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