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MMObility: Age of Ascent hopes to beat EVE Online's battle concurrency record


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Age of Ascent is the new work-in-progress from Illyriad Games, the maker of one of my current favorite MMORTS titles, Illyriad. I've written about Illyriad before and have always enjoyed its epic scale and massive numbers, but with this new project, the team is promising something that is not only larger than anything it has ever done but larger than anything that has been done before... by anyone.

The studio is working closely with Microsoft in the hopes of achieving massive numbers in a twitch-based sandbox MMO that runs in your browser. I've gone through a few test runs with tons of other players and had no issues whatsoever, even while running it on a $200 Chromebook! It's an exciting prospect, but I had to ask some more questions about the upcoming title.

I asked James Niesewand, CEO of Illyriad Games, to clear up some of my confusion.

Age of Ascent screenshot
MMObility: Give us a general idea of what you are trying to do with the game.

Niesewand: There have been a large number of technical innovations that the games industry hasn't yet adopted. Moving these technologies from other industries into the MMO genre isn't easy, but we think the experience we can offer is going to be mind-blowing. We've developed a new space-based sandbox MMO called Age of Ascent to showcase some of these technologies in action, and the first bit that's ready for a public preview is our prototype of the PvP dogfighting component. So we're going to hold a public, free, alpha test of the PvP component of AoA. This alpha test will be held on March 14th, and we hope it will be the largest PvP battle in history. We're aiming to break EVE Online's record of 4,075 pilots, but in real time, concurrently, in a continuous, unsharded battlezone, with directly piloted dogfighting. You can find out more at the official site, but show up on March 14th and you'll be randomly assigned to either a red or blue team and hopefully make gaming history with a whole bunch of other people engaged in extreme internet spaceship violence!

Because we've built the game client in WebGL, you don't need to download or install any software, and we're not even asking you to register or create an account for this alpha test, so you really have nothing to lose if you want to see what this kind of scale looks like. Assuming everything works as planned, we're then going to do a modest Kickstarter to enable us to complete the full MMO on time, for release early next year. The title Age of Ascent reflects the game setting, specifically referencing a sci-fi future with humanity's ascension from the embrace of Earth into the broader universe. We're working closely with various space agencies and research bodies around the world to make sure we get as much of the science right as we can. You'll hopefully notice some of this attention to detail in our public alpha on March 14th.

Why is this technology so important for gaming?

As technology evolves, it opens up the opportunity for new experiences. A while back I was reading an interview with Chris Roberts about Star Citizen's plans for multiplayer, and he was saying that he hoped to get up to the same level of concurrent multiplayer dogfighting that Freelancer had. It struck me that here we are -- more than a decade on from Freelancer -- still talking about 100 or so players in realtime. Even EVE Online manages to get only 4,000 players in a single battle by slowing down time to one-tenth of real time (they call it "time dilation"), and EVE Online isn't a direct piloting game.

Your first title, Illyriad, is a fantasy-based MMORTS. What would strategy players find interesting in this new title?

There's a lot more crossover than you might think! The pace of AoA will be hugely different from Illyriad when you're undocked, for sure, but there's a lot of core functionality that players definitely enjoy in Illyriad (such as market PvP) that won't be so different, except in the scale. The plan for AoA is for a full sandbox MMO, and that means that it's got not only fast-paced PvP but mission-running, NPC factions and interactions, manufacturing and industry, trading, alliances and diplomacy, spacestation management, and all the other goodness we want to put in. This means that Illyriad will benefit from AoA development as well. As you know from your coverage of Illyriad in the past, we spend a lot of focus on building "epic." When it comes to the gameplay detail, we don't really do superficial in any way, and that level of detail is coming to AoA.

You're planning PvP battles that are larger than anything we've seen before. How are you going to accomplish this?

If you think about what a Wall Street trading algorithm does, it monitors commodity price movements in multiple markets looking for tiny variations in price. And it does all this in really tiny units of time, counted in microseconds. Now, replace the words "commodity price movements" with "space ship movements" and you can see where I'm going with this. Just because no one in the games industry is doing this doesn't mean it's not possible. I can, however, confirm that it's sure as hell not easy, and we've worked closely with Microsoft to get this architecture working. If you can get it right, the cloud provides an alternate server architecture where resources such as CPU and bandwidth can be dynamically pooled over an elastic, scalable group of servers.

Why is it important to have such large battles? Would the sheer size make playing the game a nightmare?

In the full game of AoA, you'll absolutely be able to be a lone wolf if that's the kind of gameplay you prefer. Personally, I've always loved exploration, and I'm a fairly useless PvPer, so we're making sure the full MMO of AoA is not about pushing people into epic PvP if that's not what they want to do. The key thing about scale, though, is not forcing players to limit the scale of their group interactions because of your own technical architecture limitations. So it's not necessarily that having such large battles is important in and of itself; it's about having the capability to allow the players and alliances the option of conducting an absurdly large battle of whatever size they want, and then allowing individual players to choose whether they want to get caught up in that battle or not.

Age of Ascent logo
When EVE Online got over 4,000 players in the battle of 6VDT-H, it made the BBC News headlines. How big do you think the battle could have gotten if not for the server limitations? MMO battles at huge scale should be epic. For us, the clue is in the word "massively"! We believe that blowing the lid off the number of players who can participate in a single battle will only make it more epic. And if we can prove we can do it with PvP, why not with PvE as well? It's not just the PvP system that scales here; it's everything. For example, we will have jump gates and trade lanes to allow people to travel around parts of the galaxy rapidly. But if players want to fly the long way round and arrive at the destination system from an unusual vector, why should we prevent this? And who knows what they might find out in the darker corners of the galaxy whilst they're making their way across it?

Sure, space in this Age of Ascent public alpha might get a bit busy (or a lot busy), but we are going to initially distribute people out over the battle arena a little. We're super-excited about this and hope all your readers can help spread the word about this public alpha. Remember, no download, no install, no registration, no cost, so you really have nothing to lose. Just get yourself and your friends an up-to-date web browser (but not Safari) and an internet connection, and go to the official site on March 14th.

Thanks to James for answering all of my questions!

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 and Facebook.

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