Build an empire on the cloud with Illyriad

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Everyone loves sinking their teeth into a game with real depth and Illryiad offers that in abundance, with the added bonus that it can all be played online. We caught up with founder James Niesewand, to discuss cloud gaming and the benefits of hosting on Azure.

Q. Please outline your role at the company and a little about its history.

I'm the founder and CEO of Illyriad Games Limited, a 3 1/2 year old UK indie game studio with one eponymous title. Illyriad is an award-winning, free-to-play, browser-based HTML5 MMORTS set in a hand crafted, single shard continuous universe; so no random maps, no sharding, and no 'server resets'. IGN Gamespy described Illy as a "... huge, persistent fantasy world full of political intrigue, shifting alliances, warfare, questing, trading..." which I'd say is a pretty much spot-on accurate description of the game.

My day-to-day is split pretty evenly between administering the tedious but critical stuff of finance, planning, people and shareholder management, and the much more entertaining side of designing and coding expansions to the game. I occasionally get out of the home "office" when I'm invited to speak at events - most recently at GDC Online in Austin a couple of months back.

Although I've always been a keen gamer, I had no previous experience of working in the games industry. Before starting Illyriad Games my background was in a variety of roles and industry - most recently as Operations Director for a London-listed travel industry dotcom. I guess Illyriad all started as part of an early-onset midlife crisis - it was either buying a red Porsche or writing a game However, I really thought it was something I could put together and run successfully, and most importantly, would enjoy doing.

We're now more than three years old and both the game and the company are going from strength to strength: we're now over half a dozen members of the team, we've got more than 250k players, we've won awards, had great press coverage, received industry plaudits and - unusually for a first-time, first-title indie game studio - we're not losing money!

Q. How was the initial idea for Illyriad conceived?

In 2008... during a fairly late-night and well-oiled conversation with a group of friends who were all moaning about the lack of anything really epic and involving in the empire-building strategy genre of late, and especially anything in the free-to-play business model. We discussed our favourite games of all time and what we felt each game did best, and in a moment of madness I resolved to write my own game from scratch.

I began working on a proof of concept written entirely in HTML4, using classic ASP and MS SQL - the only few techs I was passingly familiar with!

Once I had something that looked like it might actually work, I convinced a proper coder, Ben Adams, to quit his full-time job and come on board as our CTO, largely to rewrite all the functional - but appallingly bad - code I had written myself and then move us forward into HTML5, MVC, websockets and Azure world.

Q. What was your inspiration for the design?

Epic, fun RTSes of yesteryear with a smattering of sandboxy goodness. Our favourite games, the ones we reminisce about and from which we draw inspiration are Civilisation III, Alpha Centauri, Dune 2, MOO, Elite, Freelancer, HoMM, Ultima, Asheron's Call & Eve Online.

In the press we've been described as "... the Eve Online of the free-to-play world", and "...like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones; those great big epic stories" - both comparisons that we're very happy with!

We also published a game design philosophy document at the very beginning which has been an essential benchmark against which everything we release is judged, ensuring that we hold true to certain core principles that are important to both us and our player base, such as not allowing "pay-to-win".

Our design, however, isn't static in any way - we constantly expand, update and add new features to the world in a continuous, iterative process.

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Q. What's your process for designing the user experience / journey?

At the gameplay end, in a sandbox game environment where there are no prescribed 'endgame goals' and no proscribed ways of playing - it's very much up to the player to choose their own victory conditions, the design process is largely focused on balancing competing subsystems.

At the macro gameplay level, options such as Military, Diplomacy, Trade, Magic etc must not be permitted to unbalance the game when used either individually or together. Even within those macro gameplay options there are hundreds of individual subsystems (for example our Diplomatic options include spying, scouting, thieving, sabotage, assassination, non-aggression pacts, confederations etc) that each requires an internal consistency and balanced gameplay between each option.

At the user experience end - which encompasses everything from the adverts they see to the landing pages they arrive at, from the sign-up and login screens to the in game UI and new player tutorial - we're incredibly iterative. We firmly believe in A/B testing things in a live context, and listening to the responses using both direct feedback from the player base as well as deep metric analysis. It may horrify some of your readers to hear this, but we release code and content changes to live on (quite literally) a *daily* basis.

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Q. What advantages does Azure offer you as a hosting platform?

When we initially looked at the various cloud options three years ago, we decided to bypass the cloud and go down the dedicated server route. At that time we felt that the cloud not only looked too expensive for a start-up indie company to swallow but it would also present some fairly difficult - or at the very least, unknown - technical challenges for us to overcome.

As the game grew and our requirements for scaling became clearer, we revisited the idea of using the cloud. We compared a number of the options available and trialled a number of different services, but it quickly became clear to us that the Azure solution was the natural choice.

Primarily it's because we're already a Microsoft development studio. Our codebase is entirely MS (the game runs off MVC .NET with an MSSQL backend) and hosting on Azure not only means tighter integration between our naturally MS-led systems, but it also means that when we have a question or an issue that we're not sure how to overcome, we can talk to the helpful and friendly MS tech teams to get an answer that fits not just the cloud infrastructure but also the game architecture.

Azure also gives us options that we want to use that are currently unavailable elsewhere, such as Windows Server 2012.

Q. How does Azure's flexible options help you manage demand?

We use different elements of Azure in many different ways. The Azure CDN (Content Delivery Network) has offloaded a lot of bandwidth from our servers and increased their reliability, as they now concentrate on delivering the core game rather than assets - that's been a great quick-win demand-leveller.

Azure Cloud Services provides us with the websockets techology for our chat system and real-time communications with all of our players. As an HTML5 MMO game, with continual bidirectional traffic between client and server, websockets is the ideal solution for us as it's much more efficient and reliable than our previous COMET-style approach. Moving to websockets was a breeze, as it comes packaged natively in IIS on Windows Server 2012.

We also use the Azure Service Bus for reliable consistent messaging between the different scaled-out cloud services; Azure Mobile Services updates our Windows 8 clients with live tile push updates, and provides built-in authentication with players' Facebook, MS and Google accounts.

From a corporate perspective, though, the pay-as-you-go / pay-as-you-grow model is perfect for a small indie startup. The flexibility of the options and pricing means that we're not committed to expenses for services that we may not need right now, but we're also not prohibited from deciding that we need them right now when there's a sudden rush of demand.

Windows Azure's flexible model is perfect for any of you looking to build a game or app which will live in the cloud - give it a go today.

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