantage of having a background in analyzing large data sets. His developers have been able to code internal mechanisms that let them know about patterns in a player's interaction with the world. These patterns act like a thumbprint of each player, with a 98 percent accuracy rate. This helps detect cheaters, even ones who might use a complex script or botting program, but it also has advantages for multiplayer families or military members who all must share one connection or one PC. James was able to tell me what I did each day and what I had been doing (generally) for the past few weeks. I was boggled at this, but I am a man of strong habit. I didn't realize I left such earmarks on my gaming!

Players will eventually have access to seven new magic schools, two of them in the near future. Better trade options are coming as well. Future plans also include allowing players to upload custom avatars and in-game mods that can be sold for prestige. Quality will be a concern, of course, and no player-made information tools can be used for cheating.

I'd like to thank James for taking the time out to talk so openly about the development of Illyriad! The future definitely seems bright, and open, for the title.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to beau@massively.com!
This article was originally published on Massively.