Age of Ascent: Defining a new genre and plans to smash a world record

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Popular games like World of Warcraft and EVE Online are known as MMOs, or Massively Multiplayer Online games. This is because they have many thousands of players across multiple servers at the same time, creating unique worlds inhabited by people from all over the world. So what is an Ultra-MMO, and how does the genre differ from large games like these? We spoke to James Niesewand of Illyriad once again to hear about how his latest game is going, as well as his plans to smash a Guinness world record.

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How is development of Age of Ascent going?

It's going pretty well! We've changed some of the parameters since the last time we talked, when I think the plan was for Age of Ascent to be team-based combat game. We've now, sensibly, remembered that our area of expertise is actually with MMOs :) and so we refactored the final game to be a space-based sandbox MMO with real-time dogfighting.

We're planning to release the full game in early 2015 but there are a number of milestones along the way, the first of which is a public alpha test of the PvP dogfighting component, next Friday on the 14th of March!

We've been working closely with Microsoft, and Age of Ascent has been implemented on the Windows Azure cloud. We're basically trying to introduce the world of gaming to a collection of technologies currently in use in other high frequency industries (such as banking and trading platforms), and we're hopeful that we can bring in a level of concurrent scale that people will find impressive.

You mentioned last time that you are using WebGL for development. Do you still stand by that choice, and how has it been for developing AoA?

Yes, our front-end game client is entirely in WebGL. We absolutely stand by that choice and we're totally committed to HTML5, however it does mean you have to make trade-offs along the way. For example, not requiring players to download or install any software is a great benefit, as WebGL runs natively in the web browser, and so getting into the game is frictionless. On the flip side, we're distributing a game over the internet in real-time, and so we have to carefully watch the bandwidth. For us this means that we can't really have the incredibly detailed, high fidelity spaceship models and textures you would usually get in an installed game. So whilst the universe and backstory for the full AoA game will be lovingly handcrafted, being web distributed, Age of Ascent will never be as graphically detailed as a game like Star Citizen.

Do you have any advice for those planning to develop with WebGL?

WebGL is still pretty new and pretty raw (in my opinion, anyway - Ben, our CTO, might disagree with me!) and so there's quite a lot of low level work to be done. If you're looking for a full WYSIWYG game development interface tool, you're probably going to be disappointed. Using WebGL wouldn't have been possible without awesome libraries like three.js, a fairly modified version of which runs AoA (we'll be putting what we've learnt back in as soon as we get a chance). The WebGL community is also extremely helpful and supportive, and so I'd strongly recommend anyone looking to develop in WebGL gets themselves involved in the community.

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At the Develop Conference you demonstrated that you could control your ship with a Windows Phone companion app. What was the experience of developing for Windows Phone like?

We really enjoyed developing for the Windows Phone because whilst it wasn't anything we'd ever tried before, it has a very sensible API and if you're familiar with .NET windows development you'll feel right at home. Accelerometers and the like present their own challenges in terms of customising and fine-tuning the experience for different players, but it was a lot of fun (and surprisingly simple!) getting it to work.

In fact, here's a video of it in action!

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Will the app be released simultaneously with Age of Ascent?

Not for the public alpha test, no, as this will only run for a few hours. But with the full game release, absolutely.

In fact, we plan on a whole bunch of companion apps for different parts of the game, and we want the whole experience to be integrated. By this I mean that if you want your big screen monitor to show the view out of the front of your spaceship, and a Surface RT next to you showing your radar and navigational map, a laptop nearby running your alliance and fleet communications and an iPad keeping you up-to-date with the latest market prices whilst you pilot the ship with your phone... we don't want to stop you! We love the idea of players being able to build their own integrated cockpits.

You've received nominations for both the Appsters Awards and the Develop Awards. How does that feel?

It felt, and still feels, awesome! I mean, we do what we're doing for the love of the thing itself rather than the recognition of our peers; but having said that, I'd have to have a heart of stone not to be thrilled that people have noticed what we're doing and appreciate it. We didn't win either of the categories we were up for - Indie Game Dev of the Year and Online Innovation respectively for our previous title (the eponymous Illyriad) - but there's absolutely no shame in losing out to Peter Molyneux with our very first game title! Given that none of the Illy team have any previous experience of working in the games industry, it's as unexpected as it is welcome!

Age of Ascent will soon be attempting to earn a Guinness World Record. Can you tell us more about that?

Yes. During the public alpha of AoA's PvP dogfighting module we're hoping to break the current world record for Largest Videogame PvP Battle.

What does the record currently look like? Don't other games have millions of players?

The current holders are the excellent folk (and players) at CCP Games for Eve Online, with 4,070 players in a single system; a record set last year. Other games certainly have millions of players, but this world record is about having the greatest number of concurrent players in the same battlezone at the same time. So whilst a game like World of Tanks has millions of players in total, in each battle you only have 30 players at a time.

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What makes this record truly ground-breaking?

Well, I think the most surprising thing here is that we're trying to break the record with real-time, direct piloting. Eve Online uses a system they call "time dilation" to slow the server clock down to 1/10th normal speed in order to protect the node from failure during their massively epic battles. Our architecture differs from traditional MMOs in that we distribute both the processing and the networking challenge across multiple nodes, using dynamic and elastic on-demand scaling in the cloud.

Possibly the second most surprising thing here is that all the players - wherever they are in the world - will be playing in the same battlezone. Not only have we connected up multiple servers to create a single scale unit, we're also connecting up multiple scale units in different data centres all around the world, and they all talk together in a single integrated system.

What do you think defines an Ultra-MMO?

Scale, in a word. Ultra-massively. I don't mean to imply that the scale of an Ultra-MMO means that it's inherently better, it's just bigger in terms of its potential concurrency. There's a heck of a lot more to making a fun and compelling MMO than simply having the ability to scale, and it's critically important to also make AoA fun and compelling for lone wolf players as much as groups. If players or alliances want a battle at huge scale they can do it on demand, but it's not compulsory! For us, sandbox MMOs are about providing options: It's not forcing scale on people, it's providing people with the option to scale if that floats their boat.

Why have you chosen to run the record attempt on Windows Azure as opposed to other cloud service providers?

Platform as a Service (PaaS) is very important to everything we've built, and other cloud providers don't offer this. Even though Azure allows you to use Linux etc., we're a Microsoft house in terms of our technology, so it's a very natural fit.

If people want to be a part of this record attempt, where should they go and what will they need to do?

Turn up with a modern, up-to-date web browser (IE11, Chrome, Firefox or Opera - not Safari) on a laptop or a PC on Friday 14th March at www.ageofascent.com at 1900 GMT / 1400 EST / 1100 PST, and that's it!

What's the plan following the attempt?

Hopefully on the basis of getting the world record, and demonstrating that this technology isn't a pipedream, we're going to launch a modest Kickstarter campaign to get backing to complete the full MMO game for release in early 2015.

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